Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Don't Try This at Home

for Jonathan Mayhew

"You are not unique," I sometimes tell the authors I work with, "you are different." I find it a useful slogan to guide my editing as well: the trick is not to turn a phrase so as to make it exceptional but so as to make it diverge in some interesting way from what is already available. In fact, I spend much of my time weeding out "exceptional" (i.e., not idiomatic) phrases.

Last year, however, I had the dubious pleasure of assisting in the writing of an admittedly unique text with a colleague here at the department, Bent Meier Sørensen. I want to use it as an extreme example of what not to do unless you are working under exceptional editorial conditions, as we were. Even then, I want to point out a particular downside of working under such conditions.

You can find the text in Manifestos for the Business School of Tomorrow (Dvalin, 2005), edited by Campbell Jones and Damian O'Doherty and available online (as a PDF file) here. We supplied the chapter called "Resentment" (pp. 131-139).

Instead of writing "about" resentment, we wanted to perform that particularly insidious form of sentimentality. We decided that the best way to do it was to express our resentment toward the editors themselves. (We knew they could take it, but not that they would.) We undertook to write a text that would be almost impossible to revise once it had been written. Like resentment itself, we wanted to establish an irreversible procedure.

Here's how we proceeded. Starting with the word "resentment" (which had been assigned to us by the editors) we let the first letter of every word in the piece be determined by the order of the letters themselves. That is, the piece consists of 3001 words (one more than we were allowed) that begin with the first 3001 letters in the piece. Each letter we typed constrained word-choices that would be made increasingly further down in the text. By the time we typed the last word, it would be very difficult to change anything in the first 3000 letters (since this would demand changes elsewhere in the text) and almost impossible to change anything in, say, the first 300 letters (since their implications were compounded).

It also made us smile that the text's implications (its possible lines of development) were infinite and unknowable. In any case, an editor who wanted to correct our spelling or grammar while respecting our principle of composition would have a difficult time of it. As an aside, I knew I wanted to participate in this project when Bent sent me a single sentence and asked me to "correct" it. Once I realized what the constraining principle was, I understood how little room there was to move and then, immediately thereafter, how desperately I wanted to dance.

Poetry to the side, if you read it you will easily convince yourself that the text is almost incomprehensible. It is saved only by its somewhat clever gimmick (though we leave the discovery of its procedural logic to the reader) and by the occasionally striking imagery (much of which surprised even us). It is unlikely to have any determinate effect on "the business school of the future"; but, depending on your tastes, it may offer a pleasant or painful diversion from the present.

That is, the text is unique. As a contribution to "the management literature", it has no precursor (we are aware of) and shares no common influence. (In literature as such, however, it obviously shares in the spirit of Oulipo and other "procedural" approaches.) Its effects (like those of resentment) are nonspecific, unintentional, and counterproductive. It was not intended to "make a difference" but to manifest indifference with the status quo. It presents a particular form of disapproval, and not a very helpful one.

(I should add that Bent and I might be of at least two minds about this.)

To see what I mean, consider the possibility that there are one or two useful insights in the text. What good does it do to have such insights trapped in a piece of writing that is (a) very unlikely to be read by anyone not already firmly outside the mainstream and (b) not elaborated in such a way as to allow it flow even in a minor tributary?

As it turns out, Bent has gone on to include one of its points in a forthcoming paper of his own*. He there finds a use for the (arguably sarcastic) suggestion that "when giving orders, [one should] always leave something completely obscured", connecting this to the way students are trained to "think big", i.e., in terms of "grand narrative episodes" (which he also cites from our piece) or what he also calls "grand scheme delusions". In that form, a sufficient amount of ordinary (i.e., anonymous) reviewers seem to have found the idea palatable or, at least, passable (and even this can be counted as lucky, I would think.)

Note that Bent's efforts also afford his editors, readers and critics a way to comment on his argument, offer possible improvements and fruitful lines of further inquiry. In the case of "Resentment", our editors were only is a position to refuse to publish it or let it pass (despite everything); and, worse, our readers are really only in a position to stop reading or continue (in spite, I imagine). We did not write a text that was open to detailed points of criticism and finer forms of resistance. Even if someone were to suggest a slightly more polished turn of phrase (as I have since quietly done to myself on many rereadings) there is little one can do to accomodate it. The whole text would come apart.

By contrast, your task as an academic writer is to frame your own research experience in such as way as to make a contribution to others, who are themselves embedded in an experience conditioned by their research. You must be different from (sometimes differ with) them in specific, detailed ways. An academic paper should not look anything like our "Resentment", precisely because it should emerge from the effort of converting your ressentiment (in Nietzsche's sense, which all too often encourages us to think of our own ideas as exceptional, unique, and ultimately unassimilable) into something that will be useful to others in their inquiries. Such a paper should result from a series of intentional actions, editorial decisions, all of which could have been otherwise, and some of which might still be reversed.

Academic writing, that is, is often the specific effort to leave your resentments at home. It's what you do when you are at work.

*Sørensen, Bent Meier. ‘Identity Sniping: Innovation, Imagination and the Body’ in Creativity and Innovation Management, 15(2), 2006.