Monday, January 31, 2011

The Prose Paragraph

If there is a secret to academic writing it lies in the composition of paragraphs. You are trying to put sentences together to form paragraphs and paragraphs together to form articles. You are not trying to merely fill up pages with words. "Article" means "joint" (from Latin articulus, artus, ultimately from Proto-Indo-European ar, meaning "to fit together", which is where we also get "arm"). An article joins your knowledge to the larger conversation in your field. But it is also itself jointed. The art of writing for an academic audience develops around the composition of separable parts, or what are now called "paragraphs" (from Greek, para-graphein, the mark "beside what is written" to indicate a break in sense, or joint in the text).

This is going to be the recurrent theme of my blogging up until Easter. I'll try to write at least one post a week about paragraphs and I'm certain that this theme will allow me to discuss almost anything I like. The writing process, after all, should—in the case of academic writing—be organized around the composition of paragraphs. (At certain stages of your writing process, you should consider devoting 30 minutes at a time to one paragraph at a time.) Editing is all about deciding what each paragraph is trying to say, then shaping the paragraph to that end, and moving it to the best place in the paper to say it. Individual sentences are good or bad not in themselves but in the context of the paragraph that gives them their meaning.

A journal article consists of roughly 40 paragraphs. I like to say that this means you're trying to say roughly forty things; you are trying to support forty claims. A paragraph is merely a linguistic structure that supports a claim. Each sentence states a proposition; one of them (one in each paragraph) states the proposition that is the central claim of the paragraph, and the rest provide support for it. They hold it up.

All academic writing engages with what is known in a particular field. The writer has to know what sorts of knowledge claims (including correctives to standing but false beliefs) require a measured amount of a support in order to be staked. The paper consists of parts that each state such a claim in one sentence and provide about five sentences of support. (That 1:5 ratio is very conventional. Not every paragraph will fit this measure.) That sets up the problem of writing very neatly: to write a journal article you have to construct forty six-sentence paragraphs, 240 sentences organized into 40 groups.

You have to know enough to write them. I can't help you very much with that. But I can help you think about how to break up that knowledge into sensible parts and then fit them together into a meaningful whole.

Friday, January 28, 2011


There was a time when people thought that the Morning Star and the Evening Star were different objects. Then it was discovered that they are, in fact, the same object, namely, Venus, observed at different times. Frege used this discovery in his analysis of identity. The Morning Star = The Evening Star, a = b.

What he was rightly worried about was how to express the content of the discovery. What does "a = b" convey that is not just "a = a"? If words mean whatever they refer to, and "Morning Star" and "Evening Star" refer to the same thing (Venus), then the sentence "The Morning Star is the Evening Star" and "The Morning Star is the Morning Star" finally mean the same thing. And this can't be right, because the first of those sentence summarizes an important scientific discovery while the second is simply a tautology.

Frege solved the problem by distinguishing between the "sense" (Sinn) and the "reference" (Bedeutung) of a proposition. I won't get into that here. My own solution rejects the identification of the Morning Star with the Evening Star. When we refer to the Morning Star we are referring to a point of light in the Morning sky, visible before the sun comes up, when we refer to the Evening Star we are referring to a point of light visible in the Evening. When we refer to Venus we are referring to a planet. (Leave aside the completely different meaning of Venus as a goddess.)

I sometimes think this makes me a "postmodernist". I am willing to multiply the practical problems of reference in order to avoid creating theoretical problems of meaning. I am willing to play with the signifier in order to avoid some hard work with the concept. Obviously, both solutions, Frege's and mine, have their advantages and disadvantages. Frege was concerned with the identity of Venus—actually, he was worried about identity as such. I am worried about "the difference between Venus"—difference as such.

At least on some days.

* * *

This is my last post on postmodernism (a pun I forgot to exploit!) for a while. Next week, I'm going to begin an obsessive love affair with the paragraph. It's probably going to occupy this blog up until Easter. I want show that academic writing amounts to constructing and arranging prose paragraphs. In time and space.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Problem as a Verb

"A careful description of the desire to escape may indicate the bind.”

