Monday, September 15, 2008

Making a Statement

Good academic writing does not consist of merely grammatically correct sentences. At the risk of vulgarizing his work a bit, Michel Foucault famously taught us that it consists of discursively correct statements. Part of your disciplinary competence is your ability to make a statement: your ability to arrange words in a recognizably knowledge-bearing way.

In the Archaeology of Knowledge, Foucault was quite clear about what determines the "correctness" of a statement in a given discourse. As a first approximation, making a statement requires that you talk about the right kinds of objects, that you deploy the right concepts, that you adopt the right style, and that you support the right strategies.

It is worth thinking explicitly about these things when working on your writing. I recommend that you spend some time at regular intervals identifying a passage of prose that you would count as a distinct statement. Then ask yourself what makes you count it as such.

Simplifying a great deal, you can begin by asking what the statement is about and how your choice of object identifies your discipline. You can also ask what parts of the statement have a certain kind of precision (where can the statement be made more or less precise); this will help to identify your concepts. You can also ask how the statement shows that you have "good manners". Do you write in the right way? What does it mean to do so? Finally, what collective project or shared set of values does your statement promote?

When thinking about these things, it will be useful to select similar passages of prose from the published work of your peers. Find passages where you would answer these questions in similar ways. Then decide how the relevant associations and allusions are achieved. How is your writing, and that of your peers, "marked", if you will, as a work within a particular area of academic specialization? In a sense, you are looking for your shibboleths.

7 comments:

Presskorn said...

Nice unashamedly functional advice as always. Blantantly misusing Foucault, but making a nice point nevertheless.

BTW, I will use the Agassiz/Fish/Drawing hands-post to make a point about the difference between the "empirical" and the "theorectical" in one of my lectures on Phil. of Sci. tomorrov, so thank you for that post also.

Thomas Basbøll said...

Well, I like to think I'm blatantly USING Foucault to pursue my own ends (as he would have wanted). As always, I'd love to hear exactly where you think I twist Foucault's work, however.

Glad to be of help with the fish. The co-organizer of a PhD course I'm running next week and I had a very interesting conversation about the "theoretical"/"empirical" distinction yesterday. It started with the fish.

Presskorn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Presskorn said...

Well, I don’t think makes it much (Foucauldian) sense to train ones “disciplinary competence” or “ability to make a statement”.
Statements (in the Foucauldian sense) are not as much something we could be trained to make as something we could be trained to spot within an Archive.

Rereading your post, I see that your focus is indeed more on ‘spotting’ statements within ones writing than on training to produce them. I failed to see that on my first read. Nevertheless, let me explain my scepticism concerning the “training to produce”-part:

Foucault’s attempt at defining his concept of a “statement” is an attempt to define a unit of analysis. A unit of analysis that we may apply in empirical, historical, discursive analysis. The statement is not identical concatenations of signs, propositions, speech acts etc.; rather the statement only emerges at a specific level of description. It is a unit of analysis. (“The analysis of statements corresponds to a specific level of description”, AK, p. 122)

Granted, this unit of analysis is simultaneously a unit of production – after all, power-knowledge is a productive entity. But it is not a unit of production that a historical subject, individual, author, academic might decide to produce at will.

PS: My students seemed to like the fish.

Thomas Basbøll said...

I think I disagree. The individual cannot do very much to affect the conditions of enunciation (i.e., has little influence on the positivity of the discursive formation itself). But that does not mean that an individual cannot, by being sensitive to those conditions, intentionally produce a statement. I.e., willfully say something that makes sense within the discourse.

I'd think that the much more common misuse of Foucault is the pretense that after carrying out a discourse analysis we are somehow free to say something altogether unheard of, or have now effectively shut the previously "dominant voices" up. Put them in their place.

No, the only utility that Foucault's work has for individuals is to help them conform ... perhaps less painfully than they otherwise would.

Consider poetics: the unit of production is the poem. So is the unit of analysis. Criticism (analysis) of poetry can help people become better poets. And, more importantly, it can help write poems will be heard.

Presskorn said...

I am not suggesting that one cannot improve ones writing/behaviour within a discourse by being sensitive to its conditions. That would be absurd, not to mention existentially devastating to us both (I mean, what is it that we do?).

I am just suggesting that “making” a “statement”, in its strict Foucauldian sense, would not be the result of such improvement. (I have to put making in inverted commas too, exactly because I don’t believe it makes much Foucauldian sense.)

BTW, I am totally in line with your conformism-point, and even in line with your stronger thesis (advanced somewhere) that science is, almost by definition, normal science.

Thomas Basbøll said...

I wonder if you are right about this. Are you saying that statements, properly speaking, can only be identified long after they have been "made". That, properly speaking, statements are not made by individuals but by the discourse itself? ("It" speaks, we might say.)

Another way of putting it: it is the "selection" of utterance (by the Archive), not the production of the utterance itself that constitutes the act of stating.

That may be right. But I would still argue that you can consciously produce an utterance that is likely to be selected by the Archive.

This is a kind of discursive eugenics, I guess. Gulp.