writing: August 2004 Archives


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Every once in a while, it's worth an entry just to bring together a few ideas that click in my head. A couple of days ago, Jeff put together a couple of posts on "Theories I Believe In" and "Theories I Don't Believe In" (the link is to the positive post). In some ways, this reminds me of the "values listing" that Carol Bly advocates (I wrote about it right before my brithday last year). And the more I thought about it, the more I was thinking how it might make for a good exercise for graduate students--I should mention that I'm already planning on doing it myself one of these days when I'm not up to my elbows in manuscript.

Carol's exercise clicked with me, in part, I think, because it reminds me of doing Tarot or I Ching readings, and even heuretics to a degree--using different structures of thought to take snapshots of your life, mental or otherwise. And as I'm thinking this, Adrian posts about using Bruce Mau's "An Incomplete Manifesto for Growth" as a means of getting his students "to move to being knowledge producers"--"museflowance" is his result from trying #28: Make New Words. And this after, a few days earlier, having futzed around a bit with Robert Kendall's Soothcircuit.

No grand conclusion, except to observe that my mind's clearly been clicking on invention lately...

Doing "the math"

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Before you add a comment and tell me that I take this stuff waaaay too seriously, let me admit up front that, yes, yes I do.

For whatever reason, I've been hearing the phrase "you do the math" with a lot more frequency lately. It's kind of a discursive shortcut--if you're talking numbers, rather than laying out an entire calculation (especially if it's fairly obvious), you might just suggest that your listener/audience "do the math." The implication is that the point you're making is so obvious that there's no real persuasion to be gained by explicitly completing the calculation.

Lately, though, I'm hearing the phrase in commercials--most recently for some back-to-school jeans sale. It's not so much that it's being used to describe situations that aren't really mathematical as much as it's become another one of those insufferably smug, self-consciously psuedo-ironic placeholders. What it really means, now, is "we don't really have anything to say, so we're going to pretend as though we've thought it through." For me, it's a lot like one of my all-time pet peeves: the apparently irresistible slapstick cliché, when someone runs into something or falls from a height or whatever, of saying "That's gotta hurt!" or "That's gonna leave a mark!" Hardy har har. It was mildly clever the first couple of times, but since then, it's become a piece of empty dialogue to be used in place of actually having to react to violence/pain/damage. There are all sorts of other "lines" like this, I'm sure, attempts to disguise one's lack of cleverness by adopting a clever pose...

Believe me when I say that I'm not a language purist or anything--much as I'd like to declare a moratorium on crap like that, language is going to change in all sorts of ways whether I like it or not. All the same, if language is the food of thought, "you do the math" is rapidly approaching the status of circus peanuts for me.

qu'est-ce qu'on dit?

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Brian Weatherson started a conversation over at Crooked Timber about whether or not he can ever be used generically. Brian notes, "English has a perfectly adequate gender-neutral pronoun - they - and it should be used instead of he in these contexts." There's a little backstory as well about the Canadian Supreme Court having once (back in 1927) ruled that women didn't count as "persons." And yes, they were quickly overruled.

One of the commenters makes reference to an essay that I myself had forgotten about, Douglas Hofstadter's A Person Paper on Purity in Language, a satirical essay that imagines making the "he is gender-neutral" argument in a world where pronouns were based on race rather than gender:

Most of the clamor, as you certainly know by now, revolves around the age-old usage of the noun "white" and words built from it, such as chairwhite, mailwhite, repairwhite, clergywhite, middlewhite, Frenchwhite, forewhite, whitepower, whiteslaughter, oneupuwhiteship, strawwhite, whitehandle, and so on. The negrists claim that using the word "white," either on its own or as a component, to talk about all the members of the human species is somehow degrading to blacks and reinforces racism.

Hofstadter is a fave of mine from way back, and PPPL is a tour-de-force, not only reproducing/parodying all of the bad arguments on behalf of the generic he, but also bringing to our attention all of the little ways that gendered pronouns and language usage function near-invisibly. It's hard for me to imagine anyone being able to use the generic he after reading H's essay. The solution that most people seem on board with is the occasional use of they as singular, although this tactic has its detractors as well. Me? I'm growing increasing fond of hir, although I've yet to try getting it past an editorial board. Most of the time, I find that it takes very little to adjust a sentence and remove the problem altogether. I suspect that, after a while, most people just internalize it and move on. Still, it was cool to go back and read a little Hofstadter, which I haven't done (I don't think) since I was working on my dissertation...

Staying out of the kitchen

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A couple of quick thoughts, before I turn in, on the flurry of posts that have been happening over at Steven's blog (and elsewhere), that connect back to the discussion that was going on a few days back, re anonymous/pseudonymous blogging.

I don't claim to have the last word, certainly, but it seems to me that at least a couple of the comments raise what for me is an important distinction, one that I first started thinking about in response to AlexH's talk at MEA: the distinction between academic blogging and blogging by academics.

I should be clear that I don't find one necessarily better than the other, nor do I see them as mutually exclusive. I think I do a little of both, although I think of myself primarily as someone who does academic blogging. In part, that's because technology is my primary area, and that means I should be doing, not just studying. But I've also got a stake in building a rep and attaching it to my name, the same name that'll be the byline for an article or two (on blogging and/or networks) in the next couple of years. I also believe strongly that, eventually, blogging will come to be seen as a legitimate form of academic activity; but just like electronic publication, part of the momentum for this must come from recognizable scholars offering either explicit or implicit endorsement. Unlike profgrrrrl, I probably will offer selected portions of my blog for my tenure case in a few years, both as an example of technoscholarly innovation and as a way of pushing at the kinds of evidence allowed. I won't use it instead of more traditional evidence, but I currently plan to use it. (maybe not the ass-grabbing story, though.)

However, and this is a big however, not only is academic blogging a tiny, tiny subset of blogs in general (as AlexH has also noted), it's a subset of the number of academics who blog. And I think it's important to recognize that occupying that subset means that our (academic bloggers') goals are pretty narrowly defined. By no means does this mean that we've got all the answers, esp to the big life questions, but it does offer us the freedom of setting those issues aside. And it does so at the cost of the freedom of confronting those issues in one place where we can build a community to help us with them. My point is stupidly simple, I suppose. Different isn't worse, once you accept that the relationship between the terms "blogging" and "academic" can be configured in a range of ways.

Okay. One more. Steven asks: "When did the tables turn on this idea of 'not my real name' equals credibility and authenticity?" I've actually got a half-baked essay on this. Credibility isn't just one thing. We're used to seeing it work top-down: I know this writer is good, therefore I will read her article. But it works the other way, too: This article is good, therefore I will remember her name the next time I see it. It's not so much that pseudonyms themselves grant instant credibility, so much as it is that, when a body invests time and energy and care into developing a pseudonym, it functions with no less credibility and authenticity than does a "real" name. (Which is the point that Rana makes.)

To be fair, though, I should note that pseudonyms are basically anonymous, if an audience isn't party to that investment. The distinction there is not as hard and fast as I think some are assuming. The first time I read a blog, whether the person blogs under their "real" name or not, for me it's anonymous. I think that the problem comes when someone has invested in their anonym to turn it into a pseudonym, only to have it treated like an anonym (decontextualized, generalized, etc.), if that makes any sense. But I don't really think that the process of developing a pseudonym is markedly different from developing a nym. In both cases, credibility is something that ends up emerging over time.

And no, I don't really think I'm saying anything here that isn't raised in one form or another in the comments to the posts listed above. I'm just thinking through them for myself....



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This page is a archive of entries in the writing category from August 2004.

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