Inside the Idea Factory
Issue #34, October 1997
Writing unfolds like a game that inevitably moves beyond its own rules and finally leaves them behind.
— Michel Foucault
A style is managing to stammer in one's own language.
— Deleuze and Parnet
There are possibilities that have never yet come to light.
— Helene Cixous
Begin with an anecdote that will hook your reader.
It is November 21, 1988, three days after my sister committed suicide. I am sitting in my father's office and he is reading her doctors' notes from her medical records. Two weeks before her death she had been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. One day she woke up and was suddenly unable to walk, see, hear, or control her bowels — although she had been river rafting in the Grand Canyon the week before. After her initial diagnosis, she was transferred to a hospital that specializes in providing the physical and occupational therapy she would have needed to return to her new life with MS. It was from this hospital that my father had requested the notes. A psychiatrist, he had a theory that my sister had been depressed; that she hadn't properly treated; that she should have been put on anti-depressants; and he thought he would be able to sue the hospital successfully for wrongful death.
"Talked with Cici today. Her spirits increasingly low. Reminded her that she was a mountain climber. Offered her anti-depressants and she refused."
My father finished reading and wanted to know my response to this psychologist's note. I was simply filled with grief.
"We have to start crafting this in terms of testimony" he yelled. "How do you think your feelings will sound to a judge? We need to start building an argument. This has to stand up in a court of law!"
But what does the law have to do with my feelings? Can a judge bring my sister back from the dead?
Clearly, argument is inappropriate is some instances.
A thesis is your one ruling idea about your topic. Thus it is always an assertion.
How did it come to be that the dominant mode of writing in the humanities — in academic studies of literature at least — is the argument? Are we in a court of law? Do we need to garner evidence and convince a jury that our reading of the text is the correct one? I became so utterly bored with the argumentative form once I "mastered" it — sometime between high school and my first years in college. It's like a game: develop a thesis, get some textual evidence, and win the "A." In the race to "prove" your thesis you become convinced that this idea actually "rules" all others you've had about the text. What impressions and experiences of a text aren't allowed to be expressed or even thought in this context, since they can't be logically and convincingly proven in relation to the main point? Why the need to "assert" oneself and one's ideas? Why not investigate, explore, enjoy, partake, connect, transmit, exchange?
Control your tone.
I am reacting somewhat angrily to the formal conventions of academic prose which privilege reason over imagination, single-minded linearity over multi-voicedness, factual evidence over personal expressiveness. I am a graduate student in English, and I am tired of muzzling my imagination to what I think of as the long arm of the law. Sound a little extreme? Well, academic conventions are modeled on juridical discourse — the language of the courts, the proceedings that enforce the rules we want obeyed.
It might make sense to formulate arguments in court proceedings where there presumably is a guilty/not-guilty question to be solved. And I can see the efficacy of debates and arguments in political discourse, when issues often come down to a yes or no answer as in should I vote for Prop. 209? In a murder trial where there is opposing council to contend with, it makes sense that your closing argument would, therefore, be contentious and antagonistic in order to undermine the other side's claims. I understand this is part of how we do things in one of the best legal systems in the world but if I'm writing and thinking about novels, poetry, and films, I just don't see the need to make and win an airtight case about my point-of view.
I have begun experimenting with lyricism in my academic papers. By lyricism I mean the admittedly subjective and sensual use of language to convey exuberance and excess. The use of language to convey realms of experience not neatly fitting into a thesis topic sentence. This has been a scary process, venturing out into dangerous waters. I have begun suspending the need to shape and control the piece as I write it, to censor its tones or impose a structure before it is written. My writing sometimes heaves up. It comes in waves. It surprises me by saying things I didn't know I wanted to say, or didn't even realize I could think. I don't know how it will be expressed in advance of its expression. I resist order, I resist the need to imitate rather than to become what I need to become for the piece. I listen to myself. I realize that my voice can be multi-vocal, it can be many people, not just the authoritative master critic. I don't need to demonstrate, explain, grasp, prove. I just need to find a way to be with the text.
Make clear and helpful transitions.
