Friday, April 29, 2011


"By the 15th Century it had come to refer to rubbish in general."

Some readers of Wednesday's post may have had to look "dross" up in the dictionary. (I certainly did the first time I read "the rest is dross" in the Cantos.) Wikipedia tells us that it is:

a mass of solid impurities floating on a molten metal. It appears usually on the melting of low-melting-point metals or alloys such as tin, lead, zinc or aluminium, or by oxidation of the metal(s). It can also consist of impurities such as paint leftovers. It can easily be skimmed off the surface before pouring the metal into a mold or casting flask.

It is a bit like "slag" except that slag is a liquid and dross consists of solids. The important thing here is that it is produced by smelting, i.e., the process by which purer metals are extracted from ore. It is the byproduct of the process by which raw materials are converted into, let us say, precious ones. While it can be considered a "waste" product from the point of view of smelting, some of the solids in dross are still useful for other purposes. They can be used as raw materials in other processes, but for the purposes of Pound's metaphor, we can see it as something to leave on the side.

It should not be hard to imagine how this might apply to writing, say, a journal article. Think of part of the writing process as the exposure of your materials (whether empirical or theoretical) to the heat of your intelligence (later you will also need to expose them to your light). You are trying to extract something of value from some relatively crude or "raw" experiences (field notes, interview transcripts, notes from your reading, and, of course, the experiences that produced them as retained in your memory). Your original encounters with your subject matter (again, it doesn't matter whether we are talking about the things you've read or the people you've talked to, your encounters with your peers or with your objects) have given you materials that contain the elements you need for your paper, but they are mixed together with a lot of things you don't need. Things you can't use (from lack of expertise) or don't want (from lack of interest). You "heat" up your materials, separating the metal from the dross, then you skim off the dross (perhaps keeping it somewhere to look through later for nuggets of unexpected wisdom) and pour the molten metal, now pure, off into a mold where it can cool.

You will probably not pour it into its final shape, mind you. You may have to melt it down again and reshape it, but, like pure gold or iron, melting it now (or just heating it a little to make it more pliable) does not produce more waste.

The idea that the research process, and especially the writing process, produces a lot of "waste" is an important one to understand. Don't think of your first experiences, the process of gathering materials, as providing you with knowledge, ready-made. Remember that you have to subject those materials to a process that refines them to suit your research project. You have to extract the pure metal from their raw ore.

There appears to be a connection between the German word for "slag" (Schlacke) and the American Yiddish "schlock", which denotes something cheap or shoddy. When I read what I would call "shoddy" writing in the academic journals it is precisely the dross that was not skimmed out of a paper that I am noticing. My sense, after working with many authors, with various degrees of love for their subject matter (note that heat is famously measured in "degrees"), is that, where dross remains, the intellectual temperature was simply not high enough. The materials were loosened up just enough to fit them together after a fashion, but irrelevant materials were never separated from the mass.

Think of your love for the research you do or the people in your life as a kind of heat. You apply this heat in order to separate out the pure or perfect elements from your experience of the raw, messy "stuff" that things and people of course also are. "The intellectual love of a thing," said Spinoza (with Pound's abiding approval, SR, p. 93), "consists in the understanding of its perfections." And "the rest," of course, "is dross".

Wednesday, April 27, 2011


Spring is in the air. Before going away for Easter, I promised to follow up on my post on hatred with a post on love. As it happens, I spent most of last week thinking about the troubadours, those medieval craftsmen of "courtly love". So I've got quite a bit to say, most of which derives from Ezra Pound's ideas on the subject (especially chapter 5 of The Spirit of Romance, which I'll cite as SR).

Pound was fond of quoting Spinoza's suggestion that "the intellectual love of a thing consists in understanding its perfections ... all creatures whatsoever desire this love" (SR, p. 91, see also GK, p. 73). As scholars, too, we must strive to understand the perfections of things, which is to say, we must have some love for the subject we are studying.

