Posted by: glue | April 1, 2010

Writing: Middle Voice

Rather than crafting a narrative, argument, or call to action (which is what almost all writing about my disaster does), we are to receive the disaster.  But I’m not sure what that really means or how that is even possible.  In the act of blogging, how can we not send? [C.N.]


The assumption of our experiment is that we do not already know how to do it, but also that  it is doable.  In this instance, the strategy for an answer is to think about the conventional stance of writing, with literate authorship providing a ground or underlying Contrast for our  invention of an electrate authoring.  Our textbooks assume (and we teach) “argument,” whether rhetorical, informal, or formal (logical, disciplinary).  The writer as sender intends to create certain effects, transitively, in the receiver, to persuade, beguile, seduce, and generally to coerce into agreement with the sender’s belief or claim.  The next step then is to notice this attitude or state of mind, and abandon it, determine not to take up  that orientation.  An (intuitive?) inventory of rhetorical sending is a checklist of what not to do that already  puts us in a different place.  This basic device for shifting orientation introduces the “fun” of heuretics, in that one’s imagination is engaged by the possibility of discovering another dimension or opportunity for thought and expression.  The move that follows this first one is to write from the middle voice, meaning that one sends with the understanding that the one affected is oneself.  Our blogging shares some features of middle voice, with a goal of augmenting this auto-affection circuit, to notice our own experience of writing.  The Figure is written in Barthes’s sense.

Roland Barthes theorized the middle voice:

Diathesis designates the way in which the subject of the verb is affected by the action; this is obvious for the passive. And yet linguists tell us that, at least in Indo-European, the diathetical opposition is actually not between the active and the passive, but between the active and the middle.  According to the classic example, the verb to sacrifice (ritually) is active if the priest sacrifices the victim in my place for me, and it is middle voice if, taking the knife from the priest’s hands, I make the sacrifice for myself.  In the case of the active, the action is accomplished outside the subject, because, although the priest makes the sacrifice,  he is not affected by it. In the case of the middle voice, on the contrary, the subject affects  himself in acting; he always remains inside the action, even if an object is involved. The middle voice does not exclude transitivity. Thus defined, the middle voice corresponds exactly to the state of the verb to write:  today to write is to make oneself the center of the action of speech; it is to effect writing in being affected oneself; it is to leave the writer inside the writing, not as a psychological subject but as the agent of the action (“To Write: An Intransitive Verb?”).



  1. […] Ulmer’s blog entries: “Duende” & “Middle Voice” ← key for Exercise […]

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