Academic scribes, their writing and their unsociability

The paradox is that we academic scribes are not always very sociable. We cling to the library like bookish limpets that, like Kierkegaard, find real human beings too heavy to embrace. We speak a lot about society but all too often listen to the world within limited frequencies. I am proposing an approach to listening that goes beyond this, where listening is not assumed to be a self-evident faculty that needs no training. Somehow the grey books written on sociological method do not help much with this kind of fine tuning. The lacklustre prose of methodological textbooks often turns the life in the research encounter into a corpse fit only for autopsy.

Les Back, The Art of Listening, Pg 163

I think there’s more to this than can be fairly ascribed to the limitations of ‘traditional’ scholarly communication. But I think these nonetheless play a significant role in contributing to the ‘unsociability’ of sociology. In part, it’s a matter of audience, with marginality arising from a turning inwards towards others like ourselves. If we’re communicating with a technical audience, it creates a tendency to drift towards ever more technical language. In doing so, norms surrounding ‘proper’ communication will themselves tend towards the obtuse and, with this, the starting point from which we drift becomes ever more mired in professionalised marginality.

When I say ‘technical language’ I mean specialised vocabulary in the broadest sense, those networks of terms and concepts which emerge in relation to specialised practices, deriving their meaning and purpose from connection to such skilled activity. I don’t think there’s anything fundamentally wrong with technical language in this sense. It shouldn’t be avoided entirely nor could it be. But to use Les Back’s lovely expression, “we have to insist on having both Adorno and Orwell at our elbow as we write”. We should be relentlessly critical of our tendency to slide into jargon while nonetheless recognising the role that jargon can serve. Rather than seeing clarity and complexity as antipathetic, such that we struggle to distinguish between the accessibly simplified and the simplistically accessible, we should focus on the ways that technical vocabulary (complex) can be used to express precise claims succinctly (clarity) in a way which would otherwise be impossible.

What role does it serve beyond this? I can’t see that it serves any intellectual role and, as prone as I am to slipping into it myself, I’m determined to train myself out of the habits that 7 years of postgraduate education have inculcated in me*. It clearly serves a personal role though, as C Wright Mills makes clear in one of my favourite passages from his work**:

In many academic circles today anyone who tries to write in a widely intelligible way is liable to be condemned as a ‘mere literary man’ or, worse still, ‘a mere journalist.’ Perhaps you have already learned that these phrases, as commonly used, only indicate the spurious inference: superficial because readable. The academic man in America is trying to carry on a serious intellectual life in a context that often seems quite set against it. His prestige must make up for many of the dominant values he has sacrificed by choosing an academic career. His claims for prestige readily become tied to his self-image as a ‘scientist’. To be called a ‘mere journalist’ makes him feel undignified and shallow. It is this situation, I think, that is often at the bottom of the elaborate vocabulary and involved manner of speaking and writing. It is less difficult to learn this manner than not. It has become a convention – those who do not use it are subject to moral disapproval. It may be that it is the result of an academic closing of ranks on the part of the mediocre, who understandably wish to exclude those who win the attention of intelligent people, academic and otherwise.

C. Wright Mills, The Sociological Imagination, Pg 218

In this sense I think we can see ‘academic writing’ as a dispositional complex which has been reinforced in three ways: status anxiety at the level of the person, restrictive norms about ‘proper’ writing at the level of academic culture and a narrow range of available media** at the level of academic institutions. These constraining factors will act in different ways and at different times but their emergent power over time mitigates against the possibility of forms of writing which aim “to document and understand social life without assassinating it”. This is on page 164 of the Art of Listening. There’s an even nicer formulation of this in an interview with Les Back here: “ways of writing about the social world that don’t assassinate the life that’s in it”. I think this expression is an example of precisely the virtues it advocates. It’s a phrase I’m simply not going to forget and it conveys its main claim with an immediacy which would be difficult to accomplish with a less literary mode of expression.

In my paper about online writing I’m trying to think through the possibilities offered by blogging in terms of this diagnosis. I think there’s a real risk of academic blogging being ‘captured’ by professionalisation in a way which undermines the potentially transformative role it can play in relation to personal practice. But the possibilities for experimentation are hugely significant nonetheless. In an important sense, it’s a uniquely malleable medium, at least compared to monographs, edited books and journal articles etc. I need to figure out more precisely what I mean by ‘malleability’ here. I’m also including ‘micro-blogging’ within this scope, despite it being a term I’ve always hated. Partly to expand the scope of what I’ve been invited to write but also because considering Twitter could help flesh out my overarching argument. I’m very interested in the aesthetics of Nein Quarterly as an example of the innovative modes of expression that the radical brevity of Twitter can help give rise to.

*Including the habit of writing sentences, such as this one and many in the main body of the text, which I believe are called compound-complex sentences. Quite why I feel so compelled to do this, with the strangely undulating character it entails for my prose, continues to elude me but I’d like to know nonetheless.

**I don’t think this can be straight-forwardly applied to our present situation but the main thrust of the argument is still valid.

***Which are themselves narrow in terms of the expression they permit.

Categories: Outflanking Platitudes, Sociological Craft

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  1. Those remarks about assassinating the life we write about remind me of Ben Marcus’ The Age of Wire and String. In the “argument” of that book he suggest that “culture has been willfully hidden to the routine in-gazing of professional disclosers”, who forget that “by looking at an object we destroy it with our desire” and that the task, therefore, is not to represent social life but to train things to see themselves. The book itself, it seems to me, is a good attempt at such training.

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