There are people who use the words "problematize" and "problematic" (when used as a noun) as shibboleths to identify postmodernists. They aren't entirely wrong about this. Postmodernism does indeed circle about problems in a distinctive way. It rejects the idea that our job is to solve problems or answer questions; rather, it suggests, "It is enough that the question should be posed with sufficient force" (Deleuze, DR, p. 107).

Modernists search for solutions. They pose questions in order to answer them. Indeed, the "problem" is usually ignorance of some set of facts, and the solution, then, is simply to obtain knowledge of those facts. As I usually say, that's a perfectly respectable project. But it is not the only possible one.

One not quite postmodern alternative is Wittgenstein's approach to "philosophical problems". He believed that philosophical problems are different from other kinds of problems in that they don't have solutions; rather, what is needed is a dissolution of the problem. To free ourselves from it, we must show that the apparent problem is not really a problem. Philosophical problems are pseudo-problems, false problems, and the philosophers job is to expose their falsity.

Postmodernists do not abandon the search for solutions on the assumption that the problems aren't real. On the contrary, they acknowledge the reality of the problem more strongly than the reality of the solution. Drawing on the experience of "neuropaths and psychopaths", Deleuze puts it as follows:

They bear witness to that transcendence, and to the most extraordinary play of the true and the false which occurs not at the level of answers and solutions but at the level of the problems themselves, in the questions themselves—in other words, in conditions under which the false becomes the mode of exploration of the true, the very space of its essential disguises or its fundamental displacement: the pseudos here becomes the pathos of the True. (DR, p. 106)

This somewhat romantic attitude to mental illness is no longer fashionable, but it is still an essential part of the postmodern attitude at one level. Even madness should not, says the postmodernist, simply be construed as a "problem" to which psychiatry is then entrusted to find a "solution". Rather, madness should be explored as a "problematic" in its own right.

Simplifying somewhat, we might say that in Madness and Civilization, Foucault turned the problem of psychiatry on its head. He sought the problem to which madness is a solution. He did not want to solve the problem of insanity; he wanted to "problematize" the psychiatric solution. To problematize is simply to elaborate the "essential disguises" of the true, to trace its "fundamental displacement". To solve a problem, by contrast, is to expose the truth, to nail it down.

As always, the difference here is one of attitude, a difference of mental style. It is as old as the difference between "classical" and "romantic" writing. I, for one, do not believe that the question of whether we are postmodern or modern (or what we should be) can be settled once and for all. Sometimes we solve this problem in our writing and sometimes it remains (a) problematic. Both require strength in prose to face.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Decentering the Subject

I know who I am. Is this an accomplishment or a tautology? On the "modern" view, the self (who I am) has perfect access to itself. It is given in experience as its center; experience goes on around it. The subject, on this view, has certain essential characteristics that are given in advance of experience (a priori). It does not learn what (who) it is by experience. Rather, what experience is—human experience, at least—depends on these pre-given characteristics of the subject. Who I am is not an empirical question. It is what I know before I begin my inquiries.

On the modern view of science, then, the scientific subject (the subject of scientific knowledge) is given in advance of any particular study. The study does not draw its own subjectivity into question. With postmodernism, however, this changes. The point from which the world is studied becomes part of the question we put to the world. Just as we cannot simply assert, without argument, what is the case, we cannot simply assume who we are. Nor, perhaps more importantly, can we assume that we will remain who we are during or after the study.

The study itself will change us. And we will change in any case, independent of the study. The self does not stand in the middle of life watching it happen all around; it is merely a part of life, part of the process. So, on this view, your sense of self is an accomplishment; it is not an entitlement. Moreover, it is a collective accomplishment. We are not alone in being ourselves. Others have a constitutive influence on our identity.