"If love be not in the house," says Pound in his Cantos, "there is nothing" (116/810). One of the most beautiful passages in that difficult work is about the importance of love in the development of craft:

What thou lovest well remains,/ the rest is dross*
What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee
What thou lov'st well is thy true heritage
Whose world, or mine or theirs/ or is it of none?
First came the seen, then thus the palpable
Elysium, though it were in the halls of hell
What thou lovest well is thy true heritage
What thou lov'st well shall not be reft from thee (81/534-5)

Four decades earlier, Pound had glossed a remark of Horace's as follows:

The accurate artist seems to leave not only his greater self [to posterity], but beside it, upon the films of his art, some living print of the circumvolving man, his taste, his temper and his foible—of the things about which he felt it never worth his while to bother other people by speaking, the things he forgot for some major interest; of these, and of another class of things, things that his audience would have taken for granted; or, thirdly, of things about which he had, for some reason or other, a reticence. We find these not so much in the words—which anyone may read—but in the subtle joints of the craft, in the crannies percerptible only to the craftsman. (SR, p. 88)

What the craftsman lovest well remains, we might say. There is a wonderful poem about this by Leonard Cohen, which takes its title, "The Rest is Dross", from the passage from Canto 81 I quoted above. It is about the meeting of two old lovers after (as I read it) many years and many loves have passed:

surprised that we've survived as lovers
not each other's
but lovers still
with outrageous hope and habits in the craft
which embarrass us slightly
as we let them be known
the special caress the perfect inflammatory word
the starvation we do not tell about

The influence of Pound's reading of the troubadours is obvious not just in the title, but in the emphasis on the retention of an accuracy (of address, if you will, and of caress; word and deed) in the "habits" of "craft". This precision stems from a love of the object, an understanding of its (in this case the lover's) perfections. "God I am happy," says Cohen, "we've forgotten nothing."

It's this happiness that we feel when we return to a project that we love. The materials are there, and we understand their "subtle joints". Our "outrageous hope" is supported by a mastery (Cohen says the lovers now "own [their] own skins"). We have, as Pound puts it (back in Canto 81), "gathered from the air a live tradition".

In the pursuit of this intellectual love of things, there is no room for vanity. We cannot let the fact that our love for the subject is revealled in our facility with the relevant materials embarrass us more than "slightly". As Cyril Connolly reminds us, vanity is that which prevents us from learning from our mistakes; it is the refusal to do something badly. "But to have done instead of not doing," Pound writes, "this is not vanity.// ... Here error is all in the not done,/ all in the diffidence that faltered" (81/536).

Interestingly, this diffidence of love appears in a poem by Cohen's friend and mentor, Irving Layton, which gives us a somewhat scrappier image of love. "Love is so diffident a thing," he complains, and enumerates some of the places he has failed to find it. "I am confused, forsaken," he laments. "I have lost the way." He now rejects some commonly suggested remedies (a woman's eyes and kisses). Then he gets down to it:

Love, I call out, find me
Spinning around in error.
Display your dank, coarse hair,
Your bubs and bulbous shoulder.
Then strike, witless bitch, blind me.

Layton has his way of putting things. Perhaps, however, he is talking about the same thing as Pound, who says that "there is, in what I have called 'the natural course events', the exalted moment, the vision unsought, or at least the vision gained without machination" (SR, p. 97).

This post is turning into an anthology of what poets say about love. (But who else would we turn to to learn about love?) I will apply these ideas more directly to the problems of scholarship on Friday. For now, let me just note that the troubadours did not simply wait for their visions. Their appreciation of the perfections of things (and fair maidens, of course) was grounded in a hard won discipline, supported by a tradition, their "true heritage". Pound talked of a medieval "cult for the purgation of the soul by a refinement of, and lordship over, the senses" (SR, p. 90). On specific subjects (our chosen specialization), we can cultivate this refinement too. And, as Pound reminds us, "Here error is all in the not done". We have to work at it.

*Update: For a discussion of the meaning of "dross", see this post.

