Sunday, September 04, 2011

RSL, Introduction

We must retract our offerings, burnt as they are.
We must recall our lines of verse like faulty tires.
We must flay the curiatoriat, invest our sackcloth,

and enter the academy single file.

Ben Lerner

For a long time I used to get up early.* Well, it seemed like a long time to me and I, in any case, felt it would have been more natural to hit the snooze button when the alarm went off at 5:47 am. By six, after shaking the sleep out of my body, going to the bathroom, and drinking a glass of water, I'd either be putting on my running shoes (on Tuesdays and Thursdays) or (on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays) stirring a cup of instant coffee and sitting down in front of the computer to write. As a sometime Kantian, I don't quite raise the maxim of my actions to the level of a universal principle, but I do like to capture the things I do in a three-letter acronym or a catchy rhyme. I called this particular weekly regimen of exercise "Blogging and Jogging".

Three days a week, I'd spend a small hour composing a post for my blog, Research as a Second Language. In that time I'd usually manage to write seven or eight hundred words, neatly arranged in four or five paragraphs. The other two weekdays, I would run five kilometers, and I'd try to fit in a slightly longer run on Saturday afternoon. Whenever I was asked to speak to students about their writing, in order to emphasize the connection between physical and mental exercise (both require discipline) I'd ask whether they did any sports, and then I'd tell them that I, too, had recently started jogging. After a beat I'd add, "Because a body like this doesn't just happen, you know."** For some reason, it is especially first-year students who find that line amusing.

While my body still takes a sense of humour to love, after about three years of regular work on the blog, I like to think I've built up a more straightforwardly useful body of work about how to get the most out of your scholarly writing. This book brings together some of my best ideas, organized into nine little essays. There are plenty of writing manuals out there, many of which are perfectly good, and this book is not trying to replace any of them. I think that, as a philosopher who found himself in a position to hone his craft as a language editor under uncommonly luxurious conditions at a major European business school, I have a distinct perspective on the problem of writing as part of a life in research. It is that perspective that I hope to convey to readers of this book.

The first three essays take a historical view of the problem of what is commonly called "discourse", i.e., the conditions under which one becomes, or fails to become, an author. I try to show how academic work became the hustle and bustle it is—how science went from being a vocation to being almost a business and why some of us sometimes fall into despair. The next three essays go at the problem in an entirely practical way; they summarize my work as a writing consultant, your personal guide to what I call "writing process reengineering" (WPR). I offer you nothing less than a way of mastering time and space, at least in writing, a way to leverage the transcendental categories of experience, the underlying principles of the disposition and order of the universe, which keep everything, not least your words, from happening all at once and piling up in the same place. The last three essays reframe the problem in existential terms, reminding you to thine own self be true even as you hustle yourself down the tenure track. As I always say, intellectuals have a particular responsibility not to engage in soul-destroying labour. After all, it's our minds we're being paid to keep in shape, for the common good.

[Back to Table of Contents]

*After I came up with this clever allusion to Proust's famous opening sentence, I knew someone else must have beaten me to it. I imagined lots of people had done so, in fact, but I didn't expect such distinguished company: John Ashbery. It's the opening line of "Bird's Eye View of the Tool and Die Co", which you can hear him read here. This reminded me of the poem that I've used as an epigraph (click Lerner's name to see exactly what I mean).
**I've stolen this joke from Don Knott's character on Three's Company (1979-1984), which I watched after school as a kid. It's the same joke but with slightly different meaning as a result of our different body types. As I recall, Ralph Furley claimed that he often went to the gym, "Because a body like this ...", which is funny because he's a very small guy. [Update: I just found a transcript of that episode and it looks like I've misremembered it a bit: Furley is talking about his "powerhouse" diet.]

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