Thursday, January 24, 2008

Decomposition 4: purpose

[This post is part of the "Working Week" series.]

It often assumed that good academic writing is rooted in a singularity of purpose. "The specialist," Grierson tells us, "need think of nothing in regard to style but clearness and precision." And he alleges a reason: both his subject-matter and his audience is given to him so his point of view is largely fixed in advance. He need only ensure that his style does not obstruct the audience's view of his subject. "Everything else is an intrusion, and an unnecessary intrusion, because he can count upon willing and patient readers who desire to study the subject" (1944: 25). For Grierson, specialist writing is a particular way of establishing the point of view of a text, which in turn "determines everything" (16). Since the point of view depends on the speaker, the subject-matter, and the audience involved (Aristotle, Rhetoric, I, 3), says Grierson, there are really an infinity of possible points of view for any text. But he makes a crucial assumption, namely, that a given text will have a single point of view, i.e., that the writer can make a number of rhetorical decision to, as it were, "fix" it. Deconstruction draws this assumption radically into question, beginning with the allegedly singular purpose of the writer; for even the most academic writers are torn, at least, between enlightening their readers and furthering their careers. This immediately suggests multiple audiences, but it also suggests that a text is about any number of things that are not mentioned in the abstract. Deconstruction attempts to chronicle the "wars of signification" that take place behind the often irenic facade of an academic text. What we might call "academic composure" is fostered by an illusion of the writer's singular purpose, namely, that his only intention is to instruct a "willing and patient" reader, one whose only desire, in turn, is "to study the subject". Once we drop this assumption the text begins to decompose.

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