Monthly Archives: August 2017

Major C

In a 1971 interview, Roland Barthes was asked to reflect on the use of traditional literary criticism, reading a text “for its own truth, its final meaning”. He answered that he did, of course, have a preference for what he called a “non-alethic” criticism, a semiotic criticism rather than a hermeneutics, which is to say,  a way of reading that did not look for the one true meaning of a text but, rather, a “polysemic” reading “just this side of criticism” (as the interviewer puts it). But he also offered a neat defense of traditional criticism:

It’s always possible to imagine critical roles and their continuation, even the continuation of traditional roles, which will not necessarily be useless; Schönberg said that even after the eventual triumph of avant-garde music–and that was the music for which one ought to fight–it would still be possible to make beautiful music in C major. I would say that it will always be possible to write good criticism in C major. (The Grain of the Voice, pp. 147-8)

I like this way of putting it a great deal. When I was a PhD student, we eschewed traditional criticism in the name of a “minor literature” (a concept we drew from the work of Deleuze). We were a bit too willing, perhaps, to declare the “death of the author” and the “end of the book”. Indeed, Barthes even goes on to say that

one could very well imagine a time when ‘works’ in the traditional sense of the word would no longer be written, and the works of the past would rewritten endlessly, “endlessly” in the sense of “perpetually”: there would be an activity of proliferating commentary, branching out, recurrent which would be the true writing activity of our time.

We liked this way of talking. We were ready to produce those “writerly” texts. We were ready to believe that there was no such thing as a final interpretation of a text, only its proliferation in other texts. We were happy to concede that there was no authority (no author) to decide whether a text, even our own, was true or false, well or badly written. There was just the question of what you could do with a text, what “effects” it could have, what connections could be established between one text and another, through the “intertext”, which, of course, was often the writing we did ourselves. It was invigorating and heady stuff.

But something was also lost: the beautiful music in C major that Schönberg was talking about. We said it bored us. More often, I must now concede, we found it daunting. The beauty of “major” writing was obvious (many of our heroes, we had to admit, wrote beautifully in a major key) and its absence, in any of our attempts to produce it, would be correspondingly glaring. We were afraid to mean something in a straightforward and traditional way because we might say something that was incorrect, and our errors would be as plain as day. So we learned always to defer our “true” meaning to the “proliferation” of the reader’s critical activity. We did not assign a role to the serious critic, from whom we might learn how to write more effectively or to analyze the world more accurately.

I think it’s time to return to the fundamentals of criticism. It is time to ask, again, whether our texts are clear, coherent and conventional expressions of justified, true beliefs. They don’t always have to be this, nor even mostly. It is possible that the “avant-garde”, i.e., postmodernism, has triumphed and there are no longer meanings to speak of, only signs to play with. Indeed, its not incidental that Barthes imagined the disappearance of “works” of literature “in the traditional sense”. But traditions have a way of staying around.

The end of work is the beginning of play. But someone has to do the work of writing down what we know — just as surely as someone has to do the work of advancing our knowledge itself — and their readers must do the traditional work of criticism in a major key. They must look earnestly for the meaning of what we write. We must write in way that respects their sincere desire to understand what we are talking about. This is the major C. It’s not as much fun, perhaps. But there is some beauty in it.

Rule #2

Never write about something you just learned this week. Always write about something you knew last week at the latest.

This rule tries to undermine even more radically the habit of trying to discover what you know in the act of writing. If you follow my rules, not only have you decided the day before what you will write, you have chosen to write something you knew already before the weekend.

What this rule is trying most of all to shatter is the illusion that your text exists “in real time”. It is trying to remind you that you don’t have to tell the reader what you know right now, in this moment. After all, your reader won’t be reading what you have written for several weeks, months or even years. There is no point in writing a text, at least not a text for publication, at the “cutting edge” of your knowledge because it won’t be published until well after you have learned so much more anyway.

Choosing to write something that you learned was true already last week will affect your style. You will write about it in a more permanent, less ephemeral tone. You are not running up to your reader and breathlessly communicating an “insight” that just occurred to you. You are simply writing down something you know in a form that will allow someone else, sometime later, to make use of it, or to offer some critical insights of their own that will improve your understanding of the subject.

