Monthly Archives: January 2017

Prose and Picture

Here’s something I like to point out to writers whenever I can. Writing is like drawing in the sense that it represents something on a page. What is represented, of course, doesn’t actually have to exist. We can describe a fantasy just as we can draw a unicorn. In both cases, we mark a page to indicate an image. We use imagination to see it.

But there is a straightforward sense in which writing is harder than drawing, more difficult. The typical case of drawing involves representing a three-dimensional object in a two-dimensional space. There is an art to this and some people are very good at it. The trick is to learn how to make do without the third dimension, how to use two dimensions in the viewer’s experience to indicate a complete, three-dimensional object. Interestingly, however, this object is normally frozen in time. It is not a four-dimensional object.

Now consider writing prose. Here, a typical case is that of telling a story. That is, the “object” is often four dimensional, occupying both time and space. But prose itself is wholly linear: one word follows the other in a sentence. Once sentence follows another in a paragraph. A text is, we might say, one-dimensional. If the draftsman reduces a three-dimensional object to two, a writer reduces a four-dimensional object to one. Here, again, there is an art to it, and some people are better at it than others.

You might ask whether this post, too, is a representation of a four dimensional object in a one-dimensional space. I would argue that it is indeed. I had to describe the acts of writing and drawing. If you look closely you’ll notice I told a little story about drawing and writing. You probably formed images in your mind accordingly. You may have pictured a unicorn in your mind’s eye. (I’ll leave your fantasies to you.) And now, in this last sentence, I’m telling you a little story about you as a reader of this post, and me as a the writer. (Notice the “now” that I just invoked.) I’m writing this in my office in Copenhagen. Be well, dear reader, wherever you are!

What I’m Doing Here

“To know whom to write for is to know how to write.”

This sentence from Virginia Woolf’s “The Patron and the Crocus” is part of my standard presentation on academic writing. I do well to consider it as I write my posts here, too. Who, then, do I imagine I am writing for, and how does this answer the question, How to write?

My aim with this blog is foster a conversation among working academics, mainly those employed at a university, about the underlying “craft skills” that make research possible and meaningful. It’s not just about “how to get things done”, but much more about how to do them well, how to attain the standard of quality in knowledge that the university should, properly speaking, ensure. So I want to talk about what those standards are and how to meet them.

For this reason, I imagine my readers to be mainly PhD students and early-career researchers. These are scholars for whom the question of standards is still very important, and who don’t need to feel any shame in raising them earnestly. In truth, all scholars should feel comfortable discussing standards critically, but one sometimes finds established scholars simply “embodying” the standards rather than articulating them for the purpose of critiquing them. I am of course happy to include them in the conversation if they wish, whatever they may wish to say.

I am also happy to hear from anyone else who reads this blog about what they think can and should be done to preserve the particular value of “academic” knowledge. I have to admit that I’m of the opinion that we are in the process of recovering those values after a period in which they have suffered serious erosion. Sometimes I think I’m like one of those anthropologists that is hired to by an indigenous tribe to teach them the culture that was lost under colonial rule.

On Representing

Like it or not, the craft of research is the craft of representation. You are learning to “speak for” things and people that cannot or will not, or in any case, do not speak for themselves. If your object is some natural phenomenon, like a distant quasar or a tiny quark, then you are representing a thing that is, by its nature, inarticulate. If your object is some marginalized social group, whether by ethnicity, or gender, or sexuality, then you will be giving “voice” to concerns that are otherwise “silenced”, making “visible” what is otherwise “erased”. If your object is the corruption of corporate executives or political leaders, you will be talking about people who are actively trying to conceal their actions from public view; you will be bringing their conduct “to light”.

The effort to “subvert representation” works against your aims as a scholar. What you should be doing is honing your craft of representation. That is, you should become a master of writing “about” things and people that are not automatically represented in writing. Those facts, I like to say, don’t make themselves known. That’s your job. You have to come to know them and then make them known to others. And this does actually mean obeying what Donna Haraway derides as “the injunction to be clear”. If you’re going to say something about something or someone else, it should be clear what you are saying.

For Haraway, “there’s no thinking process outside of some materiality.” I’ll let her explain:

I was more and more compelled by the physical process of writing, creating a tissue of words; by the kind of quasi-dreamstate that writing puts me (and I think most writers) into; by the experience of working through a sentence and finding that it’s committed me to half a dozen positions that I don’t hold, literally because of the material density of language; and by finding that writing is itself a material process of thinking, that there’s no thinking process outside of some materiality.

What I want to emphasize is that not all writing happens in a “dream state”. Sometimes something happens to you in real, waking life, and you are amused or outraged by it. So you write an email to a friend or colleague and simply tell the story. You try to say clearly what happened, because it is what happened, not some quasi-mystical “material process”, that amused or outraged you, i.e., “compelled” you to express yourself in words. You write about the events. They are what your story represents.

Haraway is not exactly wrong that writing is “a material process of thinking”, a “physical process, creating a tissue of words”. And I am by no means suggesting that representation requires us to conceive of a kind of thinking that exists entirely “outside” of all materiality. What I’m trying to say is that the facts you experience (either personally or through the rigors of data collection or by reading a sonnet) are one “material process” and writing is another. In the latter you try, as best as you can, to represent the former. The facts you experience are what the writing is about.

Coordinating these material processes, so that your writing provides a clear view of the facts, does not “assume a kind of physical transparency”, nor do I think “that if you could just clean up your act somehow the materiality of writing would disappear.” To invoke Orwell’s famous simile, “prose like a windowpane” is not prose like hole in the wall. You want to keep the draft out while being able to look at the world. A pane of glass has very definite “materiality”! The idea is to make sure that, in protecting ourselves from wind and rain and snow we don’t shut out the sun altogether, nor that our glass is so imperfect that we can only see through it darkly, gaining only a distorted view of reality from our window.

Writing is difficult. Representation is difficult. You are trying to become one of the best people on the planet at this art, admittedly only in regard to (in “view” of) a specialized set of objects . Or that’s at least what I hope you are trying to do. It’s also what most of the public hopes (increasingly against hope, I’m afraid) your university is making you better able to do, not just by “educating” you, but by “situating” you (as Haraway might say) in an environment where you have the time and resources to represent the world of fact accurately.

Interrogating the Subject

In chapter four of his Archaeology of Knowledge, Michel Foucault asks three questions to help us understand what the “enunciative modality” of a discourse is. Simplifying somewhat we can state these questions as follows:  (1) Who may speak? (2) Where may they speak? (3) How are they supposed to speak? In traditional academic disciplines, we can answer these questions at a general level by saying that (1) professors are authorized to speak in (2) university settings (including classrooms, conferences and academic journals) in (3) a manner that opens their speech to criticism.

Lately, I’ve been most interested in that last question. Too many academics, in my opinion, think of themselves as authorized to speak merely on the basis of their credentials and institutional setting. They are missing the part of academic discourse that is an ability, not just an authority.

Foucault says that the “position of the subject” (i.e., the authority of the professor) is conditioned, in part, by “a certain grid of explicit or implicit interrogations”. That is, when a claim is made in discourse, it may be questioned in specific ways. The meaning of the claim depends on the answers that the speaker is able to offer to these questions. The discourse itself is defined, in part, by what questions are likely to be asked and, in part, by the questions that cannot be asked. (The questioner can risk their authority to participate in the discourse by asking a “stupid question”.) The claim (or what Foucault calls “the statement”) is made with an expectation of being interrogated and is formulated in anticipation of being questioned. It is “open” to those questions and at the same time “braced” for them.

The more I look at academic discourse these days, like I say, the more I wonder how well this is understood. Too often, one sees an academic make a statement and then taking offence at being asked straightforward questions about its basis. It’s not just that the speaker seems unable to answer, they seem unwilling to answer, and they seem bewildered by being held to account. This is not promising for the future of human knowing.


Karl Popper’s famous demarcation criterion–that a claim is scientific only if it can be falsified–is no longer the reigning wisdom among scholars. I’ve always liked it, however. And I’ve also liked to use it as part of a semantics of academic writing. While there’s something appealing about A.J. Ayer’s verificationism–the view that a sentence means whatever would be the case if it were true–it must be remembered that for a great many claims (especially very general ones) the truth-making “fact” would simply be too huge to verify the existence of. In that case, it’s nice to know also what would make a statement false.

This, I believe, is something that scholars are forgetting in their discussions. Indeed, their communications can hardly even be called discussions any longer because they are not probing each other’s statements often enough for how they might be false. Such a “critical” posture is in many areas taken to be impolite. But it should be a basic habit of mind. When someone claims something–or when you assert a claim yourself–you should always ask what sorts of things would demonstrate the claim’s falsity. If your interlocutor cannot imagine any fact in the world that would disprove what they are saying, then they are not making a scientific claim.

Similarly, if the claimant to knowledge refuses to even discuss sources of error, you are not dealing with a scientific claim. Or you are not being invited into a scholarly conversation.

I used to think it was Laurence Sterne who said that “Gravity is a mysterious carriage of the body invented to cover the defects of the mind.” I had let Ezra Pound tell me so. It turns out that Sterne was quoting La Rochefoucauld. I now claim that you can find the sentence in the works of both authors, with the former attributing it to an unnamed “French wit” and the latter claiming it as his own. It is possible La Rochefoucauld plagiarized it from someone else, of course. But I’m not making any claims either way. I’m claiming only that Sterne quoted Rochefoucauld. You can try (and fail) to falsify this statement by consulting Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims.

Until today, I made a different claim. It was false. I claimed that Pound quoted Sterne and that Sterne wrote the original. Even a look at Sterne’s use of the sentence would falsify my assertion. Not even Sterne claims to be its author.

Too few scholars make claims about what others have said with this attitude. More gravely, they do not treat their empirical claims, or those of others, with this degree of seriousness. They don’t seem to care what would show them to be wrong. They don’t seem moved by evidence to that effect.