Monday, March 26, 2012

How to Do Things with Your Hands

My wife tells this great story from our time in Germany many years ago. She was attending the lectures of a prominent professor of rhetoric, Joachim Knape. When the course got to the work of J.L. Austin, he resorted to a wonderful bit of sarcasm. "Ooooh," he said, "you can do things with words!" He was, of course, alluding to Austin's famous title How to do Things with Words, and in order to appreciate the story I suppose you have to know a little about the arch-rivalry between philosophy and rhetoric. It must, indeed, be amusing to rhetoricians to note that the most important work of philosophy published in 1962, after more than 2000 years of Western "thought", was a book that challenged "the assumption of philosophers that the business of a ' statement' can only be to 'describe' some state of affairs, or to 'state some fact', which it must do either truly or falsely." The idea that you can "do things" with words was not news, to say the least, in the field of rhetoric.

James Randi, arch-skeptic, debunker of the paranormal, and an accomplished magician, has a great quip about Uri Geller, the world-famous spoon-bender. "If he's using his mind to bend those spoons," he says, "he's doing it the hard way." What he means, of course, is that it is possible to produce the illusion of bending a spoon "with your mind" through a variety of tricks, without actually doing it. Randi knows how he would do it, and that's of course how he presumes Geller is doing it too.

I've been finding myself using that line lately to push back against the idea that the hard part about writing is thinking of something to say. Many people explain why they are not writing by invoking the intellectual difficulties their paper is giving them. But how does that explain not writing? Writing is a physical activity. If you're using your mind to write your papers, I suggest, you're doing it the hard way. Use your hands. The ability to write is simply the ability to sit down at the machine and write down what you know. It is true that you need to use your mind to come to know those things, but don't try to use it to do the writing itself. That's as silly as using it to type, i.e., to try to move the keys on your keyboard with your thoughts. Of course, the "trick", then, is to make your text look like it came fully formed out of a live mind. But that ability, like the ability of a magician, is ultimately in your hands.


jw said...

While I haven't commented in a long while, I do always read your posts here. This one, somehow, connected with me in a very useful way. Having spent some time thinking about Crawford's "Shop Class as Soulcraft" and the value of manual work sometimes weighs on me a little, making me feel like this isn't *real* work I'm doing.

This post was a nudge (or perhaps a slap) and a reminder that all work is valuable, and that the line between manual work and intellectual work is blurry (or perhaps nonexistent): it doesn't count, after all, unless I actually write it down.


Thomas said...

Glad to be of help. Yes, making a precise text is just as a useful work as making a precise machine.

I've recently started thinking about programming as a model. There's a tendency to think that writing a computer program is more "real" than writing an essay, too. But in both cases were are "coding", i.e., instructing a "reader" to respond in particular ways. Good code is simply a precision with regard to the responses. Soulcraft indeed!