Monthly Archives: April 2018

What Did You Know Last Week?

Or what did we know a century ago? It still amazes me to think that in 1918 we did not know that Andromeda is a galaxy outside our own. We thought that the universe was just a collection of stars. We didn’t know that we live in a spiral galaxy. Until 1953, we thought Andromeda was only one and a half million light years away. We now know it’s 2.5 (plus or minus .11) million light years away. Going further back, it wasn’t until 1610 that Galileo was able to show that the band of light in the night sky we call the Milky Way is actually a collection of individual stars. This raises a question: did the great astronomers of the past — Galileo, Newton, Halley — know anything about the stars? They were wrong about so many things! What did they really know?

The answer, of course, is that they knew a great deal. It’s just that today’s astronomers, building on everything that has been known before them, know much, much more about how the universe is organized. But I raise the issue for a reason. Sometimes I get the sense that scholars dread the prospect of writing about things they thought were true even just last week. They are worried that this knowledge is already out of date, already rendered irrelevant by some other study that someone else has done. In 1785, William Herschel drew the first map of the Milky Way (thinking it was the whole universe) and put our sun near the center of it. Two hundred years later, even a writer of light entertainment like Douglas Adams knew better,  describing it as “a small unregarded yellow sun” “in the uncharted backwaters of the unfashionable end of the western spiral arm of the Galaxy”. Herschel must be feeling pretty foolish!

Of course not! The fact that knowledge is constantly expanding (like our universe) should not make us embarrassed to claim to know anything today. Nor should we be particularly concerned with how long ago we last checked to be sure we were right. Yes, there are claims you can make about any number of things that everyone thought were true five years ago, but that someone, somewhere, working at the cutting edge of their field is just now becoming aware is wrong. Even profoundly wrong. But their discovery needs time to work itself into our total vision of the world in which we live. Until the news reaches you, you are perfectly in your rights to claim things are as you believe they are. Don’t feel the slightest guilt about it. Just sit down and write what you think and why you think it.

A good way to train this attitude is to always be writing your paragraphs about something you knew was true last week. Never try to write at the cutting edge of your own cognitive process. (That is, don’t try to write for publication at this edge; if you want to use writing to show yourself what’s on your own mind, that’s entirely your business.) Spend some of your research time there, of course. But don’t think every sentence you publish has to be “current”. It just has to accurately reflect what you knew at some reasonably recent moment before your paper was published. That’s the important thing: all published papers — most of what we read — gives us access, not to the present state of mind of one our peers, but to their past state of mind. Get used to writing about things you knew and your writing process is likely to feel less strained.

It is said that Edwin Hubble “settled” the debate about the shape of the galaxy in 1925. We’re not going to ridicule someone who weighed in on the “wrong” side earlier that year, right? Everyone was contributing to the debate, and even when they were getting things wrong, they were demonstrating how knowledgeable they were about many other things. So lighten up! You’re wrong about most things. Tell them, yes, sure … you’re as wrong Aristotle once was, as wrong as Ptolemy and  Newton! There’s nothing to be ashamed of.

The Mechanics of Scholarly Writing

William Carlos Williams saw the poem as a “field of action.” He also said that a poem is a “machine made of words.” With this in mind, it is interesting to look at the etymology of the word machine“a structure of any kind” — from which today’s sense can easily be derived. A machine is a structure that is “geared” for action, an arrangement of stable and moving parts that gets something done after you get it going.

In preparation for a lecture I’m holding tomorrow about how to structure a research paper (see video here), this image of the “mechanics” of scholarly writing has been useful. Of course, I’m not telling students how to write a sonnet. (Nor did Williams recommend doing so.) But I think it is useful to think of a research paper or dissertation as a structure of parts that work together to bring about an overall effect.

I want to suggest that a paragraph is a field of perception, a frame made of words. If a machine is a structure geared for action, a frame is a structure that focuses our perceptions. An essay is a collection of such frames, of machines that have no moving parts, if you will, or whose moving parts are mainly there to adjust your focus. That is, a frame is not a machine that brings about some physical effect in the world; rather, it occasions a psychical effect in the mind. It draws your attention towards one thing and away from something else. We think of a machine as a bustle of gears and levers, but also a spectacle of lights and lenses. In fact, high technology more often evokes the latter image.

A poem is a machine that does something, makes something happen. It does something to us; it “moves” us. A paragraph, by contrast, is a machine that shows something. It reveals something to us, it doesn’t push us to feel or do anything; it holds something before us to think about, gives us something to see. As I usually put it, a paragraph opens your thinking to the criticism of your peers. It exposes your ideas to that little crisis.

