Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Specialist Knowledge

...Ladies and gentlemen,
tonight's weather has been canceled. The Academy has condemned
the Blue Tit. The poor are stealing the saltlicks. Grenades luxuriate
in the garden of decommissioned adjectives. It is the Sabbath. I must invite you

to lay down your knowledge claims,
to lay them down slowly and with great sadness. (Ben Lerner)

The second exercise begins with the results of the first. Write a sentence about the same topic as the first exercise but one that only you and your peers know is true. That is, "theorize" the first sentence. How do people who have access to specialized knowledge and technical jargon talk about this thing that everyone knows to be true? Again, since you are working on your style, your manner of writing true sentences, don't pick a really difficult truth, a really sophisticated theoretical insight. Pick something that everyone agrees about or a disagreement that is familiar to everyone in your field. (Just because someone usually disagrees with you does not mean that what you're saying is not true.)

As in the first exercise, spend about four minutes jotting down candidate sentences. Then pick one to rewrite for four minutes. Then take a two-minute break. As I was saying yesterday, these movements are available for you train in whatever way you like. You can repeat it. Or you can go on to the next exercise. Or you can start writing a paragraph elaborating and supporting the sentence.

Remember that part of the exercise here involves imagining the knowledge of your reader. For the first exercise you were imagining a "general reader", i.e., one with the knowledge that pretty much anyone will bring to the text. Obviously, we're talking about adult, educated, intelligent, etc., readers, perhaps even someone who has been educated in a way that resembles yours. That is, what "everyone knows" for a physicist will not be the same as for a sociologist. The important distinction is between the general reader and the specialist reader. When you are doing this exercise you are imagining a reader with training very similar to yours, someone who understands the same theories and has largely the same expectations of reality that you have.

And remember also that you are not to strain while doing this. Don't make the sentence carry any significant load. This does not mean that you're not going to make a big claim (most claims that your peers know are true are very sweeping ones) it just means that you're not going to have to carry all of it (they will too). State it as a simple, unqualified (or very straightforwardly qualified) sentence.

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