Thursday, August 25, 2011

Getting Your Act Together

I began then to make those first painful efforts to acquire the most elusive habit of all, the mind of a writer, and though I could hardly judge from my early pages whether I were a talent or a fool, I continued, I went on for a little while, until I ended with an idea that many men have had, and many will have again—and indeed I started with that idea—but I knew that finally one must do, simply do, for we act in total ignorance and yet in honest ignorance we must act, or we can never learn for we can hardly believe what we are told. . .

Norman Mailer, The Deer Park, Ch. 24

[This post is the much-delayed follow-up to one of the first posts I published here at RSL. It was called "Getting Your Facts Straight". I wrote this follow-up the same day, March 9, 2005, but for some reason (bashfulness?) I never posted it. I'll write another post soon to consider the fearful symmetry I'm trying to suggest.]

Texts can be difficult. Neither writing nor reading are always easy, but over time it is something we get better at. We come to understand texts, how they work, what they do to us, and what we are supposed to do to them. And we come to understand how they are implicated in a great many other activities that both extend beyond our research and infiltrate its core.

It is the presence of this activity, which is in fact a kind of absence, or abyss, or opening in our texts, when compared to the tangible presence facts, that deconstructivists make so much of. If facts are articulated by the copula, i.e., the "is" of "The door is open," and "The fridge is empty", not the "is" of identity, as in, "George Bush is the president" or "I am Thomas Basbøll", then acts are articulated by the différance, i.e., the "becomes" of "The seed becomes the flower," not "The dress becomes the queen," the movement or process that produces difference, differentiating terms by deferring their meaning for later (it does not say what the seed is in the meantime), keeping things moving, keeping people talking.

For research is not, finally, just a collection of facts that somehow "come to light" before a panel of official witnesses. Research is an ongoing activity, as Heidegger noted, using the German word "Betrieb", which can also mean "business" or "hustle". Academic research cannot be understood if we confine our attention to the statements it makes and the facts they state. We must also have an understanding of the hustle and bustle of research, what Foucault described as its "fragile, pulsating history" or the way it relates to an experience that would otherwise be a "bloomin', buzzin' confusion," as Kuhn proposes, quoting William James. Indeed, as the ordinary ambiguity of the word "writing", which can be used as both a verb and noun, shows, academic writings (texts) must be understood not just in their manifest facticity as words that are set into a more or less orderly arrangement on a page, but in their palpable activity, i.e., as phenomena that are always experienced through acts of reading and writing.

Indeed, if facts in their various forms constitute the knowledge base of academic research and are the concern of epistemology, acts indicate that research also needs (and very definitely has) a power base that is the proper concern of an ethics of research, and therefore an ethics of academic writing. Much of the moral fervor of deconstruction has to do precisely with showing which sorts of power our knowledge depends on, and which sorts of acts (of differentiation) our facts depend upon in order to be articulated (identified). It has to do with who is speaking and who is being spoken to, i.e., the community that the research is conducted in. A good deal of the work of defining this community is done by those brackets, containing names, dates and page numbers, that we pepper our texts with.

There is a struggle within every text between the act of reading it and the act of writing it, one that we have already located in the way that we contest some facts and leave others in peace. Recall that this had everything to do with the interest we took in the arrangement of things into more or less determinate facts. Research objectifies things by implicating them in facts, but research also subjectifies (sometimes even subjugates) people by implicating them in acts. The ethics of this process are, again, the perfectly legitimate concern of deconstructive texts. Indeed, writing that deconstructs the political activity at work in experience is just as legitimate as writing that reconstructs its scientific facticity.

This is the existential moment of research. Writing makes you who you are. But only in a limited sense: it makes you who you are when you are doing research. You might say that writing the research text involves establishing a suitable "persona" (a mask) for making the sorts of statements you are interested in making. This persona will implicate you in a whole series of activities, from doing literature reviews to conducting interviews, that all establish the position from which you say what you are saying. This position also goes a long way towards defining who your reader is, i.e., it implicates also the reader in a series of activities that some people are competent at, and some people are not. Your peers are those who are good at doing the sorts of things you are good at.

"It is the acts of men, not their sentiments, that make history," wrote Norman Mailer in his Advertisements for Myself. And history, in turn, produces subjects, i.e., positions from which things can be said. An important part of the research you do, then, involves implicating yourself in a hustle and bustle of activities that your writing then emerges from. You must, that is, get your act into line with a lot of other acts that are already going on as you begin. You must get that act together. And then you must advertise it.

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