Monthly Archives: December 2020

Space, Time, and Representation

“The ideal text would be infinitely long?” (Thomas Basbøll)

Sometimes authors complain about space limitations. They feel constrained by the four or eight or even twelve thousand words they’ve been given to express their ideas. This complaint contains an implicit assumption that I want to argue doesn’t really hold up under scrutiny. The assumption is this: for any object (or idea) there is some ideal number of words that can adequately capture it in writing. Any “arbitrarily” imposed length constraint (or requirement) is therefore an affront to the writer’s pursuit of the perfect expression. What is missing here is nothing less than a (and perhaps the) theory of relativity: a recognition that a text is a coordination of time and space to solve the problem of representation.

Consider a slightly different problem — that of drawing a picture of the tree outside my window. At first pass, we think of resources and constraints in terms of our materials: the size and quality of paper, the amount of colors, the grade of pencils. But we should also ask, How long do I get to work on the drawing? And once we have introduced the dimension of time (or stillness) we can apply it also to our viewer: How long will they look at the drawing? This is where things get really interesting. What is the best possible representation of the visual appearance of the tree for someone who will look at the drawing for a few seconds, a minute, five minutes, half an hour? What kind of attention will my drawing be given? Until I know that, I have no way to decide what to put on the page.

And there is no answer to be found in my own heart. I suppose there is a kind of artist who can look at a thing and let it dictate how many resources must go into its representation and then produce a work that will hold the viewer’s attention as long as it takes to communicate the relevant vision. I suppose there are even artists that have looked at particular trees and despaired, knowing they will never capture what they see, knowing they will never get their viewer to see it. They feel in an instant that only God, looking at the tree forever, really sees its beauty. I don’t have anything useful to say to them, of course.

But I think that at the end of the day most artists are pragmatists about their materials and their audience. They imagine a work they can complete within a reasonable time frame and, more importantly, they think of the work as something that can be “taken in” with a reasonable investment of time — for “entertainment purposes,” let’s say. (Remember that even Shakespeare understood that art must have an entertainment value.) The question is whether they can produce a representation that can be consumed in a timely fashion, in a coherent moment of appreciative attention.

At this point in an analogy I always wonder whether I should just stop. A word limit on a text is nothing more than a time-limit on the reading experience. A 40-paragraph paper is 40 minutes of your reader’s attention. Instead of resenting that constraint, just accept it, and construct a representation of your object that can be experienced in under an hour by a sincere reader. Don’t measure your text against the object in absolute terms. Keep the standard of representation relative to the attention your reader is able to pay to your work. The whole point is to spare your readers the time and trouble of having to experience the object for themselves. Of course, a good painting rewards repeated visits to the museum. A good paper rewards rereading.