Writing Without Arguments: An Argument Against Utility in Academic Writing
By Shantam Goyal
How is it that everyone already know Socrates is mortal?
In my brief career as a teacher of writing in the university, there is one phenomenon more than any other which continues to surprise me: how most students are attuned to analysis with an instinctive ease. Before the more literary begin to sharpen their pen-swords, I’ll clarify. By analysis, I do not mean close-reading (I teach academic writing through poetry and poetics for the most part). Students still need training in the taxonomical exercises of sorting words and phrases by relative importance and weirdness, and even more training in recognising terms which do not mean quite what they seem to mean. Yet, one look at a poem by William Carlos Williams and they are able to discern that he not just describing a firetruck when he writes:
Among the rain
I saw the figure 5
on a red
to gong clangs
and wheels rumbling
through the dark city.
The term “Imagism” would not be brought to class till much later, but they still know that the terse, mostly mono-lexical breaks of the poem add to its breathlessness and signify the urgency which would accompany a firetruck hurtling through the city towards its fiery purpose. They seem to be well practiced in these pre-packaged parcels of equations which make up the art of generating meaning from texts: x equals y, red equals anger, refrain equals emphasis, repetition equals uncertainty, context equals all, x equals y.
Happily for me, what happens is that when we come down to writing in class, the students barely ever struggle with analytical reasoning. I have never had to spend even one complete class on what kind of reasoning is valid, except perhaps a little course-correction at times, such as when I had to tell a particular student that Jeet Thayil’s drug use could not be cited as evidence in reasoning that his poetry sounds scattered and often somnambulistic. What we do end up discussing is clarity, and not so much the processes of argumentation.
I am not sure if this perfunctory inclination towards analysis is a recent phenomenon. When I asked my students recently whether they remembered having been taught analysis in class as such, most of them first years, they replied no in the earnest. I would like to attest here that in the time I spent teaching middle-school English for a year some years ago, even seventh graders always seemed to know how to get some form of usable meaning out of their texts, be it Stevenson’s “The Vagabond” or Whitman’s “O Captain! My Captain!”
And yet, when I asked the same analytically prescient students to write a sentence giving their impressions rather than their analysis of a short but effervescent scene from Jean-Luc Godard’s 1960 film Breathless, we laboured for one whole class thinking about the vocabulary with which to articulate them. So I repeat my original question: How is it that everyone already knows how to analyse and argue? I say everyone but that is a fallacy – everyone in the kind of classrooms I have been able to spend time in at the two universities mentioned above; everyone with class privilege (with some exceptions) and access to the privilege of articulation in the English language owing to an uninterrupted and mostly private education (with similarly few exceptions). For them, why is meaning-making an instinct for us and sensing, not so much? The short answer is that meaning is the product, the yield which comes out the chute after a text has been churned through what we often accurately call critical machinery – and the instinct for and inclination towards deriving productive utility from the classroom experience is not that hard to understand. Higher education, especially at most of the few places which offer training in academic writing for undergraduate students, is expensive. Meaning-full arguments as such are products to display proudly, and often to exchange too. Impressions on the other hand can be formed – though perhaps not articulated or qualified – outside the classroom too, in theatres, bookshops, galleries, and concerts. The longer answer to the question is given below.
We have two literary theorists working some forty years apart with surprising implications for the teaching of argumentative writing. The first is Susan Sontag, whose essay, “Against Interpretation,” written in 1996, hinges on the fantasy of what she calls “innocence”: a pre-theoretical, pre-interpretive, pre-exchange, pre-use value halo under which all art walked about without a care in the world.
Sontag takes issue with the suspicion upon which most of our academic writing is based. “The old style of interpretation was insistent, but respectful,” she says. This, as I understand, is an insistence carried out with the hermeneutics of faith before Marxist and psychoanalytic criticism became insistent in their methods puncturing through the text to yield what lay behind it. The meaning which we create, introduce, and weigh down the text with is but a mere shadow for Sontag, a cheap knock-off whose intellectual affect and excitement can never duplicate the immediacy of encountering art itself: “Away with all duplicates of it, until we again experience more immediately what we have.” This is the center of her manifesto for a new critical world. Her fear however is that art might be pushed to escape the art-world through a “programmatic avant-gardism”: newness for the sake of newness.