Friday, April 15, 2011


One common reason people don't get things done is that they "hate" to do them. Everyone has a particular class of things they hate doing, and that they therefore put off or do without paying sufficient attention to them. "I hate grading," one professor recently told me. I'm sure many readers share that view. I myself hate filling out expense forms (all forms, actually, I guess). In this post I want to point out that hatred can have consequences well beyond the object of your hate itself. In fact, for strange reasons, we often treat the things we hate better than the things we love.

Here's a hypothetical situation. You have a pile of term papers to grade and, let's say, a week to do it. You hate grading, but you have set aside time for it in the evenings after the kids have been put to bed. When the house is quiet, you sit down in front of the papers. But you get up immediately to make yourself a cup of coffee. The first paper is so-so, probably deserves a C, and makes you feel like your students "just aren't getting it". Or something. Did I mention that you hate grading?

You get up before even giving the student a grade and walk around a bit. You check some mails. You surf the internet. You might even make some notes for a paper or an upcoming class. By the time you go to bed, you've graded some of the papers, but not the third of them that your planning vaguely implied you had to. You're now, as they say, "behind".

So when you get to the office the next day and look in your calendar to see what you have to do today, registering, say, a meeting with the Dean and a class you have to teach as set in stone, and deciding that that lunch date with a colleague has already been put off too many times to be seemly to cancel again, and since you're behind on your grading, well, you had better cancel that hour of writing you had planned for, funny this, just now, and, funnier still, you had better spend this hour, not doing some grading, but preparing yourself for that meeting with the Dean, which, now that you think about it, you were supposed to give some thought last night after grading some papers, but, because you were so consumed with hate, you were worn out and just went to bed.

For good measure you cancel another writing session for tomorrow, and a longer one at the end of the week, to give yourself a "buffer" to grade those papers. That gives you the "whole evening" tonight and tomorrow for grading (plus the buffer), which means you do some administrative work in the time you had planned to write (and would have spent the evening doing? ... Well, nevermind, you're not thinking straight now. The hate is eating you up.)

Okay. I think I'm making my point. By the end of the week, you have actively and efficiently hated the grading but at least you've gotten it done, and the students have probably all gotten exactly the grades they deserve. Your colleagues feel respected and your Dean is impressed with you. The only thing that suffered was your writing. But you don't hate your writing, do you?

The moral of this story is of course partly that it is especially the things you hate that you have to be disciplined about, so that they don't interfere with the things you love. But why do you hate grading anyway? Think of grading as a test of your judgment. You are going to have to give a certain number of Fs, Ds, Cs, Bs, and As. You know this in advance. Don't let the C or the D depress you. Just recognize the paper for the C it is. Give the grade, pat yourself on the back for being so discerning, and move on the next paper. Don't spend extra time (and emotional energy) trying to see value in a paper that (obviously) didn't successfully make that value obvious. Grade the paper, not the student.

Also, when you cancel a few hours of writing time to "give yourself time" to do something you "hate", think about how that makes the writer inside you feel. And think about how much time you are actually winning for each paper to grade. If you cancel a full hour of writing time in order to devote it to a stack of, say, 10 papers, you are winning 6 minutes (at best) for each paper. Are those six minutes really going to make the difference between a fair grade and an unfair one? And, honestly, are you going to actually devote those six minutes to each of the the papers? Aren't you just going use the time to wallow more completely in your hate?

Once you realize that you only have the time you planned to use on things you don't like very much to do, let your dislike of those things focus your attention, not dissipate it. 6 hours. 24 papers. That's four papers per hour. 15 minutes per paper. Minus breaks. 10 or 12 minutes per paper. Focus now. Get it done. Then go back to doing the things you like to do.

This blog is now taking a one-week break. When I return, I promise, I will write a post about love.

Update: Great minds not only think alike, they think about the same things. Unbeknownst to me Jonathan wrote a couple of posts about hatred yesterday (here and here).

