Barthes and King on Writing

Spinoza writes:
The intellectual love of a thing consists in the understanding of their perfections.
Swedenborg, if you permit him to be called a philosopher, writes: I saw three angels, they had hats on their heads. (Ezra Pound)

The first chapter of Barthes’ Writing Degree Zero, from 1953, is called “What Is Writing?” In Stephen Kings’s On Writing, from 2000, there is a chapter called “What Writing Is”. Both are only a few pages long. The question is, are they about the same thing? Does Stephen King answer Roland Barthes’ question?

Barthes says things like:

Any written trace precipitates, as inside a chemical at first transparent, innocent and neutral, mere duration gradually reveals in suspension a whole past of increasing density, like a cryptogram.

Writing as Freedom is therefore a mere moment.

Stephen King says,

You can approach the act of writing with nervousness, excitement, hopefulness, or even despair—the sense that you can never completely put on the page what’s in your mind and heart. … Come to it any way but lightly.

Barthes says that writing is a kind of freedom: “the entirely free relationship between language and its fleshy double”. King says that writing is a kind of telepathy: “Look—here’s a table covered with red cloth. On it is a cage …” I think they are ultimately talking about the same thing. But Barthes (though also a writer) is approaching it as a theorist and King is approaching it as a practitioner. Barthes, perhaps more importantly, is addressing the student and scholar, while King is addressing the would-be writer.

Writing Degree Zero and On Writing are very different books, admirable and infuriating in different ways. Which one you prefer is probably not so much a matter of taste as a matter of what mood you are in. There are days when you are open to the idea that writing is “an ambiguous reality … aris[ing] from a confrontation of the writer with the society of his time [while] refer[ring him] back … to the instruments of creation”, and there are days when you think it’s better to approach it simply as “a meeting of minds”, an activity that is in any case more “serious”, “damn it”, than washing the car. There are days when you think of writing as the only Freedom (with a capital F) you’ve got; and there are days when it appears as impossible as a telepathy (“No myth-mountain shit; real telepathy”).

King announces that he’s sitting in his best “transmitting place”, at his desk “under the eave”, and that he’s imagining you, dear reader (he addresses you directly), in your “far-seeing place”, like a “couch on a sunporch”. He has a way of putting his daily cares and joys “up top” and work “in a basement place where there are lots of bright lights and clear images”. You, at the very least, he imagines, are looking for an escape. He knows there’s not just space but time between you. Even if you read him immediately upon publication, his words will be three years old. Still, the two of you are going to pull off a little “mentalist routine”. He’s going to work his magic:

Look — here’s a table covered with a red cloth. On it is a cage the size of a small fish aquarium. In the cage is a white rabbit with a pink nose and pink-rimmed eyes. In its front paws is a carrot stub upon which it is contentedly munching. On its back, clearly marked in blue ink, is the numeral 8.

Now it’s hard to dispute that the trick works. Anyone who knows how to read will see the rabbit in the cage, right? Well, King reminds us that there’s “a lot of room for interpretation”, “necessary variations”: “some will see a cloth which is turkey red, some will see one that’s scarlet …” And yet an image is communicated … to anyone who reads English, that is. This is where Barthes comes in.

We know that a language is a corpus of prescriptions and habit common to all the writers of a period. Which means that a language is a kind of natural ambiance wholly pervading the writer’s expression, yet without endowing it with form or content…[but] under the name of style a self-sufficient language is evolved which has its roots only in the depths of the authors’s personal and secret mythology, that subnature of expression where the first coition of words and things takes place … Failing the power to supply [the writer] with a freely consumed language, History suggests to him the demand for one freely produced.

There’s is something mystical about this way of putting it. The difference between Barthes and King is like the difference Ezra Pound also pointed out between Coleridge and Dante: Dante defined a “canzone” as “a composition of words set to music.” Coleridge described the poet as “everywhere present, and nowhere visible as a distinct excitement”. Both statements are “true”, said Pound, but one seems a better place to begin.

