I’m reposting a piece Daegan Miller (founding member/first coordinator of HAW!) wrote for the blog in 2008 because it’s seminar paper season for many right now, because I’m struggling with sentences that sound like the one Daegan grapples with below, and because great stuff like this shouldn’t get buried beneath all the fancy web-updating I’ve been doing this week. Enjoy!
March 26, 2008
There is probably little that is as defeating, deflating, and hair-pullingly infuriating as writing such a sentence as I recently wrote: “Let us now leave the natural world for just a few pages, and shift our attention to Thoreau’s understanding of work.” I was jammed between a passage that had just barely reeled itself into coherence, and a crucial, half-formed thought waiting only for me to come up with a decent transition. And for an hour I tried all of my standby writer’s un-blockers: pacing, playing guitar, drinking tea, staring out across the street at the apartments piled one on the other. And the best I had managed to come up with was that phrase: “Let us now leave the natural world for just a few pages, and shift our attention to Thoreau’s understanding of work.”
Writing is a chore, it is unnatural and abstract compared to the immediacy and community of interpersonal speech; as the postmodernists have shown us, written language itself is a slippery thing. My choice of solipsism, intertextual nods (thanks, Ed Abbey), and vivifying verbs might all add up to a monster run amok. So we (apprentice) historians can perhaps be forgiven if we decide to shuck the literary pretension in favor of loosely structured, purely analytical prose conceived as an efficient information-delivering instrument. What could be clearer than the tried-and-true trinity, evident in many a text, “Three central factors converge to explain this event: A, B, and C,” or the chapter that begins with a schematic introduction and overview, ends with a tidy sum-it-all-up conclusion, and is stuffed between beginning and end with the necessary facts and figures?
But we (apprentice) historians are also great consumers of books. And while the ultra-schematized histories make cursory skimming easy, they are, I think, infrequently read. Of course, pages get flipped and eyes mechanically scan lines of text, but the histories that demand real reading with a pen and notebook and frequent pauses to reflect on whatever it is the author is trying to show are seldom the histories that easily break down into a detailed outline.
The other day I read one of these difficult, beautiful books—Dipesh Chakrabarty’s Provincializing Europe (And, yes, I can hear the groans: “that’s the book you’re choosing to point out?” Yes. It is.)—and it gave me a burst of energy. Its force threw into high relief what it is that is missing from efficient, mechanical writing: soul. Chakrabarty is wrestling with a slippery set of questions: How to incorporate the non-rational into an ultra-rational academic discourse? How to honor historical difference? How to self-consciously write in a way that does not violate academic convention on the one hand, and the irreducible uniqueness of history on the other? And in doing so, he runs right up against the boundaries of academic history. I’m sure that were Provincializing Europe to be workshopped at one of the countless non-fiction writers’ workshops around the country, it would meet with, uhm, resistance.His is not an experimental work, nor is it clear that Chakrabarty is much concerned with art. Nevertheless, Provincializing Europe is an elegant, explicitly passionate effort to harmonize academic rigor with what I take to be his sneaking suspicion that an overly fastidious academic rigor flies wide of the mark.
In the end, my paper earned me the grade I wanted, and maybe that is what finally makes me squirm: “Let us now leave the natural world for just a few pages, and shift our attention to Thoreau’s understanding of work,” is empty, purely instrumental, a means to a grade. Rather than a high note that floats on the air, compellingly and tauntingly just out of reach, one can only come to the end of a sentence like mine with relief that it has finally ended. Instead, I want to stand with Chakrabarty, to strain my eyes, and mind, and the pen in my fingers for a glimpse of what is just out there, just beyond the light cast by “This study argues that…,” for the things that stalk through the gloaming.