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· Pointed Takes on Style Delineated ·

· Around the Academic Bell Curve in Artful-Scholar Style ·

The Chronicle of Higher Education recently reviewed Jonathan Culler and Kevin Lamb's book, Just Being Difficult? (Stanford, 2003). Subtitled Academic Writing in the Public Arena, the book aptly lands on the much-contested subject of modern academic prose. Carlin Romano's witty take, Was It as Bad for You as It Was for Me?, links it to academic sex, marking the meeting there of philosophical opposites: postmodern constructivism and classical essentialism, ideological obscurity and ideal purity, savvy complexity and naïve clarity. Here is his lead.

For most scholars, bad academic writing, like bad academic sex, doesn't call for explanation — or argument.

It's poor chemistry between writer and reader (pontificator and pontificatee, in the academic version), like lack of sizzle between jaded full professor and enthusiastic asst. prof. It's failure of Interrogator A to make the noises and gestures that work for Hegemonized Reader B. It may be Defamiliarizer A's clumsy attempt to shake up the ideological/emotional/instrumental reflexes of Overly Essentialized Reader B. It may be sheer incompetence at nouns, verbs, and adjectives.

Typically, I hold to the latter view — "grammatical," as you may call it — aware that Romano's theme, like that of E. M. Forster in Howard's End ("Only Connect"), partially bridges (or "pontificates") such a gap nicely. Such is my hope too, but it is hard work — especially in view of the examples. Here, for instance, is Judith Butler's winning quote in Philosophy and Literature's Bad Writing Contest (1998):

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power. Judith Butler, 'Further Reflections on the Conversations of Our Time,' Diacritics 27 (1997): 13.

As I have sometimes abused such prose — recall High Style and Compromising Style — you may find it strange that I sympathize with Butler's point, not to say with Butler's writing. It is simply because Butler delineates here, with a line that may drift and circle around too much, the analogous concerns of Robin Lakoff's excellent discussion of "How to Write Like a Professor." To Lakoff's credit in Talking Power: The Politics of Language, Butler's "question of temporality" — considered vis-à-vis "structure," "power," and "style" — is even graphically well-illustrated.

 · Power and Privilege in Academia ·

The curve of the line suggests that academic style, as Lakoff claims, "is connected to notions of privilege and power."

If academic style were merely the result of carelessness or unconcern for the graces, it would increase as its user advanced in the field, in a straight upward direction; and if undergraduates were capable of using the style, it would be deemed an unmixed sign of competence, not a little off-color. But we find instead the parabolic curve of Figure 8.1 . . .   You are allowed to use academese when you have convinced the elders that you are a serious apprentice, no longer an outsider (who is not allowed knowledge of the mysteries). You must use academese to prove your worthiness of acceptance and your ability to submit to discipline. You may abandon academese, wholly or more likely in part, when you are the gatekeeper and need no longer worry about being excluded from the society. Robin Tolmack Lakoff, Talking Power: The Politics of Language, New York: Basic Books, 1990, 158.


So where, pray tell, does that leave Styles, as a life-long academic bottom-dweller — a wily old fish, full of Ancient Academic Graces and all the Modern Gumptions? Just stuck in the reedy backwaters of learning, warily observing clumsy bait-hurlers like Butler (her aim is good, by the way) and stylish fly-tossers like Robin Lakoff (she must shop at R.E.I.) almost communicating effectively. But so much Butlerian telling and Lakoffian showing leave this fish reflecting, if truth be told, on Norman Maclean's sage advice in A River Runs Through It: "Grace comes by art, and art does not come easy."

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· The Sweet Sound of Silence ·

Returned from the East, I'm afraid I have lapsed into the sweet sound of silence. Not, of course, that I have heard nothing out West or back East. On the contrary, Monday was the wettest, stormiest day on record here. I heard leaky drips in my attic and, outside, the impressive, steady howling of North-Pacific gales. My younger son even begged me hear drops falling on the stage he graced last February with the sweet sounds of music — and they weren't, of course, proper piano sounds.

But last week back East they were. On the stage of Avery Fisher Hall in New York two Saturdays ago, I heard Zoltán Kocsis play Béla Bartók's Piano Concerto No. 3 (1945), and, again, last Tuesday there, I heard Murray Perahia play Beethoven's Piano Concerto No. 1 in C major, Op. 15 (1795). Last Thursday at the 92nd Street Y, I again heard Kocsis play two Schubert sonatas [E minor (1817) and B-flat Major (1828)], these anchoring, brilliantly, a varied set of Liszt's Hungarian Rhapsodies.

What prompts my recollections, however, is my understanding that words are simply inadequate to my musical experiences. Happily, I was put onto this theme by the fitness of David Wright's program notes for Thursday's Kocsis recital. Here is Wright's trying — and admittedly failing — to catch the very essence of the middle movements of the Schubert B-Flat Sonata:

 · Franz Schubert · Again, the unexpected key of the Andante sostenuto, C-sharp minor, can be "explained" as the "minor mode of the enharmonic flatted mediant" of B flat — or one can just appreciate it as a subtle change of light, foreshadowed by the development of the first movement, which begins in C-sharp minor. It is the key of Beethoven's "Moonlight" Sonata, veiled, romantic, sensual — tendencies that Schubert counteracts by writing the left-hand accompaniment in bare four-octave unison arpeggios. Except for a more active middle section, this movement creates a kind of frozen landscape by the use of near-identical rhythmic patterns in every bar — which makes its ability to convey great, wrenching emotional shifts all the more astonishing. And what could be a greater contrast than the blithe, unpredictable Scherzo? Here nothing is what it appears to be: a theme begins, then turns out to be a digression, and vice versa. Again, analysis is futile; the net isn't made that will catch this butterfly. David Wright, 'Notes on the Program,' Distinguished Artists Series, Zoltan Kocsis, Piano, New York: 92nd Street Y, October 16, 2003, 6.

