Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Let’s do something wrong!

Last week I talked about garbage – the waste of writing, the stuff that’s condemned never to be encountered by the reader. But there were things that went unsaid in that post: my own garbage, of course. The part I took out was about mistakes: writing, reading, and the way mistakes intrude to mess them up. Or do they, really?


In order to arrive at these mistakes, I think I need to take the usual detour, which will prove to be of some importance later on. Critical reading: that’s what I’m thinking of. The two things go hand in hand, don’t they? Critical attitude and reading. Only a type of reading that is critical in nature can bring to light that which we take to be a mistake. Do you remember your years in high school or college, when you had to produce an argumentative essay? What was the thing that you were most likely to do? Read the original text with the intention of finding a flaw in it. A flaw serious enough to warrant the grunt in your response. A mistake that could not go untreated.

Source: JTM Games
That kind of reading, which placed critical unrest before and above everything else, was meant to develop one’s ability to judge. So they said, remember? But there was something else at work as well. Through the cultivation of this critical spirit, you were being trained into the profession of academic reading. It made sense, didn’t it? You were in school, not in a factory. You had therefore to learn how to read, write, and think the way schools read, write, and think.
But schools teach almost always through mistakes. Remember your teacher’s comments on the margins of your essay? That’s what I mean.

The critical profession

Critical reading is characteristic to the academia the way cleaning a pipe is characteristic to plumbing. What I mean by this is that it only makes sense to exercise your critical abilities if you read with an academic mind, or in order to impress (we say ‘interact with,’ or ‘find a channel of communication with,’ but it means the same thing!) another academic mind. That's like saying that you can only clean a pipe if you have the authority vested in you by the profession of plumbing. Once escaped from the confines of the academia, your reading turns into something else: something that is no longer limited by the predicaments of that profession. Once you’re outside of school, you discover that reading can take place without rules and neat margins; you discover that it can be full of garbage. And you like it, in 9 cases out of 10; the way you like not knowing what could cause a pipe to block. Ignorance is bliss, as they say, and the saying seems to be equally applicable to readers and plumbers.
All this has one major reason: being an academic is a profession, and critical reading is the major outlet of this occupation. (As for the plumbing profession, I'll let the knowledgeable ones say it in their own words.)
Let’s see if that makes sense.
When the professionals of critical reading are asked about the practicality of their profession, they spit scorn back at you. And that is precisely the response of a professional, since all professionals spit scorn when it comes to questioning the purpose of their actions. There is always a literal, fundamentalist, dogmatic reference to the letter of the profession (to what constitutes its purpose, to what warrants its lunacies, to how important it is in the context of human experience).
Based on this, one thing needs to be said: professionals are not flexible. Why? Because they are bound by their guild to defend the territory of their profession and to scorn all attempts at defamation – of which the world is full, since the world is made up of other professions too.

Mistaken?

Yet there’s another thing about professionals: they tend to have words of criticism to utter about others in their own line of duty. And this is where we get closer to what I wanted to talk about: mistakes.
I have spoken to plumbers who, instead of giving me the straight answer about what had gone wrong with the drainage in my house, spoke about the insufficient professionalism of the plumber who did the job before. To professionals, there’s always something to criticize in the past of others. Not their own past – let’s be clear about this: always the past of others. The past in general is always flawed with them. A true professional lives in a continuous present, where the only thing that’s worth the penny of everybody’s attention is their present practice: the way they perform here and now. This immediacy of professionals is due, I believe, to the fact that they are task-driven. They don’t just choose what’s next. They don’t do what they want, but what needs to be done – what the world requires of them.

Source: Boomer to Gen-Y (and Gen-X)
But what’s very, very important is that the task itself depends on something bad having happened before. Let’s admit it: without a mistake there’s no task; without something wrong there’s no need for something good to be done to right it. Without an incomplete story there cannot be a sequel. Without a wrong theory there’s no need for a scientist to test his own. Therefore, the past has to be bad. Whether they succeed or not, the actions of a ‘fixer’ are expected to lead to an improvement, to a change in the wrong course of things. That’s why the intervention of a specialist, insofar as they are fixers-of-things, takes up an almost heroic aura.

Hunting for errors

Similar to plumbing, critical reading has its own professional fief. Academics will think of their work as significant in the present, while at the same time highlighting the insufficiency of their predecessors. In an academic dissertation or peer-reviewed article worth their title, there is a very clear demand for the assessment of previous work, which is expected to appear as incomplete. It is within the gap left uncovered by the predecessor that academic readers place their own performance. In this regard, the academic reader is by definition a fixer: a plumber of texts, a professional promising to provide the actual way of doing things.
The major task, here as in the case of plumbers, is to find that mistake, that shortcoming. An academic who writes his or her article is demanded (by professional rules, by peer-reviewing eyes, by colleagues and readers) to drill a hole into their field of expertise and plant inside it the seed of their own argument. In order for that seed to catch roots, it has to enjoy the photosynthesis of a well-discovered mistake.

Source: Odd Job Nation
Not long ago, I read a seemingly innocent article with a seemingly complicated title: “Promotional(meta)discourse in research articles in language and literary studies.” To take it to its nitty-gritty, the article is about how academics pitch themselves by downgrading others. It talks about “boosterism” and “self-advocacy” – two terms that speak for themselves. These may be only self-marketing techniques, the way they’re usually employed by professionals (doesn’t Pepsi thrive on showing how different it is from Coca Cola?). But behind the whole marketing thing, behind the pretentious assertion that irreverence is necessary if what you want is progress, lies the truth of The Mistake: this unavoidable engine that stands at the roots of everything.
Everything, really – you may ask? Of course, I say. Think no further than Adam and Eve and you’ll see what I mean.