Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Intellectual Insults

There is a another kind of injury that is worth thinking seriously about, neatly captured by the Danish word "injurie", which means defamation. The relevant injury here is the damage that a piece of writing might do to your social relationships. As in the case of mental and physical injuries, however, the risk here correlates with opportunities for growth. A good piece of academic writing can transform your social relationships for the better by establishing connections. A bad, or even "nasty", piece of writing can do the opposite.

The relationships in question may be those you have established, or wish to establish, among other scholars (your peers), or those you have established, or wish to establish, among practitioners (your research subjects). In both cases, what you write may either please or offend, and that in turn may affect the way they relate to you in the future.

At first pass, however, there seems to be an asymmetry between injury proper and the consequences of insulting someone. The latter seems to depend on getting your work published, while the former (at least as I put it yesterday), could happen during the actual activity of writing. Here it is important to keep in mind that social relationships do not just depend on how others feel about you, but on how you feel about others.

I have written a little bit about the "emotional" side of academic writing before. If an "intellectual injury" is a kind of "conceptual damage", then "social injury" (here, an "intellectual insult") might be considered a kind of "emotional damage". As you write about one group of people (your research subjects) for another group (your peers) you inevitably transform the way you feel about both groups. Hopefully, both groups will become increasingly familiar to you. But if you are not careful you may find them becoming stranger and stranger.

In fact, I think most researchers experience both effects as they work through their research in writing. There are days when nothing and no one makes sense to them. There are days when the world—both of scholarship and life in general—seem utterly absurd, or at least very disappointing. The important thing is not to cultivate, fetishize and even, as is sometimes tempting, valorize that strangeness. If you never develop a working respect for your subjects and your peers, you need to rethink your choice of research area.

Consider how the way you think about someone affects the way you feel about them. If you need a very dramatic example, think Othello. It is not what Othello says to Desdemona that destroys their relationship—it is what he thinks of her. He has, in a sense, allowed Iago to defame her, to damage the bond between them.

No comments: