On Thursday I invoked Edmund Burke's concept of a "well-managed darkness" to guide our revisions of a prose paragraph. Since Jonathan still isn't quite satisfied, I'm going to keep at it. This time, I want to begin with what Burke calls "judicious obscurity", which he emphasizes in his argument for the superiority of poetry over painting in arousing the passions. He cites a description of Satan in Paradise Lost and glosses it as follows:
The mind is hurried out of itself, by a crowd of great and confused images; which affect because they are crowded and confused. For, separate them, and you lose much of the greatness; and join them, and you infallibly lose the clearness. The images raised by poetry are always of this obscure kind; though in general the effects of poetry are by no means to be attributed to the images it raises; which point we shall examine more at large hereafter. But painting, when we have allowed for the pleasure of imitation, can only affect simply by the images it presents; and even in painting, a judicious obscurity in some things contributes to the effect of the picture; because the images in painting are exactly similar to those in nature; and in nature, dark, confused, uncertain images have a greater power on the fancy to form the grander passions, than those have which are more clear and determinate. (On the Sublime and Beautiful, II, 5)
The key to this argument, of course, is the function of images. While the ultimate purpose of academic writing is to establish a (logical) interrelation between claims, our style is better understood as dependent on our control of imagery. Let's see what this means in practice.
Our editing last week resulted in this paragraph, which I now want to propose we read while paying particular attention to the "images" involved:
Students sometimes fail to say what they mean or mean what they say because they don't pay enough attention to how they say it. This happens to the best of us, of course. Too often we find ourselves saying something that we think will quickly satisfy the critical theorist rather than something that might patiently communicate what we think. For how do you teach that words matter except by a labor too intensive for your doubts about literary labors to bear? Too many examples of words that don't seem to mean enough may undermine our faith in the capacity of words to mean something altogether. Students need exactly this faith in language to work their skepticism through.
In rereading it, I am struck by how little imagery it includes. In fact, my rewriting of Dauber and Jost, removed what is arguably the only image in the passage: "we hear instead, over our own shoulders, voices remonstrating at us from the marketplace of critical theory". I replaced this image with the idea of "saying something that we think will quickly satisfy the critical theorist rather than something that might patiently communicate what we think". And it's actually the clarity of this idea that Jonathan takes issue with.
What if I had not rushed to clarify the image by putting an idea in its place? What if I had tried to clarify the image as an image? Here's the original sentence in full:
Except that, too often lacking conviction ourselves in the efficacy of attention to words, we hear instead, over our own shoulders, voices remonstrating at us from the marketplace of critical theory, and we grow impatient.
One of the reasons this image is less than clear is that the setting is not specified. Do we hear these voices in the classroom? Or do we hear them at our desks while correcting our students' papers? Here it important to keep in mind that we're taking this very much out of context. For Thursday, I'm going to see if I can find the passage in full and rewrite it as a "scene" with a clearly defined setting in which the teacher's work may be undermined by impatience.