So a paper or essay or dissertation must arrange these frames, these little machines of focus, these tiny cameras into the workings of your mind. They must support each other and must be designed to carry “the weight of argument”, which also indicates a danger. As the citizens of Vordingborg here in Denmark were recently reminded, the structural facts that keep a building standing also determine the mechanics of its collapse. Sometimes you have to blow up one argument to make room for another. You just want to make sure it doesn’t destroy your library in the process!


Some notes for later:

The ideas in this post are obviously influenced by Heidegger’s notions of Gestell and Gebild. I’ve written a little about this at one of my other blogs. I’m sure I’ll return to it.

This also gives us a good way of thinking about post-structuralism. After 1968, we might say, there was an epochal shift in our thinking about society, a move from “structure” to “machine”, perhaps most clearly apparent in the famous opening lines of Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus:

It is at work everywhere, functioning smoothly at times, at other times in fits and starts. It breathes, it heats, it eats. It shits and fucks. What a mistake to have ever said the id. Everywhere it is machines — real ones, not figurative ones: machines driving other machines, machines being driven by other machines, with all the necessary couplings and connections.

Indeed, there is an interesting tension between these co-called “desiring-machines” and our somewhat more prosaic (!) “cognitive frames”. I tend to agree with Deleuze and Guattari that these tensions are not merely metaphorical. Like T. S. Eliot, I want to “halt at the frontier of metaphysics or mysticism”, but lets remember that the cutting edges of physics are in quantum mechanics and quantum field theory. Someone once joked that quantum fields are the dreams that stuff is made of. Maybe we’ll one day discover that atoms are poems made of particles?

The Trace of an Iceberg

If a writer of prose knows enough about what he is writing about, he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. (Ernest Hemingway)

A stubborn after-image, which comes from all the previous modes of writing and even from the past of my own, drowns the sound of my present words. 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. (Roland Barthes)

Hemingway and Barthes have radically different styles. But do they stem from radically different ideas about the nature of writing, from opposing views about a writer’s problem? That’s what has been interesting me these days. While I often find myself citing Hemingway when giving advice to students, I am hesitant to invoke Barthes because his philosophical and literary sophistication can be daunting. Even in their use of analogy, as in the examples quoted above, Hemingway’s point is much more straightforward and easier to put into practice. Barthes is more likely to impress our students with what Robert Graves called “the huge impossibility of language”. Hemingway simply tells them to put their asses in their chairs and write what they know.

In my last post, I tried to show that the difficulty of writing prose is always relative to your ambition. If you want to write a paragraph that says that Hamlet loved his mother, you can, in principle, simply say it six times:

Hamlet loved his mother. Hamlet loved his mother. Hamlet loved his mother. Hamlet loved his mother. Hamlet loved his mother. Hamlet loved his mother.

This, I would say, is scholarly prose at “degree zero”. It is the minimum effort we can make as writers to say something we know. I also suggested what we might do to take it up a level by addressing the reader’s possible objections to our thesis about Hamlet’s feelings:

Hamlet resented his mother’s marriage. She had married his uncle. His uncle had taken his crown. But Hamlet loved his mother. Her betrayal hurt him. It broke his heart.

But this leaves a great deal under the surface, as it were. It is merely the tip of Hemingway’s iceberg, and scholars do like to be a bit more explicit, a bit more elaborate. They belabor the point, if you will, as a matter of professional pride. They don’t just tell you what they know (and presume that you know enough to make sense of it); they tell you also how they know (and therefore give you an opening to tell them what they’ve gotten wrong). They are also more upfront about what they think you think about their views, whether they are offering support, elaboration or a defense of their central claim. Consider:

It is sometimes argued that Hamlet’s pain stems from an ambivalence about his mother. To be sure, Hamlet resented his mother’s marriage. She had married his uncle and his uncle had taken his crown. But Hamlet loved his mother to the end. Indeed, his resentment does not belie his love but confirms it, just as jealousy is often evidence of a profound attachment. Her betrayal hurt him, but only someone we love can hurt us like this; only love can break our hearts. We must conclude that Hamlet was not ambivalent about his mother but suffered, precisely, because of his constancy. He was repulsed by someone he could not help but love.

Whatever you may think about its content, I hope you will agree that this paragraph is now more recognizably “scholarly” or “academic”. (Adding a few sources would cinch it, I think.) It makes explicit what the previous effort leaves implicit, namely, the reasoning by which we turn Hamlet’s apparent ambivalence into an argument for the constancy of his love for Gertrude.

