I recently read a book by the New Zealand poet and academic Helen Sword called Stylish Academic Writing. It’s a thoughtful, considered and very well written guide for students and academics to think about the nature of the language they use. Below are three quotes that stayed with me.
On using the personal voice:
When we muzzle the personal voice, we risk subverting our whole purpose as researchers, which is to foster change by communicating new knowledge to our intended audience in the most effective and persuasive way possible.
Language and power:
Academics who are committed to using language effectively and ethically— as a tool for communication, not as an emblem of power— need first of all to acknowledge the seductive power of jargon to bamboozle, obfuscate, and impress.
Academics identified by their peers as stylish writers for other reasons— their intelligence, humor, personal voice, or descriptive power— are invariably sticklers for well-crafted prose. Their sentences may vary in length, subject matter, and style; however, their writing is nearly always governed by three key principles that any writer can learn. First, they employ plenty of concrete nouns and vivid verbs, especially when discussing abstract concepts. Second, they keep nouns and verbs close together, so that readers can easily identify “who’s kicking whom.” Third, they avoid weighing down their sentences with extraneous words and phrases, or “clutter.” Far from eschewing theoretical intricacy or syntactical nuance, stylish academic writers deploy these three core principles in the service of eloquent expression and complex ideas.
In the latest edition of Wired magazine computer philosopher Jaron Lanier writes of social media and the advertising business model of the internet:
We call it advertising, but that name in itself is misleading. It is really statistical behaviour-modification of the population in a stealthy way. Unlike [traditional] advertising, which works via persuasion, this business model depends on manipulating people’s attention and their perceptions of choice.
The behaviourist BF Skinner designed an experimental box for conditioning animals in laboratory experiments. A person in a Skinner box has an illusion of control, but is actually controlled by the box or whoever is behind the box. In this case they’re algorithmically designed. Because they are not physically contained in the Skinner Box, you have to keep people attentive to the device. The only way to do that is to create a continuous urgency, and that can only be achieved through conflict and danger. So, intrinsically, the business plan breaks apart the world, including any efforts to prevent things from stopping it.
– Jaron Lanier, Save the internet – but change the business model, Wired, January 2018
If all people want to do is go and look at other people so that they can compare themselves to them and copy what they want – if that is the final, deepest truth about humanity and its motivations – then Facebook doesn’t really have to take too much trouble over humanity’s welfare, since all the bad things that happen to us are things we are doing to ourselves.
– John Lanchester, https://www.lrb.co.uk/v39/n16/john-lanchester/you-are-the-product
The more one limits oneself, the closer one is to the infinite; these people, as unworldly as they seem, burrow like termites into their own particular material to construct, in miniature, a strange and utterly individual image of the world.
– Stefan Zweig, Chess Story
I Am Not Your Negro is a documentary by Raoul Peck about James Baldwin film about power, race, love, and a vision of America that is prescient and painful.
I had to look at you [white people]. I know more about you than you know about me. Not everything that is faced can be changed, but nothing can be changed until it is faced.
The world is not white, it never was white. It cannot be white. White is a metaphor for power.
I can’t be a pessimist because I am alive. To be a pessimist means that you have agreed that human life is an academic matter. So I am forced to be an optimist, I am forced to believe that we can survive, whatever we must survive. But the future of the Negro in this country is precisely as bright or as dark as the future of the country. It is entirely up to the American people and our representatives – it is entirely up to the American people whether or not they are going to face, and deal with, and embrace this stranger whom they maligned so long. What white people have to do, is try and find out in their own hearts why it was necessary to have a nigger in the first place, because I’m not a nigger, I’m a man, but if you think I’m a nigger, it means you need it. The question you have got to ask yourself — the white population of this country has got to ask itself — North and South, because it’s one country, and for a Negro, there’s no difference between the North and South. There’s just a difference in the way they castrate you. But the fact of the castration is the American fact. If I’m not a nigger here and you invented him, you, the white people, invented him, then you’ve got to find out why. And the future of the country depends on that. Whether or not it’s able to ask that question.
– James Baldwin (transcribed from I Am Not Your Negro, a documentary by Raoul Peck).
By the Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, from a piece entitled Elements of the Interhuman
Let us now imagine two men, whose life is dominated by appearance, sitting and talking together. Call them Peter and Paul. Let us list the different configurations which are involved. First, there is Peter as he wishes to appear to Paul, and Paul as he wishes to appear to Peter. Then there is Peter as he really appears to Paul, that is, Paul’s image of Peter, which in general does not in the least coincide with what Peter wished Paul to see; and similarly there is the reverse situation. Further, there is Peter as he appears to himself, and Paul as he appears to himself. Lastly, there are the bodily Peter and the bodily Paul. Two living beings and six ghostly appearances, which mingle in many ways in the conversation between the two. Where is there room for any genuine interhuman life?