Friday, April 24, 2015

Solving the Problem of Representation (3)

Here's a practical little trick that sometimes helps people write their paragraphs. Remember that my advice is always to decide today what and when you'll write tomorrow. (Happiness is knowing that tomorrow you will write.) You have to choose something that you know well enough to write about today, but then wait until tomorrow to write it. Tomorrow, then, you sit down at the appointed time and write your paragraph of at least six sentences and at most two-hundred words, stating a claim and providing support for it. You begin with the sentence you chose yesterday ...

And this is where people sometimes run into to trouble. What seemed to be "the truest sentence that you know" yesterday afternoon, seems altogether less founded in the morning as you try to construct a paragraph to support it. You feel vague, even ignorant. What should you do? Well, you should not stop writing and start reading, and you should not try to think of something else to write about. You've made a commitment to this paragraph. For the next twenty-seven minutes, make an honest effort to represent the fact it is about.

But what to do with your doubts about whether it is even a fact? Whether you know what you're talking about? Here's the simple trick. Write the negation of the sentence. If you had hoped to say, e.g., that the Internet has changed the way companies communicate with their customers, but can't think of why that is or how that is true, then type out the following sentence: "The Internet has not changed the way companies communicate with their customers." However much you may be in doubt about the first sentence, you'll probably now feel an immediate sense of certainty that this sentence is false. Okay, write down the reasons you are so sure, and then notice that these are also reasons to think your original sentence is true.

Another trick is to tweak the original sentence a little until you feel it's sitting more comfortably on your knowledge base. Maybe it isn't the Internet but social media you meant, maybe it's not businesses but organisations, maybe it's not customers but stakeholders. The original idea was true enough; you had just chosen the wrong words to express it.

All of this work of negating and tweaking your decision from the day before is to be done in the twenty-seven minutes you have given yourself to represent a particular fact in a particular paragraph of prose. Get used to doing this work. It really is at the core of scholarship. It's what we expect scholars to be capable of doing. With time, you will derive real pleasure from succeeding.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Solving the Problem of Representation (2)

Consider the following two sentences.

Bertrand Russell said that "the essential business of language is to assert and deny facts".

Bertrand Russell believed that language is basically assertive.

The first can be established merely by providing a reference (e.g., "Russell 1961: x", and the associated entry in the bibliography). I have claimed that Russell has written an eleven-word sentence. (As I pointed out yesterday, that claim is almost true: my memory got ten of those eleven words right. I'll address this issue on Friday.) The second, however, requires an argument, in which the first may play a role. The fact that Russell wrote a particular sentence will serve as evidence for the larger and much more interesting fact that he held a particular belief.

Notice that my claims about Russell's writing and Russell's mind themselves express beliefs—my beliefs. I believe that Russell wrote those words and I believe that he held that belief. Through my writing, I am hoping to persuade you to hold those same beliefs (what I believe about Russell, not what Russell believed about language). Now, I don't expect you to trust me blindly, certainly not when I'm writing for scholarly purposes, and that is why I will provide the reference for the quotation. You may or may not go back to my source to check my work, but the presence of the reference itself moves us beyond merely "blind" trust. After all, you can now assume that I at least looked at the page in question, and you can assume that one of my readers (perhaps one of my reviewers) has checked or will at some point check it. There's a fact in the world that corresponds to my claim and to the belief I want you to form, and I've told you exactly where you can see it for yourself.

Russell's state of mind in the early 1920s when he wrote those words is more difficult to establish, to be sure. But it is the presumption of scholarly prose that such states of mind are real and knowable. There is a kind of "fact of the matter" about what he meant. I'm not here talking about a general theory of mind, i.e., a philosophical position about the knowability of other people's state of mind. I'm talking about the knowability of the beliefs, opinions, ideas of other scholars, whose work we cite. We are naive, common-sense realists about the words they have written. And somewhat more sophisticated hermeneutic optimists about their meaning. That is, while we will always grant that there can be different interpretations, and while we may even grant that some of these disagreements are ultimately unresolvable (perhaps because of "the play of différance", perhaps because of "the death of the author"), we don't think that there is an entirely arbitrary relationship between the words a scholar puts on a page and the meaning that the scholar intended. Moreover, as scholars, we regularly invoke the intended meaning, committing both the original author and our fellow scholars to it. It's possible to get Russell's beliefs wrong, and being able to do so is an important part of being a philosopher.