I think Barthes would say that these reasons are already implicit in the simpler statement. If the reader is sufficiently steeped in the tradition of Elizabethan drama, then, given time, the “innocent, transparent” mind would soon dissolve the kernels of truth, rendering it cloudy, which is merely to say more “learned”. But scholars protect their statements from being dissolved any which way, which is to say, they don’t want to see them diluted, so they tie them to a particular past, they inscribe them in a particular code. As I noted in my earlier posts, they “situate the nature of their language in a social area”. If you want to take the argument apart, you now have to do it in a particular way. You have to respect the terms of the discourse.

Notice that Hemingway is not interested in the fact that the iceberg melts, but in the style of its motion. His scale is macroscopic, almost geological. Barthes would have considered how things dissolve, the chemistry of writing. He would put it under a microscope, approach it at the molecular level.

This is also why Barthes has so much more pull in the academy than Hemingway. “Papa’s” advice seems banal and always-already understood–in a word, unscientific. We want to say that we don’t need to be reminded about what writing is in that sense. We don’t want to “reduce” the problem of writing to merely being, say, knowledgeable and honest — which is one way to interpret the injunction to “write truly”. We want writing to be something much more subtle, much more sophisticated. We don’t want to practice; we want a theory. We want, I suspect, our failings to be understandable and even our failures to be commendable. It is not that we don’t know enough, we insist, or that we don’t mean what we say. It is that writing is difficult. But Hemingway is ready to grant us this too. It’s hard to tell the truth. But it is not impossible and we must never resent the difficulty. We must learn — and teach our students — to face it as authors. We must not let it be the death of us.

A Moveable Feast at Degree Zero

Imagine a college English class that has been studying Shakespeare’s Hamlet. After reading the play and discussing it for a couple of weeks, the professor gives the students a simple in-class assignment. “How did Hamlet feel about his mother? Write a paragraph that answers this question.” The professor is a longtime reader of this blog, so the students have been told exactly what a paragraph is: a composition of at least six sentences and at most 200 words that say one thing and support, elaborate or defend it. Also in keeping with my recommendations, the students are given half an hour to complete the task. That is, the professor is asking them to demonstrate that they know how Hamlet felt about his mother.

Let’s try to appreciate the difficulty of the students’ task as writers. If they don’t know the answer, this problem doesn’t really arise, or arises in a corrupted form; their writing will be an attempt to conceal their ignorance rather than exposing what they know to the criticism of other knowledgeable people. But suppose a student knows that Hamlet loved his mother; what difficulty now remains? How is this hard? In my last post, I cited Hemingway and Barthes on the “writer’s problem” and the “problematics of literature” respectively. Hemingway would say that the student’s problem is to “write truly” and make that truth part of the reader’s experience; Barthes said that writing is “the morality of form” and that the student must situate the nature of their language in a social area. Neither yet seems very helpful.

But Hemingway had some more specific advice to writers. In A Moveable Feast, he says: “Do not worry. You have always written before and you will write now. All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” In our case, this is the “key sentence” and we already know how to write it:

Hamlet loved his mother.

Now what? Well, remember that a paragraph is at least six sentences long and at most two hundred words and it says this one true thing. The student knows how to fulfill this requirement in a simple, mechanical way:

Hamlet loved his mother. Hamlet loved his mother. Hamlet loved his mother. Hamlet loved his mother. Hamlet loved his mother. Hamlet loved his mother.

Obviously, this will not get a very high grade. But it is better than nothing; indeed, it is significantly better than nothing. It says something true about Hamlet and displays an understanding of the basic form of a paragraph. “Now every form is also a value,” says Barthes in Writing Degree Zero, “which is why there is room, between a language and a style, for another formal reality: writing.” We might say that our minimalist student has not filled out the room between their language and their style. “Within any literary form,” Barthes continues, “there is a general choice of tone, of ethos, if you like, and this is precisely where the writer shows himself clearly as an individual because this is where he commits himself” (p. 14). We might also say that our student’s commitments are imprecise, vague.

Let us suppose our student tried to do something a little harder, something more “committed”. I always tell students to imagine what their reader will find difficult about the key sentence. Is it hard to believe or hard to understand or hard to agree with? Suppose the student chooses the last of these. Notice that this is a “choice of social area”, a site for a moral reflection on the form of the paragraph. At bottom, the writer is deciding who the reader is. Obviously, if the reader is likely to disagree with the claim that Hamlet loved his mother, we cannot simply assert this proposition six times and think we’ve accomplished something. We have to defend the claim against the reader’s objections.

