There's always Hegel. Thomas Presskorn tracked down the source of the phrase "the prose of the world" for me in his comment to a post three weeks ago. It's given me something to think about.
It turns out that the phrase appears in Hegel's Lectures on Fine Arts. I can't say I've fully digested the passage, and I haven't looked at the rest of the text, but it looks as though he is using the concept of prose to indicate the quotidian—that “gorgeous Latinate word” which “suggests the depth and reach of the commonplace”, as Don DeLillo put it (Underworld, p. 542). In short, prose is the ordinary. He ties this idea of a "world of prose" to the "deficiency of natural beauty" and contrasts it to the pursuit of "Ideal beauty", as in the fine arts. This is also what Merleau-Ponty seems to have been after when he confronted "the prose of the world" with "a poetry of human relations". Well, beauty is difficult, said Aubrey Beardsley to Ezra Pound. In a sense, then, prose articulates that difficulty.
In writing, I want to argue, prose emerges from the unavoidable partiality of our experience. A poem is arguably an expression of our own universality, but when we write in prose we are implicitly admitting that we're only getting some of the experience down on the page. But we are also, as academic writers, trying to be objective and universal—in a word, impartial. Again, "prose" comes to stand for a particular kind of difficulty, namely, our struggle with "the entire finitude of appearance .... the totality which is not actual within [us]" (147). We are, first and foremost, implicated in the ordinary, the hustle and bustle (as Heidegger might say) of everyday living.
Even in our pursuit of "spiritual interests"—like knowledge, I presume—we do not get beyond prose. The life of the spirit, Hegel points out, depends upon satisfying also our "physical vital aims". Even the most sincere and diligent (and even the most distracted) scholar will not completely extricate herself from practical contingencies. "[T]he individual as he appears in this world of prose and everyday is not active out of the entirety of his ownself and his resources, and he is intelligible not from himself, but from something else" (149). Maybe this is where DeLillo got his views on "the quotidian". Hegel says: "Here is revealed the whole breadth of prose in human existence" (148).
Scholarship in general, and academic writing in particular, is deeply implicated in ordinary pursuits. When we express ourselves in prose we are implicitly engaging with these day-to-day contingencies. We are struggling to keep our footing in a world of everyday "actions and events," as Hegel puts it. (In my book, I'm going to have to tie this to Heidegger's views on research as Betrieb.) It is precisely because the scholar expresses her views in a world of ordinary concerns that research must be approached as a conversation where other interests and concerns must be respected. That is, in prose you write about things that you might be wrong about. And you write prepared to listen to what others think of what you think. You are not "active out of the entirety of [your] own self". What your words mean depends on what others make of them. The totality of that dependence, then, is what Hegel is talking about.
"This is the prose of the world ... —a world of finitude and mutability, of entanglement in the relative, of the pressure of necessity from which the individual is in no position to withdraw" (150). But a community, I want to suggest, allows for a partial withdrawal, a smaller place within "the entire finitude of appearance". A finite finitude, if you will. (I'm always harping about how the academic writer must appreciate her finitude.) It is a way of simplifying (for a particular set of themes) your "entanglement in the relative", a way of relieving "the pressure of necessity". This is the community of scholarship that constitutes your field. A community of prose. It helps you to engage precisely with the ordinary totality.
Tuesday, November 29, 2011
There's always Hegel. Thomas Presskorn tracked down the source of the phrase "the prose of the world" for me in his comment to a post three weeks ago. It's given me something to think about.
Thursday, November 24, 2011
In Tuesday's post I pointed out that Dexter Kimball appeared to be familiar with the basic principles of what we today call "stress". He talks about how hard work of any kind, including intellectual work, "results in the breaking down of tissues" and releases toxins into the blood (Kimball 1939: 244). And he points out that rest is the means by which these toxins are "cleansed" out of the system. He could, perhaps, also have noted that rest also allows our tissues to rebuild, and, typically, that this rebuilding makes them stronger. When we exercise, our muscle fibres are torn apart. They repair themselves with extra fibres, which strengthens them.