These notions—subjectivity, identity, self—go together, and with another: agency. In the past (before, say, 1968), they marked the limits of appropriate inquiry. "I am I" was not open to doubt in decent company. We were free agents, we had our rights. Under "postmodern conditions", "I am I" is an entirely empty, and somewhat quaint notion. It is like the prisoner who says to the guard, "But I am different. I am innocent." "Sure you are," says the guard. "Sure you are."*

The interesting thing here is that whether or not the self is "centered" is itself either an empirical question or not. If you are a modernist, you oppose the idea of even raising it, except in the privacy of your mind, or perhaps in the confidence of your "personal" acquaintances. It is none of our business. It is not a public concern. The postmodernist, however, takes your identity to be very much a public matter. "Yes, it's fucking political!" declares Skunk Anansie. No, it's fucking not, says the modernist. (I sometimes take that line myself.)

This is no doubt one reason that postmodernism is a fundamentally contested notion. It cannot bring itself up without controversy. It isn't sure of itself.

*I can't at the moment remember what novel this scene is from. Camus' The Stranger? Kafka? Dostoevsky? If anyone recognizes it, please let me know.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Social Science and the Humanities

The more I think about it, the more critical of social science "as such" I become. The social and administrative sciences, we should remember, have long been seen (from the time of Woodrow Wilson, for example) as a basis for more effective government. I want to stress "effective" here; I did not say "better" government. Those who have promoted social science in the twentieth century, it seems to me, have been concerned mainly with the stability and efficacy of state and corporate power through the deliberate construction of "public opinion". (See William Bottom's excellent article about this subject.) Social science, on the whole, is the process of determining what people should think about their society. Fortunately, some social scientists have taken a "critical" approach to this process, going at the same "facts" about "public opinion" through the notion of, for example, "ideology". Others really have tried to see the role that state power plays in perpetuating social problems.

But in all cases, it seems to me, social science affirms the legitimacy of the state. I don't have the presence of mind this morning I would need to make the case even partly, but I think there something inherently "statist" about conceiving of society as a set of facts, even one (very large) fact itself. Social science is, essentially, the basis of (state and corporate) policy. Even "critical" social and management science is addressed to policy makers and bureaucrats. Its first allegiance, therefore, is to what Norman Mailer described as "the vast lie about the essential health of the state, an elaborated fiction whose bewildering interplay of real and false detail must devil the mass into a progressively more imperfect apperception of reality" (Advertisements for Myself, p. 355). Mailer, of course, was a novelist, and he conceived of the novel as a kind of social theory, i.e., the art of perfecting our "apperception" (our sense of self-in-society, we might say).

That's the difference, I would argue, between social science and the humanities. Social science believes in "the vast lie about the essential health of the state"; the humanities, steeped in its experience of what Robert Graves called "the huge impossibility of language" is committed instead to the arduous labour of "self-fashioning". If it is true, and I believe it is, that a change is coming to business education, shifting it from a basis in the social sciences to a basis in the liberal arts, then this is the change it implies. Management research and teaching in a humanistic vein would shift the emphasis from the state to the self, from policy to personality. There's room for all kinds of abuses here too, of course. We can certainly imagine a "vast lie about the essential health of the self" .... which is a great place to stop thinking about social science and turn (next week) to the questions about postmodernism that I have been putting off.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Social Facts, Social Problems, and Social Science (part 2)

"The problem from the beginning was not Moynihan’s publication of what were actually well-established facts, but rather his distorted interpretation of these facts. ... If Moynihan’s critics were unusually vociferous, this was because they understood what was at stake." (Stephen Steinberg)

Brayden King's post at OrgTheory is a great illustration of the constitutive tension between social facts and social problems in social science that I was talking about on Monday. Here the question is whether "cultural factors", which are a subset of the totality of social facts, ought to be invoked in our explanation of poverty, which is one of the classic social problems.

Brayden takes an explicitly pro-science position, going so far as to call Steinberg "anti-science":

The main problem I have with Steinberg’s argument, as a complete outsider to the field, is that he seems to be saying that we should reject all cultural mechanisms that might explain variance in poverty, regardless of their actual explanatory power. This dogmatic stance seems very anti-science and anti-scholarly inquiry. Rejecting explanatory mechanisms without empirical evidence is a sure way to stultify the progress of knowledge about our social world.