But of course it doesn't stymie the creature. The sweetest sound I heard last Saturday, for instance — in Palmer Square in Princeton — was from a waitress (a lovely soprano at Westminster College Choir of Ryder University) who, in serving me a rich chocolate fondue dessert, happily heard me and a friend say, "Yes, chocolate."

Although she only nodded, if you ever chance to hear Sarah Sweet, do. I think I've caught the essence of her style.

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· New York Bound ·

I will soon be off to New York. I thought you should know. I should say that style calls me there to don the garb of a word judge — a one-, two-, three-, four-, five-, and (yes) six-word judge, too. Once in Here, Here: Where Have You Been There? you saw me stuck by a "T'ree" when back from New York. Some eight months back, that was.

So now I thought to fess up to the real truth: I meant a T(h)ree! A hard word for me to say then or now, here or there. It has to do with what Dave Blum down on Wall Street calls "a group of folks, some here and some there, who like to talk in one-pulse words." Here is what he says of us (more than just a few, too) in a short piece called "In Praise of Small Words."


May I have a small word with you?

I want to tell you the tale of a group of folks, some here and some there, who like to talk in one-pulse words. There are no more than a few folks so far — a cult, in a way — but you will want to play their game once your hear more. I shall tell this tale in words of one pulse, if I can. So, please bear with me — it will, of course, be short and sweet. Dave Blum, 'In Praise of Small Words,' Floating Off the Page: The Best Stories from The Wall Street Journal's 'Middle Column,' ed. Ken Wells, New York: Simon & Schuster, 2002, 254.

Of course, Blum is a Wall-Street news type — a guy who has no clue that just one word we may all say is "seven" (as we may all say [when in real need of a buck or two or three], one small last word, too: you guessed it, New Jersey).

Well, I'm off on a big jet soon. Your guess is as good as mine where I'll be.

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· Blue End Note: Louis Menand Sings "Chicago Blues" ·

I saw the PBS documentaries on The Blues last week. Seven independently-directed films produced by Martin Scorsese, they had me tapping my toes and singing "Sweet Home, Chicago" like a blues brother. I especially liked Clint Eastwood's series-ending "Piano Blues" — capped off by Ray Charles doing "America the Beautiful" with an orchestra. There's nothing like Ray's going low-down and high-flown at once.

But my take is not on Charles but on Louis Menand, who last week — in The End Note, The Nightmare of Citation — reviewed The Chicago Manual of Style (15th Edition) in The New Yorker. He did it with real feeling, striking a blue note. Here is Menand's lead:

It is 2:30 a.m. of a Monday, spring semester . . . Things are looking extremely good. Forty-eight hours of high-intensity stack work and some inspired typing have produced the thirty-page final paper for Modern European History . . . you are satisfied that you have turned out, in two days, the intellectual and moral equivalent of three months’ steady application . . . Only the notes and the bibliography remain. . . . Two-thirty is by no means an unreasonable hour of the night. You anticipate a decent five or six hours of sleep before class time. And you are, of course, so wrong. You are not nearing the finish line at all. There is a signpost up ahead: you are about to enter The End Matter.

Foreshortened, you can almost hear old Muddy Waters wailing, strumming, and beating out the 12-bar blues:

Baby, you've found us the right source

Do, Da Da Da, Duh

Baby, you've found us the right source

Do, Da Da Da, Duh

But, Baby, you gotta cite us that source!

Do, Da Da Da . . . Duh?

You are in "Muddy Waters" indeed. As Menand has it you're in fact sailing into trouble. Included are such odd arcana as whose citation form is it? (MLA, APA, or Chicago's?); what do you do with those punctuations and abbreviations? (,:;.[]* loc cit, ibid, et al.?); where do publishers today really do their thing? (New York, Chicago, London, Cambridge, Toronto, Sydney, Delhi, or Cambridge, MA?), and why can evil Redmond (I know it well) make your life so miserable today? ("First of all, it is time to speak some truth to power in this country: Microsoft Word is a terrible program.").

Though I can't begin to carry Louis ("The Delta Dart") Menand's bluesy tune, I can at least essentialize its point. It smiles in his last paragraph:

The "Manual" is not too long. It is not long enough. It will never be long enough. The perfect manual of style would be like the perfect map of the world: exactly coterminous with its subject, containing a rule for every word of every sentence. We would need an extra universe to accommodate it. It would be worth it.*

*What Robert Nozick once said of philosophy could now be said of all academic subjects: They're

beset by the temptation to say everything explicitly. Robert Nozick, 'What is Wisdom and Why Do Philosophers Love it So?' The Examined Life: Philosophical Meditations, New York: Simon and Shuster (Torchstone), 1989, 268.

And what J. David Bolter noted of their latest media equally applies:

The network can never be fully explicit. J. David Bolter, Writing Space: The Computer, Hypertext, and the History of Writing, Hillsdale, N.J.: Earlbaum, 1991, 113.

Between the temptation and the reality we have, of course, "Chicago Blues."*

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