Andrea Dworkin’s Argument Against Punctuation
On the Freedom of Violating Convention
this text has been altered in one very serious way. I wanted it to be printed the way it was written—lower case letters, no apostrophes, contractions.
I like my text to be as empty as possible, only necessary punctuation is necessary, when one knows ones purposes one knows what is necessary.
my publisher, in his corporate wisdom, filled the pages with garbage: standard punctuation, he knew his purposes; he knew what was necessary, our purposes differed: mine, to achieve clarity; his, to sell books.
my publisher changed my punctuation because book reviewers (Mammon) do not like lower case letters,
fuck (in the old sense) book reviewers (Mammon).
When I say god and mammon concerning the writer writing, I mean that any one can use words to say something. And in using these words to say what he has to say he may use those words directly or indirectly. If he uses these words indirectly he says what he intends to have heard by somebody who is to hear and in so doing inevitably he has to serve mammon . . . . Now serving god for a writer who is writing is writing anything directly, it makes no difference what it is but it must be direct, the relation between the thing done and the doer must be direct. In this way there is completion and the essence of the completed thing is completion.
in a letter to me, Grace Paley wrote, “once everyone tells the truth artists will be unnecessary—meanwhile there’s work for us.”I begin by presuming that I am free.
telling the truth, we know what it is when we do it and when we learn not to do it we forget what it is.
form, shape, structure, spatial relation, how the printed word appears on the page, where to breathe, where to rest, punctuation is marking time, indicating rhythms, even in my original text I used too much of it—I overorchestrated. I forced you to breathe where I do, instead of letting you discover your own natural breath.
I begin by presuming that I am free.
I begin with nothing, no form, no content, and I ask: what do I want to do and how do I want to do it.
I begin by presuming that what I write belongs to me.
I begin by presuming that I determine the form I use—in all its particulars. I work at my craft—in all its particulars.
in fact, everything is already determined,
in fact, all the particulars have been determined and are enforced.
in fact, where I violate what has already been determined I will be stopped.
in fact, the enforcers will enforce.
“Whatever he may seem to us, he is yet a servant of the Law; that is, he belongs to the Law and as such is set beyond human judgment. In that case one dare not believe that the doorkeeper
is subordinate to the man. Bound as he is by his service, even at the door of the Law, he is incomparably freer than anyone at large in the world. The man is only seeking the Law, the doorkeeper is already attached to it. It is the Law that has placed him at his post; to doubt his integrity is to doubt the Law itself.”
“I don’t agree with that point of view,” said K., shaking his head, “for if one accepts it, one must accept as true everything the doorkeeper says. But you yourself have sufficiently proved how impossible it is to do that.”
“No,” said the priest, “it is not necessary to accept everything as true, one must only accept it as necessary.”
“A melancholy conclusion,” said K. “It turns lying into a universal principle.”
I presume that I am free. I act. the enforcers enforce. I discover that I am not free, then: either I lie (it is necessary to lie) or I struggle (if I do not lie, I must struggle), if I struggle, I ask, why am I not free and what can I do to become free? I wrote this book to find out why I am not free and what I can do to become free.
Though the social structure begins by framing the noblest laws and the loftiest ordinances that “the great of the earth” have devised, in the end it comes to this: breach that lofty law and they take you to a prison cell and shut your human body off from human warmth. Ultimately the law is enforced by the unfeeling guard punching his fellow man hard in the belly.
without the presumption of freedom, there is no freedom. I am free, how, then, do I want to live my life, do my work, use my body? how, then, do I want to be, in all my particulars?standard forms are sometimes called conventions, conventions are mightier than armies, police, and prisons.
standard forms are imposed in dress, behavior, sexual relation, punctuation. standard forms are imposed on consciousness and behavior—on knowing and expressing—so that we will not presume freedom, so that freedom will appear—in all its particulars— impossible and unworkable, so that we will not know what telling the truth is, so that we will not feel compelled to tell it, so that we will spend our time and our holy human energy telling the necessary lies.
standard forms are sometimes called conventions, conventions are mightier than armies, police, and prisons. each citizen becomes the enforcer, the doorkeeper, an instrument of the Law, an unfeeling guard punching his fellow man hard in the belly.
