Friday, March 18, 2005

About this Blog

This blog is still in its early stages. Its aim is to provide a forum for discussion about academic writing, construing this problematic as a matter of acquiring a specific disciplinary idiom for the communication of research results.

I have come to see this problem from two opposite but, on the face of it, equal perspectives. First, there is the problem of representation, the problem of reconstructing the objects that define the domain of one's research, and therefore of presenting the facts of inquiry that are relevant to the discourse one is working within. Second, there is the problem (borrowing a term from Foucault) of "depresentification", the problem of deconstructing the subjects that define the domain of one's research, and therefore of presenting the acts of governance that are relevant to one's discourse.

In both cases, the problem of writing emerges as the problem of developing a suitable style of presentation, of appropriating what may loosely be called respectively a "modern" or "postmodern" academic idiom. It is a matter of learning how to write in order to get one's point across most effectively, and most efficiently.

All this, of course, must often be done in English. And these problems are therefore aggravated for people who are trying to enter discipline that are in most cases dominated by standard English from the position of a non-native speaker. These problem, I want to show, are by no means insurmountable. Here, as elsewhere, it is a matter of continual practice.

As the blog develops, then, I will introduce particulars of grammar that are peculiar to a variety of academic discourses in the hopes of making a few limited but useful contributions. I am very interested to hear when I am being helpful and when I am not. Also, I will try to answer questions to the best of my abilities. Comments, questions and suggestions are welcome.

Thursday, March 10, 2005

Getting Your Facts Straight (2): a handbook supplement

I shall derive my emotions solely from the arrangement of surfaces.

Henri Gaudier-Brzeska

If the email response to my last post (for which I am very thankful) is any indication, it has left the reader with the impression that I am some sort of monstrum de profundis, a rough beast slumming it to Atlantis through the vast wash of the sea of discourse, a leviathan of the language. So in order to avoid any confusions, let me emphasise that my point was really quite a superficial one, and an of entirely practical kind.

What I am proposing is that researchers begin to compile a set of individual pages (text files), a sort of loose leaf system for the organization of one's intellectual accounts. At the top of the first page of each file you should write "A1", "A2", "A3" ("A" for "accomplished", the numbering in order to keep track of your facts) or "C1", "C2", "C3" ("C" for "contentious") or "P1", "P2", "P3" ("P" is for "pax", "peace"). You should then write between one (1) and ten (10) words that names your fact; set this in bold type. Leave a blank line, and then write around 300 words that does greater justice to your knowledge of the fact you have just named. New page. Same letter and number at the top. You now have up to 3000 words to say what's on your mind about the fact you have numbered, named and briefly described. You need not use all of them.

I think, to start, we would do well, each of us, to have at least three facts of each kind on hand, i.e., in our files, in this form. At least nine facts in all, more or less accomplished, more or less contested, more or less restful. They may never be published in this form, but they are nice to have around in case of trouble.

Create two folders. Call one "Active", the other "Inactive". If you ever discover that a fact of yours is wrong mark it "x" after the number, i.e., "C2x" and move it from the active to the inactive folder. Likewise, if you ever discover that a fact has stopped being especially relevant to your research (so that you are no longer keeping tabs on it in any serious sense), mark it "i" (A1i) and move it to the inactive folder. The file names should of course simply use this this numbering scheme, and it will be useful for you in the long run to note the date you last updated the fact file, right next to its number. Feel free to change your mind as often as you like, moving the files back and forth between the folders accordingly.

Working in this way ought to make it clear to us that as researchers, thinkers, knowledge producers, or whatever we choose to call ourself, we derive our concepts from the arrangement of appearances, and that our knowledge is nothing other than specific, factual arrangements of matters of fact, and statements to their effect. We engage with the facts and note down the results of these engagement. The trick here is to keep your composure. We may also arrange facts in order to undermine especially dominant facts, if we are "critical" for example, or "deconstructive". In which case we are dealing with the delicate art of losing your head with style. But there is nothing especially "deep" about it. The whole point is simply to assign the monsters a place in the aquarium.

Wednesday, March 09, 2005

Getting Your Facts Straight

What was it Harlot had said once on a Low Thursday? "The aim of these gatherings is to acquaint you with the factology of facts. One has to know whether one is dealing with the essential or the circumferential fact. Historical data, after all, tend to be not particularly factual and subject to revision by later researchers. You must look to start, therefore, with the fact that cannot be smashed into subparticles of fact." -- Norman Mailer, Harlot's Ghost (p 1281)

Research is the arrangement of facts, the business of laying them out, of putting them in the right order. Facts are to space what acts are to time. Of time, Henri Bergson said that it's what keeps everything from happening all at once. Space, perhaps, is what keeps everything from piling up in one place. You make use of this fact (for it is itself a fact) to sort through your facts, to arrange them neatly on your desk. That's what writing is for. It helps you get your facts straight.

For those who think that facts are a thing of the positivistic past, keep in mind that even such non-positivists as Kuhn and Foucault were interested in "the familiar data" and "the comparative facts", respectively, that pertained to their areas of research (into the nature of research itself). A researcher today does not exclusively take an interest in the facts but the research "deals with", "bears upon", or "is concerned with" them. The precise nature of the facts, and the kind of facts in question, vary from discipline to discipline, and from subfield to subfield. But show me your facts, let's say, and I'll tell you (more or less) what kind of researcher you are.