"Fatigue within the 'elastic limit'," Kimball tells us, "is wholesome for anyone and good health cannot be maintained without some bodily effort." This idea of an "elastic limit" can also be applied to your prose. Remember that I think of your prose not as something that happens on the page but as the ability of your mind and body to make something happen on the page. Your "prose" is your ability to write coherent paragraphs on subjects you know something about. You can keep your prose healthy or you can let it degenerate. And the relevant "effort" here—the activity that keeps your prose healthy—is, of course, writing.
But you must write within your limit. Don't write for a whole day until you reach the point of exhaustion—and don't write "on your nerve" for days at a time. How often do we meet scholars who tell us that they are "tired" of the text they're working on? They "can't look at it" anymore. They need us to tell us what it means. These are writers who have exhausted their prose. They can't "bear it" any more.
Usually, these writers have overloaded their text with what they know. It's not that their text actually express a lot of knowledge now; normally these texts are not well-written enough for that. It's that their authors have unloaded everything they know on the subject in their work with a single text, straining it beyond its elastic limit. And in so doing (without knowing it) they've more than just overloaded their text. They've overloaded their prose. That's why they can't even read the text any longer.
We can provisionally distinguish the elasticity of prose from its plasticity. Elasticity is the propensity of a material to return to its original shape after being subjected to a particular strain. (The classic example, of course, is the elastic band. You stretch it and when you let go it returns to its original shape.) Plasticity is the tendency of a material to stay in the shape you bend it to (that's why manufactures like to make so many things out of "plastic"). We sometimes think of our prose as a highly plastic material precisely because it is so easy to move words around on the page. What we forget is that our minds are always trying to keep up. And this means that if you move too many words around, for too long, you are really "stretching" the elastic bonds between your words, pulling them in too many directions. Eventually they snap. Or, which is perhaps sadder, they lose their elasticity.
Materials don't just stretch elastically but absord pressures elastically too. When you put a load on a beam, it deforms a little. But when you take the load off, it returns to its original shape. Your prose is supposed to be able to carry something (the weight of your knowledge). It is not merely supposed to contort itself into whatever shape the reader wants or expects from you. If you try to make it do this, you will stress your prose by forcing it to be too long at the limit of its elasticity. This means there'll be no "give" in it when readers begin to critique your text, i.e., to expose it to the weight of the their knowledge.
To avoid fatigue (of the kind that reduces elasticity by exceeding its limits), Kimball offers a good piece of advice, which ought to resonate especially with scholars. "It should be remembered also that change of work is relative rest and under the old methods, where the worker performed several tasks daily, recovery from one task took place to a certain extent while performing another...Under modern conditions, however, where men are compelled to work at one machine or, worse still, where the work is of a repetitive nature..." (1939: 244) Do not work at "one machine" all day. I.e., do not spend a whole day writing. Write for a few hours and then shift to another machine. A book is a great machine for resting some of the muscles of your prose while exerting others.
Tuesday, November 22, 2011
Writing Process Reengineering is inspired by Business Process Reengineering, which emerges from the long tradition of scientific management, going back to the work of F.W. Taylor. One sometimes-forgotten member of that tradition is Dexter Kimball, whose work I expect will experience a bit of a revival if the "liberal turn" in management studies is fully executed. He was dean of engineering at Cornell and wrote the sorts of detailed books on industrial organization (how to organize a factory) that you rarely see these days. He was also a great champion of the humanities in business education, i.e., what the Carnegie foundation calls liberal learning. “The man interested in industry,” he said in 1925, “will find many things made plainer and his horizon greatly broadened by studying the recorded experience of those that have preceded him.” But he also noted that “the humanities are not matters that belong to a distant past. They flow in an unbroken stream from our experience with life.” This morning, I'd like to draw your attention to his work on fatigue or, as I think you'll recognize, what we today call "stress".
My interest in Kimball arises out of my interest in the great American poet Ezra Pound. Pound quotes Kimball in his Canto 38, from 1934—a characteristic incorporation of material that is not normally seen in a poem (notice the use of what today also looks like an author-date citation):
(…cigar makers whose work is highly repetitive
can perform the necessary operations almost automatically
and at the same time listen to readers who are hired
for the purpose of providing mental entertainment while they
work; Dexter Kimball 1929.)
While Pound cites Kimball's 1929 book Industrial Economics, the idea also appears in a comprehensive textbook called Principles of Industrial Organization, which came out in several editions starting in 1913. I've got the fifth edition, from 1939, beside me. The "readers" are mentioned (on page 245) in the section devoted fatigue, where he says a number of things that writers could learn from as well.
He sorts the problem of fatigue under the need, in the organization of work, for "personal allowances", here the allowance that managers must make for periodic rest periods, i.e., breaks. Whenever I discuss this passage, I always draw attention to something that really ought to be an an embarrassing fact about twentieth-century industrial organization:
Under the old and still much-used methods, the common idea was to keep a man as busy as possible during the entire working period for which he had engaged. It now appears that he will do more and better work if given periodic rests. (Kimball 1939: 244, my emphasis)
"It now appears"??? How could we ever have thought that work without periodic rest could be a good idea? After all, as Kimball himself notes, fatigue is something that everyone has direct experience with, and the solution has never been a mystery waiting to be illuminated by scientific discovery.
All are familiar with the phenomenon of fatigue. In beginning work there is a period during which effort is not only easy but agreeable, and the rate of production increases. Then follows a period during which conditions are uniform, succceeded in turn by a decline in interest and pleasure in production, straining begins to be felt, and finally, if the effort is continued, pain appears. During this last period the worker must put forth his will power to continue at the task, "working on his nerve," as is said; and at last, if the effort is continued, it becomes unbearable and complete exhaustion takes place. (244)
I balk at the need to discover these facts. (Kimball makes it appear as though modern science has made us aware of the importance of rest.) But maybe I shouldn't. After all, how many writers approach their work as though this description doesn't apply to them? How many writers strain at the work long after it stops being "agreeable", stops giving them pleasure? Kimball, for his part, emphasizes that the principle of periodic rest (and, in fact, variation of work tasks) also applies to mental labour:
[Fatigue is not] a function of bodily exertion alone. Jobs that require little or no bodily effort but very close attention and concentration may be even more fatiguing than others that involve considerable muscular effort. Mental work is often as fatiguing as bodily effort. (245)
Interestingly (and, in my ignorance, surprisingly) Kimball appears to be aware of the basic principles of what we today call "stress", urging work to be carried out within the "elastic limit", where it is "wholesome" and conducive to "good health". Indeed, he notes,
Physical or mental effort of any kind results in the breaking down of tissue, which creates certain toxic poisons in the blood giving rise thereby to the phenomena described [i.e., those of fatigue]. (244)
All this just to say that already before the second world war, the basic principles of the organization of work, including the work of writing, were well-understood. Make sure you work at your writing within the elastic limit of your prose (a notion I'll take up on Thursday). Get some rest. Keep the work agreeable.
Thursday, November 17, 2011
Just this week, during one of my undergraduate workshops, I had something of an epiphany about the rhetoric of an academic article. I've long argued that the only difference between the introduction and conclusion is a rhetorical one. The two sections say the same thing, which is to say, the conclusion does not contain information that the introduction has not already presented; but they say it differently or, more precisely, they address different audiences. And the difference is a very small and precise one: the reader of your conclusion is the same reader as the reader of your introduction except that the reader of your introduction has not yet read your paper and the reader of your conclusion has just read it. Beyond that, I used to say, you're free to write the conclusion as you choose ... oh yes, except that you only have two paragraphs to accomplish what you did with three in your introduction.
But look what I discovered while workshopping a conclusion this week. We began by sharpening the introduction to give us the ideal form. The first paragraph provided a description of the world in which the paper is needed. "We live in an age of..." it might (too) typically begin. The second paragraph introduces the relevant science: "Scholars agree that..." (or, conversely, "Current scholarship is divided about...") It is only the third paragraph that introduces your thesis: "In this paper, I show that..." Notice that until the third paragraph, no mention is made of you or your thesis; you are positioning your thesis in a world of shared concern and a body of current scholarship.
And notice also that even in that third paragraph you don't actually state your thesis. The key sentence of that paragraph is not a claim about your object; it is a claim about your paper. This means that the relevant kind of support is provided by a description of your paper ("After recalling the recent history of efforts to ..., I will outline my theoretical framework. The analysis uses the method of ..., which gives access to ... On this basis, I conclude that ... and emphasize the importance of ... in rethinking best practices in this area.") It is not actually an argument for the truth of your thesis. It is a description or outline of such an argument.
I have said before that the first paragraph of your conclusion and the last paragraph of your introduction should mirror each other. In the introduction there should be a paragraph about what you will say, while in the conclusion the same paragraph should tell us what you have said. But this can be quite boring ("In this paper, I have shown that..." etc.) We now arrive at the epiphany.
"In this paper, I show that..." will continue with some proposition. "In this paper, I show that organizational designs not market forces are to blame for the financial crisis." That proposition, of course, states the major thesis of the paper. Now, what your paper should be putting you in a position to do is precisely to state that thesis, plainly and straightforwardly. After reading your paper, the reader should be in a position to understand a simple, efficient, 6-sentence, 150-word argument for your thesis. Let, the penultimate paragraph of your paper, i.e., the first paragraph of your conclusion be that argument.
Its key sentence will be your thesis. "Organizational designs not market forces are to blame for the financial crisis." Leave out explicit mentions of method and instead state the major empirical claims that your method allowed you to discover. Also leave out any explicit mentions of theory, but use theoretical terms as though they are part of the vocabulary shared by you and your reader (if your paper is any good, by this point they are.) Three of the sentences will normally simply state the sub-theses that your analysis arrives at. However, you choose to do it, keep it simple. This is the moment when you show the reader that s/he's understood what you've been trying to say. Here's the simplest possible statement of your argument for the most informed possible reader.
There's one paragraph left. To write it, think about your "implications" section. What change (whether in theory or practice) in the mind of your reader does your paper suggest? How should the reader see or do things differently after granting the rightness of your conclusions? In a word, how have you changed the reader's world? Write the last paragraph as a description of this new world. The first and last paragraph, set side by side, should describe the "before" and "after" images of the world that your research pertains to—the world that needs your research. It is the world that needs to change in the way suggested by these images.
When I explained this to a group a faculty members recently something truly profound hit me: that last paragraph is also the first paragraph of your next paper.
Thursday, November 10, 2011
Confucius's classic text The Great Learning begins like this:
The great learning takes root in clarifying the way wherein the intelligence increases through the process of looking straight into one’s own heart and acting on the results; it is rooted in watching with affection the way people grow; it is rooted in coming to rest, being at ease in perfect equity.
This is Ezra Pound's translation—he calls it The Great Digest or Adult Study. Reading the passage last night, I realized that this really does express my philosophy, and especially what I try to accomplish when helping people to improve their writing. Writing is very much part of the process of adult study.
I agree with Pound/Kung that intelligence can be increased through a disciplined process. "Looking straight into one’s own heart and acting on the results," is of course a way of improving your whole intelligence. An important step is to develop "precise verbal definitions of [your] inarticulate thoughts"; Pound simply calls this "sincerity", i.e., to be able to say plainly and straightforwardly what you think. When you think about it, it is easy to see how such frankness can improve your intelligence and, I hope, just as easy to see how insincerity might hinder or even counter such development.
Universities ought to be places where the frank expression of thought is encouraged and protected. (There is, unfortunately, reason to think that they are becoming less and less so.) They should also be places where "the way people grow" is "watched with affection". I have had the pleasure of watching people grow over the past five years. But I have mainly been working with early-career researchers and PhD students. Or rather, it is mainly when working with them that I have the privilege of watching people grow. As undergraduate programs grow and are made more cost-effective, the contact between student and teacher offers little opportunity for such careful observation. I think this is a loss to the teacher as well as the student.
Notice that, according to Kung, your learning is rooted in watching how others grow. One of the functions of students on a university campus is to provide teachers with this important experience. Interestingly, some translations of Kung reduce Pound's (perhaps overly interpretative) phrase to the claim that the aim of the Great Learning is "to renovate the people". This top-down attitude seems to be more common today. Certainly, programs are organized in ways that leave little room for teachers to appreciate how their students' minds are growing more articulate. This is due in part to a number of unproductive misconceptions about the role of writing in education. I'll say more about this next week; for now I just want to emphasize that writing should have a much more prominent place in higher education than it does today. Less talk. More text, I say.