In this experiment with lyricism, I am going back in method and style to my very first year in college. The great scholar Norman O. Brown stood in front of my freshman class and thundered: "No thesis-topic sentences. The best response to poetry is poetry itself." We panicked: How will we write? What will we do? "Make it new" he countered, after Ezra Pound. It was frightening to be given that kind of freedom and we spent countless hours in the dorms trying to figure out a style, a method. Many of us wrote poetry in lines, or aphorisms, or manifestos, or collective pieces. We produced collages of our words mingled with the words of others.
When I transferred the following year to the English Dept. at U.C. Berkeley I found that no one was really interested in creative responses to poetry. We were doing serious academic work, I found, and what counted when professors had piles of papers to read was organization, structure, an introduction, a conclusion, and a "good" (logical) argument. I labored over readings of Blake, Chaucer, Keats, Shakespeare. I made linear, reasonable arguments based on an ordered presentation of the main ideas I'd assembled after brainstorming, outlining and free-writing. I combed the texts for "evidence" to support my thesis. I worked in clever allusions to great thinkers. I successfully routed my ideas through the one form allowable and became an "A" student of literature.
Return to your initial anecdote.
When I began writing academic papers at Berkeley, I was able to "follow the rules" of composition in part because, given my particular family background, juridical discourse — the language of arguments, evidence, proof — was already so familiar to me. I had spent several years in high school in the middle of a raging legal battle between my parents over custody of their kids. I had excellent training in formulating my thoughts, feelings, and impressions about our family situation into credible and convincing testimony. My dad's later impulse to sue the hospital following my sister's death was a reflexive response, I suppose, and his demand that I divert my grief into an argument made sense to him given our family's history of making high courtroom drama out of otherwise ordinary human failings and pain. The custody battle years before had been all-out war: my parents spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on expert witnesses; the case went to trial three separate times. My sister and I were coached by our lawyer before we gave court depositions or spoke to the judges in their chambers. Don't forget the strategy. Do you remember the main points? Mention the supporting points. Leave that out, it's not relevant to the case. We became masterful at creating effective written and spoken discourse; we framed our words to advance the argument that we should be able to live with the parent we chose. We also presented a unified discursive front to the social workers, psychotherapists, court-appointed mediators, opposing council, police officers, principals, school teachers, and curious friends who questioned us about the case.
This unusual early contact with the legal system helped me become Opinion Editor and then Editor-in-Chief of my high school newspaper, and I used my familiarity with juridical discourse to write political editorials and win contests and awards. But it took me a long time to realize that I didn't have to view everything in life through the lens of a legalistic argument justified by an arsenal of evidence and proof. Knowing that there was so much more to our family situation than what made it into court as part of the "case" has sensitized me to the reality that form necessarily dictates content, and that in unquestioningly adopting the form of juridical discourse in our academic work, we may well be distancing ourselves from our own best ideas.
When I began teaching Composition myself a few years ago, after completing my Master's Degree in English and further appropriating the jargon and juridical conventions of the field, I had to deconstruct my own process of writing in order to be able to break it down for beginning writers. I began to question the methods I had so thoroughly appropriated, especially since I noticed that none of the freshman comp textbooks and anthologies — created solely to teach the current expository style — practice what they preach. That is, on the one hand the prescriptive instructions for writing a good essay are given, but on the other hand most of the entries anthologized are by non-academic writers writing in a creative, non-academic (non-linear) style: Alice Walker, Adrienne Rich, Richard Rodriguez, Virginia Woolf, Joan Didion, George Orwell, Tillie Olsen, etc. etc. The writers generally featured in composition readers write personal essays and narratives that appear in The New Yorker or The New York Times Magazine. They write vividly, with circularity, idiosyncratically, in the form that best suits their particular ends. They may have an argument, but it's often made more through imaginative lyricism and finely noticed details than through the careful assembly of logical, linear thinking and evidence or proof. We seem to be saying to students, "you must follow our rules to get along here in college (or academia if you are a graduate student); but if you really want to write, well, you just go on and break these rules." What counts is "good" writing and it is very difficult to quantify what makes something worth reading. But no one pretends, not even for a minute, that a group of essays written in the style recommended would make an interesting read. So why do we promulgate these juridically-inspired conventions?
Give concrete examples.