I'll pick up the thread on Friday. Let me conclude today by marking two important limiting cases of this argument. First, when I say that there is a "fact of the matter" about what a scholar means, I do not mean that this fact is "empirical" and to be determined by the application of a "scientific method". I'm with Richard Biernacki on this point. Second, I want to stress again that this is neither a theory of mind nor a theory of language, nor even a theory of writing. It is a presumption about scholarly writing. It does not, for example, apply to the work (and perhaps not even the mind) of Gertrude Stein.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Solving the Problem of Representation (1)

"What relation must one fact (such as a sentence) have to another in order to be capable of being a symbol for that other?" (Bertrand Russell)

What is it about a sentence that allows it to represent a fact? Let's not take the answer for granted. And let's not assume the question is unanswerable. Let's begin with a sentence of a kind familiar to scholars:

Bertrand Russell said that "the essential business of language is to assert and deny facts".

Notice that this is not a sentence about either language or facts but about Bertrand Russell. It represents something he "said", i.e., wrote. It says that somewhere in Russell's writing the quoted sentence may be found. What is interesting is that it can say this without it being true. This is the most important clue to its capacity to represent. Many years ago, Karl Popper provided a much need counterpoint to the "verificationism" of the logical positivists by suggesting that the meaning of a proposition lies as much in what makes it false as what makes it true.

Consider the analogy of a map. We all know that the purpose of a map is to represent a territory. A good map will lead you to where you want to go. A bad map will mislead you. But it can only do this if you read the map as a representation of where you are and where you want to go. If all maps were made merely for the purpose of hanging decoratively on walls, i.e., if no one ever tried to get anywhere with their guidance, they would no longer represent their territories. But the map represents the territory even if I don't travel in order to verify it. The map tells me that Stockholm is to the north of Copenhagen. I don't have to go there in order to understand what this means.

But I do have to know how to read the map. Think about what that sentence about Bertrand Russell represents, what it means. First of all, the proper name has to refer to the famous philosopher, friend and mentor to Ludwig Wittgenstein, author of Principia Mathematica. Also, as I said, it must be taken not quite literally; Russell wrote it rather than said it. But I haven't yet said where; it is made true or false by the whole of Russell's work. (The whole of his life if we didn't narrow "said" to his professional writings, but let it refer to every utterance, spoken or written, by Russell.) Imagine a map that shows Stockholm to be to the north of Copenhagen but not how far. In fact, I can be much more precise:

In his introduction to Wittgenstein's Tractatus, Bertrand Russell said that "the essential business of language is to assert and deny facts".

And more precise still:

In his introduction to Wittgenstein's Tractatus, Bertrand Russell said that "the essential business of language is to assert and deny facts" (p. x).

Indeed, in order for that page reference to make sense I have to provide the 1961 Routledge edition as my source. Page x is actually the second page of the introduction. This is like putting lines of longitude and latitude on the map, and specifying a scale. To a properly trained reader, there is now a single page on which we may find or not find the quotation. And here's a twist I hadn't planned when writing this post: if you do go to check my quotation against its source you will find that Russell says "assert or deny" not "assert and deny" (as I discovered when I went to source to get the page number). That is, there is an inaccuracy in my representation of Russell's words, and those words, remember, are what my sentence is about. Someone who understands my words will get to the right place, and will confirm that it's the place I meant, but will find that it's not quite as I said it would be.

We'll continue this on Wednesday.

Friday, April 17, 2015

Recognising the Problem of Representation

A week ago, I said I wanted to spend some time on the problem of how to get better at representing facts in prose. So far, I guess, I've talked mainly about why it's important. But also about why it's not an impossible, ridiculous, trivial or oppressive activity. The first step in becoming good at something is to recognise that it is within the realm of the possible and the valuable. Competence, after all, is just to realise that possibility, to capture that value.

Next, it is necessary to recognise the particular difficulty of representation. You are going to take something that has very little in common with life as we live it, namely, some black marks on a white page, and get them to stand for particular states of affairs, particular arrangements of things, particular facts in the world. The problem can be compared to depicting a three-dimensional object with a two-dimensional drawing. Except that it's worse: writing is one-dimensional—one word follows the other in a sentence—while life is four-dimensional—it occupies space and endures in time. You are going to take some relatively meagre means and accomplish some rather exalted ends.

So you have to recognise also the partiality of representation. The representation does not "take the place" of the fact in every sense, only in the experience of reading. A represented hammer can only hammer represented nails. It won't help you build your house. The representation captures only certain aspects of the thing represented and its place in the world. Again, consider a drawing of an apple. It may capture its shape and even its colour. But it will fail to capture its weight and its flavour and its nutritional value. You can't eat the picture of an apple, no matter how realistically it's been drawn. The representation presents a particular point of view, not the thing as it is in all its facets.

