Friday, May 04, 2012

The Body

"Is a bit of white paper with black lines on it like a human body?"
Ludwig Wittgenstein

Scholarly writing articulates what you know. I have long promoted a definition of knowledge at three levels: (1) knowledge is justified, true belief, (2) knowledge is the ability to hold your own in conversation, (3) knowledge is the ability to compose a coherent prose paragraph in 30 minutes. Knowing is a mental state, a social relationship, and a practical competence. It is both a state of the mind and a state of the body. If you know about something, you don't just see it with a particular set of eyes, you are able to do something with your hands.

Knowledge is an ability to move your body in particular ways. And it is the ability to mark up a page in particular ways. Meaningful ways. If you know something you are able to make a piece of paper behave like a human body. You mark up the page and it comes to look human; other human bodies can understand what it is doing. There is a correspondence between what you are able to make happen on the page and what you are able to make your body do. Whenever we are reading, we are answering Wittgenstein's question: how is this piece of paper with black lines on it like a human body? In what sense?

Suppose you know how to bake bread. Writing well about it means articulating what your body can do in the kitchen. It will give the reader a way in to acquiring that skill himmerherself. In the case of academic writing, however, it is hard to imagine "what your body can do" that might correspond to a journal article you want to write. That's the thing about academic writing. It's the sense in which academic knowledge is more "abstract". But you must keep in mind that when you are writing you are always doing something with your body. Your knowledge is something your body can do, even if the only place it seems to do it, when it is not writing, is "in the head".

"Writing well is at one and the same time good thinking, good feeling, and good expression," said Buffon (and is quoted by Connolly before his remark about coordinating "what is not there", which I quoted earlier this week). It is important not to think there is some direct relationship between your words the facts in the world and the words of others, that, in a sense, the discourse does the writing and the reading. That will only make you anxious. What happens is that one body writes and other bodies read. These bodies are in the world, anxiously and resolutely in the world. Make sure that your words are coming from your body. Make sure that your writing articulates it.

Postscript: Last week, I had an epiphany, which I undertook to express by sketching a "phenomenology of writing", a description of "what it is like" to write. This is the last post in that series. The reference to Buffon, I now note, is also reference back to a post on my "philosophy of writing", from almost exactly a year ago. And the philosophy remains more or less the same.


Presskorn said...

You write of the idea that it is, really, discourse that does the writing and reading. I take that to be the idea that, in a sense, something larger than me is speaking through me, when I write (i.e. what Greek rhetorics called prosopopoeia). While I agree that idea is romantic, mistaken, metaphysical and even dangerous, isn’t this idea really, properly speaking, part of the PHENOMENOLOGY of writing? That is, isn’t there some sort of distinct sensation corresponding to this idea, even if this sensation is shot through with vanity?

Thomas said...

Yes, I agree with that. It reminds me of the opening of Foucault's "Discourse on Language". The way he would prefer to not have to begin.

Presskorn said...

Yes, Heidegger was, of course, in some sense right that "language speaks through me", but the subjective identification with that idea causes "anxiousness", as you (warningly) and Foucault (proudly) point out. My point is that also causes something alike to vanity.

The idea that something larger is speaking through me, when I write, is, as it were, the writer's analogue of the false humility of the statesman: "Destiny urges me to a goal of which I am ignorant. Until that goal is attained I am invulnerable, unassailable. When Destiny has accomplished her purpose in me, a fly may suffice to destroy me."(Napoleon Bonaparte, Correspondance with Jos├ęphine de Beauharnais)

Thomas said...

I think there's two senses of "vain" at work here. First, it's no use to expect the absolute to channel its eidos through your writing. Second, there's the kind of vanity that Cyril Connolly said keeps us from doing anything badly.