Let me give a concrete example of the usefulness of these conventions to the research university. As a reader in a large lecture class last summer, I sat down three times to batches of fifty papers. I usually had just a week to read the papers and had to keep up with the reading, go to class, see students, and do my own work in that time. There is nothing new about my personal experience: it is the standard experience of readers and TA's in large research universities. But if I am honest, I have to admit that it was definitely helpful if students routed their ideas through the expository essay form designed purely for the convenience of the academic system, the idea-factory of which we are part. The formulaic essay mimics the exam or test. You quickly demonstrate that you understand the material presented in class, that you paid attention to and can mirror back the professor's ideas, that you understand how we do things around here. And you do it in such a way that you take up as little of the Reader's time as possible.
The myth of the expository essay is that form is an invisible structure acting at the service of the presentation of ideas. Form is thought in these cases to be unimportant, subordinate to ideas; the seamless presentation of a unified whole is thought best so as not to distract from the real agenda — those brilliant, original, compelling, and important ideas that one comes to college to develop. And yet form is omni-present in these contexts because if someone creates their own form they jam the smooth workings of the idea-factory system. A creative expository essay demands to be considered on its own terms. The standard formal criteria no longer apply; you can't simply mete out the comments without thinking: Where is your thesis? You could use some more support or examples from the material. Your introduction sets the problem up well. Watch your transitions.
I learned early on to write what Ruth Behard calls the "cold-blooded" logical essay, with a formulaic beginning, middle, and end, and I tell myself that my students need to write these cold-blooded essays too if they want to survive in a large research university. I fear that if I encourage them in their imaginative, innovative approaches to intellectual problems, I will only be causing them grief — and perhaps marginalizing them from intellectual legitimacy and future professional or financial success. But I often wonder at my real motives for continuing to push this conventional approach to writing. For what graduate student has the kind of time it would take to encourage students not only to think for themselves, but to take responsibility for the formal expression their thinking takes in language? Perhaps it's too tall an order; students at Berkeley would certainly balk if I spoke to them the way Norman O. Brown spoke to me, or made the same kinds of demands on their time. But I don't feel satisfied with my capitulation to the idea factory, and I don't believe that mass-produced and easily digestible ideas are better than any other kind.
Using juridical discourse in academia is one strategy for a difficult situation — the situation being that I have a desire to get my degree. I want as much as any graduate student to be mentored in my work and to receive the institutional legitimization that would allow me (job market willing) to write and think about my chosen field for the rest of my life. So perhaps I should keep all these questions and problems to myself. Maybe I should have waited till I passed my orals, or filed my dissertation. Maybe I should have waited till I was done with the job market. Or, better yet, waited until I got tenure somewhere, and could say whatever I pleased.
Look beyond your thesis in a concluding paragraph.
There are other strategies for the situation of academia, and now that my coursework is finished and I seem to have passed my second year review, I'd like to explore some of them. Given that we are in this structure that shapes and distorts our research and our conclusions, we can draw attention to this fact in our prose itself. We can make visible the authoritative structure that constrains us by self-consciously miming that authority to itself. Venues like Bad Subjects open up another possibility, by creating a space where objective analysis and argument don't "rule," but rather cohabit with autobiographical narrative and experimental prose.
It's worth noting that I haven't broken free here of the constraints of juridical discourse in that I have somehow felt compelled to present my ideas as an argument or a case, which leads me to the point that once a structure is so completely internalized it's incredibly difficult to think oneself out of it. I'd like to write an academic prose that stutters in its own language when that language won't allow it to express something. I'd like to undermine rather than reify my own attempt to effect univocality, mastery, authority and control. That can happen only when I consider the form of academic prose as completely plastic and malleable rather than as a fixed, invisibly powerful set of codes and rules for the expression of thought in language. Language, even academic language, has a texture; it can swing, it can move, it can be felt and heard and sung. We need to admit the presence of language itself, to allow it to occupy a palpable place in our work. To do that we have to get beyond the vilification of the imagination in academia, we have to realize that intellectual activity can take many forms. Only then will we be able to glimpse the possibilities that have never yet come to light.
Katie Simon is a Ph.D. student in the English Department at UC-Berkeley. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.