A tic in academic writing

I’ve noticed a strange tic among academic writers, a tic to which I fall victim myself: a compulsive overuse of connective particles. In some cases, it seems that there must be some type of connective particle in literally every sentence of every paragraph. It’s as though we can’t trust our readers to infer that our sentences are related to each other by virtue of being placed in sequential order in the same paragraph, etc.

As Voyou said when I voiced this concern on Twitter, “what makes it clear that it is a tic is that they’re always the most general connective particles (like ‘thus’), so they gesture at a connection without saying what the connection is.”

My hypothesis as to the origin of this tic is the increasingly frequent experience of over-hasty and dismissive readers of academic writing. Reading half-attentively, ready to jump on any pretext for criticism, these readers simply cannot be trusted to, you know, read our work. Instead, they dip in and out, reading every third sentence while scanning over the rest.

And this is where the connective particles come in. They remind the inattentive reader that each individual sentence can’t be taken in isolation and criticized as though nothing else had been said. No, they’re connected to the rest of the piece, which must actually be read and assessed as a whole rather than as a collection of isolated monadic sentences suitable for target practice.

In other words, the “thus” tic is a kind of verbal cringe, a wincing attempt to dodge the inevitable arbitrary criticism. Every time we throw in a “thus” or “in other words” or “that is to say,” we’re saying: “No, see, I wrote these other sentences, too, and what I’m saying here depends on what I said there. You can’t just take this one sentence in isolation!” It’s an attempt to shame the impatient reader into at least glancing at the previous sentence before pouncing on the one their judgmental gaze happened to fall upon.

An American religion

Though numbers have declined in recent years, millions of Americans still regularly participate in the high holy days of this religion. Traveling to their local house of worship, they partake in the sacrament that affirms their existence within a shadowy realm that is wholly separated from their material existence. Different sects of this religion distinguish themselves through their interpretation of a sacred text. One of Americans’ favorite pasttimes is to argue with their neighbor over which sect they belong to, referencing “proof texts” from their sacred document, or by recalling the lives of various holy men (women have only recently been included in this religion). However, despite their percieved differences, the day to day lives of members of different sects is completely indistinguishable to outsiders. Americans call this religion “voting.”

An account of a history that has never been written

In many of Gil Anidjar’s works there seems to be a common thread pertaining to what I might hesitatingly call “method.” His texts often take the form of investigations into the conditions for the possibility of X. Of course, the Kantian sensibility here is obvious, and on it’s own this would not be worth mentioning. However, in what seems to be a form of deconstruction that foregrounds (more so than Derrida, I think) the psychoanalytic aspect, his texts analyze the conditions of possibility of repression/foreclosure of an X which nevertheless structures Y.

Blood examines the various ways that this element, like a purloined letter, has come to create internal divisions and markers within Western Christianity. After (re)creating circulation in kinship, politics, and money, blood has been repressed from the Western scene. Semites explores the repressed history of the Aryan/Semite opposition. The Jew, the Arab interrogates the absence of a theory of the enemy. The Jew and the arab are the enemies that have allowed Christianity to imagine distinct spheres of the religious and the political. A decisive point in this foreclosed history is Jesus’ new law, ‘love your enemies!’ and the generalized ambivalence that it installs. If all enemies are neighbors, all neighbors are enemies.

In the introduction to The Jew, the Arab, he states that the book is “less a history than a preliminary account of why that history has never been written.” Perhaps the most interesting example of this method comes, curiously, at the conclusion of Blood. He asks how it is that we have never noticed how christian Freud is? Lacan already asked “What in fucking God’s name does Moses have to do with Oedipus and the father of the primal horde?” The analyst Anidjar puts Freud himself on the couch and gives his diagnosis: repression!

Video of the “Breaking the Manichean Chains” Panel

This past Friday I was on a panel that Mark William Westmoreland organized for the Association of Graduate Liberal Studies Programs conference on Revolutions: Past, Present, and Future. Mark, Melanie Kampen, and myself all delivered papers which were recorded. The video is available to watch and please feel free to use this page for any comments or discussion. I thought Melanie’s and Mark’s papers were truly excellent and was very honored to be included. Some of what I presented comes out of discussions with Daniel Colucielleo Barber towards a paper I’m hoping we write together when we can carve out the time. The research is very much in early stages and very preliminary here.

Rilke on visual art: An executive summary

Cezanne - Mme Cezanne in Red ArmchairIn Shimer’s fine arts class, we typically do a unit on Cézanne that includes a selection of Rilke’s letters written after a particularly vivid encounter with an exhibition of Cézanne’s art. Out of curiosity, I picked up Rilke’s more formal study of Rodin, which was published at about the same time he was writing the Cézanne letters. Both texts are beautifully written, passionate responses to artworks that Rilke had not only studied closely, but felt deeply. In them, Rilke displays a profound sympathy for both artists as artists and as human beings. I strongly recommend you read both if you’re into that kind of thing.

Nonetheless, it seems to me that an unsympathetic reader could conclude that Rilke is, in the last analysis, simply praising both artists in exuberant terms without providing much in the way of concrete tools for thinking through the nature of Cézanne and Rodin’s particular artistic achievements.

This reading, though plausible, is in my opinion ultimately wrong. What Rilke is saying about each artist is simple and yet challenging and profound. In his letters on Cézanne, the point he returns to again and again is that Cézanne makes his paintings out of color. In his book on Rodin, he repeatedly emphasizes the fact that Rodin makes his sculptures out of planes.

Read the rest of this entry »

Gil Anidjar speaking in NYC tonight

Readers of the blog who live within range of Columbia University may be interested in this event tonight at Book Culture. I’ll be there, so say hi!

Curse God and Die

I have a piece up at The Immanent Frame entitled “Curse God and Die: On Agamben and Job.” It use Agamben’s reflections on oaths and curses in The Sacrament of Language as a framework for investigating the frequent references to cursing God in The Book of Job.


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