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I wrote a contrafactum to rhythm changes today. Or I should say that one just occurred to the fingers of my right hand as I was playing, aft...

Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Merely Serviceable Writing

It's harder to come up with examples of the kind of writing that merely gets the job done but which is neither particularly good nor bad. Such writing doesn't really call attention to itself. Once we focus on a passage of writing as writing, we are likely to notice things that tip the balance in one direction or the other.

Predating the emergence of queer theory as such, Bersani's thinking about sexuality and aestehtics has mutated over the course of several decades, as I shall endeavor to show. In the context of this gradual tranformation, Homos is a transitional work, marking Bersani's passage from an emphasis on the antirelational aspects of subjective experience to his more recent focus on what, adapting a phrase from Foucault's late interviews, he calls "new relational modes." I want to suggest that Homos makes more sense in terms of this shift from the antirelational to new relational ontologies than in queer-theoretical terms. The fact that Homos was couched in terms of queer theory has tended to mislead readers who quite naturally approached it in those terms--terms that the book aimed to supersede rather than simply to revise. In other words, Homos should be read in the light of Bersani's decades-long argument about art: an argument that...

--Tim Dean, "Sex and the Aesthetics of Existence" PMLA March 2010. Emphasis added.

The prose is serviceable though graceless and verbose. I've italicized some excessive verbiage and repetitiveness. We get the basic idea: prefer this explanatory framework to this other one, without knowing exactly the content of either. (Why does queer theory not include the later Foucault, one of the founders of queer theory?) There is some confusion in the temporal framework: Bersani's work (at least some of it) predates queer theory, yet transitional work of his is couched in it, and also supersedes it. How are readers misled by understanding a work in the theoretical language in which it is couched? The repetition of the word terms is very grating. Does he really mean "ontologies" or is he reaching for a word that sounds more or less weighty? What is really at stake in understanding Bersani in this way rather than this other way?

With all these problems, can I still argue that the paragraph does its job? Yes, because we feel the author seems to know what he's talking about, writes in the academic dialect we expect from the PMLA. He's framing his argument, rhetorically speaking, in the expected ways. If he wrote "better," he might not be taken as seriously. A particular kind of gracelessness stands in for academic gravitas.


Andrew Shields said...

When I was in grad school in the late eighties, I went to a talk and first heard that horrible "I want to suggest that ..." I almost got up and left, because I thought to myself, "I don't want to hear something that you 'want to suggest'; I want you to convince me!" Little did I know that that pointless formula was going to become so pervasive!

Jonathan said...

I'm sure I've used the "want to suggest" formula myself. Here the problem is that he has already talked about what he wanted to "endeavor to show" and you don't want to "want to suggest" and "endeavor to show" in the same short passage.