A notebook is an improvement on the art of living.
Here is a short exercise that might improve your sense of the problems of academic writing. It proceeds from two quintessentially ‘academic’ presumptions, namely, that your writing is, at least in some sense, ‘about’ something and that there are others, your peers, who are able to understand it more or less as you intend it. This exercise is designed to help you figure out what you are talking about. It is about getting your facts straight; it is about determining your object sphere. It will also help you to get your act together; it will help you to establish a subject position.
The basic operation in this exercise is the writing of sentences. You will be producing five groups of ten sentences according to some simple assignments. These assignments constitute ‘obstructions’ in a sense I am taking from the film The Five Obstructions, a documentary by Lars von Trier and Jørgen Leth about the quest for artistic perfection. The idea is that satisfying a set of perhaps somewhat arbitrary constraints leaves you free to accomplish some very specific effects perfectly.
Before you start, write a 150-200 word paragraph, in your preferred style, about an event: something that has happened. Assume that your reader is roughly as knowledgeable as you are about the topic. That is, imagine the best possible conditions to present the event both concisely and precisely.
What follows are the five obstructions:
1. Write ten numbered sentences, each sentence on a new line. Let the first five tell us what happened and the next five tell us why it happened. Draw a solid line between the first and second group of sentences (between the fifth and sixth sentence). We will refer to the first group as an account of the event and the second group an account of its ground.
2. Reduce the last five sentences, which indicate the ground, to one. Expand the first five sentences, which describe the event, to nine. This time, draw the line between the ninth and tenth sentence.
3. Reduce the first nine sentences (event) to three and expand the last sentence (ground) to seven.
4. Reduce the last seven sentences to three, numbering them 8-10. You now have two groups of three sentences, numbered 1-3 (describing the event) and 8-10 (indicating its ground). Now write four sentences (4-7) that indicate the context in which those two groups of sentences are related in this way, i.e., as a ground to an event (a ‘why’ to a ‘what’).
5. Now, write five sentences (1-5) that prescribe an action that constitutes a fitting response to the event. Draw a solid line. Write five sentences (6-10) that provide reasons why this action should be carried out, i.e., five sentences that ground the action.
You are now obviously free to repeat steps 2 through 4, and when you get to 5 you might consider describing a new event that you imagine would result from the successful completion of the action. You can repeat this cycle as many times as you like.
I want to propose that you have just learned a means of (very carefully) noticing a fact, namely, the situation that the event in question leaves us in. Part of this means imagining the act that this fact demands of us. I want to say that you have learned a procedure for writing facts down, a system of objective notation. And you have done so in a way that necessarily implies a locus of agency, a subject, around which the facts may be thus noted.
Whether you want to reconstruct the objective fact or deconstruct the subjective act in your own writing, being able to note them down in this way will, I hope, be useful to you. Obviously, there remains the work of transferring this shorthand from your notebook to your academic text.
As a final point, note that what is being described here is a procedure not a theory. It presumes only that things do happen, that sense can be made of them, and that all this can be put in writing. These presumptions are nothing other than the underlying presumptuousness of research in general. They are implicit in all academic texts and without them we would have no reason to read such texts. In undertaking these exercises you become aware of the conditions of the possibility of your research experience. They articulate the connections between your theories and your methods. It loosens up the joints of your texts.
Practice makes perfect.