Monthly Archives: July 2019

“A Larger, Complete Performance”

Eric Hayot, who writes lucidly about Ezra Pound and many other things, has written a book called The Elements of Academic Style (2014), which is also entirely worth reading. He pitches it explicitly to scholars and students in the humanities, but I have no doubt he’s right to think that his advice generalizes beyond that context. I’m not writing this post to praise Hayot’s book, however; you can take a look at it yourself and see what you think. I want to take issue with something he says on the very first page, something I think touches a vital nerve in writing instruction and, indeed, in practical scholarly writing. It goes to the very purpose of academic writing, the question of why we write.

“Writing is not the memorialization of ideas,” Hayot begins. “Writing distills, crafts, and pressure tests ideas — it creates ideas.” This has the important consequence, which he gets to a few sentences later, that “you cannot know what your ideas are, mean, or do until you set them down in sentences, whether on paper or on screen.” Hayot doesn’t hold back here: “Conceiving of writing as putting down thoughts you already have will give you a bad theory of what writing does and can do,” which, he argues will shape your practice. “As an idea of writing’s purpose, it tends to make for mediocre writers and mediocre prose.” If you want to rise above this mediocrity, he argues, you must be “open and generous and unafraid”, working at “the intersection of an intention and an audience” where new ideas emerge in “a larger, complete performance” of writing. It’s all very heady and inspiring stuff. And who wants to be a mediocre writer with a bad theory of his practice? Not me. Still, something about this conception of writing doesn’t feel right to me.

The view he opposes sees writing as “a necessary but tedious step in the distribution and fixation of ideas”. My view is that academic writing is the art of writing down what you (yes, already) know for the purpose of discussing it with other knowledgeable people. The goal of academic writing is not to distribute your ideas — something that is arguably better done in the classroom and in conferences — and certainly not to fixate your ideas — a hope I’ve never really heard scholars express. The current publish-or-perish regime in academia does leave many people with the impression that the purpose of academic writing is to document their ideas, i.e., to demonstrate to hiring and tenure committees that they actually have ideas, and, in that sense perhaps, to “memorialize” them, but I think we all still understand this to be a secondary function of academic writing, not its primary purpose. What I reject is the notion that we write in order to discover or create ideas. The purpose of academic writing is to expose ideas to criticism. And this requires that we write down what we already think, not that we wait to see what we think after the “larger, complete performance” of academic discourse has already begun.

Hayot suggests that this performance is constituted by “the openings that appear at the intersection of an intention and an audience”. I am also happy to specify a “here” of academic writing. When we write, we step into the clearing that has been prepared by our peers in the discourse, and there we expose ourselves to the possibility that we are wrong. I’m not sure it requires generosity of us, but it does require us to trust in the kindness of strangers, i.e., to presume that we will be read charitably. It takes courage, precisely because we may not be entirely unafraid. It certainly requires us to be open — mainly about the grounds we have for holding the beliefs we do. These, after all, are what we are presenting to our peers for critique. When we write with sincerity (as Pound noted through one of his famous mistranslations of Chinese writing) we “stand by” our ideas.

It can’t be true, I want to say, that you don’t know what you think until you write it down and that, when you do begin to write, you immediately open your thinking to a process in which it becomes something else. It must be possible for your reader to gain access to your (prior) intention through your writing so that, if you are wrong about something, the reader has an occasion to correct your thinking. I think the underlying misconception here — or at least my underlying disagreement with Hayot (for there is the possibility that I’m wrong about this, of course) — is that writing is a “performance” of our ideas rather than their representation. More seriously, Hayot seems to think that our ideas are always only whatever they mean in some “larger, complete performance”, that they have no individual dignity or integrity, that they are forever “emerging” before an audience, that they can’t be tested one at a time (as Pound, by the way, also hoped they could). I believe we can write down what we think, and that we can learn how to do this well through practice.

All this may just be a difference of emphasis. (I, too, sometimes discover what I think when I write; Hayot, no doubt often, writes something down he’s known for a while.) I agree with Hayot that academic writing is not merely the memorialization of ideas and certainly not the tedious business of distributing them. In fact, I worry that by conceiving of writing as the “creation” of ideas we merely conscript it into the tedium of “knowledge production”. We think of writing as something that is supposed to add something to culture (as if we need more of it!) rather than conserve what is of value and correct what is mistaken. Scholarship is the exposure of ideas of criticism from competent peers. At the intersection of that intention with that audience a possibility does indeed emerge — the possibility of scholarly discourse. We must remember that academia traces its origins back to a garden in ancient Athens and perhaps, then, we can give the last word to Ezra Pound himself: “We live in an age of science and abundance. The care and reverence for books as such, proper to an age when no book was duplicated until someone took the pains to copy it out by hand, is obviously no longer suited to ‘the needs of society’, or to the conservation of learning. The weeder is supremely needed if the Garden of the Muses is to persist as a garden.”


