Archive for the ‘Reading’ Category

Kinds of Sources, Kinds of Reading

My last post on academic writing was a reflection on how to use quotes. I want to follow up on this, because referencing is an essential element in academic writing. When we work on a topic, we’ll usually have to read many authors who also treated it. In fact, we will usually start with literature research and reading, even before we decide how to organize our work.

There are two kinds of sources and related readings:

  1. exploratory reading where we only try to figure out if a source is relevant to our topic
  2. topic-related reading once we know a source is relevant

Some sources are so obviously relevant (or so highly recommended by our director) to our text that we can immediately start with stage 2.

Rule 1: Write as you read. Don’t just read.

This rule is simple: if you know it is relevant, don’t just read it, type it into a document where you know you’ll find it again.

We all feel tempted to only read and not write, but it is inefficient for any type 2 source. Don’t be lazy. Academic reading is not only reading for fun. It is reading for writing. Once you really go into “writing mode” and your deadline is coming closer, time is more and more precious.

Anything that doesn’t exist in the same form as the document you write will only become a part of your text at a cost.You don’t want to lose time looking for quotes that are still in book form a second time, you want to be able to just copy-paste them.

If relevant sources are not in documents on your computer (or online, e.g. on google documents)  where you can easily find them when you start writing your text, you did something wrong. You will then lose a lot of time searching and bringing it into your document. If you use books from the library you often will have returned them. It can take many days just to get to one passage (again). This is frustrating if you know that you already had it on your desk when time was not so pressing yet.

To start, create at least two folders for your reading on your computer :

1. Readings (where you’ll order reading notes according to authors)

2. Topics (where you’ll order reading notes according to subjects relevant to you)

Rule 2: Create simple documents.

As soon as you start to read a type 2 source or realize that a source really is type 2, create a new document and put the complete bibliographical information at the top. You can do this on word, OpenOffice or wherever you want – but it is best to do it on the same program as the one you are planning to write your text with, so you don’t have compatibility issues when you copy-paste to your thesis document. Name the document after the author, then save the document in the Readings folder. Do this not only when a document is in paper form, but also when it is in electronic form. Once you go into “writing mode” the excerpts of your sources should be as similar as possible to the text you are writing for easy integration.

When another text by the same author appears, reopen the author document and create a new heading with the bibliographic information for the new text. This is also a good moment to add the reference to your citation management software (like Endnote, Citavi, Mendeley, Zotero…).

As you read, re-type or copy-paste any passage that could become relevant – or when they are too long, sum them up – into the document. Please always write the page number under any quoted passage. If a passage runs over two or more pages, put “[end p. x]” whenever a page ends in the quote. You’ll find an example from my own Reading folder at the end of this post.

Rule 3: Duplicate quotes.

I told you to create two folders, one for readings, one for topics.

As you identify the themes for your text (e.g. your thesis), also create thematic documents. This is the place where quotes or paraphrases should go based on themes rather than author. When you read a lot, you will often remember that you read something but without remembering where you read it. If you don’t have thematic documents, it can be very hard to find the passage again. This is true even when you have a powerful search engine, because passages may treat a topic without ever mentioning it explicitly.

Based on what you already know to be relevant themes for your text, you can create a first series of documents when you first start with this system. But you should keep adding new thematic documents as you go on reading whenever a relevant theme reappears in different texts. Based on this process, you will sometimes discover themes you had not deemed relevant when you started the research project. In my thesis on narrative in pictures, for instance, I discovered that authors regularly  distinguished narrative from other modalities. But what they opposed it to, often varied. Some made the traditional distinction between narration and description. But others opposed narration to argumentation, or to iconicity, or to ambiance, etc. So I decided to create a document that was called “What narrative is not”.

It would of course have been impossible to find all the things narrative is not for different authors with the search function on my computer without remembering each single distinction, because “narrative” was a key term in all of my documents and for each author the key-term was different.

In the subject document, write at least the author, name of quoted document and page where you found the quote. The full bibliographical info should either be in the author document or a bibliographical software you use. If one quote is relevant to more than two subjects, put it into two than more documents.

Why not stick to thematic documents alone?

Students sometimes ask me why the thematic documents are not enough. There are at least three reasons for this: having author documents as well allows you not to make your excerpts too short, to roughly contextualize quotes/paraphrases in the original publication and, most importantly, it prepares you for expanding your research beyond the themes you first identified as being relevant.

Having an author document as well as subject documents allows you to find relevant passages that are not on the themes you first thought were the most important to you. It also gives you a place for passages where you feel that they are “somehow important” or just “great in themselves”, but do not yet know in what context you may possibly use them. Such passages go into the author document, where you can find them later, sometimes years later, when you work on a related subject.

How it helps your writing process to work this way
  1. it will allow you to stay focused on your own writing and not to get dragged back into the argument of another author once you work on your own text.
  2. if you do it reliably and keep on working on the same topic for a while, it allows you to eventually not have to go online or to the library (very often) any more, because everything you need to build your own texts will already be on your computer. This makes you much more independent and much faster. For me it has been like this since I finished my Ph.D 3 years ago – and I think I can still go a long way with the sources on my computer.
Example Excerpts

Last but not least, here’s the promised excerpt from my reading folder. It’s a quote from a text by Sholmith Rimmon-Kenan:

“The disposition of elements in the text, conventionally called text-time, is bound to be one-directional and irreversible, because language prescribes a linear figuration of signs and hence a linear [end p. 44] presentation of information about things. We read letter after letter, word after word, sentence after sentence, chapter after chapter, and so on. There are some modern attempts to liberate narrative fiction from these constraints, but the liberation is never complete because a complete one, if possible, will destroy intelligibility.” (Cortazar, Beckett…)” (pp. 46/47)

The document is called “Rimmon-Kenan”, the heading of the section of the document is: Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics, Routledge London/New York, 2nd edition, 2002.

What complete bibliographic information is differs from source to source, but for articles in journals it is, for instance, “Author, “Name of Article”, Name of Journal, Year, Volume, Issue, pages where the article is to be found”. For monographs it is at least “Author, Name of Book, Publisher, Place, Year”.

The same passage could appear in a thematic document called “Time of the told and time of the telling.” It would then simply end like this: “(Rimmon-Kenan, Narrative Fiction, p. 46/47).

If you found this helpful, do not hesitate to comment or share.

My other recent posts on academic writing are here:

On the use and risks of quotes and references

How to pick a topic for your thesis

And here are two older posts with related topics:

How philosophers get to publish their own thoughts

Why I stopped writing by hand

Exploding roses by Benjamin Hugard

(c) Benjamin Hugard

Je cherchais un autre texte de Barthes sur mon ordinateur, et je suis tombé sur des bribes que j’ai écrites il y plusieurs années sans penser à les publier un jour. But it struck me as being dirty theory, exactly  as I have defined it here: theory mixed up with accounts of experience. So here it goes…

Barthes : Fragments d’un discours amoureux, Éditions du Seuil, Collection Tel Quel, 1977

Observation magnifiquement juste : le discours amoureux est fragmenté, manque de rationalité.
Mes sensations (présentes) :
J’ai besoin de dire d’abord mes sentiments et sensations, même si elles n’ont rien à voir avec le livre de Barthes. Me dégager de ce reflux dans mon cœur. Je prends plaisir à écrire sur un livre intelligent, même adorable, profondément sincère, semble-t-il, et qui pourtant tombe dans la facilité. Il en est de ce livre comme des Lettres à un Jeune Poète de Rilke. Lu à 15 ans, ce livre a eu une influence plus profonde sur moi que je ne le souhaiterais. Il fonctionne de la même façon: on y sent la sincérité, on y trouve sa vérité (l’auteur dit clairement des choses que nous avons pu sentir obscurément) et on est séduit. On veut croire ce qu’il dit, parce qu’on l’a déjà ressenti et on ne l’a pourtant jamais nommé aussi clairement. Mais il on court le danger d’y croire d’autant plus qu’on ne l’a jamais ressenti que de manière obscure, comme quelque chose d’enfoui en nous. Alors c’est comme si, finalement, quelqu’un mettait à jour (ce qui est vrai). Mais cela ne veut pas dire que ce qu’il met à jour est lui-même vrai. Je prends un plaisir immense d’écrire ainsi, sans objectif précis (je n’écris pas pour une publication ou évaluation future). Je pense à ce que Wittgenstein dit à propos de Freud: on le croit parce qu’on aime les choses enfouies.

Parfois, Barthes (comme Rilke) tombe dans une opposition facile, comme celle entre « complaisance mondaine », « hystérie de séduction » vs. « intimité sacrée », « vérité » (Fragments, p. 23). C’est, bien sûr, impossible. Certes, la complaisance mondaine existe, comme aussi l’intimité sacrée. Mais être dehors, dans un café n’implique pas être dans la complaisance. Il y a des rencontres fortes et importantes au dehors, des vernissages qui finissent avec une vraie rencontre, un vrai dialogue. Tout n’est pas noir et blanc, comme les sages tendent trop facilement à le peindre. Et la force de l’expression bien trouvée, comme « complaisance mondaine », risque alors de faire oublier la complexité, risque de faire oublier que d’autres cas de figure existent et que, par exemple, le mondain n’est pas toujours complaisant. Il y a toujours beaucoup de vanité dans la reconnaissance de sa propre faiblesse et vanité parce qu’on sait que beaucoup de gens se sont rarement demandés s’ils étaient complaisants dans telle ou telle situation, s’ils se laissaient trop facilement flatter, etc.
Je pense qu’il faut donc lire ces livres (Barthes, Rilke) avec l’admiration qui leur est due, mais ne pas en faire des sortes de révélations. Il faut y voir la part d’écriture et la part d’exagération (ce qui est souvent la même chose).

Belle observation : le discours amoureux brisé par une remarque commune, banale, de l’être aimé, notamment dans un environnement social, avec d’autres où il se fond parfaitement. Une facette qui apparaît qu’on n’aurait pas voulu connaître (l’exagération de la bien-aimée lorsqu’elle est avec sa meilleure amie, sa manière de parler…). Et effectivement, l’importance du registre du langage est énorme. (p.36)

« C’est l’originalité de la relation qu’il faut conquérir » (p. 44)
Belle idée encore : l’originalité de la relation mettrait à l’abri de la jalousie, parce que les autres ne seront jamais comme nous. Si j’arrive à ne plus vivre le stéréotype, je ne suis plus obligé de réagir selon les stéréotypes, être jaloux, blessé etc. comme les autres.
C’est ce qu’on aurait voulu : cette conquête. On n’a pas su s’échapper.

Le rapport assumé entre être aimé et mère. Le rapport à l’être aimé serait comme l’a été le rapport à la mère. Au lieu d’essayer de se révolter, Barthes le prend pour acquis. C’est comme ça. Comme Jocaste qui dit à Œdipe : « Qui n’a pas encore rêvé de faire l’amour avec sa mère. Qui prend pour chimères telles, etc. vit mieux la vie. » Mais, bien sûr, elle finit par se suicider quand elle découvre que ce n’est pas seulement un rêve, un présage doublement mauvais (en teneur et aussi en degré de vérité).
Observation : lorsque l’amour a cessé on attend encore l’autre, comme une douleur dans une jambe amputée, l’attente. C’est comme avec les êtres chers qui sont morts ou avec les vêtements qu’on a perdus ou qu’on nous a volés. Et la douleur pique à chaque fois que l’on se rend compte que pourtant on ne l’a plus…. (p. 49)

On reading and publishing of older philosophers

I personally like to read books or essays written by older philosophers. Having proved that they are able to comply with the rules of traditional philosophical publishing, they don’t feel that annoying urge to spell out every detail any more and thus they leave more room for my own thoughts.  This seems tremendously important to me not because I’m so vain, but because I firmly believe Schopenhauer is right to say that “in reading, our head is […] really only the arena of some one else’s thoughts. And so it happens that the person who reads a great deal — that is to say, almost the whole day, and recreates himself by spending the intervals in thoughtless diversion, gradually loses the ability to think for himself; just as a man who is always riding at last forgets how to walk. Such, however, is the case with many men of learning: they have read themselves stupid. […] Just as a spring, through the continual pressure of a foreign body, at last loses its elasticity, so does the mind if it has another person’s thoughts continually forced upon it.” Books by older philosophers leave, I say, more space for your own thoughts, they are less obstinate, less eager to convince the whole world that they are right and thus more inspiring and, usually, their subjects are of higher interest to me.

