Tuesday, April 13, 2010


An academic text has a doubly representational function. On one level, it represents the facts in the world that the article is about. On another, it represents the ideas in the head of the text's author. That is, the article puts the reader in a position to talk not only about a particular topic but also about what a particular scholar thinks on that topic. The text informs us about the world; but it also informs us about the writer's opinions.

Lately, I've begun to worry that certain configurations of theory and method are intended to avoid that second representational function. The writer believes that given a sufficently formal theory, and a sufficiently rigorous method, there is no need for the writer to believe the results of the investigation. The results speak, as it were, for themselves. The text speaks for the facts directly. The authority of the text is grounded entirely in the orthodoxy of the theory and the method applied.

The falacy here lies in imagining that theory and method govern the writing process. In reality theory and method govern how we think about and see the world, they structure our attempts to understand it. The art of writing—the problem of style—is a different game. It is all about presenting our understanding to others. In order to write, then, we must have an understanding to work with. That understanding is also what we try to represent in our teaching and in our conversations with peers. It exists independently of any particular attempt to express it.

An (unfortunately) familiar experience might help to emphasize what I mean. Sometimes a writer has been been struggling with a text for weeks or even months and then loses the manuscript because of a hardware malfunction, or virus, or whatever. There's usually some sort of backup, but it's an older version, and let's for the sake of argument imagine the (fortunately) rare case where the whole text is lost. The writer is despondent because those weeks or months of work have now been "lost". Right?

But why despair? Those weeks and months were spent articulating what you know, what you understand. When you've done it once you don't need weeks or months to do it again. You just sit down and represent what's in your head again, and this process is now easier because you already know what's there.

My point is that being a scholar is not just having the ability to write a particular kind of text. Those texts are not just physical objects built by hand (though they are also physical objects built by hand). The scholar knows what the text says. The scholar is able to converse intelligently about the content of the text. It is out of that ability, out of that intelligence, that the text is writen. The text does not emerge from some impersonal application of theory to methodically generated data. It takes thought.


Jonathan said...

Sometimes I've just abandoned a messy manuscript and started again without even looking at my first attempt. I haven't really "lost" the work I put into my first attempt, even though I no longer have those exact sentences that I put time into writing.

Thomas said...

Yes, I do that too sometimes. It's good way to rediscover or clarify what you really think on the subject.