Monday, September 28, 2015


"Man is an over-complicated organism. If he is doomed to extinction he will die out for want of simplicity." (Ezra Pound, Guide to Kulchur, p. 135)

In the early twentieth century, around the time of Einstein, science was driven by the dream of reducing our understanding of the world to basic, simple principles. The physical universe was to be understood as a composition of simple mechanisms (balls, levers, walls, lenses) that could ultimately explain, at least in theory, the complexity and variety of experience. But the frontier of knowledge was pushed forward, and as the equipment that was needed to observe things that are ever smaller (think: subatomic particles) or ever more remote (think: protogalactic quasars) got more specialised, we came to realise that the "simplest constituents" were not so simple after all. Today, a scientists is not someone who is possessed of an elegant "theory of everything", but rather an expert in a particular something. And the expertise is usually evident in the mastery of a rather esoteric jargon.

Even our understanding of our own selves has been subject to this trend. The social and psychological sciences advance through the study of ever bigger datasets and ever finer neuronal networks, approached with ever more sophisticated statistics and equipment. Our basis for understanding everything from political power to artistic creativity is found, not in the lived experience of statesmen and artists, but in "scientific" methods whose application is framed by a bewildering complexity of "theories" of human behaviour. Each thesis can be competently evaluated only by a handful of specialists, and no one seems qualified to bring it all together into a comprehensive account of "human nature". "Am I," any one of us might ask, "even qualified to know who I am?"

My own interest is in writing—specifically, academic or scholarly writing— and I've lately been driven almost to despair at the sophistication with which we have theorised this practice. At this point, understanding what students are doing when they are writing essays seems to depend on resolving a series of incredibly subtle disputes between, say, Derrida, Foucault, Barthes—even Lacan—about the nature of writing and authorship. Under these conditions, it is no wonder that writing teachers are increasingly calling for us to "retire" the essay as the focus of instruction. The idea seems to be that our best available theories tell us that a five paragraph essay is as far removed from the truth about Writing as a marble on an inclined plane is from the truth about Reality. What we need is a "quantum theory" of writing, it is said, or, indeed, a "mothership of funk" to take us beyond prose and into the stars.

I have warned against this kind of sophistication before. I'm not at all sure that our efforts to improve undergraduate (or even doctoral) writing skills need to be guided by theories of writing as sophisticated as those of Michel Foucault or Roland Barthes (to confine ourselves, for the moment, to thinkers that I respect a great deal.) The vast majority of writing is done by people who are "authors" in a much less problematic sense than they (otherwise rightly) suggested. Or, to take another example (with which I am, admittedly, less familiar), I suspect that the vast majority of writing does not succeed or fail in proportion to how well it leverages the play of différance. Likewise, the great majority of the buildings in which we live and work depend neither on wave functions nor chaos effects for their stability. They are ordinary Newtonian machines. Or at least I hope this is the case.

This will be my theme this week. I am once again trying to write my way of out of a particular kind of despair about modern scholarship and present-day academia. I think writers who eschew (or avoid or neglect) the paragraph as a literary form and site of instruction are like physicists who can't describe the fall of an object under the acceleration of gravity. I guess I believe that the paragraph is as close to the truth about Writing as the inclined plane is to the truth about Reality. The simple principles and the simple machines that constitute ordinary experience are where we should begin, and where most of us can safely remain. From there, we should proceed with caution. The Devil, perhaps, lurks in the details.


Presskorn said...

This seems right. And like a good introduction to a short book. "A spectre is haunting academic writing..."

Quantum mechanics is, as Bohr and Zinkernagel in fact stressed, just a special application of Newtonian mechanics under extreme conditions and to highly unusual entities. Most writing is not of a highly unusual kind nor should we insist that it is carried out under extreme conditions.

Thomas said...

You're right. It might fit into a book I'm imagining under the title How to Know Things.