…it is difficult to express oneself. The act of writing something (which one expects or hopes will be published) is a social act; it becomes—even at its best—all but a lie. To communicate socially (as opposed to communicating personally or humanly) means that one must accept the sluggish fictions of society for at least nine-tenths of one’s expression in order to present deceptively the remaining tenth which may be new. Social communication is the doom of every truly felt thought.

(Norman Mailer, Advertisements for Myself, p. 244)

When I first learned about “discourse” I approached it sort of like ideology. It consisted, I thought, of all the things people said, not because they’re true, but because they are somehow convenient to the powers that be. I thought of discourse as what Mailer above calls “social communication”. But I’ve grown more sophisticated (and more accurate) in my reading of Foucault since then.

It is much more constructive to think of discourse as that which makes it possible to say things that would otherwise be impossible to say, not because they would be suppressed, but because we would lack the epistemic resources to say them. The meaning of words is not defined merely by the system of language, after all. Most sentences can be understood only on the background of a great deal of shared knowledge, and the more specialized your utterances get, the more specialized the relevant body of knowledge must be. In communicating what we know, we depend crucially on the knowledge that our peers already possess. But in order to leverage that opportunity we have to grant them also a great many things that, we think, they merely believe. Things we know in our hearts are false.

This is not “the doom of every truly felt thought”, but it is a very real constraint. In the case of scholarship the trick is to begin and end our thinking inside the limits of discourse, i.e., without entertaining for too long thoughts that will not fly in discourse. Many “truly felt thoughts” after all are simply wrong. They arise in the privacy of our own minds and, when we speak of them to our friends or colleagues, we realize we are talking nonsense. They feel true at first, but they don’t survive scrutiny. While friendships and working relationships are personal, of course, they are also in another sense “social”. So already here we a get a sense of what social communication implies. Scholars, researchers, scientists devote a great deal of time to thinking about things on a socially shared basis. They do not, like novelists, nurture their own private fantasy or nightmare of the society in which they live. Rather, they use their minds to address problems that have already been acknowledged by others, and they undertake to solve those problems in terms that will be useful to the intellectual projects of those others.

A “discourse”, then, is a set of conditions that make it possible to make a particular kind of statement. For Kant, “reason” served a similar function albeit at a more abstract, even “transcendental”, level. Reason constituted the conditions of possibility of the experience of objects — the conditions under which we can experience things as objects of knowledge. Discourse, similarly, determines the particular difficulty of making a statement and this difficulty, fortunately, is positively correlated with the possibility of saying something very precisely. Discourse makes it worth the effort to be precise.

Some things are hard to see. Some things are hard to say. We are not born with the ability to see everything and say anything we want; rather, we acquire specific abilities in this regard through training, through schooling. Here, we overcome the difficulty of observation in part by learning a method and we overcome the difficulty of expression in part by learning a theory. The first gives us access to our objects through data, the second lets us discuss those objects with others through concepts. Foucault says that his studies of discourses “are very different from epistemological or ‘architectonic’ descriptions, which analyse the internal structure of a theory” (Archaeology, IV, 4). Nonetheless, what Foucault is describing is precisely that ordering of immediate experience that scientists themselves would likely call their theory, and thereby the logic of the practice they would call “theorizing”.

Once a theory is approached through discourse, however, we come to see that “mastery” does not just depend on our ability to understand difficult concepts. Heidegger tells us that what Aristotle called zoon logon, which is classically rendered “rational animal” in English, can just as well mean “discursive animal”. Building on this insight, Foucault presented the “historical a priori” of “discursive formations” as a re-interpretation of Kant’s a priori of “pure reason” such that the difficulty (as I’ve put it here) of experiencing objects becomes the difficulty of making a statement, rooted in particular social conditions. The presentation of research results within a theory, on this view, is a not a merely “epistemological” matter. It is also a profoundly rhetorical affair, difficult and not always pleasant. Indeed, I suspect that many scholars, at least on some days, think of their intellectual community as an intellectually oppressive environment. But what sort of arrangement would they prefer? If you had the luxury of expressing yourself before an audience that held no prior beliefs about the subject and would be happy to believe whatever you tell them, then you would have to explain everything from the ground up every time. This might be good for your ego at first but not for long. You’ll quickly seek out a conversation with someone who is qualified to tell you that you are wrong.

Scholars working within a particular discipline, which is in turn embedded in a broader discourse on the subject, become aware of a range of resources and constraints when discussing their ideas with their peers. They come to understand the viability of certain metaphors, the requirements of sourcing (including the art of tasteful namedropping), and the sometimes idiosyncratic meanings of particular terms. Even in the most “scientific” of disciplines, they may learn that their peers will respond favorably or unfavorably to the expression of certain political views. Through trial and error, they will learn the meaning of “respectful” engagement with their peers. Hopefully, most of the “lies” of discourse are lies of polite omission. We talk about the things it is possible to say within the space of a journal article and, occasionally, a book. We don’t expect to “rock the century on its heels” (as the back cover of my copy of Mailer’s Advertisements brags). We try to make a useful contribution of what we know to what is known.


*This is a reworking of two posts from 2014 at my retired blog, Research as a Second Language.