Monday, January 15, 2007

Being with Others in Writing

"Watt had watched people smile and thought he understood how it was done."

That must be my favourite sentence in Samuel Beckett's Watt (1958). It summarizes Beckett's way of getting into the problem of "the social", of being with others. It is, of course, a kind of joke. But this is not just because it sets him up for a comic episode a few pages later; Watt has fundamentally misunderstood what a smile is by trying to learn how to do it by watching others. A smile is not a smile if it is always a pretense. When someone says, "You have a nice smile," they are not congratulating you on your training. They mean to suggest something deeper in your face. They assume that your smile has developed through years and years of friendly feelings, that your face has been shaped by your pleasant disposition.

Last week I promised I would find the passage in Being and Time that would make all this relevant to academic writing. It can be found on page 138 of the standard German edition. "Even the purest theory," Heidegger tells us, "has not left all moods behind." But this should not, he warns us, "be confused with attempting to surrender science ontically to 'feeling'." He identifies Aristotle's Rhetoric as "the first systematic hermeneutic of the everydayness of Being with one another," and emphasizes its investigation of "the affects" (feelings, emotions). Like oratory in general, academic writing is a public affair, and

publicness, as the kind of Being which belongs to the "they", not only has in general its own way of having a mood, but needs moods and 'makes' them for itself. It is into such a mood and out of such a mood that the orator speaks.
The important thing here is that this mood, which may be thought of as an arrangement of emotions, a set of conditions that guide or shape the way we feel, is grounded in "the everydayness of Being with one another". That is, the ordinary sense in which we have to get along with other people in order to get anything done.

It is because our academic work is always related to the work of others that it cannot get beyond the problem of mood. Even the most academic text will have an emotional aspect, an underlying feeling. We sometimes call this feeling "style", but Michel Foucault may have been onto something when he called it an "enunciative modality" (a way or manner of speaking, let us say). Now, we learn a style from others, just as we really do learn to smile, or at least learn what a smile is, by watching others. But it is not enough to have seen a style to know how it is done. In order to develop a style you must find a way really to feel the mood of the particular research community you are writing for.

Smile and the world smiles with you, "they" say. In any case, you have to find an effective way of making your reactions to the work of others known, e.g., your puzzlement, your disagreement, your approval. You have to make your smile clearly distinguishable from other emotional expressions.

Indeed, Beckett tells us, while Watt's smile does clearly look more like a smile than a sneer or yawn, "to many it seemed a simple sucking of the teeth." A few pages later, like I say, there's a funny episode where Watt meets a gentleman:
My name is Spiro, said the gentleman.
Watt smiled.
No offence meant, said Mr Spiro.

1 comment:

rasmusthybo said...

I'm with you - you and Beckett just made me laugh. Thanks