I am more inclined to grant Steinberg's point, even in the somewhat sharpened version that Brayden offers. In the case of Moynihan's report, in fact, Steinberg, it seems to me, is challenging precisely the explanatory power of cultural factors: "Moynihan made the fatal error of inverting cause and effect." But even in the case where an "empirical" argument could be made that a group's culture explains why it is poor it will, it seems to me, be difficult to decide whether to stop the analysis before explaining that group's culture.

That, again, is the constitutive issue of social science. Once we have discovered a set of social facts that have sufficient explanatory relevance and that we have sufficient "empirical evidence" for, we must ask whether those facts are also relevant to the solution of an interesting social problem. As Small et al.'s paper and Steinberg's response show, social scientists simply don't confine themselves to Brayden's rules of critique. Sometimes social scientists do disregard the "science" of their work and criticize each other based on the more or less obvious political implications of what they are saying. Sometimes they grant the "empirical basis" for the sake of argument. The reason is that there may be some larger fact that sufficiently explains the "factors" in question, and social scientists might see it as their duty to discover that larger fact before legitimizing well-established myths about the factors.

One way to look at this debate is through the implicit principle that any factual explanation must identify that which must be changed to fix the problem. (This principle can be seen in Steinberg's commentary here, for example: "it is not their culture that needs to be changed, but rather a political economy that fails to provide jobs that pay a living wage to millions of the nation’s poor, along with a system of occupational apartheid that has excluded a whole people from entire job sectors throughout American history.") If it would be inappropriate—or even just unrealistic—to "fix" the culture of the poor, then it is irrelevant to study it. Otherwise, the sociologist is merely explaining why society "has to be" the way it actually is. Some social scientists appear to be content to produce such explanations. Fortunately, the field of sociology as a whole remains critical of them.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Social Facts, Social Problems, and Social Science (part 1)

You can say that I've grown bitter, but of this you may be sure:
the rich have got their channels in the bedrooms of the poor.

Leonard Cohen

There's an issue I need to deal with before working through the four aspects of postmodernism I identified in my last post. It's the basic question of what is meant by "social science". The intuitive answer is that it is the methodical pursuit of knowledge about society. On this view, social science is founded on the idea that society consists of discoverable facts. Most social scientists, however, would not be content to discover just any old set of facts about social life. They are not merely "curious" about society; rather, they would like to discover the roots of what are sometimes called "social problems". Here were are thinking of things like crime and poverty, inequality and racism. Social science, then, is normally also taken to be the search for solutions to these social problems.

The underlying idea here, of course, is that we have these social problems because we don't know enough about how society works. But this immediately raises the question of who "we" are. After all, crime and poverty are "problems" for different people in different ways. The rich, obviously, are worried about poverty from a different perspective than the poor. The same goes, almost as obviously, for crime. Much of the debate about "postmodernism" in social theory and the status of sociology as a "science" is really about the construction of the perspective in which "social facts" and "social problems" are brought together. The facts and problems may be as "real" as you like. The question remains. Who are you to take an interest in them?

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Postmodern Conditions

Last week we had a long and stimulating discussion over at OrgTheory about the relevance of postmodernism to sociological theory. One underlying issue seems to be the question of what postmodernism even is. So I've decided to spend four (maybe five) posts clarifying what I take it to be.

I take the word "postmodernism" to mark an epochal shift in thinking in a wide variety of fields, both in the humanities and the social sciences. The shift takes place at different times in different fields, many making the move decisively around or after 1968 as part of a much more general shift in Western culture. Some fields, especially as practiced in North America, have a period when postmodernism was taken very seriously for a time and even came to dominate (in our discussion, the years 1980-1995 were suggested in sociology) but where it has since gone out of fashion. Other fields and subfields—especially, I would argue, in organization studies—are just beginning to learn what postmodernism is.

