Wednesday, May 02, 2012

The They

"Watt had watched people smile and thought he understood how it was done."
Samuel Beckett

There is the worry about how your writing relates to the world, and there is the worry about how it relates to others. On Monday, I distinguished these two worries in terms of the "truth" and "meaning" of your words. The world determines whether or not what you are saying is true; the others (your readers) determine whether or not they make any sense. In both cases, there is no particular threat. After all, you think you're right and you know what you mean. It is the entirely unspecific possibility of being undermined during some ill-defined confrontation (with "the facts" or with the reader) that is at work here, which is what makes us anxious. We might call it the possibility of critique.

What other people might think of our writing is very much a part of the experience of writing. Writing is an intrinsically social activity, even though, at the time that it happens, it also a very individual one. Academic writing, in particular, expresses the truth that is a conversation (as opposed to what Virginia Woolf called "the loneliness that is the truth about things"). In writing, then, we must fundamentally care what other people think.

This can be taken too far. As Heidegger tells us, our existence is largely determined by the way we have "fallen" into the world of everyday concerns. One aspect of this fallenness is our recourse to "idle talk" (Gerede) in which we say things, not because we know them to be true (i.e., because we have some evidence for saying so) but because it is what "one" says on these matters. This "one", das Man, is often translated as "the they". If we did not draw on this mode of speaking, and this goes also for our writing, we would appear very strange to our readers. We must say things sometimes that only tell the reader that we, too, are ordinary, well-educated, contemporary people. That we don't see the reader as some abstract "them" but as a concrete "we" that we're also part of.

(To see a classic example of writing that does not do this, let me recommend Beckett's How It Is.)

But we must not be so worried about this that we tell them only what they want—what "the they" wants—to hear. Nor must we write in such a way that they are only able to be impressed with our intelligence. We must write in a resolute attempt to engage with their opinion. And this means being willing to inspire criticism. We might say that in order to avoid falling completely into the everyday, we must be willing to risk saying things that fly in the face of common sense.

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