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Literary Types

Last summer, I pointed out a peculiar reference in James March's The Ambiguities of Experience (2010: 63). He notes that "stories interpreting observed experience are among the earlier and more respected contributions to research in organizations" and then offers this puzzling sentence: "Indeed, some of the more artful practitioners of the craft resist making their own explicit interpretations, leaving meanings to be elaborated by others (Chekhov 1979; Krieger 1979)." While Krieger 1979 is indeed a piece of social research (Hip Capitalism, the story of a real San Francisco radio station), Chekhov 1979 is a collection of short stories by Anton Chekhov. It is a work of fiction, not a "respected contribution to research in organizations".

The other day, I noticed a similarly strange reference in Thráinn Eggertsson's contribution to Alston, Eggertsson and North's Empirical Studies in Institutional Change (1996: 15). "As for the historical evidence," he says, "it indicates that slaves assigned to semiskilled or skilled work were frequently granted better living conditions than slaves engaged in unskilled physical labor, such as mining, stonecutting, and agricultural work with low care intensity (Solzhenitsyn 1968; Fenoaltea 1984)." Here, again, while Fenoaltea 1984 is indeed an article in the Journal of Economic History, Solzhenitsyn 1968 is a novel, The First Circle, by the famous Russian dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. It is not "historical evidence".

The problem with these references is not just that they provide inappropriate support for their claims. It is also that they confuse two very different kinds of sources, treating them as though they were the same kind of text. After all, it is not impossible to cite novels and short stories in social science writing. Indeed, it is quite easy to rewrite March's and Eggertsson's sentences to avoid the mistake they have made:

Indeed, like Chekhov (1979) in his short stories, some of the more artful practitioners of the craft resist making their own explicit interpretations, leaving meanings to be elaborated by others (e.g., Krieger 1979).

As for the historical evidence, it indicates that slaves assigned to semiskilled or skilled work were frequently granted better living conditions than slaves engaged in unskilled physical labor, such as mining, stonecutting, and agricultural work with low care intensity (Fenoaltea 1984). Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1968) has vividly illustrated this difference in his novel The First Circle[, which was based on his personal experience of a prison that also served as a research lab]*.

It would be interesting to know whether this isn't more or less what an earlier draft of these chapters actually said. Somewhere in the editing process, perhaps, it was deemed more economical to assume that the reader would know who Chekhov and Solzhenitsyn are and why they are being cited in this context. I don't think this economy is justified here.

The problem, like I say, is that the reference implies that Chekhov has made a "respected contribution to research in organizations" and that Solzhenitsyn's novels present "historical evidence". Sometimes this confusion is achieved simply by citing two very different kinds of text in the same reference. For example, March (2010: 22) cites Gladwell's The Tipping Point on "threshold effects"; in the same breath (the same parenthesis), he cites an article in the Journal of Mathematical Sociology, thereby implicitly putting a work of popular non-fiction on the same level as a paper in a scientific journal. It is a nice irony that March's book is about "ambiguity" and that Eggertsson has been writing about contracting as "essentially a theoretical fiction". But I don't think irony is enough here.

*As Thrainn points out in the comments, there is an argument for using this novel as a kind of "historical evidence". I have here added his argument in square brackets. This argument has to be made explicitly, in my opinion, and would need to cite also the biographers or literary critics who have vouched for the historical accuracy of Solzhenitsyn's account. And they would presumably have based their judgments on less fictional documentation of prison life in the Soviet Union as well, which we might then much better cite as historical evidence instead. If it were up to me, we would always only cite historical novels as illustrations, never as evidence.

Monday, April 11, 2011


"Remember," says Jonathan, "that mediocre is not a synonym of bad." You should work on your text from the center of your strength, never exhausting yourself. "The quality of your work should be excellent, of course, but your progress only has to be mediocre." A text improves in the middle.

This is also what I was trying to say when I suggested Woody Allen as a role model. He seems committed to accomplishing the film he is capable of every year. Some years he can make a Manhattan or a Husbands and Wives, or a Cassandra's Dream, to take a more recent and more controversial example of excellence; other years he "merely" makes a, well, Whatever Works. When a reviewer calls any one of the movies a, say, "clichéd morality play that may actually represent the lowest point of Allen’s recently chequered career", he simply isn't getting it. Allen's work is to be judged by the excellence that is accumulating at the middle, not by whether his latest film is anywhere near his greatest.

