Thursday, March 11, 2010

The Facts

Last year, I wrote a post about the role of facts in academic writing. My point back then was that facts are perfectly legitimate things to invoke in your writing, various "postmodern" trends to the contrary. Here's how I concluded:

Facts are things we talk about in particular ways at particular times to particular ends. It is not silly or presumptuous to propose to have such conversations. So, in developing the style of your factual writing, think about the conversation you are implicitly proposing to have with your readers. Don't imagine that they will believe every word you say just because you have chosen to speak in declarative sentences. And, as a reader of such sentences, don't just refuse to believe them, as if that's all the writer wants you to do. Hold up your end.

It is true that a declarative sentence has a certain "power". After all, it asserts that one thing or another is true. But because academic writing is done with the implicit (and sometimes explicit) intention of having a conversation there is no need to feel threatened by deconstruction or social constructivism. Unlike the facts presented or implied in a nineteenth-century novel, the facts you are trying to get your reader to understand are intended to be exposed to criticism. The genre, that is, has many of the values of deconstruction built right in. The power to assert a fact is granted alongside the power to critique that assertion. There is a certain balance.

Indeed, I would argue that academia presumes social constructivism about the facts of discourse. Truth is a negotiated area of stability in the discourse, not a simple relation between a statement and "how it is" (or isn't) in the world. Deconstruction can be usefully applied to more general forms of writing because it reveals how we think (or how we once thought). It does so by bringing suppressed contradictions to the surface of the text. But in academia there are not supposed to be any suppressed contradictions. Any statement of fact implies the possibility of its falsehood; all statements are open to criticism.

It would be correct to point out that there are important limits to debate in the academic literature, however. That's why discourse analysis, especially when applied to the history of ideas, often yields useful insights. But discourse analysis studies the relations between texts, not the contradictions within them. Writers of individual academic articles do not have to fear that they will be "deconstructed". They only have to be open to being corrected on matters of fact.

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