It is useful to go back to Lyotard's very influential "report on knowledge", The Postmodern Condition. This is where the idea that postmodernism means the end of "grand narratives" (or "metanarratives") comes from. I won't be making very much out of that; or rather, I think my sense of postmodernism has to do with the consequences of this decline of overarching systems of thought. I will leave on the side the obvious concern that postmodernism itself employs the grand narrative device of a "waning" or "decline" of something. It can be argued that only "modernists" (including some who call themselves "postmodernists") would inscribe postmodernism in a "rise and fall" narrative, even if that be the rise and fall of modernism.

To my mind, postmodernism consists of at least four distinct concerns. First, there is the crisis of representation; second, there is the de-centering of the subject; third, a cultivation of the problem ("problematization"); and fourth, there is the theme of difference. The contrasting characteristics of "modernism" are a confidence about representation, the centrality of the subject, the search for solutions, and the theme of identity. And here I should say that "modernism" means something different on its own; it has a particular sense as the implicit "pre-" of post-modernism. I should also say that my take on postmodernism grants a central place to Gilles Deleuze's Difference and Repetition (1968), as will be clear to anyone familiar with that book. The two obvious competitors to the title of the "philosopher of postmodernism" are, of course, Michel Foucault and Jacques Derrida.

What I have just done is to sketch out my task over the next few posts, which I will spread out through the rest of January. In February, I will get back to more practical concerns.

Friday, January 07, 2011


Jonathan posted some good ideas about "the structure of the writing session" yesterday. On Monday, in the comments to the post on the New Year's Challenge, I answered Matt's question about planning work on multiple projects by suggesting he could just divide up the writing session—one hour for project A, two for project B. This raises questions about what some people might disparage as "micro-management", i.e., managing your work down to the smallest details, "minute by minute", if you will. Some people find that oppressive.

But keep in mind that micro-management is a term of derision for how managers treat subordinates. It is only when someone else takes too detailed an interest in how you do your work, task by task rather than result by result, that we should rightly feel oppressed, mismanaged. There is nothing wrong with taking a detailed interest in your own organization of work. Be as detailed as you need to be to get things done.

As always, my suggestions only work if you (a) are not satisfied with your writing process as it is and (b) if you interpret my suggestions to suit your particular needs and abilities. I am not saying that you have to work exactly this way or that you're doing something "wrong" if you don't. I am not your manager; I am your consultant. I'm suggesting that you think about your work in a particular way and (almost) promising you that this will improve your performance and general enjoyment of life.

* * *

In other news, we've been having a very engaging discussion over at OrgTheory this week about the place of postmodernism in sociological theory. I'll write a post about it soon to get my own ideas in order. Blog debates are unruly things, but they really do offer a good occasion to see what you think by forcing you to say it in more or less real time. It seems that I've got some thinking to do about my position on social "science", which turns out to be a bit more radical than I normally let on. Something similar happened last month at a workshop on "affect" in social theory.

Wednesday, January 05, 2011

The Best Laid Plans

"What managers keep forgetting is that it is the action, not the plan, that explains their success. They keep giving credit to the wrong thing—namely, the plan—and, having made this error, spend more time planning so that they'll have more good outcomes. They are astonished when more planning improves nothing." (Karl Weick 1995: 55)

Readers of this blog know that I'm not often in agreement with Karl Weick about how to do things. The above quote is a classic example of where we differ. It is, of course, the plan plus the action that explains success, not the action or the plan alone. This goes very much for writing.

It is not the act of writing alone that makes you a successful writer, though you do of course actually have to write. What will make you a successful writer is writing according to an intelligent plan. While it's true that you should always spend more time writing than planning your writing, writers who are not succeeding as much as they would like will often get a great deal out of "spending more time planning", i.e., more time than they currently do. Often, they just need to go from intending to write or planning to write (as in, "I plan to write this paper next semester"), to planning their writing, i.e., making a plan for how they will get it done.

