Monday, January 22, 2007

The Style Council

"And you can be all that they want you to be."

Last week I connected the mood of a field of research to the style of its written work. This week I want to elaborate this idea a little, leading up to what I hope will soon be a full-day workshop here at the Department. In doing so I also want to put a rather theoretical point into practice, namely, the connection between Michel Foucault's "enunciative modalities" and Thomas Kuhn's "exemplars". Clicking on the links will bring you to the relevant posts on a blog I ran with Søren Buhl Hornskov for a course in disciplinary reflexivity. What I want to develop here is how we can use these insights precisely to get a bit wiser to our own style.

Editors sometimes talk about helping writers "find their voice". That is very much what Foucault is getting at when he identifies a certain "manner of statement" or "enunciative modality" ("mode" just means "way", to "enunciate" is to speak, i.e., there is a "way of talking"). Part of the "discipline" of an academic discipline has to do with shaping the way people talk. This goes beyond simply mastering the concepts and recognizing the objects that define a discipline. It is about knowing how statements about those objects, and statements which use those concepts, may be legitimately challenged, corroborated and developed. It is about knowing when to make a statement in a defensive posture, or when to be more assertive. It is even about knowing when to present a claim with a measure of irony.

It is also about knowing when and where the discipline's voice may, as it were, be "invoked": the "sites" that offer suitable acoustics so that it may be heard. (A discipline's voice may also be "modulated" to be heard outside its primary academic context: so a psychologist doesn't sound like an economist or a philospher, even when speaking in the same newspaper.) Here a great deal of course depends on your awareness of the journals that pertain to your field, but also the various interdiciplinary settings that will give your work a proper hearing. Among these we increasingly find teaching situations outside the disciplinary context that shaped us.

Ultimately, it is about about who is speaking, as Foucault also notes. But this "person" should not be confused with yourself, or at least not all of you. It is a persona (a mask) that you wear while "on the job" so to speak. You will of course want to find a mask that you have some degree of sympathy with; you should still, let us say, recognize your smile in the mirror. But if the various academic contraints work as they should, you should be able to develop your deeper sense of self (in the existential sense) more or less independently of the style that emerges in your academic writing.

The question is how to proceed. And here I think Kuhn's emphasis on "exemplars" will prove to be useful. As a start, pick out three to five texts that you consider "formative", i.e., texts that have influenced your sense of what a good piece of academic writing looks like. It should be a text that speaks in "your voice", that deals with problems you find interesting, and that serves as a model for how solutions to those problems are presented. A good portion of developing your style consists in imitating these exemplars.

I'm trying to make this post worthy of both its title and the spectacular new-media, audio-visual epigraph. So now that it looks like I'm arguing that academic style is all about conforming, about speaking in a voice that is not quite your own but one you must nonetheless pretend is truly yours, it may be fitting to quote the Style Council again:

There’s room on top - if you tow the line
And if you believe all this you must be out of your mind.
That is, at the end of the day, you'll be better off, and more sane, if you accept the formative processes of academic work as a more or less friendly force in your life. Not something to grudgingly conform to. It's all just a part of being-with-others in an everyday sort of way, as Heidegger says. It won't always feel right, and at such moments your style should actually "break the mood". Toeing the line won't work in the long run.

PS. Please note that "tow the line" (in the quoted lyric) is not idiomatic, but I'm not sure the Style Council is to blame. I found the lyrics on-line and I'll check it to be sure. When I find out, I'll post the results.

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.

Monday, January 08, 2007

Academic Writing: now with feeling

Writers normally begin the year with a resolution to write more, or at least more often, more regularly. That's certainly my intention with this blog. So, it's Monday afternoon, I'm waiting for my two o'clock meeting, and I pick Harry Blamires' Compose Yourself off the shelf. "This book," he begins (I don't recommend beginning that way), "is directed at readers who want to be able to express their thoughts on paper clearly and logically." There is nothing wrong with that desire, of course, but I think being able to write well is a broader skill. Let me start the new year by explaining what I mean.

First, let me suggest that "being able to express a thought" is really identical with the ability to put it "clearly and logically" to paper. So Blamires is simply proposing to help people express their thoughts in writing. Or, which is the same thing, he proposes to help people to write clearly and logically. Now, I think there is also a need to help people express their feelings on paper. Indeed, people arguably need more help in this department than the one Blamires proposes.

Even the most academic text has a mood. (I'll try to find Heidegger's remark to this effect in Being and Time.) Many research papers are difficult to read not just because their thoughts, but also their feelings, are imprecisely expressed. "Clarity" is our name for precision in thinking; "intensity" denotes the corresponding precision of feeling. So while I think people do well to write clearly and logically, I also feel that there is a need to help people write more intensely and passionately.

I don't mean they should write more "personally" or that they should say more about how they feel. I simply mean that the very specific set of feelings that underlie a particular research result could be much more precisely rendered in writing than is often the case. Writing involves thoughts and feelings. The difference between texts is a distribution of emphasis, not the absolute absence of one or the other. So, this year, whenever you are preparing your second-to-last draft, try saying "once more, and this time with feeling" before you begin your editing.