Lately, I have also noticed my need to come to rest, to achieve a balance. Intelligence grows naturally if we think about things (and articulate our thoughts) in an orderly way. The process can't be forced but it can be supported. It can also be interrupted, confounded, and sabotaged. Scholars have an interest in finding ways "to rest in the highest excellence," as other translations put it. It is their job, in a sense, to "grasp the azure".
Tuesday, November 08, 2011
It is possible to read Foucault as an argument for the contingency of this prosaic world. "Don Quixote is the negative of the Renaissance world," he tells us; "writing has ceased to be the prose of the world." And it is of course true that Merleau-Ponty's "new universalities" do emerge, that the conditions of (prosaically) meaningful communication do change. For him, poetic language was the means by which such changes occurred. Again, I want to emphasize the virtues of prose, of ordinary usage, of writing that does not imply institutional change or the dissolution of what Foucault called the "alliance" of "resemblances and signs". It is in ordinary, academic prose that we make and support knowledge claims. Somebody has got to do it.
And not nearly enough of us do, I think. Many academics struggle with the language in the manner of Don Quixote, who "wanders off on his own," as Foucault put it. We "no longer read nature and books alike as part of a single text", in terms of their similitude. But why not? Why don't we acknowledge the simple utility of producing a description of the facts, or articulating them in prose? Why have we become so skeptical of this basic function of writing? My answer is simply that we are out of practice, and therefore a bit out of shape. We're in poor form.
Students and, too often, scholars do not make writing a regular part of their studies, of their life of inquiry. In relative terms, they do "read a lot", but they read even ostensibly factual prose as though it were the accounts of adventures of madmen, "without content, without resemblance to fill their emptiness ... no longer the marks of things ... sleeping ... covered in dust" (Foucault, op. cit.). Maybe we will never recover of our form. All it would take, of course, is a bit of regular work. We would need to sit down, for an hour or two every day and record what we know as claims that have support. And when we read the work of others, we would read them as making claims and offering support in turn.
Instead, it often seems, we have, like Foucault, come to see such activities as tantamount to a belief in magic. All writing has become fiction. We appreciate each other's writing in the manner of literature rather than simply and straightforwardly "taking issue" with what is said—on the assumption that the words we are using are meaningful in the ordinary prosaic way and may therefore be compared to, i.e., "read against", the world of facts that make our utterances true or false. Ironically (which is to say, appropriately), this little rant in favor of the representational function of language will be considered by many to be the ravings of a madman who has read, with a certain romance, too many books and his brain has dried up. Perhaps I am tilting at windmills?
Thursday, November 03, 2011
“The essential business of language,” said Bertrand Russell, “is to assert and deny facts.” He was clearly thinking of scientific language, not language in general; as Deleuze and Guattari point out somewhere, language is just as often meant to be obeyed as to be understood. But academic writers, in my view, nonetheless do well to think of themselves primarily as asserters and deniers of facts. I sometimes say that what they need is a little bit of “assertiveness training” or, as I’ve also put it, they need to develop a “propositional attitude”. Their essential business, we might say, is very much as Russell conceived it.
An assertion, in the sense I’m after here, is really just a claim that something is the case. As a rough approximation, we think of a journal article as making forty such claims of various kinds. The introduction makes three claims: the first is about the world of practice, the second is about the theory of that practice, and the third is about the paper itself (a claim about what the paper will show). There are then five claims that elaborate on the world of practice (providing essential background information), five claims that elaborate the theory, and five claims that present your method. This is followed by fifteen claims that constitute your analysis, presenting the results of your inquiry, and five claims about the implications of your analysis, whether for theory or practice. Finally, your conclusion makes two claims that remind the reader of what you have just argued and emphasize its importance.
You are asserting that importance, of course. By starting in a particular part of the world and claiming particular things to be true about it, you are setting yourself up to make a particular contribution to our understanding. Keep in mind that in doing this you are likely to engage with your readers’ beliefs in a quite aggressive way. Your knowledge will often conflict with what others think on the same subject. But you are not doing yourself or your readers any favors by mumbling or otherwise obscuring your views. By stating clearly, assertively, what you think is true, you allow your readers to formulate their own views just as clearly, just as assertively. This will foster a precise confrontation of views, rather than a merely vague sense of disagreement. Your reader will know which facts to marshal against your position—if your reader intends to disagree with you. A good paper is written to occasion such a confrontation, not to avoid it.