I want to say something, I hope, useful about how facts are deployed in academic writing. And I will do so at two levels. First, I want to say something about what a fact is quite generally, even metaphysically (I will be brief). Wittgenstein was, in specific sense, quite right to suggest that facts are all there is to the world. I want to try to say something straightforward about what that could mean. Next, and more importantly, I want to say something about what a fact is qua "something to write about", i.e., as something that "turns up in discourse". Making a very rough set of distinctions into what is always a graduated plane, I want to say that some facts are accomplished, others are contested and some we are simply "at peace" with. All three kinds of fact go into writing a scientific text.

First, then, some metaphysical speculations. "The world is the totality of facts," said Wittgenstein, "not of things." Things "themselves" are really just lying about, or drifting around aimlessly. A fact, by contrast, is the sort of determined arrangement of things that must obtain (or be the case) in order for a sentence (or proposition) to be "true". Without facts, no truth. Keep that in mind. When you talk about facts you want to say what you think is the case in the world, and then you want to check whether or not things "really" are arranged that way. Notice that I'm not yet talking about methods of data generation, reading strategies, or theory construction. That's really none of my business. What I'm insisting on is that everything from "The world today is undergoing dramatic changes in social organization," to "Zygmunt Bauman has suggested that ours is a time of ambivalence," are facts. And that such facts are the material out of which research is made.

Facts are more or less prevalent (there are big facts and small facts), more or less stable (there permanent facts and ephemeral facts) and more or less certain (there are known facts and unknown facts). In all cases, the relevant variable is how a fact is connected to other facts. A fact is ultimately connected to every other fact, either by a long tenuous and circuitous set of relations or directly to a broad range of facts. This is the "facticity" of facts, i.e., the sense in which a fact is a fact in its likeness to all the other facts. The specific facts about my fridge are very tenuously and very circuitously related to facts about your fridge; but the facts of gravity are directly related to both our fridges. The bigger facts are, the harder they fall. That is, the more facts that a fact is connected to directly, the more prevalent it is, and the more stable, and the more certain. There is very little you can do about very well connected facts. This is important to keep in mind, for ultimately there is only one fact. The Great Fact, as Donald Davidson once said somewhat ironically, about which you can't do anything. That is, what is true about my fridge (statements of fact) is really a truth about the relative position of the things in my fridge to every other thing in the universe. So much for metaphysics.

Research is about keeping the facts in proper proportion, about keeping things in perspective. And writing is one of the main tools of the trade, since once the facts are written down, you are in a position to survey them, to arrange them in different patterns, to see how they are connected. I propose thinking of your facts in three classes for the purpose of writing about them. We are now not thinking so much about their metaphysical connection, but a specific aspect of their facticity, namely, the connection of the facts your research is about to the facts that constitute your research environment. How will your reader "take" your statements of fact? This set of relations will have profound implications for your style. Consider the following kinds of fact and their associated statements.

Accomplished facts are those that you have spent a good deal of time looking at in various kinds of lighting in order to be sure that they are very much as you think they are. These are the facts that you are very proud of, and which you would be disconcerted to discover were otherwise (especially if many of them were otherwise). They are also facts that you know more about than almost anyone else. That is, if someone were to question you on them, they would find that you had very much to say in support of them. You would not so much be discussing their status as telling them (always patiently, generously) what you know about these facts. A fact is "accomplished" in your research when you really can't think of a higher authority on it than you yourself. These are the facts that you are in a better position to say something about than anyone else that you know of. They are not "beyond doubt", but you have a clear sense of what sort of investigation would be needed, and what it would have to show, in order to change your mind on them. They are the centre of your style.

Contentious facts are those that you expect to have to defend and discuss on par with your peers on a regular basis. These are facts that you believe in but that you know others don't, and which you don't feel yourself especially superior about. They are facts you are interested in discussing, albeit in a particular manner and for a limited time, on an equal footing with those who hold a different opinion on the matter.

Peaceful facts are facts that you know full well you only believe because they sounded right to you when you heard them the first time. These are the stuff of hearsay and idle chatter, which makes its way into your language without being investigated in any serious way. They simply fit into the space arranged (left empty) by the facts you have firmly accomplished and regularly contested in your research practice. These are facts that make your research pleasant to be around, they offer a kind of cartilage between the bones of sterner facts. They are almost not facts at all, but have been ground into a fine powder, crushed again and again to leave only something like the "sub-particles" of Mailer's factology. You are not interested in discussing these facts, but you often need to pass them off in statements in your writing in order to pass expediently from your last accomplishment to the next waiting contest. They are shortcuts. Given more time, you could dispense with them and take a longer, safer route. Nothing really depends on them, except that they improve your readibility. People can take them or leave them. If you know of someone who would object, but "don't want to get into it", you write, f.eks., "Pace Williamson, institutions are not things out there in the world to be manipulated like so many nuts and bolts," that is, "Peace be with Williamson, I'm just trying to move on to the next more firmly rooted fact."

One last thing about facts. There is no limit to how long a statement of any given fact may be because, as I have said, each fact is in principle constituted by its relation to every other fact. You begin in the middle of the fact you are talking about, or in the middle of the fact you are talking from. When working with your facts, therefore, try putting it in a variety of otherwise arbitrary amounts of words. First ask yourself, "In a word or two, what would I call this fact?" Then, "What would a paragraph stating this fact look like?" Then, a subsection of a chapter devoted to it, then a chapter, a book, an oevre. . .

Facts can be named, they can be described briefly, they can be described at length, they can brought to life and they can be talked to death. Some facts more than others.

[See also: "A Handbook Supplement" and "Getting Your Act Together"]