Finally, therefore, you need to recognise the human factor. The partiality of a representation is also its subjectivity. After the writing is done, no matter how well it went, you have not a produced a piece of paper that, on its own, forever after, stands for some fact in the world. The representation is made possible by your knowledge of the world, in the sense that only with that knowledge can we understand the words properly. An ant walking across your drawing of an apple does not thereby stand in any special relation to the apple it represents. It can engage with the apple, not with your representation of it. But you, or anyone else who knows how to look at a drawing, are different. It is meaningful to you. We might also say that a representation is always a performance; it is performed in the act of reading.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Prose and Progress

"Prosaic writing," said Maurice Merleau-Ponty, "limits itself to using, through accepted signs, the meanings already accepted in a given culture." Against this, he sets "a poetry of human relations—the call of each individual freedom to all the others". This way of constructing the difference between prose and poetry appeals to me, I must admit, but there is a danger in interpreting it as an argument against "prosaic writing". (When Adam Banks admonishes us to "retire" the essay and instead cultivate a "funky" sense of freedom in our students, even invoking Lorca's "duende", I imagine many people hear him as saying something like that.) After all, if given the choice between "limiting" yourself to "already accepted" meanings, on the one hand, and calling out to "each individual freedom", on the other, it seems obvious what your ambition should be. I get it. (I, too, have invoked the duende. I, too, have suggested we "put some stank on it".) But let's not abandon our culture altogether.

After all, culture is a collective accomplishment that needs, for the most part, to be conserved. When we learn to write prose, we are learning to say what our culture has already become capable of saying, what it is already "acceptable" to say. When we compare the available range of expression in prose today, with what that of, say, one-hundred years ago, we have to recognize that progress has been made. Even the diversity of voices that are allowed to express themselves in prose, i.e., that may speak as though the signs they are using are accepted in the culture, has vastly expanded over the past century. It is true that this required a great deal of "poetic" subversion of the institution of prose by great writers. Merleau-Ponty treats "great prose" as the way we realize the gains made by the "ostentatious display" of poetry's freedom. It "captures" and makes "accessible" meanings that hadn't yet been "objectified". If in poetry we call out to each other's desire to be free, in prose we help each other understand our limits. Every now and then someone figures out how to institutionalize something new, making it available to all.

The state of our prose is the current stage of the progress we have already made. In the composition classroom, I believe, we have to spend most our time consolidating those gains, passing on the ability to express "the meanings already accepted in a given culture". If we don't do this, and instead give the students the impression that they should be fighting against the limits of the prose essay, always transgressing the boundary of acceptable usage, forever trumping the composure of a well-crafted paragraph with the momentary excitement of a picture or a video or a song, then we are simply robbing them of their heritage. We are not teaching them the foundation of our own composure, perhaps because we ourselves have lost faith in it, overwhelmed by "the pace of change". Well, prose was always the means by which we slow things down, the way we find the time to get it right, after our poets have told us that there is something terribly wrong.

Perhaps it is true that poetry is progressive and prose is conservative. I prefer to think of the "limits" of prose as the frontier of the progress we have made. There is no shame in trying to enjoy the freedom we already have. Otherwise, what is the point of achieving it?

Monday, April 13, 2015

Composition, Representation and Expression

I agree with Freddie deBoer that it would be "disciplinary suicide" for the field of rhetoric and composition to abandon "the teaching and research of prose, the arrangement of words into sentences and paragraphs expressed to serve some rhetorical purpose." (I am still too much of an outsider to take direct issue with Adam Banks' speech to the 2015 CCCC. I don't know his rhetorical situation well enough to criticise him on his own terms. But I will say, precisely as an outsider, that his message is disconcerting. It is not my impression that the essay needs to be treated condescendingly as an "emeritus" genre, certainly not if this is interpreted, as deBoer seems plausibly to worry it might, to go for prose writing in general. As a writing coach, i.e., someone whose daily practice builds on the competences that are fostered in the composition classroom, I don't relish the prospect of facing graduate students who were taught as undergraduates that careful prose writing is either a quaint throwback to a bygone age, or, worse, somehow inimical to the realisation of their freedom.) My concern, or the sense I most often give to the "rhetorical purpose" of scholarly writing, is perhaps narrower than deBoer's, but very similar. I am worried about the ability of academics (and therefore the students that become them) to "assert and deny facts", i.e., to write "representationally". I truly and honestly believe that it is the primary obligation of rhetoric and composition instructors to help students develop this ability—essentially the ability to compose a coherent paragraph about something they know. It is the business end of a very particular kind of freedom. Call it "academic", if you want; but we condescend to it at our peril.

