Monday, January 22, 2007

The Style Council

"And you can be all that they want you to be."

Last week I connected the mood of a field of research to the style of its written work. This week I want to elaborate this idea a little, leading up to what I hope will soon be a full-day workshop here at the Department. In doing so I also want to put a rather theoretical point into practice, namely, the connection between Michel Foucault's "enunciative modalities" and Thomas Kuhn's "exemplars". Clicking on the links will bring you to the relevant posts on a blog I ran with Søren Buhl Hornskov for a course in disciplinary reflexivity. What I want to develop here is how we can use these insights precisely to get a bit wiser to our own style.

Editors sometimes talk about helping writers "find their voice". That is very much what Foucault is getting at when he identifies a certain "manner of statement" or "enunciative modality" ("mode" just means "way", to "enunciate" is to speak, i.e., there is a "way of talking"). Part of the "discipline" of an academic discipline has to do with shaping the way people talk. This goes beyond simply mastering the concepts and recognizing the objects that define a discipline. It is about knowing how statements about those objects, and statements which use those concepts, may be legitimately challenged, corroborated and developed. It is about knowing when to make a statement in a defensive posture, or when to be more assertive. It is even about knowing when to present a claim with a measure of irony.

It is also about knowing when and where the discipline's voice may, as it were, be "invoked": the "sites" that offer suitable acoustics so that it may be heard. (A discipline's voice may also be "modulated" to be heard outside its primary academic context: so a psychologist doesn't sound like an economist or a philospher, even when speaking in the same newspaper.) Here a great deal of course depends on your awareness of the journals that pertain to your field, but also the various interdiciplinary settings that will give your work a proper hearing. Among these we increasingly find teaching situations outside the disciplinary context that shaped us.

Ultimately, it is about about who is speaking, as Foucault also notes. But this "person" should not be confused with yourself, or at least not all of you. It is a persona (a mask) that you wear while "on the job" so to speak. You will of course want to find a mask that you have some degree of sympathy with; you should still, let us say, recognize your smile in the mirror. But if the various academic contraints work as they should, you should be able to develop your deeper sense of self (in the existential sense) more or less independently of the style that emerges in your academic writing.

The question is how to proceed. And here I think Kuhn's emphasis on "exemplars" will prove to be useful. As a start, pick out three to five texts that you consider "formative", i.e., texts that have influenced your sense of what a good piece of academic writing looks like. It should be a text that speaks in "your voice", that deals with problems you find interesting, and that serves as a model for how solutions to those problems are presented. A good portion of developing your style consists in imitating these exemplars.

I'm trying to make this post worthy of both its title and the spectacular new-media, audio-visual epigraph. So now that it looks like I'm arguing that academic style is all about conforming, about speaking in a voice that is not quite your own but one you must nonetheless pretend is truly yours, it may be fitting to quote the Style Council again:

There’s room on top - if you tow the line
And if you believe all this you must be out of your mind.
That is, at the end of the day, you'll be better off, and more sane, if you accept the formative processes of academic work as a more or less friendly force in your life. Not something to grudgingly conform to. It's all just a part of being-with-others in an everyday sort of way, as Heidegger says. It won't always feel right, and at such moments your style should actually "break the mood". Toeing the line won't work in the long run.

PS. Please note that "tow the line" (in the quoted lyric) is not idiomatic, but I'm not sure the Style Council is to blame. I found the lyrics on-line and I'll check it to be sure. When I find out, I'll post the results.

No comments: