The voice

Last time I was writing (yet again) about blogging, or more generally about academic work published online, which we might or might not call “the digital humanities.” But DH is a bit of a red herring, as the question is not “does blogging count as digital humanities?,” but “does blogging count?” As in, does it count as real intellectual work in the humanities?

Don’t make the mistake of confusing “real intellectual work in the humanities” for recognition within the academy, though. That’s mostly what I wrote about last time: the way that academia is, in Ramsey Dukes’s terms, a religious culture, and as such is not inclined to accept work that fails to consult its high priests. But not all writing plays the same game. Do the essays of Montaigne constitute a legitimate intellectual project? Or (if that’s pitching it a trifle high) how about J. Hoberman’s writings on film and American culture? Or Susan Sontag’s book On Photography? Or the music essays of Geoffrey O’Brien? Or David Foster Wallace’s essays on tennis, television, and David Lynch? Or M. C. Richards’s Centering? Would you refuse to acknowledge the intellectual legitimacy of these writings just because they couldn’t pass peer review in modern academic journals? Surely only the most bigoted and Gradgrindian professor would insist that the academic game is the only game in town.

So what makes those books different from academic monographs? A rude answer might be “those are books that people might conceivable keep on their nightstands.” Not even academics are likely to read a standard scholarly monograph in that short blessed interval between going to bed and going to sleep — for pleasure, in other words. Academia generally has a hard time with pleasure. We are supposed to be after truth, not pleasure, and there is a long tradition (both religious and philosophical) of thinking that aesthetic pleasure in particular is not only indifferent in truth but actively opposed to it. “Aesthetic” is a dirty word in the contemporary humanities anyhow, at least that part of it that insists on the priority of “the political” in all discussions of culture. (A religious insistence if ever there was one, though that’s an argument for another day.)

So to an academic audience it probably seems strange to suggest that an academic writer might value blogging primarily because it enables him to cultivate a personal style, which is the sort of thing we associate with the belles lettres. But that’s pretty much exactly where I was going in my last post. I don’t actually care that much about blogging as such, or the specific medium of the blog; I value the way my own blog has allowed me to develop a voice that is not unrelated to my formal, church-clothes, academic writing, but which isn’t the same as it either.

For a long time I didn’t really value my blog voice, or even notice that I was “developing” or “cultivating” one. I thought that blog writing was fun and got my name out there (this being that anxious early point in my academic career where I was on the hustle and trying to Make It) and I liked some of the ideas I had hashed out over the years. But only after Jonathan and I restarted Dial M in 2013 did it dawn on me that (1) people read my blog writing a lot more than my formal writing, because (2) it’s a lot more readable. And (3), that writing has developed its own distinct form and style and has become its own autonomous intellectual project.

And in the last year or so I have come to value this project, and the particular writing voice that has evolved to suit it, more than my more traditionally “academic” stuff. Or perhaps it’s truer to say that, if there has been a gap between the voice of my formal academic writing and that of my blogging, it has narrowed considerably. The stuff I’m writing offline is a lot more like the stuff I’m writing online than it used to be, to a large extent because I no longer see the point in keeping them separate.

It’s still a bit of a mystery to me why blogging has brought forth the particular style of writing it has. Maybe there’s just something about the blog platform compose screen that triggers some Pavolvian response and I just start flowing. More likely, it’s the fact that I am writing for an audience I imagine a particular way. If you’ve ever wondered how martial artists can punch through cinderblocks, it’s because they practice punching through the target, not at the target. They visualize the focal point of their attack a few inches behind their actual strike point, and somehow this difference in mental framing alters the force of the blow. I don’t really know who’s reading Dial M or what they think about it, but I have a target in mind, and I aim at that. We do the same in our academic writing, too, but we almost always aim at an audience of peer reviewers we imagine to be harshly critical and eager to be displeased. Elsewhere I have quoted George Orwell as saying that good writing can only happen when the writer is not afraid, and if this is true (as I think it is) then there is much to be said for writing for an imagined audience that doesn’t scare the hell out of us.*

And perhaps the most important difference between my formal writing and my blog writing is simply that for the latter I can imagine an audience that wants to hear a story. There is something narrative about writing in this medium. I don’t mean to say that I’m always writing stories, because obviously I’m not. It’s more like you become aware of improvising a line of thought, in something of the non-take-two way that typewriting models most clearly, that places items of thought together in narrative fashion. It’s not that I don’t edit these posts; a lot of the discipline of this kind of writing lies in polishing it up while figuring out how to hold onto the non-take-two voice. (Paradoxically, editing allows you to burnish that feeling of directness and spontaneity; as George Burns said, sincerity is everything, if you can fake that you’ve got it made.) But in the frame of the medium, you becomes aware of the push and pull of ideas as they entrain themselves.