Perhaps it depends on whether you focus on the two-dimensional surface of the page (the work space Frege proposed for the logician) or you try to engage with the “the huge impossibility of language” (as Robert Graves proposed for the poet). It is as though writing is supposed to make tangible what is an intangible, all-pervading ambiance of language. But we should keep Wittgenstein in mind here:

The idea of the intangibility of a mental state … is of the greatest importance? Why is it intangible? Isn’t it because we refuse to count what is tangible about our state as part of the specific state which we are postulating?

Once you’ve given yourself the time and the space you need to write—once you’ve coordinated the here and now of your writing moment—writing is, in a certain sense, “easy”. You have your entire vocabulary to draw on, and since you are, for the moment, alone and no one is watching, you can say whatever you want. The words won’t even refuse to be combined in ungrammatical ways. Consider, by contrast, the mason or the carpenter, whose work is forever governed by the laws of physics. Sure, your pen or computer has to obey the laws of physics, but your words are free. It is no more difficult to write them down than to think them.

Perhaps this is why Roland Barthes thinks of writing as a sublime kind of freedom. And why Stephen King calls it, almost without metaphor or irony, a kind of telepathy. Because the materials of writing exert so little resistance against our choices, because words are almost made of nothing, are weightless and colorless (in the sense that their color does not, normally, affect their meaning), we forget that they—the words—are what we are making our writing out of. Indeed, we forget that we are actually making something—sentences, paragraphs—not just doing something—writing. We think that writing is just the act of meaning, an entirely abstract activity. We think it is intangible.

Against this, let’s remember James Randi’s remark about Uri Geller. “If he’s using his mind to bend those spoons,” said Randi, “he’s doing it the hard way.” Geller also claimed to be telepathic. Now, in both cases, Geller was probably very intentionally concealing “what is tangible” about his act from the audience, namely, the important work that his hands were doing in bending the spoons. It was, in short, a trick. (I’m told he’s now openly performing the trick as such; he has stopped calling himself a mystic.) To think of writing as some remarkable species of freedom, or a kind of telepathy, is, really, to think of it as a kind of magic. It is a refusal to count “what is tangible” about the activity as part of the specific activity we are doing. In reality, writing is just another thing we do with our hands. In really good writing, of course, like that of Barthes and King, that trick just happens to be concealed.

Tim Hunt: Have Fun!

Tim Hunt is an exemplary scientist. In this clip he emphasizes simply having fun over trying to be “creative”. There is something too serious, if you ask me, about the way creativity is talked about these days. It’s as if we are trying to justify the “luxury” of having meaningful, enjoyable lives and careers by an almost mystical gesture at what it produces, i.e., “creates”. Interestingly, Sir Tim also reminds us that science (like life) involves a good deal of boredom and repetition.

Again, I like this attitude. He’s saying that science is sometimes a slog and sometimes a blast and then, sometimes, you get lucky. Discoveries aren’t brought about by some spiritual (or magical) energy called “creativity”. They just happen in the space between our suffering and our enjoyment.

Academic Reading and Writing

The essence of academic literacy can perhaps best be illustrated by considering the ordinary act of reading a novel. Every summer millions of people read novels on the beaches of the world’s resorts. Many of these are of high literary value, some of them even classics. This summer, perhaps, you have decided to read Pride and Prejudice or The Great Gatsby, or The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle or The Heart is a Lonely Hunter. These are in one sense perfectly ordinary novels. That is, you can open them and begin on page one and read every word in the sequence it appears until you get to the end. They will tell you a story.

But they are also recognized as “works of literature”, so these same books, which you may read on a beach as a diversion, will also be given careful and studied attention by students in college classrooms the world over. What is the difference between the way students read such books and “ordinary people” do? Indeed, what is the difference between how a student reads a book and how the intended reader reads it?

I want to suggest a simple way of thinking about this difference. The ordinary reader reads alone; students read a book together. A novel is, ideally, intended to be read alone. In it, the novelist shares with the reader what Virginia Woolf called “the loneliness that is the truth about things”.  But an academic reader is not lonely; an academic reader knows that the book is being read by many others, that the reader has “peers”. Academics read along with their peers.

