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Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Flatness

[This post is by Thomas Basbøll]

This week I'm working on the background section of my summer writing project, and I'm already starting to notice something that I will have to fix in the rewrite. I'm going to stick to my plan, anyway, for reasons that I think will become clear, and because there's a principle here: make a plan and then follow it through. Only afterwards should you evaluate how it worked as a whole. Don't just "realize" that the plan is wrong at some point and then start over. That's a sure way of never getting done.

Here's the thing I've noticed: The background section is supposed to be "informative". Even if some readers already know what you are telling them, it should be written as though the reader needs to be told these things. But my background section is actually more like what Wittgenstein called a "synopsis of trivialities". We can, perhaps, say it serves as what Orwell called a "restatement of the obvious", which he said was the duty of intelligent people to provide in particularly bad times. The problem with this rhetorical strategy is that it constructs a reader that needs almost "remedial" assistance, who needs to be reminded of elementary truths. It's not the best way to win their favor.

The alternative is to tell the story of how these obvious truths have been forgotten by "most people". This basically means telling the story of the how the mission of the university changed since the second world war, and, more dramatically, since 1968. Readers will be happy to be given some detailed information about this history, even if they understand the general point.

This reframing will also have an effect on the theory section that has been introduced in the second paragraph of the paper. The epistemology I outline here is too closely aligned with the one I want to present in my analysis, making it unclear what my proposal adds, or rather, what it challenges. I'm focusing too much on the parts of the received view (the current consensus) that I agree with, rather than those that really worry me.

The result is a paper that is too "flat". It merely moves from one truth to another as though they're all on the same rhetorical level. What I want to do is pull a set of erroneous abstractions down to the concrete particulars on which they must founder. I don't just want to build my proposal on the foundation of a set of indisputable truths. I'll respectfully assume that the reader's foundations are largely in order, and leave them otherwise implicit.

So I have to emphasize the way the uptake of "post-structuralism", however right its founding insight may have been, has led to a misunderstanding of the nature of specifically "academic" knowledge. Interestingly, the new and, in an important sense dominant, view has been described as a "textual epistemology", i.e., as a conception of knowledge that emerges from seeing the importance of writing to contemporary research practices. My writing-centered epistemology is nonetheless a corrective to this view. It meets the orthodoxy on its own turf.

Finally, a quick note on process. Next week I'm going to see if I can increase the pace to two paragraphs a day, and the week after to three. That way I should be able to have the draft done by the end of the month.

1 comment:

Jonathan said...

I did notice that flatness. What is missing is the sense of urgency, the "why" behind the information, or something to make it come alive. As a deliberate exercise in saying what you know in brief paragraphs, its works, but it lacks rhetorical justification, somehow. I think this post identifies the problem.