It’s a musical thing, actually. When we listen to or play music, we are aware that its themes and harmonies follow one another in a certain rhythm and with a certain logic that gives us the same feeling of a well-told story, though without giving us any concrete narrative events to hang them on. We have a sense of eventness without event. And in some obscure way it is the same kind of eventness that makes up our lives. In Art as Experience, John Dewey puts it well:

Music, having sound as its medium, thus necessarily expresses in a concentrated way the shocks and instabilities, the conflicts and resolutions, that are the dramatic changes enacted upon the more enduring background of nature and human life. The tension and the struggle has its gatherings of energy, its discharges, its attacks and defenses, its mighty warrings and its peaceful meetings, its resistances and resolutions, and out of these things music weaves its web.

If I were to put it very briefly, I would say that for me, blogging elicits the music that is in writing. Maybe that’s why I keep calling it “voice.”

All of which gets me inching back towards something I’ve been trying to get away from in this post, which is the idea that what I’m after in writing is as much aesthetic as purely intellectual. But as soon as I write I have to backpedal furiously, because that sounds like I’m saying “academic writing is boring and the writing I admire is interesting, so therefore my writing will differ from other academic writing by being more beautiful.” This is an empty, smug, self-serving distinction, like Norman Mailer announcing his intention to write hipper books than anyone else. If you say it no-one will believe it and everyone will hate you.

Don't hate me because I'm beautiful.

Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful.

No, I am trying to make a fairly neutral and functionalistic distinction: what I am after, and what is characteristic of the writing that I most admire, is an integrity of form and content.

The main thing in a piece of academic writing is the content — the idea, the fruits of research. The most common ideal of good writing in academia is one in which the idea is communicated as elegantly as possible. Writing, on this account, is a medium of transmission for an idea, and poor writing is something like data loss or noise in the signal. So from this point of view, content and form (the shape the writing takes) are closely linked, but in a clearly hierarchical relationship: first the idea, then the words for the idea. On this account, writing is instrumental; it is for something. Its beauty is the beauty of industrial design, a beauty whose touchstone is elegance.

The opposite of this kind of writing is what academics call “journalistic,” which usually means “dumbed-down.” When academics wrinkle the nose at what they take to be vulgarized popular treatments of serious topics, they believe that this kind of writing inverts the hierarchy: it is style first, ideas second. If the aesthetic ideal of the academic monograph is elegance, which we might think of as the greatest density and complexity of thought conveyed with the greatest economy and clarity — the clearest signal, the smallest data loss, the minimum of redundancy — then dumbed-down writing presents drastic data loss and lack of economy. Its stylistic fillips (jokes, everyday slang, personal anecdotes, etc.) don’t do anything to convey a complex idea, but merely distract or confuse. The full complexity of the idea is lost in favor of “accessibility.” This is quite true of bad popularizing writing, but the problem is that academics come to think of “accessibility” as the sole hallmark of intellectual writing in a popular style. This, again, is conceiving of writing in an instrumental way, only now the purpose being served is not the lossless transmission of an idea but a lossy, accessible transmission.

The problem is that either way, whether we are thinking of writing as “scholarly” or “popular,” we are tacitly accepting the idea that there is a form/content divide in writing on ideas.  What I am after is different. The writing I like holds style and substance, form and content, writing and ideas, in an indivisible unity, an integrity. The idea is suggested by the shape of the writing, and writing takes its shape from its writer’s ideas. Style and substance are the two sides of a coin, or (a less hackneyed metaphor) the poles of a circuit. Even to write in this way is to suggest a duality where none truly exists.

Theodor Adorno, of all people, makes this point very well. Adorno is probably responsible for more bad writing than any other thinker of the 20th century, and that’s saying something. Countless academics have followed the example of his labyrinthian prose altogether too well, though not too wisely. But his own writing is, in its odd way, beautiful. And his advice on writing from Minima Moralia is spot-on:

Skepticism against the oft-cited objection, that a text, a formulation would be “too beautiful.” The reverence for the matter [Sache: thing, philosophic matter], or even for suffering, can easily rationalize the resentment against those who find, in the reified shape of language, the traces of something unbearable, which befalls human beings: debasement. The dream of an existence [Dasein: existence, being] without shame, to which the passion for language clings, even though the latter is forbidden to depict the former as content, is to be maliciously strangled. The author should make no distinction between beautiful and factual [sachlichem: factual, objective, realistic] expression. One should neither entrust this distinction to concerned critics, nor tolerate it in oneself. If one succeeds in completely saying what one means, then it is beautiful. The beauty of expression for its own sake is by no means “too beautiful,” but ornamental, artsy, ugly. Yet whoever leaves off from the purity of the expression, under the pretext of unswervingly stating the facts, thereby betrays the matter [Sache] too.