Your style reveals the posture of your writing and it is your posture, in the moment of writing, that interest me. How are you comporting yourself toward the reader? What stance are you taking? You want to position yourself solidly between your own knowledge and that of your reader. You want much of the early excitement of your own discovery to have dissipated, so you can pitch claims coolly and calmly at your reader’s ignorance, fully conscious of everything your reader presumably knows. You use your awareness of what the reader knows to better bring your own knowledge to bear. You can anticipate their objections and you can build on the understanding that is already shared between you. You stand comfortably here, on two feet, solidly planted.

You can therefore write from the center of your strength. It’s a phrase I use often to try to remind people of the feeling of a comfortable run at a steady pace over varied terrain. Or the feeling of playing a piece of music you know well with others you have played with before. Or, if pugilism is your thing, the feeling of sparring intelligently over a few rounds with a well-matched partner in the boxing ring. Not all of your writing can be done in this way, from this center, but the great bulk of it should be. Rule #2 is intended to get you to that place, a place where you feel strong and comfortable as a writer, for at least 27 minutes every day.

Scholarship is not made of ideas we came up with in the shower this morning. It is grounded in a long tradition of thinking things through in a careful and orderly manner. Our writing is about that long, slow process of thought, not the momentary feeling of “getting it”. In an ideal world (perhaps I should say, in my ideal world) everyone would write about things they knew already eight weeks ago. But from the point of view training your style to bear the weight of, perhaps not timeless truths, but at least durable ones, it is sufficient that you separate your decision about what to write tomorrow from the research you have done this week. Put a weekend, I am trying to say, between your genius and your style.

[Click here for all the Rules.]

Research Isn’t a Second Language, Students Aren’t a Foreign Culture

“After teaching for twenty years, I had come to suspect that my own training as an academic had made me a member of what is almost an entirely foreign culture in contrast to that in which our students live.” (Susan D. Blum)

“Learning the language of research requires students not only to perform the action of research, but also to synthesize the learned information and be able to explain it to others. This, we suggest, is much like learning a foreign language.” (Paula McMillen and Eric Hill)

It’s a compelling metaphor. I have conducted my own work as a language editor and writing coach under the heading “Research as a Second Language” since I started over ten years ago. But recently the thought occurred to me that this way of looking at things has led me astray. By extension, it has led my students and clients astray. That’s a pretty big idea to get my mind around. But the possibility is definitely worth taking seriously and this post is a first attempt to do it.

Susan Blum’s suspicion (in my epigraph) is understandable, but her very next sentence is more instructive still. She quotes Clifford Geertz: “Foreignness does not start at the water’s edge but at the skin’s.” It gives us a clue, I would argue, to why we shouldn’t think of our students as members of a foreign culture, nor teach academic literacy on the model of a second language. It suggest that it’s only if we are always foreign to everyone that the metaphor holds. Research is a second language only in a very peculiar sense: the sense in which it has no native speakers. Indeed, we are foreigners here only if there are no natives anywhere.

On this view, there is no authoritative way of speaking and writing the language of research. And that implies that people constantly speak with the foreigner’s innocence of the “true meaning” of their words. Worse, it implies a constant state of moral relativism. Academics are forever in Rome doing as the Romans do, never at home doing what is right and good, never where the heart is. When at school we do as scholars do, but our hearts, perhaps, aren’t in it. It is no wonder we are in the midst of a crisis.

I say it’s a compelling metaphor and a misleading one. But it’s also obviously a shoe that often fits. And I have played my part in selling it. It’s going to take me a little while to think my way out of this again.

What we have forgotten in our adoption of this metaphor is that research and schooling are integral parts of our culture. We use our first language in school and in our research. (Except, of course, in the cases where we are literally using a second language, as when I, a Dane, moved to Canada when I was 9 years old and learned English and also attended school. Or when a Chinese student enrolls at an American university.) More importantly, research and learning are not primarily about acquiring language skills. It is about acquiring knowledge.

Consider the implications of academic literacy as a second-language competence. We learn how to read and write academically from other academics, as students from our teachers. But how did they learn to do it? From their teachers, of course.

