Sunday, July 13, 2014

An ABC of (Academic) Reading

A great deal of critical rancour has been wasted through a failure to distinguish between two totally different kinds of writing.


You don't sleep on a hammer or a lawn-mower, you don't drive nails with a mattress. Why should people go on applying the SAME critical standards to writings as different in purpose and effect as a lawn-mower and a sofa cushion? (Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading, p. 88)

Perhaps Julia is right to suspect that it’s bad reading, not bad writing, that is the issue. (This post is a reposting of my comment to this post of hers.) An intensely idealistic text will seem obscure when read from a realist perspective. If I read a text that is trying to get me to do something, or to feel something, as though it’s trying to get me to see something, or to think something, I’m going to get confused. But as soon as I see that the text is not indicating a fact (something for me to understand), but an act (someone I should obey), then the text, if otherwise well written, will go from “bad” to “good”. Now, I may still disagree with the text. But “prose like a windowpane” can also occasion disagreement. I may reject the feeling or action suggested, just as I may reject an author’s perception of the world.

Bertrand Russell once proposed (in his introduction to Wittgenstein’s Tractatus) that “the essential business of language is to assert and deny facts.” Well, if we grant that, we will be forced to conclude that a lot of writing is in in bad shape, not working well, “going out of business”, whatever. But maybe there’s other, no less “essential”, business to be done. Perhaps even some outright “existential” business: to enjoin and denounce acts. As it happens, I do think academic writing does well to focus on assertion, not injunction, but I think a lot of the invective that has been aimed at “postmodern” writing misses this point. It simply insists on reading a text that was intended in one way as though it was intended in another (the only way the reader seems to be able to imagine a text might ever mean something).

It probably works both ways, with postmodernists often demonstrating a strange intolerance for direct statements of plain fact, as if that kind of business is an unseemly thing for language to ever do! I sometimes think that the conflict between “modernists” and “postmodernists” is rooted in the fact that former think of language as a more or less rigorous system of reference, while the latter think of it as an elaborate system of deference. The modernist thinks that a “meaning” is something you understand or misunderstand, while the postmodernist thinks that it is something you obey or disobey.

It’s not so much two “theories of reality” or epistemologies. It’s two approaches to language. One of them is grounded in epistemology and the other in ethics. One thinks that language refers to the real, the other feels it should defer to the ideal. Of course, the truth is that language does both. And it can do both well or badly, also in writing.


Jonathan said...

Do you have any examples of a so-called postmodernist being strangely intolerant of a statement of fact? I've never seen such a thing. What usually happens is more along the lines of being impatient when somebody states a fact as though it were probative of something without first being interpreted. A fact is not an argument.

Thomas said...

You may be right that I'm interpreting that impatience as intolerance.

Or maybe I should have said "aversion". It's not so much that if you state a fact they react in some strange way, it's that they write as though they are trying to avoid simply saying that one thing or another is the case.

That said, I wrote this post/comment sort of off the top of my head and you're right to expect me to be able to provide examples. I'll see if I can come up with something.