Sunday, September 28, 2008

The 'beget' nature of academic writing

My head is full of old fashioned idioms, perhaps because last might I watched the first episode of the 1971 BBC adaptation of Honore de Balzac’s Cousin Bette. So far I am not enjoying it. It seems too stylised and twee. I cannot identify with any characters, not the way I do when I watch the BBC adaptations of Dickens, or Austen or many of the other classics I have watched adapted to the screen. BBC classics. Watching them on Friday and Saturday nights, starting late, well after dinner and whatever else needs happen on those nights, well into the wee hours, I watch these films and lose myself in these old worlds long gone, grateful that I live in the present. The lot of women in the past has been far worse than it is today, at least from my perspective. Though I’m sure for some elsewhere it may be as bad or even worse.

Now I wonder, what distinguishes good writing from bad? What is it that makes us want to read on? To some extent it must be subjective, different words and styles appeal to different people. When I read blog sites, why do some appeal to me and others not? Why am I so taken by the self conscious confessional tone of some like Artandmylife, who forever admits to feeling poorly educated, a non expert, and yet offers her thoughts and opinions regardless. For me she becomes a sort of every woman, the mother at home with her little ones imparting knowledge to them that is greater far than anything they can read in text books and yet, her knowledge is somehow diminished because it has not been formalised through the official authorised discourse. Maybe this is why I enjoy her work so much, the same with Stripeysocksstudio and Martin Edmond – was there ever a more self-effacing, yet brilliant writer, who also seems more self taught than spoon fed by the institutions? Maybe for me, too, because I have gone back to the university after thirty yeas and because I do not have a vested interest in fitting in with the academic ethos – I’m not looking for a job – I can write more freely even as I know it will not satisfy certain of the establishment.

I resent the insistence that everything said be backed up by a footnote: Who gave you this idea? Who has said this before you? How can you claim to know this? How dare you presume to say anything unless someone else presumably more learned than you has said it before.

To me that’s different from the need to acknowledge other people’s ideas. I have no problem acknowledging other people’s ideas, but sometimes I cannot remember and sometimes my own ideas have become such an amalgamation of all the ideas that I have read and heard from many other people, I cannot think to anchor the idea as someone else's specific’s property.

My supervisor talks of the 'beget' nature of much psychoanalytic writing. Someone wants to write about an area, say the notion of envy, they must always begin with what Freud said first, then move on to what Jung said or Klein, Bion or even Lacan. They seem to need to quote about five or more significant people from the past before they can move into contemporary ideas, and sometimes if they’re lucky they might have something to add for themselves, some new ideas of their own, but always it’s couched in dense theoretical terms, as if it can only be looked at from afar, like examining a precious gem under a bright light. It’s not allowed to be vague and abstract, a dim idea. It has to be sharp and clear.

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