“Watt had watched people smile,” writes Beckett in his famous novel, “and thought he understood how it was done.” There’s something unsettling about this way of describing a smile. Indeed, there is something unsettling about Watt’s smile, as we read a bit later on:

My name is Spiro, said the gentleman.
Watt smiled.
No offence meant, said Mr Spiro.

Stanley Cavell has linked Beckett’s masterful sense of the uncanny with Wittgenstein’s decision to open his Philosophical Investigations with a quote from Augustine’s Confessions about how he learned his first language.

“When they (my elders),” [writes Augustine,] “named some object, and accordingly moved towards something, I saw this and grasped that the thing was called by the sound they uttered when they meant to point it out. Their intention was shown by their bodily movements … and after I had trained my mouth to form these signs, I used them to express my own desires.” (To glimpse the oddness, [notes Cavell], imagine the final sentence as from Samuel Beckett.) (In Quest of the Ordinary, p. 166)

In another place, Cavell (or perhaps it is Marjorie Perloff) notes the Beckettesque quality of Wittgenstein’s question, “What gives us so much as the idea that living beings, things, can feel?” (PI§286, cf. Beckett’s How It Is). The idea that we “train” our mouths to form words (or smiles), or that we need an “idea” of the feelings of other people, is uncanny because we don’t actually acquire our first language as consciously as Augustine makes it sound. There is something suspect about being conscious, something too “calculating,” we might say.

Geertz picks on Wittgenstein a little after his remark about the foreignness of everything beyond the shores of our skins.

The sort of idea that both anthropologists since Malinowski and philosophers since Wittgenstein are likely to entertain that, say, Shi’is, being other, present a problem, but, say, soccer fans, being part of us, do not, or at least not of the same sort, is merely wrong. The social world does not divide at its joints into perspicuous we’s with whom we can empathize, however much we differ with them, and enigmatical they’s, with whom we cannot, however much we defend to the death their right to differ from us. The wogs begin long before Calais.

But is that actually true? Is Geertz right about this? Are we really “foreign” before we are “home”?  Do we have to “train our mouths” to form words in our mother(‘s !) tongue? Do we learn how to smile from watching others do it?

I believe that Beckett and Wittgenstein were dealing with a distinctly modern experience, namely, “alienation”–our estrangement from our immediate experience. And I believe that we have, with perfectly good intentions, reproduced this estrangement within our universities by thinking of our community as “problematic” from the skin outwards. The most important parts–the most natural, the least uncanny parts–of Augustine’s description are the phrases “I saw this and grasped” and “their intention was shown”. Augustine understood immediately, intuitively, what they meant. He recognized his elders as the masters of the world into which he was born as an apprentice.

This notion, that teachers are “elders” in the youthful experience of students, that they are masters to the students’ apprenticeship, is being lost by construing our students as members of a foreign tribe with elders of their own (on TV, presumably, or online). We have abandoned our positions of authority in precisely the context where that authority should be taken for granted, given willingly by the students who are there, explicitly, to learn from us. We are not teaching them a second language because we did not come to the university as we come to a foreign culture. We, too, were raised within it, by the elders, not of some exotic culture, but of a general culture (“European”, “Western”, “modern”, “civilized”, call it what you will) that values learning. We were part of the culture before we enrolled, and our students remain part of it after they graduate.

There is no such thing as “academic culture”.*  Academia is an institution within our culture. The university is an institution in a culture to which the students already belong and it is, properly speaking, merely a passage in their total acculturation, replete with all the rites that such a passage implies. Research is not a second language. It is a refinement of our first language. An academic, a scholar, a student is not an exotic kind of human being, not an abstract subject engaged in an isolated “language game” or “form of life”. Scholarship is merely a deliberate, communal way of knowing things. You come to master it like you learn anything else. By respecting the elders who already know and submitting to their discipline.


*Update: This is an overstatement. I’m not going to argue that universities don’t have an identifiable culture. I’m trying to push against the idea that it might be “foreign” to the students of a university. They are simply a part of it. And going to university is already a part of their culture, long before they get there.

Rule #1

Always decide the day before what you will write and when you will write, one key sentence and 27 minutes at a time.