There is a programmatic avant-gardism not only in art but in criticism as well, and by extension, in the articulation of that criticism which is academic writing. We as academics and critics are making it new almost as much as our experimental poets and hyperlink short story writers are, changing vocabularies and adding terms of critical inquiry so that the digging does not stop. There is a longer argument to be made about the professionalization of research here, but this is not the space for it. What we can understand from Sontag’s incredibly felt indictment of the critic is that for her the instinct for analysis is economic. And innocence would be the sort of engagement with art which has not entered the market yet.
Affect theorist Eve Sedgwick’s (2003) indictment of our contemporary reading practices is more recent, and while her charges are the same as Sontag’s, her evidence lies in psychology in her chapter titled “Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading, Or, You’re So Paranoid You Probably Think This Essay Is About You” from her book Touching Feeling.
The idea is simple: we read like we do because we only want our reading to yield what we already know – which is something we are more well-versed with than ever within the oft-used vocabulary of our comfortable feedback loops within our echo chambers. This is paranoid reading, wherein we are afraid to be surprised by things we didn’t know could exist within the texts we encounter. I found a classroom exercise to be an apt illustration of what Sedgwick was perhaps trying to say. This was with the closing scene of the film Mirch Masala directed by Ketan Mehta in 1987.
“Smita Patil in Mirch Masala (1987).” IMDB.
Sonbai, played by Smita Patil, has taken refuge in a spice factory run entirely by women, save the old guard Abu Mian, played by Om Puri. She is trying to escape the advances of the Subedar who is the village tax-collector and tyrant, played by Naseeruddin Shah. He and his men finally break through the barricaded gates and kill Abu Mian. He then advances towards Sonbai, but almost immediately he is set upon by the women of the karkhana who throw ground-up red chilly powder upon, leaving him blinded and agonizing. Sonbai looks upon the scene unmoving, defiant with her sickle in her hand.
The students were quick to recognize and categorize the symbols. The old Muslim man who swears to protect the women, placed as he is outside of the sexual economy of the strife; the women attacking with products of their collective labor, weaponized as collective economic independence can be; the Subedar’s gaze disrupted for once and for all; the anger which inhabits Sonbai’s silence; and the fiery red offset by the sickle in her hand adding up to a political float. Then came the clinching question: what is the value of all this knowledge which we collectively generated in our reading of this short film scene? The scene confirms our fears, but does it tell us something we did not already know? Does the knowledge generated in this short critical exercise surprise us? Does it usher us to action? Perhaps for some it would, but that is precisely Sedgwick’s point – that there is nothing in this production of knowledge which compels its use. In her words, “[F]or someone to have an unmystified view of systemic oppressions does not intrinsically or necessarily enjoin that person to any specific train of epistemological or narrative consequences.” With our forms of academic writing, we simply mean to expose what deep-down we know is already there, because we know that knowledge is power. But it may as well not be, because the imperative of research and writing is not the same as, say, WikiLeaks. The truth might not set us free after all, especially when we have a fair idea of what it is already, and that is why analysis is an instinct for my students.
Paranoia is not all bad, but it’s a start. Sedgwick’s proposal is that of a reparative reading instead of a paranoid reading, and so we have the program for reparative writing. But the problem is the same one I mentioned above, where we as a class struggled to articulate our impressions of a simple film scene. Our reparative vocabularies are starved and Sedgwick recognizes this, calling it “sappy” and “aestheticizing,” not to mention “anti-intellectual”. And when I say starved, it is not the voice of a teacher indicting their students for an apparent lack of jouissance in the academic process; we as a class could not “repair” our reading as we sat in silence with no words to say and not knowing what needed to be said. Is there indeed no way to write academically without being an academic writer subservient to the demands of paranoia and of the critical-textual-industrial complex?
Against Argumentation/For Realisation
I find an answer to the tune of redemption in an essay by Derek Attridge (2006) titled “The Body Writing: Joyce’s Pen.” I have discussed this essay in class, and our process of rejecting argumentation, or perhaps going beyond it began with our attempts to reverse-engineer the wonderfully composed structure of Attridge’s piece.