For now, let’s not give ourselves too much freedom, too many resources to work with. Let’s limit ourselves to six sentences and let’s keep them simple and declarative, just like our key sentence. We will keep the form of each sentence about the same as in our previous effort, but we will introduce more content rather than merely repeating it.

Hamlet resented his mother’s marriage. She had married his uncle. His uncle had taken his crown. But Hamlet loved his mother. Her betrayal hurt him. It broke his heart.

Notice what is happening here. Much of the paragraph deals with the reasons the reader might have for thinking that Hamlet did not love his mother. It tries to situate the claim within those reasons and even tries to use them to support it. Hamlet’s resentment now does not belie his love for his mother but confirms it. His jealousy becomes evidence for it. Only someone we love can hurt us like this, we are arguing, can break our hearts. This reasoning is of course left implicit, but that’s a choice the writer has made, perhaps on the strength of Hemingway’s advice about the dignity of icebergs. Not incidentally, it becomes a rather ham-fisted imitation of Hemingway’s style. “In stating as fully as I could how things really were,” Hemingway explains in an interview, “it was often very difficult and I wrote awkwardly and the awkwardness is what they called my style. All mistakes and awkwardnesses are easy to see, and they called it style.”

I think you can see where this going. I’ll take it a step further in my next post, perhaps attempting a no more elegant imitation of Barthes. I want to emphasize that writing well is simply making the most of the freedom we have within the form we are given (or take upon ourselves). “Writing as freedom,” said Barthes, “is one of the most explicit [moments] in history, since history is always and above all a choice and the limits of this choice.” Writing is about making choices–about what to say and how to say it.  “This is very hard to do,” said Hemingway during the Spanish civil war, “and I’ve worked at it very hard.” I’m trying to get us to appreciate this difficulty in the composition classroom and find ways to overcome it in practice.

A Writer’s Problem & The Problematics of Literature

A writer’s problem does not change. He himself changes, but his problem remains the same. It is always how to write truly and, having found what is true, to project it in such a way that it becomes a part of the experience of the person who reads it. (Ernest Hemingway)

Placed at the center of the problematics of literature, which cannot exist prior to it, writing is thus essentially the morality of form, the choice of that social area within which the writer elects to situate the Nature of his language. (Roland Barthes)

Hemingway and Barthes approached the problem of writing very differently. But surely they are talking about the same thing? Are they perhaps even saying the same thing? If so, is there a good reason to say it so differently? If not, is one of them wrong and the other right?

It seems to me that Hemingway talked about writing as a practitioner, while Barthes talked about it as a theorist. (He considered Writing Degree Zero to be “an introduction to what a history of writing might be,” or what I would call a theory of writing.) Barthes, of course, also did a lot of writing himself, but it would not be wrong to say that the basis of his ideas about writing was his reading of the literature, while Hemingway was reporting on his own struggle with writing, describing his own problem as a writer. I think writing instructors do well to think about this too. What is the basis of their advice to the writer’s they work with? Are they giving their students a theory of writing or guiding their practice?

I will take this up in a couple posts to come. My thesis will be that theory marks a shift from what Hemingway called “the person who reads” to  what Barthes called “the choice of social area”. For Hemingway, writing meant constructing an experience for the reader, for another individual. For Barthes, writing was a social function, a moral problem. The language, Barthes tells us, marks “the limit of the possible”, while “style is a necessity which binds the writer’s humor to his form of expression.” If Robert Graves talked about the “huge impossibility of language” that the poet faces, Barthes posited at least the deep contingency of history. Writing is the freedom to engage with the forces of history, gauging their weight according to one’s “nature”, in one’s own manner, according to one’s own style. There is a morality in Hemingway, too, to be sure, but it is captured straightforwardly in the injunction to “write truly”.

My feeling these days is that writing instruction, grounded in “composition studies”, is too beholden to theory and not sufficiently engaged in practice. This is weakening our style in universities. Instead of telling our students simply to write what they think is true for readers they know who are, we are presenting them with what to them appears to be a huge impossibility, namely, to “situate the nature of their language” (whatever we mean by that) within “the problematics” of an academic “literature”. It’s not that I think Barthes was wrong. In fact, I think he was mostly right. But he was right about writing in theory and this is not a good place to begin when teaching writing. Students do not, first and foremost, have a theoretical problem, nor even a moral one (though, to be sure, our grading is often experienced as a kind of moralizing). They have a practical one. We have to bring that problem into focus for them.