Look at the way he describes Match Point: "arguably ... the best film that I’ve made. This is strictly accidental, it just happened to come out right. You know, I try to make them all good, but some come out and some don’t. With this one everything seemed to come out right. The actors fell in, the photography fell in and the story clicked. I caught a lot of breaks." Notice he doesn't say he aims for "greatness" every time. He aims to make each film "good", an expression of his actual abilities at a particular point, plus that element of luck. And notice that this combination of luck and ability is applied not to the whole movie, but to each aspect of the movie, ultimately each scene.

You can think of your papers this way too. This semester you've got a paper to write, and you're pretty sure that you're going to be submitting it for review (perhaps there is a conference or special issue to submit it to, but perhaps you're simply disciplined enough to know that it really is going to be submitted). So you work on it, hoping that you're going to catch a few breaks (i.e., be lucky), that your ideas are going to fall in line, that your schedule won't be interrupted by extraneous factors, that your mind will be working well. You plan out the paper and draft it. And then you you spend some number of weeks, working on it paragraph by paragraph, trying to get it "right". At the end of it, you step back from it and assess the result.

"Allen has often described his filmography as consisting of a few C-grade films, a huge amount of B-films, and a select few A-films" (Shembri 2006). Well, what did you end up making? An A paper or B paper or a C paper? Think of this not as a grade but as a decision about what journal to send it to (or at least what journal you are expecting it to be published it in.) Don't think of it as career high or low point it. Just try to register what it was that came out of the center of your strength these last few months.

I don't know how often Allen makes a movie and then decides not to show it to anyone. Not very often I would think. He probably also doesn't have any serious problems in regard to distribution. This is analogous to getting your paper through peer review. If Allen wants to show a movie he can; you will probably have to wait for an editorial decision. But if you develop your talent with moderation, not seeking the extremes, you will always be able to write a paper about your research, just as Woody Allen is always able to make a movie. Easy does it.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Consensus and Controversy

This week I've been working with the library, teaching undergraduates how to read and write. I emphasize the "craft" dimension of research and the "conversational" nature of academic writing. The aim is to get them to appreciate what it means to construct an argument. Some students are a bit taken aback by this focus on the rhetoric of academic writing. They had thought that it was all about facts and logic. Or they had hoped that's what it was all about.

One student, who had come from an engineering background, expressed his distaste for social science writing. It seemed to be all smoke and mirrors to him. He was compelled to bring this up precisely because I was encouraging them to notice the rhetorical conventions of the texts they are writing. Does one speak respectfully or disparagingly of Karl Marx, for example? Are qualitative methods approved of, merely tolerated, or outright banished? The idea that if one doesn't like the answers to these questions one can simply find a conversation where they are answered differently is, quite understandably, a bit disconcerting to some students, who may have thought they were going to school to learn the truth about their chosen subject.

It turns out that they are learning "merely" how to converse intelligently about their chosen subject. And this means that they have to spend as much time familiarizing themselves with the participants in the conversation as they do learning factual information. They have to know not just what they are saying, and why what they are saying is true; they also have to know what effect their words will have on their readers. Will their readers largely agree with what they are saying? Or will their readers take issue with what they are saying? Are they building on consensus? Or are they occasioning controversy?

As I often emphasize here at RSL, students learning a subject are learning how to write a series of coherent prose paragraphs about it. But there is no absolute standard of coherence, no sense in which a paragraph simply does or does not hold together. This would be like talking about the load-bearing capacity of a bridge in absolute terms, when the question, obviously, is always whether the structure holds under the weight it has been designed to carry. Likewise, a paragraph must be designed to cohere under the reading of a particular audience, which will bring particular questions to the text that are based on a particular body of knowledge.