The essay is exactly what the title indicates it to be. Attridge writes in the very first sentence following an epigraph: “I begin with a question: how did Joyce write ‘Penelope’?” “Penelope” is the long final episode of James Joyce’s Ulysses, which has been for the past century a notorious subject of literary critique for its complete lack of conventional punctuation and its inventive use of non-lexical onomatopoeia. Attridge is not so much interested in the streams-of-consciousness of the female protagonist Molly Bloom’s long monologue which the episode is composed of, nor does he address the episode’s critique of language as we are used to using it. Instead, the essay after this first boggling question clarifies:
I mean: how did Joyce write the last episode of Ulysses? Did he sit at a desk, recline on a sofa, lie on a bed, walk about the room and dart from time to time to the manuscript on a table? Did he use a pen requiring frequent dipping in an ink bottle, a fountain pen that needed only occasional refilling, a well-sharpened pencil? Did he start early in the day, after lunch, or in the evening? How many hours a day did he work? How much composing did he do in his head, and how much on paper? Did he prefer silence or sounds around him as he wrote?
The first question that was asked in the classroom was whether these questions are academic in nature. My half-hesitant answer was that these are questions the answers to which are researchable, but they are not research-questions. The answers to them cannot ever lead to a complete account of how Joyce wrote, nor are they all answerable. The acme of how academic research is defined thus remains unfulfilled: no persuasive argument can be made about Joyce’s writing instruments, his note-taking habits, and his bodily positions of work.
And Attridge does not look to make an argument either. After going through a shifting, leafy pile of information drawn from his letters, his biographers, and the writing habits of one of the characters in Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus (conventionally considered to be Joyce’s fictional alter ego), Attridge does not even go as far as to suggest that his writing habits can be seen reflected in the characters he creates.
What the essay ends with is not an argument, nor a convincingly proved thesis. It simply meditates on the “somatic dimension of the creative process,” ending with what I consider to be one of most affective, felt passages of academic prose I have encountered:
There will always be something mysterious at the heart of the extraordinary act of creation that produced Ulysses, which I like to think of not only as an act but also as an event, as something that happened to Joyce during those years in Trieste and Zürich, and, perhaps most remarkably of all, during that hectic summer in Paris – and in happening to Joyce happened also to Western culture, and therefore to all of us who read him, and to many who don’t.
We struggled to categorise the structural elements of Attridge’s essay, especially this accurate but thoroughly “unacademic” contemplation at a place usually reserved for the confirmation of an essay’s primary thesis. All we could say assertively was that Attridge has a realisation by the end, one which is broader than anything a thesis is capable of encapsulating, and one which addresses with consequence the changes brought about in a reader when they partake in knowledge of Joyce’s creative process.
This then is the program of reparative academic writing I propose, and which I am jostling with while preparing a plan for tomorrow’s class alongside writing this article: from claim, evidence, and argument, we switch to questions and realisations – and no clear answer. We recognise that our work as academic writers is not limited to producing paranoid knowledge about a single text, or to understanding the symptomatic dimension of the layers behind the wordy surface. Instead, our work can be transformative and reparative: transformative in so far as every act of reading and writing changes how we read and write everything from that point onwards; and reparative in that we no longer make mistrust the basis of marring the surface of a text with dent upon productive, utilitarian critical dent. Rather, sometimes if not always, we celebrate what knowledge does for us with a vocabulary we may again remember one day.
Note: I would like to acknowledge the unquantifiable and uncitable contribution of my students at Ashoka University and O.P. Jindal Global University for speaking in classroom discussions with ideas so original, I could never have come up with them.
Attridge, Derek. “The Body Writing: Joyce’s Pen.” Joyce, “Penelope” and the Body, edited by Richard Brown, Rodopi, 2006.
Carlos Williams, William. “The Great Figure.” Poetry Foundation.
Mehta, Ketan. Mirch Masala, National Film Development Corporation, 1987.
Sedgwick, Eve. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity, Duke University Press, 2003.
Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation and Other Essays, Picador, 1966.
Shantam Goyal teaches a Critical Thinking Seminar for the English Department at Ashoka University, Sonipat, and a course on Writing and Editing at the Jindal School of Journalism and Communication. His training and research have been as a Joycean scholar with an interest in Sound Studies and Poetics.
For more stories, read Café Dissensus Everyday, the blog of Café Dissensus Magazine.