Academic writers, that is, need to “get their facts straight”, and then assert them in the literature. This, like I say, is necessary for the conversation among scholars to remain precise and constructive, but it is also, in my view, necessary to maintain the true function of scholarship in society. Academic writing ought to foster high-quality discourse about subjects of importance to the surrounding society, and this discourse ought to have effects on the quality of discourse in general in that society. It is not that everyone needs to think like an academic, or go around asserting and denying facts (as if that were their essential business). But there must be a place somewhere in society for a conversation that is assertive in precisely that way. By training your ability as an academic writer, you are training your ability to make that contribution social life. I do sometimes worry that academics lack the confidence—grounded in a particular kind of strength and a particular kind of poise—to assert themselves even among their peers. This would go a long way towards explaining the marginal status of what they know in social life more generally. My aim is to help them assert the facts they know to be true.
Tuesday, November 01, 2011
This week I'm going to the University of the West of England in Bristol to hold my one-day workshop in Writing Process Reengineering. I've promised the participants (hello everyone!) that this morning I'd outline my basic approach, so that they know what to expect when we meet. They already have a program for the day (which I've summarized in this post). In this post, therefore, I'm going to say a few basic things about what one workshop participant of mine was kind enough to call my "philosophy of writing".
My view is that academic writers need to make a concerted effort to keep their prose in shape. What I do, therefore, is to offer a number of exercises that will help them develop mastery of form. Writers of course also need a number of purely "cognitive" or "intellectual" capacities, and very definitely some mastery of content, but these are specific to the field in which they work and, largely, a personal matter. You don't have to be a genius to be a successful academic writer, but you might of course want to be such a thing. Regardless of your level of intellectual ambition, you do well to keep the part of you that writes in shape. For convenience, I just call that part your prose.
What I call Writing Process Reengineering (WPR) is an attempt to get writers to appreciate the finitude of the problem. Today, your prose is in a particular kind of shape and you will not improve it noticably overnight. But you can make real strides if you subject your development to a program that resembles the sort of training people undertake to get into physical shape: start out with short sessions every other day. From there, develop a regular habit of writing. That is, mastery of the prose form is, in one sense, mastery of time and space. When and where will you write?
My workshops are really a long argument for the plausibility of two forms, one spatial and one temporal. The first is the 40-Paragraph Article (40PA). While actual articles will of course deviate from this ideal form, it is always possible to imagine an idea expressed in 40, roughly 6-sentence or 200-word paragraphs. Each paragraph makes exactly one claim and offers support for it. The key implication is the—for some people startling—insight that you have to know exactly 40 things in order to write an academic article. The forty paragraphs themselves are distributed across 8 five-paragraph sections: the introduction and conclusion count as one section, and then there's the background, theory, methods, three sections of analysis, and implications. Whenever you are "writing" (in the specific sense I'm after), then, you are writing (or revising) a paragraph in a paper of roughly this form. You are keeping your ability to write such a paragraph in shape.
Temporally, I offer participants what I call the 16-Week Challenge (16WC). You should never write for more than three hours a day, so a given 16-week period (of 5-day working weeks) has a maximum of 240 writing hours. That's a good ball-park figure to start with, but most people will have to find the 60 or 120 or 180 hours that constitute a more realistic estimate of their resources. These hours-available-for-writing should then be booked into the writers' calendars and they should decide which writing sessions will be devoted to which parts of the ideal 40PA form I just outlined. Here it can be useful to think of your prose as your ability to compose a coherent paragraph about something you know in 20-30 minutes (you will discover the limits of you own form in this regard). Taken together, then the 16WC and the 40PA give academic writers who want to embark on a program of personal development a complete frame, in time and in space, in which to train their prose.
The workshop provides you with a rhetorically robust concept of "knowledge" that corresponds to these formal exercises. It argues that your knowledge is your ability to hold your own in a conversation among knowledgeable peers—which makes it the basis of your strength and poise, i.e., grace, in writing. Gaining this formal mastery is a matter of getting prose into shape. Prose, that is, is "the shape of form".
Note: I like to lead by example. This post of just over 700 words took exactly one hour to write. I did of course start out knowing what I wanted to talk about. See you soon, Bristol!