* * *

Representation and expression almost seem to differ only in their emphasis. In our prose, we represent facts and express beliefs. Perhaps we don't always have to believe what we say in order to represent a fact, and perhaps we don't always have a clear representation of the facts when we express ourselves, but there is a presumption in prose, one that guides the reader's interpretation of what we have written, that our expressions invoke a representation, that they are at least trying to bring the reader's mind into contact with the writer's world.

The world is everything that is the case; the mind is our awareness of it. Prose lets us articulate our awareness of what is the case. It lets us communicate from one mind to another what we think is going on in our world. My world is the world of the facts that I am aware of, the facts that I have appropriated for myself. In my prose I write these facts down in order to share my world with you. You may learn from me, then, what is the case, or you may have an occasion to teach me that I am wrong. When writing, I presume that my world is also yours.

We compose paragraphs to express our beliefs. The paragraph represents the fact we believe (in our minds) is the case (in the world). In the end there is only one world, which is why it is so important to compare our beliefs about it. We let the paragraph "stand in" for the fact, which may be long gone or very far away. We let our reader consider the matter carefully and compare it to his or her own representations of this or related facts. The aim is to affect the reader's beliefs, and when reading we likewise assume that the writer has a purpose. By this means we make our beliefs available to each other. We avail ourselves of each other in prose.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Rhetoric and Composition

A few weeks ago, Freddie deBoer wrote a great post about the state of research in rhetoric and composition. There's a lot to think about in that post, and it actually offers a corrective to some of the things I normally tell my authors as though they are demonstrated "facts". For example, it looks like I need to reconsider my uncritical invocation of Arum of Roksa. Or maybe I just need to follow my gut and never invoke empirical evidence. Maybe I think it is obvious that writing makes you smarter and group work makes you stupid. That's already too glib, and I promise I will say something more serious about this in a few weeks, when I've had a chance to think some more about Freddie's argument, which is an important one. In this post I want to define "rhetoric and composition" for my own purposes. Though I wasn't as intentional about it as I should have been, it looks like that has become my field. I want to think that through a little.

Rhetoric is the art of persuasion. Composition is the art of putting words together. Rhetoric-and-composition is about putting words together persuasively. The focus of my work is academic, or scholarly, or scientific writing, which I define broadly as the art of writing down what you know. Again, using these terms very loosely, "writing down what you know" can be understood as "putting words together to persuade the reader that something is true", and I would then clarify "persuade" here, again for academic purposes, as "providing a justification". Now, if you've succeeded in persuading someone that something is true, you've "gotten them to believe" it. So, basically, we're talking about writing that is concerned with the articulation of "justified, true beliefs". As I've said before, this is not the only kind of writing, nor the only kind of writing students should learn to do at university, nor even the only kind of writing that makes up a scholarly work. But it is central, or at least very important, to the academic enterprise. And, for whatever reason, it's what I've become a coach of.

There is, as far as I can tell, a misconception out there that writing "representational" prose is somehow easy or straightforward. That there's "nothing to it" that might be taught in a composition classroom. Related to this, is the idea that classical, "scientific" prose doesn't require stylistic mastery—that its style is, ultimately, no style at all. I think this forgets how difficult it is to accurately depict reality on a page, whether in writing or, to take a more obvious case, in drawing. Think about how difficult it is to draw a picture of even a relatively simple object—an apple, for example. The choice of style—realism vs. impressionism, say—does not get you around the difficulty of capturing how the thing looks. It's just that you've given a different sense to what you mean by "looks" (or perhaps decided that the problem is actually to capture how it "feels to see it".) Once you have decided what you are trying to do, what aspect of the thing you are trying to represent, you are going to have to work at getting it right. The same is true of writing, in whatever style.

In the weeks to come, I want to get into this problem of how to get better at accomplishing something on the page. For the most part, I will concentrate on the representation of facts, on the composition of true descriptions of the world. That is, I will focus on the problem of "scientific" writing, broadly understood. But I will also now and then consider the problem of "political" writing: the composition of just prescriptions for history. After all, sometimes our research has very practical implications. I will even consider the problem of philosophical and poetical composition—the presentation of concepts and the presentation of emotions in writing. Success in all these domains is a real accomplishment and requires a confident, developed style. It's about being able to occasion and exploit a "writing moment".