Plans can get quite detailed. At some stages of writing you only need to know what parts of the paper you are going to be working on from day to day. (The minimum planning horizon is to know what you will be writing about in the morning before you go to bed.) But at other stages it can be useful to have a plan that forces you quickly through each part or aspect of your paper over, say, a week or two or four. Here your plan might divide your time into hours or even half hours. Your tasks might be as specific as "Write a paragraph showing that..." or "Work on the last paragraph of the methods section for 30 minutes." Acting on such a plan will explain your success.

The fact that even the best laid plans can go awry and that no one ever follows a plan to the letter (or the minute) does not make planning a ridiculous exercise. "Plans are a lot like maps," as Weick says. But it is simply not true, as he also says, that "any old map will do" or that "more planning improves nothing". As I said in my last post, you've probably got about 240 hours to get something done this semester. You've probably got some specific papers in mind that you want to get written. You need to find an intelligent way to spend those hours to achieve your goals. Ask yourself: what are the 100 or 200 actions that you need to take over the next 240 hours of writing? How many of those tasks can you define very clearly already today? 100? 50? 25? 10? Surely this is not an absurd question. Surely you will not be "astonished" to find planning helpful here. But if you are going to be astonished that all planning and no acting doesn't get the job done, well, then, yes, you have forgotten something quite important. And quite obvious.

Monday, January 03, 2011

A New Year's Challenge

Everyone knows that New Year's resolutions don't work. Every year, therefore, I begin by issuing my 16-week writing challenge. I think resolutions rarely work because they are formulated as vague goals (e.g., "lose weight", "quit smoking") rather than well-defined programs (e.g., "go jogging on Tuesday and Thursday mornings at 6:15"). We can only resolve to do something, not to successfully achieve our goals. My suggestion today, then, is that you replace your resolution to "write more this year" with a resolution to submit to 16 weeks of writing discipline before summer (and then, perhaps, another 16 in the fall).

We begin with some basic math. There are ten weeks from the end of January until the Easter break. There are then another six weeks until the end of May. (Normally, I try to break the challenge into two 8-week parts, with a one-week break between them, but this year that would delay the start until mid-February and take us well into June.) 16 weeks of 5 working days each is 80 days. If you imagine writing for three hours a day, that gives you 240 hours. Let that be the maximum limit. Try to appreciate the finitude of your resources (time).

Now, look into your calendar from January 31 to May 27. Block out the Easter and May holidays (in Denmark there are quite a few statutory holidays; adjust the challenge to your local conditions; in fact, Easter may not be especially relevant for your purposes). Resolve to write every remaining weekday for at least 30 minutes and at most 3 hours. (Never write for a whole day.) Book these sessions into your calendar. In an ideal world you would book 80 three-hour sessions from, say, 9:00 to noon. But you'll probably have to settle for about 70 sessions, many of which will only last 30 minutes. It all depends on your time and, to an extent, on your resolve.

How many hours of writing time does that give you? How much do you realistically think you can accomplish in that time? Set some writing goals on that basis. Then break those goals up into smaller tasks ("things to do") and assign those tasks time in your calendar. Be as a specific as possible about what you will be writing on a particular day. Try to be realistic. If you need time for "free writing" or "thought writing" (writing to find out what you think) book that into your calendar as well, but the important part of the challenge is to find time to write down what you already know needs to be written. If you don't yet know what you're going to say this semester, then your challenge is to spend your writing time figuring that out. Keep in mind that we are only talking about sixteen weeks in the very near future. Surely you know something about what you are going to write.

Assuming that you do have something say, then, here's the challenge: write always and only when (and what) your calendar tells you to. Don't write when "inspired" to do so (unless this happens to coincide with your writing schedule) and do everything possible to keep your appointments with yourself (the writer). Here's a post about how to deal with fits of inspiration.

My posts this week will be about how to make a sustainable writing plan. If this is your first exposure to the challenge, I recommend you commit some time in January to planning, while also doing a bit of (planned) free writing to see what you want to say. Think seriously about what you want (and are able) to get written before summer. Plan to write it. Then resolve only to stick to your plan. Happy New Year!