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?

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