Archive for the ‘Writing’ Category

“Man only lives to make his own life and those of his fellow citizens better. To advance faster and more effectively, we look at what others have done before us: We study.”

This is something Georg-Christoph Lichtenberg once said. He then went on to criticize those who read just to know what others said before them. When we read for writing, we should keep it in mind.

Be plausible, not exhaustive

This is more true for a Master thesis than a Doctoral one, but usually students are scared to death that they could forget an important reference. We imagine that the day the day of our defense someone might say: “I saw that you did not quote this tremendously important reference”. Here’s what my thesis director, Jacqueline Lichtenstein said when I brought this up one year before she retired: “This will happen anyway. But it’s not a problem. If you really haven’t read it you say “Thank you very much, I’ll definitely take it into account for my publication.” If you made an informed choice not to include it, then explain why. What’s important is that you construct your own argument, that it is believable as it stands, not that you have read everybody who had the same opinion. As Karl Kraus said: “The thought is not to the person who had it first, but to the person who has it better.” But don’t quote this in your thesis defense. I’m afraid you might come across as slightly arrogant.

Build your own building

There’s an image that helped me. It’s to consider a thesis like a building. We get some of the stones from a stone quarry and carve them. But some stones we’ll take out of other people’s buildings. These are ideas you refer to or passages you quote from other writer’s articles or books. While we need these stones, their role is to make our own building more sturdy and beautiful. To to so, we’ll need to have to work on the stones we take so they fit into our own construction.

The more elements we take out of the other’s building, the more foreign they will appear in our. Each imported stone certainly had a place in the author’s building, but – if they and their buildings are not the topic of our thesis – this place counts little for us. What counts is our own building. So we have to make sure you only take those stones that fit our construction and don’t take more.

This may seem plausible, but when we read a text there is a risk to get dragged into the authors thinking process and to feel we have to take it all. We don’t. Quite the opposite. If there are too many foreign elements, our readers will lose track of what we are getting at. It will also make us look more insecure and unoriginal.

There is a second reason, why you might want to “recontextualize” the ideas you take from others: ethics. You sure shouldn’t misrepresent their thoughts. This is right. You shouldn’t. But stick to the minimum. Don’t cut a quote so it means something different than it meant in the original context.  Don’t consciously misinterpret when you paraphrase. For the rest, think of your own construction first. As long as the general idea of your own thesis is not directly opposed to theirs there’s no reason for blame. Of course, it is even more important to be careful when you quote people in order to criticize them than when the quote is used as a piece of your own argument

N. B. As I was into the last years of my thesis, I realized that many of the most important things about writing are only said when you dig deep. So I thought I’d make them public for others who struggle with their thesis. This is my second post on academic writing. The first was on how to choose a topic for your thesis.

 

Choosing a topic for your Bachelor, Master or Ph.D thesis can be hard. I’ve done two Masters and a Ph.D and here are a few important things I learned on the way and that your professors are unlikely to tell you. The first most important thing to know is that …

It’s not about the topic

People speak a lot about research topics. But the topic is just a very small part of what makes for a good topic. It is really about what that topic allows you to do while you work on it and after you are done. So don’t just accept a topic your professor suggests to you. Try to understand what kind of work that topic implies and see if that’s the kind of work you’d like to do for the next few months (or years). If your professor doesn’t seem supportive, choose another supervisor before it’s too late and you are stuck with having to get up to a job that’s not even a job and which you hate. Doing a thesis is not only about having the title in the end. It can and should be much more.

Thinking about what you would most like to do while you write your thesis – and what you don’t want to do – will help you not to suffer most of the time while you work on it day after day. Even if you like in principle what you need to do for the thesis, you will still sometimes not feel like doing what needs to get done. But having chosen a topic which in principle needs you to do exactly what you want to do helps a lot.

Know what you want.

You would like to meet new interesting people from a specific walk of life ?

Choose a topic which is based on qualitative research and for which you need to do interviews. Say you’d like to meet actors. Develop a topic where they are your experts. Don’t feel imprisoned by your field. Any field in the humanities will allow you to work on what you are really interested in. You are in education science? Work on how actors acquire the ability to retain long texts. You are in economics? Work on collaboration and competition between actors. Don’t forget: it’s not about the topic, but about doing the kind of stuff you want to do.

You want your topic to prepare you for your job?