Oh, and happy thanksgiving.

*I should also point out that even though you can’t exactly see it, the audience for a blog is a lot more present to one’s experience that the audience for more traditional kinds of publications. As I write and publish online I am constantly getting into conversations in the comments section, on Twitter, in personal emails, or in person, for example when I am at the national AMS meeting and people come up to say hi. (I love it when that happens.) And those conversations can have a huge influence on what I write. Come to think of it, just this morning I retweeted something from Brian Eno to this effect:

Screen Shot 2015-11-25 at 5.21.11 PM

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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7 Responses to The voice

  1. David Hunter says:

    Adorno’s problem was that he wrote in German, a language with such a penchant for abstract nouns and noun-phrases that the ideal becomes both the only thing worth writing about in academe and even more separated from reality than mere Platonic generality.
    Also, I think you do a dis-service to all those persons and occasions listed in the Acknowledgements of our non-fiction to say that they are somehow less present than the audience for a blog, both before and after publication. Those librarians, friends, enemies, authors, editors, reviewers, students, spouses, publishers, designers, funders, etc., and lectures, seminars, broadcasts, etc. all impinge upon the ultimate form, content, style and yes, readability, of our “more traditional kinds of publications.” In thanking and/or citing them we do the minimum to recognize our own indebtedness, to acknowledge the provision of what may have been essential sparks to our own creative processes.

  2. philphord says:

    Hi David,

    I actually made this exact point in the (very long) acknowledgements section of my book. I’ve even blogged about this:

    But the experience of accumulating influences and debts plays out differently in different media, I find.

  3. grahamlarkin says:

    Here’s another way of addressing the distinction between blogging and academic writing.

    Most of the writers you mention (Montaigne, Orwell, Wallace, and Sontag to some extent) are essayists. To essay means to try out some line of thinking or feeling without knowing (or particularly caring) where it’s going. An essay unfolds in the form of a stream of consciousness, a sally, a conversation with one’s self. Like most conversations, it will probably meander in all kinds of odd directions until it has run its course.

    In scholarly writing, by contrast, the writer knows precisely where she’s going because she has worked it all out well in advance, and orchestrated it very carefully, and edited the living shit out of it. And she will be obliged to really hammer home all that careful structuring by positing a thesis, defining parameters, summarizing arguments, and maybe even stating conclusions in advance.

    The academic impulse toward comprehensiveness, conclusiveness and control runs counter to the spirit of the essay proper–which is the spirit in which your Dial M posts are written.

  4. philphord says:

    Hi Graham,

    That’s a useful distinction, very much on point. I think the essayistic quality varies by author and work; what you say applies well to Montaigne and Orwell but unevenly to others. “Essayistic” is a much better description of the kind of voice I’m interested in than “journalistic,” though. I like the way your understanding of “essay” is related to the word’s etymology: an essay is an attempt, a try at thinking (and writing) through something. A word from music, “etude,” is not far off: an etude in something is a dedicated attempt to work out a specific technical or artistic problem.

    The way you mark the distinction between the academic essay and the essayistic essay is also on point — the “academic impulse toward comprehensiveness, conclusiveness and control” is aimed at eliminating the traces of searching, working out, attempting, thought in motion, “thinking” rather than “thought.” The integrity of form and content has to do with this: in the essayistic register I’m talking about, the specific motion and trajectory of thinking as it takes wing is itself the “content” of the writing, at least in part.

  5. David A. Powers says:

    Great essay, and I dug the reference to Minima Moralia. My thoughts: The belief that form and content can be neatly separated is a serious problem plaguing academics. This attitude instrumentalizes and cheapens form. The academic preference for a certain standardized type of form is also authoritarian. It rewards conformity for its own sake, and punishing those who think and write differently.

    Regardless of the particular content, if a form is borrowed whole sale and the content dumped into as if form were a mere container, the result will be untrue. In fact, this is essentially the industrialization of form, and rigid forms are symptomatic of rigid thinking.

    Creating a dialectial relationship between form and content has nothing to do with adding superfluous aesthetic gloss to make the content more palatable, as pop journalists do. One simply finds the mode of expression suited to the thing expressed, without determining in advance what that should be. Indeed, concepts only exist once they are expressed. To change the form in which a concept is expressed, is to change the concept itself.


  6. philphord says:

    Couldn’t agree more!

  7. Pingback: Don’t hate me because I’m beautiful | Dial M for Musicology

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