The Subj/Obj opposition has puzzled me since the time I heard an English teacher call a poem by Shelley ‘a subjective lyric’. I couldn’t understand what he meant, and said so, and learned nothing from his reply. Much later, reading Bronowski and Polyani, and a host of others, I got thinking about it again. I believe (especially since Heisenberg) it’s a pseudo-distinction, and certainly in the humanities a useless pis-aller. Whether in cartography or poetry I believe all we can do is to give versions of that part of the world which takes our attention. In spite of what many scientists actually assume in their practice, if not in their belief-system, there’s no god’s eye view of the world. We are not (at our best??) cameras, for reasons that should be transparent to anyone who thinks a little about it. Scientists hate that thought because it ushers in the dreaded C-Word as Murray Gell-Man puts it. What in the hell do we do with consciousness, which is after all the most fundamental fact of our being here? The answer that scientists often give is that you have to regard it, as Freud does the mind, as an epi-phenomenon of the body. Or, in the case of Crick, you dismiss the question as trivial. Generally speaking, you’re better off to forget about it and get on with the "real work". The trouble is that, as writers, we can’t do that because it doesn’t make sense. We are here and we have to tell stories - all kinds of stories - about what we experience. Part of my brief is that because we have been trained to think of ourselves as non-persons and because we have tried hard to do that, the result is the kind of prose that pours out of our colleges by the truck-load. In most student-essays there’s nobody home and when you ask the simple question— where did this dogma of ‘impersonality’ come from?—it’s not possible to find a satisfactory answer, except: we have always done it that way. But if essays are really forms of narration (stories), questions of accuracy inevitably arise. Why is my version of the auto bail-out more accurate than another’s? Or less? Interesting questions. Not, I would maintain because mine is more objective (whatever that means) but maybe because it has a wider explanatory range, because it is more consistent with many other ‘explanations.’. Consistency does seem to be a key, but clearly not a self-sufficient one (people used to be consistent about phlogiston). I could go on but will stop (on this question) with this: there seems to me nothing wrong with either a scientist or any other person declaring him or herself to be a largely ignorant person trying to make a somewhat intelligible "version" of one part of the world we all live in. Yet our dominies, our Strunks and Whites, and the greater part of our professoriat, would argue very strenuously against that assumption. We must tell the truth, be objective etc. There’s always the ghost in the machine, even when we take God away. The belief is very powerful. Someone must know the truth. It’s got to be there. Doesn’t it? Even Dawkins fall for the delusion.Whew.
Now for something provocative. I’m more and more convinced that beneath all our professional ‘belief’ in objectivity, five-paras, the forbidden ‘I’, and on an on, is a deeply entrenched commitment to the status quo. In other words that commitment is based a political belief which is almost invisible and, because of that, all the more powerful. This is the elephant in the room. We have taken our binary oppositions (heredity v. environment, nature v. culture) so much for granted that we’ve become stupefied and stunted in our thinking on very important matters. When one considers the brief given implicitly to most student writers, but NEVER examined, it goes something like this: You don’t know much about the recent history of Madagascar but your task is to write about it AS IF you do know something about it (you will get the vast bulk of your knowledge from sources, of course) and AT THE SAME TIME you should write as if you are not a person and must never use the first person. The brief is doubly incoherent at root. No wonder students hate writing essays but being, essentially, survivors they will find the best way to get under the wire. The most common practice is to string together a series of ‘quotes’ (properly acknowledged, of course) and to try to give the impression that the essay has an author, but not really, because the ‘author’ doesn’t really know anything. One can hardly imagine a more futile dry loop, a more complete waste of time. To ‘succeed’ in this exercise requires an imagination as dense as that of George Bush or Bill Kristol or Larry Summers. It’s main driving power is an unflinching commitment NOT TO THINK.
Against this ‘method’ of writing a paper I would propose the following. Get interested, get very interested in a topic, put yourself on the line as you think about it. Work. (If you can’t find a topic please do something else. Anything. But DON’T start writing until you are really involved.) Stand firm in your own partial knowledge, ask real questions. Use you genuine ignorance as your strength. Explore. Use quotations to help shape your own ideas, questions, puzzles. This is your essay it cannot be written by your sources. Use your essay as an authentic exploration of a question which matters to you. Remember that most teachers cannot write. They have been trained to think in very proscribed modes for reasons which become clear as you think about the whole purpose of education which, in the words of our some time Governor, Arnie Carlson, is to produce ‘successful units for deployment in the economic sphere.’
You were surprised by my ‘weird’ ideas on outlining. Another reader was delighted to find that it’s okay to use the first person in an essay, a third felt relieved that it’s alright to end her essay at the end and not at the beginning as she usually does. More questions: what do the words ‘alright’ and ‘okay’ mean in these sentences? More still: a university is a place where we should ask questions, sure. But not questions about sacred matters like this, or patriotism, and on and on.
In the teeth of all the conformism I have found in fifty years of teaching I want to join in the exciting task of helping students be authentic persons, in whatever they do. We (all students) have to give ourselves permission to be alive, questioning, foibled, ignorant, occasionally savvy, always fully ‘here’. Bloody difficult task. Our systems have made it an almost impossible one. Most schools have a corpse in the basement, and another one in the brain-pan. (Another full essay needed here). To cut to the essential thought: A revolution, what Blake called a Mental War, seems necessary.
And there you have, in sum, his new book. My only comment (I viscerally agree with most of what Keith says) is to go back to objectivism (the cult of objectivity) as a way of creating common ground based in verifiable experience. Whatever the culture of science may have become (and I hope to have more to say on this soon), the basic fundamental core of science is the idea of repeatable experiment. And the idea of objectivity comes out of this sense that if I drop two cannonballs from the Tower of Pisa, from the second of planet Foozbain, or the top of Mount Doom, they will land on the ground at the same time, regardless of their varying mass. This skeleton of "verifiable facts" seems to me to be the basis of the whole shooting match: the langauge of cartography, the voiceless essay, journalistic objectivity...
It's all pidgin, and placed against the previous context of a common language based on divine and miraculous explanations for things, it makes a lot of sense. It makes conversations about practical matters possible for a broader range of people. The trouble comes when we start wanting to insert lyrical, subjective content into this pidgin, because that content is adamantly non-repeatable. Conversely, we can get in trouble if we hide behind "objectivity" in order to get our selfish way (see Woods' critique of cartography).
And when we insist that all discourse be carried out under this rubric, even when what we are talking about doesn't need the pidgin to be able to cross a cultural divide, we (as Keith points out) stifle real creative work, which needs to be carried out by a whole person, not just the part that can be translated into pidgin.