Develop a topic where you need to meet the people you want to become.

Figure out if the people you want to work for (or with) in the future would be interested in the topic too. To do so you may have to talk to some of them a little bit. If you find it hard to connect to them, your topic might be the door opener – unless, of course, you want to work on contract killers, hustlers, the American president or, maybe, consultants at McKinsey. You want to do communication consulting? Work on how communication consultants position their own brand. You want to work in a gallery? Work on the way galleries try to position their artists. You get the picture. 

You want to get profound knowledge on a certain topic or author ?

Pick a library-based research topic where you have to read what has been written about the subject or by (and on) the author. Whoever or whatever you want to learn about, there will be a topic that forces you to do so. Once you know who or what you burn for, you can also ask your professor to recommend possible topics to you. But if you choose people like Hegel, Marx, Keynes, Freud, Foucault or a subject like free will, power, public healthcare or war be careful to specify a very precise take on the topic. And be aware that if you work on these kinds of figures or topics, you need a high tolerance for frustration and an iron will to be exclusive. However much you work on your thesis, you will know that you have not included everything relevant.

You want to develop your own thing (or theory) ?

Pick a rather exotic topic on which very little has been published. You won’t be able to not read and quote anyone else. But you’ll be able (and forced) to creatively identify sources. There are basically three ways to address such a topic: theory transfer, theory application and bricolage.

Theory application consists in taking general, fundamental and often rather important theories and trying to apply them to the chosen topic. You might try to apply script theory from cognitive science to still images, actor-network theory from sociology to the relationship between hospital staff and doctors or between curators and galleries or apply iconology from art-history to advertisement. Whatever works!

Theory transfer consists in taking a theory which has been developed for one specific case and applying it to another. Noel Carroll wrote about how actors’ personal identities relate to the identities of their characters in movies. You might try to apply and adapt his theory to how, for example, the personal identities of university professors relate to the identities of the institutions where they teach or how nightclubs pick the DJs that perform on Saturday night.

Bricolage means to take bits and pieces from different theories and putting them together. To analyze how a single picture can tell a story, I used Paul Grice’s concept of implicature David Herman’s concept of story scripts and Jean Matter-Mandler’s research on how we spontaneously provide causal links in narrative and many more. To get there, you need to read a lot of theory and play around with it like you would with Lego to find out what fits together. You’ll also often get a chance to make your own pieces, so you can articulate two different theories. For all of these to be successful you need a certain lack of respect. You are building your own building where a part of another persons theory is simply a brick.

You should’t care what the role of the brick you choose had in the building of the other theorist. Don’t feel like you have to perfectly understand her building project, even less explain it in your thesis. It will make you and your readers lose track and patience. Just understand enough to see what place the brick can take in your building.

Know yourself

You easily get bored by a topic?

Maybe do a Bachelor, but don’t do a Ph.D. Well, or choose your topic wisely. Don’t let it have such things as the name of an author, a time period, a geographic location, a specific institution name in it. Let it be “systematic”. My own topic was perfect for me. It was about how to tell a story with one picture. Fortunately, people have tried to tell stories with pictures since pre-history. It allowed me to read narratologists, comics theorist, film theorists, philosophers, art-historians, even child book researchers and archeologists. 


Your are prone to easily get distracted and being all over the place and are scared it will kill your thesis?

I would say choose a subject that has the name of an author, a time period, a geographic location, a specific institution in it. But this is a tricky one. If you are easily distracted, you might also get bored by a topic that has one of these. It might then be better to choose a “systematic” topic – and to take the thesis as a chance to learn to control your distraction.

These things help always: Turn off all push notifications on your phone, stay off facebook, netflix, instagram. Go to the library. Seeing others work helps a lot. Disconnect from the internet if you don’t absolutely need it. But don’t waste away your day smoking cigarettes and going for coffee with your friends. If it’s to hard go to another library. Only take a break when you really cannot focus anymore. I didn’t tell you it would be easy.

You are creative?

Choose a subject where you can develop your own thing.

You are not creative?

Choose a clearly delimited topic. For example one that has the name of an author, a short time period, a geographic location, a specific institution in it.

That’s all for today. Don’t hesitate to criticize, ask questions in the comments or tell me about your own experience.

Oh, and that’s me, academically speaking: univie.academia.edu/KlausSpeidel

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. »