So this issue can be raised at the level of each paragraph. A twenty-page paper will consist of maybe thirty paragraphs, thirty little rhetorical occasions where you can ask yourself, "Am I building on a consensus here? Or am I getting involved in a controversy?" How the paragraph is structured will depend on how you answer that question. And how you answer that question is dependent less on the claim you are making, which may be controversial in one field and not in another, than who your readers are. Here, as Virginia Woolf pointed out, knowing who you are writing for is knowing how to write.

This is really the lesson that I'm trying to teach. While it is true that you are becoming more knowledgeable in school, you are learning mainly something that other people already know. That means that as your knowledge grows so too does your awareness of a shared body of expert opinion. You are entering a field of scholarship that is supported by a great deal of consensus and marked by distinctive controversies. You are learning how to "hold your own" in that field, by which we might mean simply "hold your own opinions". Knowing is having the right to an opinion. You earn that right through study—and not just study of the facts, but of the arguments that are currently being had about them.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

How to Write

[These are the notes I used for a lecture in Leicester last month. The comments in square brackets have been added for this post.]

Academic writing is the craft of articulating what you know. To articulate is to join(t), to separate and to connect. [The verb "to join" here means "to bring together and attach"; I'm using the verb "to joint" to capture the act of installing joints where there weren't any before.]

How many things do you have to know to complete your writing assignment? [We all have "writing assignments", not just students. The pressure to write a journal article, whether intrinsic or extrinsic, is an assignment to be completed. When they leave school, many students will get jobs that will assign writing to them as a matter of course.]

What do I mean by "know" here?

To know something is to be conversant about it. [You are not just joining things you know to each other. You are joining what you know to what others know.] Knowledge is not just a mental structure; it is a social posture. The virtue of structure is strength; the virtue of posture is grace. Call this strength and grace "intellectual composure". It is a facility (ease) with words.

[I am here trying to emphasize that education is not about putting something in your head. School is an opportunity to train your hands. It is what you are capable of when you leave school that matters.]

To know something is to be able to com-pose a prose paragraph about it, to put words about it together.

We write sentences. We compose paragraphs.

The paragraph is the unit of composition.

A paragraph consists of exactly one claim, expressed in one sentence and supported by about six more. It is about 200 words long.

Now, how many things do you have to know? (Hint: divide your word limit by 200.)

"The dignity of movement of an iceberg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water." (Ernest Hemingway)

"To know whom to write for is to know how to write." (Virginia Woolf)

The ideal introduction consists of three paragraphs, answering three questions: What is going on in the world? What is going on in the literature? What am I going to say?

Academic writing is not "the loneliness that is the truth of things" (as Woolf said of literary composition). It is not about knowing who you are, but about writing knowledgeably for others.

[You would not expect to learn how to play the piano simply by watching other people play. Why do you imagine you can learn a subject simply by reading and going to class?] Like any craft, mastery comes from practice. Write a prose paragraph every day. [Suppose you already spend five or ten hours a week studying, i.e., reading, for your classes. Take one or two of those hours, twenty minutes a day, say, to write. Don't say you are already too busy. I didn't say take an extra 20 minutes. I said write instead of reading for those twenty minutes.] You will not regret acquiring that discipline.

* * *

[The more I think and talk about it, the more committed I become to the idea that what I teach can only really be learned by doing. While I do sometimes offer tips and rules to students, I try to avoid the appearance that I'm trying to ameliorate their ignorance about writing. I am, rather, a kind of moralist. I am not passing on knowledge, but sharing wisdom. It is a very practical wisdom, of course, a craft sensibility. The students must learn to appreciate the materials that their discipline works with. They must get a feel for quality. The only way to do this is to pick them up and touch them. To get their hands dirty. To write.]

Monday, April 04, 2011

Woody Allen as a Role Model

I think it was after seeing Vicky Cristina Barcelona that my respect for Woody Allen as a craftsman became truly explicit. I've read somewhere that he makes a movie in a very disciplined, very matter-of-fact way. He spends a few months writing the script. Then he puts a crew together. Then he shoots the movie (always on time and under budget, I just read on somewhere on the internet) and then cuts it and sends it off for distribution. I'm not sure if it's entirely true, but I have this image of Allen making one movie a year for as long as I've been alive, always putting more less the same amount suffering into it. Always prioritizing "getting it done" over some persnickety idea of perfection. (I think I developed this image by reading way, way too much into what he says in this Time interview from 6:55 forward.)

