Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Solitary Professions

A high point in my (far from standard) television viewing over this past holiday weekend was definitely the Book TV broadcast of a discussion with Rick Atkinson on the occasion of his receipt of the 2010 Pritzker Military Library Literature Award for Lifetime Achievement in Military Writing.  Atkinson gave his own take on the extent to which writing is a solitary profession, a proposition that was hardly new to anyone who takes writing seriously.  From my own point of view, I would certainly not contest that writing about music is a solitary profession, even if, as I wrote yesterday, both performing and listening are “behaviors that take place in the social world.”

I do not see this as paradoxical.  Rather it constitutes an elaboration on the extent to which listening is a matter of sensemaking (or, as Friedrich Hayek put it, bringing “sensory order” to the stimuli of sense data).  Those data originate in the objective world, which is why they can be captured through scientific instrumentation and subjected to analysis through scientific methodologies.  Nevertheless, those data are produced in the social world;  and, while there are any number of sophisticated analytic tools that may be applied to them, it is not necessarily the case that we can interpret what those tools tell us in ways that take the social world into account.  At the same time the listening itself is a subjective matter of what mind does in order to achieve sensory order, whether we model mind according to Gerald Edelman’s elaborations on Hayek’s speculations or on Ernst Cassirer’s approach to how we arrive at a capacity for symbolic expression.

Nevertheless, any sensory order that is achieved is like that tree falling in the woods with no one to hear it unless that subjective “I” is capable of giving an account (in the sense of Plato’s use of “λόγος” in “Theaetetus”) of what that order is.  This is where writing, particularly descriptive writing, enters the picture.  However, as Jacques Derrida put it, writing is far from a simple matter of putting marks on paper.  Rather, as Derrida’s translator Barbara Johnson put it, writing is “any differential trace structure … that also inhabits speech.”  In other words writing involves creating a system of marks (a “trace structure”) grounded in speech;  and, by being grounded in speech, writing is also grounded in the social world.  In other words we write in order to communicate;  and we communicate according to our speech practices (or, as Jürgen Habermas puts it, our “communicative actions”).

A key insight in Habermas’ Theory of Communicative Action is that any communicative action must, of necessity, “inhabit” objective, subjective, and social worlds simultaneously.  The writer must deal with the subjectivity of his/her sensemaking;  but (s)he must deal with it within significant objective constraints (most of which fall within the domain of grammar) on the “system of marks” that (s)he creates.  At the same time those marks are subject to the constraints of logic and rhetoric, both of which address the efficacy of speech practices in the objective and social worlds, respectively.  In other words the writer works within a formidable array of constraints;  and dealing with those constraints is basically a “too many cooks” problem.  The act of writing must be strictly between the writer and the marks.  Once the marks have been fixed, they may (and ideally should) be passed to an editor for feedback;  but the writing itself cannot be anything other than solitary.

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