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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Le style, c'est l'homme même

A lawyer acquaintance who was reading my stuff told me that my style of composition is very confusing. He said I should simply lay out my position and the arguments for it.

Now that might be fine in a courtroom where you have a position, guilty or non-guilty, true or false. But I don't have a position I am trying to prove. I don't have an argument to win. And truth for me is not some objective formulation that is either right or wrong, but rather a convergence of positions of  many thoughtful people. In fact, truth for me is not in the formulation and who or how many hold it, but in the search.

That makes no sense to him. He has a very different epistemology, spirituality, and style than mine. But I'm not saying he is wrong (how could I?); and his comment did urge me to consider different styles of getting positions, putting forth positions, and advancing positions--i.e. composition, exposition, and imposition.

Every person has her own style or as the French naturalist Buffon said: le style, c'est l'homme même. Style is a good definition of personhood. In reflecting on my style, as in these blogs or the work on ethics that I am writing, in relation to others, I have identified five generic style types--though there are as many writing and presentation styles as there are persons.

1. Explanatory. The first is linear like a legal brief. You have a conclusion. You argue for it, presenting evidence and reasoning. You consider the arguments against it and rebut those arguments. You sum up and repeat your conclusion. Apologetic and didactic treatises as well as  commission reports are examples of this.

2. Scholarly. The second is what most academics use. It too is quite linear though it refers to the discovery method. You pose the question and lay out its status--e.g. how it fits with other questions. You give the results of a comprehensive search of the literature that relates to this question. You provide data from any experimentation that you or others have done. You lay out the findings and conclusion. You suggest questions for further research. More comprehensive and leads to further discussion. Rawls, Sen, Crossan, Dewey, Merleau-Ponty and most books from the academy are thus.

3. Reflective. The third is what activists whether on the streets, the board room, the counseling office articulate. They interview people and enter into situation which they observe. They take notes and write down their memories. They narrate actions. Then they mull over all they have observed and written down and discern patterns and meanings. This engages the reader by bringing her into the process of discovery. I think of Ernst Goffman and his observations while living in prisons and mental institutions and monasteries to identify the characteristics of total institutions. I think of Alinsky reflecting on his own community organizing to write the rules of radicals whose first rule is that there are no rules.

4. Thoughtful. The fourth is a series of thoughts or essays or meditations or dialogues on topics that may build up to conclusions but without finality. It engages the audience and encourages them to think for themselves. It involves the reader in the circular and redundant mode of discovery. I think of Hannah Arendt reflecting on the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem as well as her essays Between Past and Future; Karl Rahner and his forays into the histories of certain religious rituals; Christopher Hitchen's Essays; Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, and Bach; Pascal, Descartes, Badou.

5. Poetic and prophetic. The fifth provokes and shocks the reader to think out of the ordinary. It uses exhortation and rhetoric, stories and drama to push a different way of looking at reality. Neitsche, Kafka, Camus come to mind--as do many dramatists and film makers.

When I reflect on my style I find that I have large element of #3 because I have been an activist and do reflect on what I have learned in pursuing affordable housing, new urbanism, racial and economic justice.  But also #4 because I read, meditate, and write almost daily on topics of the day that interest me trying to weave them together with some consistency, but always questioning any positions I come to. I love #5 and at times try to write poetry and stories to point to ways of pursuing truth. No wonder I am confusing; but confusion is a way of being for me. My style.

So, dear reader, if you want consistency and invariable positions, if you want straight lines to the truth, if you want to be sure, do not associate with me. I am on a voyage and want to be with fellow wayfarers who are also searching and finding pleasure not in a final destination, but in the journey itself.

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