I think it would help students understand what academic writing is if we asked them to imagine their fellow students in this particular class to be their readers. They should not imagine their teachers or some still more abstract “authority”. They should try to explain what they mean to other people who are, at the moment, engaged with the same works for the same reasons. This, after all, is also the implied reader of any academic paper: it is an attempt to discuss issues with people who are knowledgeable about the subject.

That’s the big difference between writing for a popular audience (as novelists do) and writing for an academic audience. There is a shared body of knowledge to draw on. And, in any case, one is always writing something that one expects to be read by a group. One is writing as part of an ongoing conversation.

Use Your Judgment!

There seems to be a movement afoot in the upper echelons of science to rethink the “publish or perish” culture that fetishizes impact factors and citation counts. It is a recurring theme in these Nobel Prize Inspiration Initiative videos, which are, thankfully, sponsored by the pharmaceutical giant AstraZeneca. I’m sometimes a bit cynical about the role of industry in research, but I do think capital has an interest in fostering good science so I think that, on this issue at least, they are backing the right side. And I think (here’s the cynic again) that such backing will be decisive in any possible cultural change. The publish or perish culture has been fostered by one kind of money; it can only be undermined, I suspect, by the influence of another kind of money. Such, unfortunately, is the way of the world. It is not, finally, argument and evidence that settle these things, but their uptake by those who fund research.

In any case, Michael Brown’s advice here is very good. We can’t outsource academic judgment to journal editors and reviewers. When hiring someone we must reach our own conclusions about the quality of their research. The ability of an applicant to get published in a high-impact journal, which involves a particular set of skills that is not a perfect proxy for the ability to make important scientific discoveries, introduces a factor into hiring decisions that too often gets us to set aside our natural sense of our colleagues’ talents. We used to pride ourselves in being good judges of character. We used to hone this sense. These days, we are inclined to think it somewhat quaint to try to decide whether a particular person is a “good scientist”. Can they get published? That’s the tough-minded question of the modern research director. It’s good to see Nobel Laureates and their corporate patrons pushing back against this attitude.

What We Talk About When We Know What We Are Talking About

(With apologies to Raymond Carver and Haruki Murakami)

Zvezdelina Stankova knows what she is talking about when she talks about triangles. Watch:

I think most people with a basic understanding of geometry will be able to follow this presentation. Even those who don’t will not get the impression that she is just making stuff up. She is clearly drawing from a very solid foundation of knowledge and saying things that she is both confident and passionate about. She is, as I sometimes like to put it, working from the center of her strength here. It is easy for her to support, elaborate and (if needed) defend these ideas.

Part of her confidence, I would point out, comes from her community of mathematicians. (There is strength in numbers, if you’ll pardon the pun.) She is not saying something that she is afraid she’ll be called out for by her peers. There is not a hint of insecurity or paranoia. But, while this sense that her statements are uncontroversial is important, it is by no means necessary. All that is required for her to know what she is talking about is that she is aware of anything that might be controversial. It is when people assert as certain something that is in question among professionals, or call into question something that is beyond doubt among professionals, that they get onto thin ice. Dr. Stankova is clearly standing on a glacier.

In fact, the video you just watched is just the tip of the iceberg. (Let’s not quibble about the mixed metaphor, but do please remember where icebergs come from.) It has been edited down from a longer session, some of which can be seen here:

Here, too, notice that while you may at times have difficulty keeping up with her proof, you at no point get the sense that she’s just pulling these things out of a hat. Even her drawing skills reveal her as someone who has drawn many triangles. She is good at it. She’s been dealing with triangles her whole life, it seems. She’s familiar with them.

When thinking about your own knowledge try to imagine explaining it under these conditions. Can you speak knowledgeably for five or ten minutes about subjects within your area of expertise? Do you know what you are talking about? What subjects can you talk about from the center of your epistemic strength like this? It’s worth making a list of truths you master at this level.