There was a time when « to publish » was still a success-verb in a more interesting than the grammarians’ sense. At that time, philosophers would usually have to write a lot of highly technical or highly historical papers before they got to publish deep thoughts of their own. In the « Analytic »tradition, the « rite de passage » seems to have been (and within some contexts still is) the publication of very technical papers, in the « Continental » tradition, it was the historical kind which would give an author the credibility to think some thoughts of his own. It would be easy to illustrate this, but it’s not my point. You could pick nearly any philosopher who’s as famous as you can get being a philosopher in the 20th century. I just let you check Bertrand Russell’s and Martin Heidegger’s biographies to see what I mean.

After some purely historical or technical papers, wich were obviously philosophical enough to be accepted as philosophical works by those endowed with the power to accept or reject works for publication, they would write a few more of each kind, and fifteen years after they first sat in a philosophy lecture, they would start to express a few thoughts of their own.

Apart from the approach (technical vs. historical), there was (and still is) also a limited choice of subject matter that was (and still is) automatically admitted as being philosophical: with very few exceptions, if you wrote about Hegel, nobody would have contested that you were doing (Continental) philosophy and it was the same if you wrote about knowing that and knowing how if you were after a chair in Analytic philosophy.

And as you grew older, had written a couple of difficult books, been published (you used to be published, really!) in a couple of important journals, and held a couple of chairs, you would start to think about Art or Religion, or about more ordinary questions, like bullshitting. Maybe you would hold some lecture and eventually have it published in a book or you’d write an essay on a subject you had never treated before for a book edited in your honor.

You wouldn’t be as strict (with yourself), or as precise as in the first 30 years of your career. But you would be more fun and insightful, your books would presuppose less interest in history and less technical skills and your (at least potential) readership would grow. In terms of potential reader (or viewer-ship), the ideal would probably be to be interviewed, like Deleuze, because videos have the highest chance of having high impacts today. Videos also seem to allow for the lowest imaginable standard for philosophical comment, and are ideal places for bullshitting as when Deleuze “argues”: “My fundamental reproach to dogs is that they bark. Barking seems to be the most stupid cry I know.” This quote happens to exemplify Harry Frankfurt’s definition of bullshit, which he takes to be characterized by a speaker “not caring about the truth or falsity of his assertions”.

Now the good thing about being an older philosopher is that you would be happy spelling out some good idea, not feeling you needed to develop each and every one  of them into an academic paper. Most of the times this is actually very nice to read for the reasons stated at the very beginning.

Nelson Goodman’s later essays like « Twisted Tales » or « How Buildings Mean » or Harry Frankfurt’s little book On Bullshit itself are some of the works of older philosophers that I like. And even so: had Frankfurt written On Bullshit when he was still young, before Writing On Truth and on Descartes, he might have ended being a popular, but probably not an academically successful philosopher. As opposed to writing on bullshit when you are young, writing on bullshit when you are old is pretty cool. And probably this makes book a little famous, and definitely more so then it’s content. In this sense, it is different from “What is it like to be a bat?” – which could have been, but isn’t an old philosophers essay – which unites coolness and philosophical relevance.

Or wait! Harry Frankfurt would not have published On Bullshit, because nobody would have published young Harry Frankfurt’s On Bullshit – or so we can suppose. To be published was a sign of success when Harry Frankfurt (born 1929) was young. On Bullshit is fun to read, but it’s not as systematic or as dense as it would have to be to live up to the high academic standards of publishable-from-a-young-philosopher. But now, as publishing is not a success verb (« as being a sign of success ») any more, I can publish an essay on bullshit – or bullshitting – myself. I can do it here and soon. And so I will.

N.B. I cheated a little. I quite consciously mixed up being a young philosopher and being young when Frankfurt was young, which is, say, until 1969. In 2005, it might actually have been possible for a young philosopher to publish a book on bullshit and the very same book Harry Frankfurt published, just because it’s subject matter was fancy enough. But it would have been much harder to do for me than for him. Now, one could ask if that’s rightly so, as when Karl Kraus says (something like) « The quote was supposed to be from Hofmannsthal and it was bad, but it finally turned out that it was from Goethe and quite good. »