Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Robert Boyle's Dead Mouse: some remarks on style

Academic research has a distinct literary dimension. Indeed, as Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer showed in their influential study of Thomas Hobbes and Robert Boyle*, the early days of modern science saw important innovations in what they call "literary technology", i.e., the style of writing that Boyle pioneered in reporting his experimental results. One aspect of this style, and one that he himself 'apologized' for, was his "prolixity" even "verbosity". Shapin and Schaffer call the aim of Boyle's writing "virtual witnessing": he would describe his experiments in elaborate detail in order "[to produce] in a reader's mind such an image of the experimental scene as obviates the necessity of either direct witness or replication." (p. 60) To show what this means in practice, they point out that even Boyle's illustrations, which could only be printed using arduously produced engravings, would include such details as "a mouse lying dead in the receiver" (p. 61)**. While it was not strictly speaking necessary to actually depict the mouse, and it took real effort to do it, Boyle's quest for a vivid image of the experiments led to an innovation in writing that remains with us today.

Ezra Pound, the infamous American poet, once said that "the attainment of a style consists in so knowing words that one will communicate the various parts of what one says with the various degrees and weights of importance which one wishes." (Guide to Kulchur, p. 59) He also said that his aim was to present "one facet and then another until at some point one gets off the dead and desensitized surface of the reader's mind, onto a part that will register." (p. 51)

Marcel Proust said something similar but in a less cantankerous way.

What we call reality is a certain relationship between sensations and memories which surround us at the same time, the only true relationship, which the writer must recapture so that he may for ever link together in his phrase its two distinct elements. One may list in an interminable description the objects that figured in the place described, but truth will begin only when the writer takes two different objects, establishes their relationship, and encloses them in the necessary rings of his style (art)...
He goes on to express his desire to "remove [the sensations] from the contingencies (accidents) of time". Think of these sensations as your observations (by whatever method you prefer) and think of memory as the disciplinary history of your field, summarised by the theory or theories you use (whichever they may be). The trick is not to give either your theories or your observations an air of absolute truth and necessity but, on the contrary, to respect their contingency and "enclose them in the rings of your style", in order to surround their meeting with this important atmosphere of necessity and truth.

This means you will sometimes have to go into greater detail in describing your observations than is strictly necessary for making your point. If you don't provide this "prolixity" or excessive sensuality, you risk making it appear that you are only able to observe what your theory tells you you will see. In Proust's terms, it's like only having sensations that confirm your memories, which is not really the mark of an inquiring mind, is it? Choose details that exercise your memory, even exacerbate it, even exasperate it. You have to keep Proust's warning in mind, of course, and avoid simply describing every object you see, but every now and then you will probably have to throw a dead mouse in the receiver.

*Cf. Steven Shapin and Simon Schaffer, Leviathan and the Air-Pump: Hobbes, Boyle and the Experimental Life, Princeton; Princeton University Press, 1985, Chapter 2, pp. 22-79.
**You can see one of the engravings here, though without a mouse. Mice are mentioned in the caption, however, where the "receiver" is called a "receptacle".

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