As Juliet Lapidos points out in her recent piece in Slate, this steady process produces very uneven work. But, as she also points out, there is a lot continuity between his films. He always uses the same font for his title credits, for example. And his characters often borrow each others ideas and expressions. (I've always loved watching other actors, like Michael Caine and Kenneth Branagh, play "the Woody Allen character", i.e., the central neurotic in the plot.) One gets a sense that each movie is really just a sketch for a much larger, much more "serious" work on the same themes.

It's like he's writing a series of journal articles. One day, we think, he'll write a book. Only he won't. He's got lots of other things to do (like playing music in his jazz band), and, I like to think, he's just fine with making "movies". Though he admires Bergman, he doesn't take film nearly as seriously as a medium. He doesn't imagine that he's doing something very profound or very important. Or, rather, he is counting on the culture to do a great deal of the work for him. His work is very beholden to context.

Whatever Works is a good example. Although it's profoundly about "the meaning of life", it has a very workaday feel to it. It's like the actors just sort of showed up on the set and delivered their lines, competently but not brilliantly. It's a like a pretty good night during the run of a play. And the movie itself often has the artificiality of a play. As a piece of work, it's just, you know, on time and on budget. But as the movie develops, and the characters discover their destinies (and go, largely, from being unhappy to being happy), we just enjoy it all. At the end, we realize we've just been read a good story, and we don't really think too much about the delivery.

I want to be this way about my academic writing. I want to write maybe two papers a year, always following a pretty set form, and largely developing the same set of themes. I have to come them from all kinds of angles, and it a variety of moods (Allen makes comedies and dramas and mockumentaries, etc.) How well each individual paper is received, and how widely it is distributed, shouldn't really matter to me. I'm just trying to make a small 8000-word contribution to the life of the mind. Woody Allen is clearly also "just" trying to entertain. Whatever works.

(This post, like most of my blog posts, also has this workmanlike commitment to its contraints. Not my best work. But a good hour's worth.)

Friday, April 01, 2011

The Promise

I've never really taken the time to read Paul Ricoeur very carefully. But I remember a friend of mine once trying to explain Ricoeur's view of "the promise" and it has stuck with me ever since. A promise is a way of transcending yourself, of becoming more than you are. When you make a promise you don't know that you will keep it, but you commit yourself to it. Promising is an important part of our moral growth.

Ricoeur cites Nietzsche (via Arendt), who described promising as "the memory of the will". A promise does not refer to something you will necessarily do, but it refers to something you will-to-do. The promise, then, gives your will some real content; it converts vague desire into precise intentions. After making a promise, you are not merely hoping something will happen; you have identified your part in making it happen.

Obviously, you make promises to yourself and to others. You make promises to your writing self: "Next semester, I promise, I will begin to write that book"; "Next week, I will get the analysis done and finish the discussion section of the paper." And you can make promises to your reader :"This issue is beyond the scope of this paper, but it will be taken up in later work"; "As I will show below, however, ..." Just saying these things does not get them done.

But here's the important thing: even keeping your promise does not get anything done. I can promise to meet you at seven o'clock by the river. And I can do my part to make that happen. But the meeting may still not take place, for reasons that are beyond our control. I can promise to work on my book all next semester. Keeping this promise will not get it written. And yet, making promises and making an effort to keep them is essential to our growth as individuals, couples, families and groups.

When I was younger, I tried not to promise anyone anything because I did not want fail them. I had a purely negative view of promises—I thought the essential thing about promises was not to break them. As I get older, I understand that promises are valuable also in what happens when we keep them. They help us develop in an orderly way.

Skimming Ricoeur's book this morning, I note that he connects the act of promising to the act of forgiveness. That is no doubt very important.