I am an anarchist. I dont sue, I dont get injunctions, I advocate revolution, and when people ask me what can we do that’s practical, I say, weakly, weaken the fabric of the system wherever you can, make possible the increase of freedom, all kinds. When I write I try to extend the possibilities of expression.
. . . I had tried to speak to you honestly, in my own way, undisguised, trying to get rid, it’s part of my obligation to the muse, of the ancien regime of grammar.
. . . the revisions in typography and punctuation have taken from the voice the difference that distinguishes passion from affection and me speaking to you from me writing an essay.
—Julian Beck, 1965, in a foreword to an edition of The Brig
BELIEVE THE PUNCTUATION.
there is a great deal at stake here, many writers fight this battle and most lose it. what is at stake for the writer? freedom of invention, freedom to tell the truth, in all its particulars, freedom to imagine new structures.
(the burden of proof is not on those who presume freedom, the burden of proof is on those who would in any way diminish it.)
what is at stake for the enforcers, the doorkeepers, the guardians of the Law—the publishing corporations, the book reviewers who do not like lower case letters, the librarians who will not stack books without standard punctuation (that was the reason given Muriel Rukeyser when her work was violated)—what is at stake for them? why do they continue to enforce?
while this book may meet much resistance—anger, fear, dislike—law? police? courts?—at this moment I must write: Ive attacked the fundaments of culture, thats ok. Ive attacked male dominance, thats ok. Ive attacked every heterosexual notion of relation, thats ok. Ive in effect advocated the use of drugs, thats ok. Ive in effect advocated fucking animals, thats ok. here and now, New York City, spring 1974, among a handful of people, publisher and editor included, thats ok. lower case letters are not. it does make one wonder.
so Ive wondered and this is what I think right now. there are well-developed, effective mechanisms for dealing with ideas, no matter how powerful the ideas are. very few ideas are more powerful than the mechanisms for defusing them, standard form—punctuation, typography, then on to academic organization, the rigid ritualistic formulation of ideas, etc.—is the actual distance between the individual (certainly the intellectual individual) and the ideas in a book.
standard form is the distance.
one can be excited about ideas without changing at all. one can think about ideas, talk about ideas, without changing at all. people are willing to think about many things, what people refuse to do, or are not permitted to do, or resist doing, is to change the way they think.
reading a text which violates standard form forces one to change mental sets in order to read. there is no distance. the new form, which is in some ways unfamiliar, forces one to read differently— not to read about different things, but to read in different ways.
to permit writers to use forms which violate convention just might permit writers to develop forms which would teach people to think differently: not to think about different things, but to think in different ways. that work is not permitted.
If it had been possible to build the Tower of Babel without ascending it, the work would have been permitted.
The Immovable Structure is the villain. Whether that structure calls itself a prison or a school or a factory or a family or a government or The World As It Is. That structure asks each man what he can do for it, not what it can do for him, and for those who do not do for it, there is the pain of death or imprisonment, or social degradation, or the loss of animal rights.
this book is about the Immovable Sexual Structure, in the process of having it published, Ive encountered the Immovable Punctuation Typography Structure, and I now testify, as so many have before me, that the Immovable Structure aborts freedom, prohibits invention, and does us verifiable harm: it uses our holy human energy to sustain itself; it turns us into enforcers, or outlaws; to survive, we must learn to lie.
The Revolution, as we live it and as we imagine it, means destroying the Immovable Structure to create a world in which we can use our holy human energy to sustain our holy human lives;
to create a world without enforcers, doorkeepers, guards, and arbitrary Law;
to create a world—a community on this planet—where instead of lying to survive, we can tell the truth and flourish.
From Last Days at Hot Slit: The Radical Feminism of Andrea Dworkin by Andrea Dworkin. Edited by Johanna Fateman and Amy Scholder, 2019, Semiotext(e), Distributed by The MIT Press. This passage originally appeared in Woman Hating: A Radical Look at Sexuality (1974), under the title “Afterword: The Great Punctuation Typography Struggle.”