Thursday, January 14, 2016

Against the Mess

"What is more true than anything else? To swim is true, and to sink is true. One is not more true than the other. One cannot speak anymore of being, one must speak only of the mess. When Heidegger and Sartre speak of a contrast between being and existence, they may be right, I don’t know, but their language is too philosophical for me. I am not a philosopher. One can only speak of what is in front of him, and that now is simply the mess." (Samuel Beckett, quoted in Marjorie Perloff's Wittgenstein's Ladder, p. 135)

Academic writing is a mess. On this point I largely agree with Julia Molinari (in the comments to my last post). Today's social scientists are struggling to establish both their objectivity (as observers of social reality) and their subjectivity (as authorities on social problems). Sometimes they feel like they don't know what they're talking about. Sometimes don't even know who they are. As Julia says, it's a mess. But, perhaps, she says, it's only as messy as the reality itself. Perhaps it's okay, then, that our texts are messy too. It's this point that I disagree with her about.

Life is, indeed, messy. And I have enormous respect for Beckett's ability to describe that mess. I'm happy to let Beckett tell me he has his "life where [he] had it where [he]'ll have it vast tracts of time part three and last in the mud [his] life murmur it bits and scraps" (How It Is, part 2, p. 51). But, as I have said before, it is the task of a scholar, a researcher, a scientist to establish a critical distance to that mess and therefore go from merely describing "how it is" and "who we are" to understanding "why it is" and even "what it is". They must, precisely, distinguish between being and beings, as Heidgger puts it. They must maintain an ontological difference, or at least have the decency to maintain the appearance of one. They can't let Gertrude Stein tell them how to write!

Julia recommends that we read John Law's "Making a Mess with Method" as an example of a kind of academic writing that does not conform to my norms. As I said in my reply to her, this reminded me of Bill Evans' words of caution. It is always tempting to imitate the most successful scholars in your field, what he calls the "top flight" people. But this, he rightly points out, leads to vagueness and confusion. It's like venturing into abstract expressionism before learning how to draw real objects. Since you are not developing the skill to neatly represent the parts of reality that can actually be represented, you are left, precisely, with the mess in front of your eyes.

But I'm going to take Julia up on her challenge and read Law's paper carefully. I should be honest and say I'm not immediately impressed with it, either in form or content, and I'm not sure it should be taken as exemplary academic writing. I'm actually not sure that Law would say we should take it that way either. But I don't think Julia is fair to Law (or to me) when she says that "His introduction bears little resemblance to the introduction [I] prescribe." It's true that I suggest three paragraphs and he gives us five, the last of which he splinters into bullet points (I also don't approve of bullets.) But please notice that, in a sense, he begins by declaring the world a mess (in the first two paragraphs) by way of announcing his "topic", i.e., his "common place" with his reader. And then (in the next two paragraphs) he makes some specific gestures at the scientific literature that he will challenge. Finally, he announces what he intends to do in the paper.

Sure, he doesn't colour inside the lines. (He talks about himself throughout, for example.) But to say it "bears little resemblance" is going too far. It resembles it enough, let's say, that I would be able to edit it into a shape fit for my form. And that, of course, is what I intend to do tomorrow. Join me, won't you? It might be fun.

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