Saturday, 27 February 2016

Quote of the month: Musil

I will try to post, once a month, a quote from my recent reading that I find to be interesting or delightful in some sense. Each quote will be accompanied by a brief, unambitious comment where I try to explain what struck me about it.

My first quote is from an essay by Robert Musil:
I recall a saying of Goethe’s that made an odd impression on me some years ago. It runs: one can only write about those questions one does not know too much about. (Robert Musil, Precision and Soul, The University of Chicago Press, 1990:31)
This seems psychologically true. My first thought on reading it was that it would be an excellent motto for my blog. I've always thought that a blog should be a place where people are free to write in an unpretentious fashion about anything without having mastered the subject. At the same time, a blog should help thought onwards, towards a state of better knowledge. Lukács once described the mood of the essay as longing for an idea not yet born. The same, in my view, can be said of the blog.

What is amazing about good blog texts and essays is that they seem to move with a precision that stems from their fidelity to the movement of thought itself. This precision can make these forms very satisfying intellectually, despite the unpretentious nature of the genre. The reason for this, I feel, is that these forms seem to imply, as a sort of convention of the genre, a recognition of the latter's limitations. To write an essay or blog is to admit that you lack knowledge, and that gives these genres an air of intellectual honesty that is missing in more pretentious genres, such as treatises, reports or academic articles.

My second thought was indeed that the quote also illustrates very well why so much academic writing feels false or irritatingly superficial - especially today when academics are rewarded more for their amount of publishing than anything else. A rather strong argument could be made, I think, to the effect that academic writing per se privileges superficiality. To a great extent this is a consequence of the reliance of academic disciplines on specific sets of methods. Method, I once wrote, is a tool for blinding oneself to relevant information. Although that may have been an exaggeration, I still think that one of the primary functions of method is to sort away information and relieve researchers from having to take the complexity of real, concrete situations into consideration. Method, to put it in a nutshell, is a tool for liberating researchers from the kind of knowledge that would be an obstacle for their writing.

Essays are method-less writing. To the extent that researchers need to "publish or perish" and to the extent that publishing requires them to adhere to certain specified methods, this leads to an exclusion not only of certain forms of knowledge, but also of researchers interested in pursuing such forms of knowledge, and of genres - such as the essay - suitable for such pursuit.

My third thought was perhaps not so much a thought as a kind of mental note of the delightful cascade of questions which the quote triggered in me. Would it be possible to generalize Goethe's statement somehow? Might one, for instance, say that whatever is written is unfinished? Would the statement also hold for other activities? Is it also impossible to speak or think about things one knows too well?

These questions, needless to say, can only be dealt with if I first clarify why the statement seems to ring true. The answer that I find most convincing is that writing is never just a way to approach truth, but also at the same time an act that distances you from it. Say that you jot down a sentence, trying to capture the essence of a thing. Even if the sentence elucides part of the truth, it simultaneously sidelines or excludes other aspects of it. Reluctance to engage in such exclusion seems to be the reason why familiarity with a subject can be an obstacle for writing. Since you don't want to shunt aside anything that is essential - part of the truth - writing in effect becomes impossible.

The most common way to avoid this problem is undoubtedly to keep one's knowledge superficial, for instance by relying on methods.

But aren't there ways to write while doing justice to truth? For instance, how about if we shift from a monological to a dialogical concept of truth? The problem concerning the inability of writing to capture or transmit knowledge seems to arise above all when the writer is a single person trying to present a coherent account from a single perspective, in a single 'voice' so to speak. With Bakthin we might suggest that the form of the novel - especially in its most developed 'dialogical' or polyvocal form, as seen in Dostoevsky - is one possible solution to the problem.

But is it possible to introduce dialogical forms in other genres than the novel? It seems to me that this is a question addressed by both Benjamin and Adorno, even though they don't use the word dialogical.

Adorno, for instance, explicitly rejects the attempt to capture a subject through a single voice or perspective. It requires a plurality of mutually incompatible vantagepoints which come together in a "constellation" of concepts that, rather than attempting to subsume the subject, circle around it, unlocking it through a combination rather than through a single key. A similar idea can be found in Benjamin, who likens such constellations to spider webs for capturing ideas.

How should one end an essay or a blog-post? Can they ever be ended? Almost by definition they preclude conclusions. Perhaps the best way to end them is by returning to the beginning.

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