The first habit to learn–or, rather, for most people, to unlearn is–not showing up to write unprepared to write something in particular at a particular time. It is not sufficient that you know what you will be writing “about”. It is not sufficient that you hoped to “make some progress”. A vague plan to “work on” a paper or even to draft your methods section does not adequately focus your mind. You don’t really know what you’ll be doing if that’s your plan. When tomorrow comes, you won’t really know whether you’re doing what you planned. Worse, if you were vague about what time you’ll be doing it (“tomorrow, I will…”) you won’t even know when it’s relevant to ask whether you’re doing what you said you’d do.

What happens the day before, therefore, is very important. You are telling your unconscious what to prepare for tomorrow. Wait until the end of the day, when you are not going learn anything new. Take five minutes, certainly no more than ten, to make your decision. Be specific. “From 8:00 to 8:27 I will write a paragraph saying that the Internet has changed the way businesses communicate with their customers, which will be the first paragraph of my paper. From 8:30 to 8:57 I will write a paragraph saying that I conducted 34 semi-structured interviews with PR managers in 5 selected companies for my methods section.” (I have italicized the key sentences.) That’s it, you’re done for today. Relax.

The important thing now is not to think about the claims you’ve planned to write paragraphs about tomorrow. You’ve chosen something that you are confident you know something about. If you had been forced to elaborate at the time you made your decision you would have been able to do it. But you have decided to do it tomorrow instead. Don’t worry about it. The evening is beginning, the night is coming. This is not the time for writing, nor for worrying, but for unwinding with your family and friends or to have some time for yourself. Have a nice meal. Watch some TV. Read a good book. Do not give your plan another thought. Let your unconscious begin to compose itself in prose. You’ll be surprised at how much can happen to your style when you’re not looking directly at it.

Do not overthink this. Don’t make it harder than it is. Remember that you do know something and that you can write a paragraph. All you are doing is making a plan to write some specific paragraphs tomorrow. You are trying to be deliberate about something that you have previously, perhaps, just tried to “let” happen. I’m encouraging you to go into your writing as consciously as you enter your classroom. You know what you are going to say.

[Click here for all the Rules.]

My Rules

This year I want to try something that might sound a bit hardcore. I want to insist on working with authors that will do what I tell them. Or rather, I want to suggest they do something very specific, and then I want to confine my advice to their attempts to do those things. I have found, over the years, that authors expect one of a number of different kinds of conversation about their writing process. I don’t think all of those conversations are equally productive. In fact, I don’t know how to make a constructive contribution to very many of them. What I know is how people can become better and happier writers. But for my advice to work they have to follow a few simple rules.

Over the next few posts I am going to try to defend those rules, both in general and in their specifics. At the most general level I have to defend the very idea of writing according to rules. Many people have been taught something completely different about what writing is and how to get it done. I have to convince them to set aside this understanding and the often bad habits it inspires. Next, I have to defend the apparent rigidity of the rules. “How can anyone work under those conditions?” people sometimes think. I have to show them how little the rules ultimately demand of them and how little of their time I actually propose to “micro manage”. Finally, the rules themselves, each and severally, will probably warrant some explanation.

The most important thing to understand about these rules (other than to take them with touch of irony) is that their normative force is directed at the part of you that wants to become a better a writer, or at least the part of you that wants to keep your prose in shape. I am not saying that anything that was not written according to my rules is fit for the wastepaper basket. I am proposing a discipline that will make you a more reliable composer of publishable prose. When your piano teacher or fitness instructor tells you to do something in a particular way, you do it with the understanding that it will teach you something, not that, simply by following this particular instruction, you will thereby be doing it the right way. There is no one right way to anything, and even when you follow an instruction there’s no guarantee that you’re doing it well. But it is possible to make a deliberate effort towards discovering the right way for you to do something.

My rules provide you with a time and space in which to make these deliberations. If you follow them, I know what you are trying to do. And when I know know what you are trying to do, I can help you do it better. That’s why I’m going to try to insist that you follow them–at least try to follow them–if you’re going to ask for my advice. Don’t worry though. I’m a softy at heart. And I know rules were meant to be bent and broken.