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How to Do Things with Texts, Second Edition

Joseph Harris

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eBook - ePub


How to Do Things with Texts, Second Edition

Joseph Harris

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"Like all writers, intellectuals need to say something new and say it well. But for intellectuals, unlike many other writers, what we have to say is bound up with the books we are reading... and the ideas of the people we are talking with."

What are the moves that an academic writer makes? How does writing as an intellectual change the way we work from sources? In Rewriting, Joseph Harris draws the college writing student away from static ideas of thesis, support, and structure, and toward a more mature and dynamic understanding. Harris wants college writers to think of intellectual writing as an adaptive and social activity, and he offers them a clear set of strategies—a set of moves—for participating in it. The second edition introduces remixing as an additional signature move and is updated with new attention to digital writing, which both extends and rethinks the ideas of earlier chapters.

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Coming to Terms

A few weeks ago my old friend Dick Lower sent me this huge pile of paper, saying that, as I am a voracious collector of curios and suchlike, perhaps I should have it. . . . How is a mere chronicler such as myself to transmute the lead of inaccuracy in these papers into the gold of truth?
—Iain Pears, An Instance of the Fingerpost
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master—that’s all.”
—Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass
In his short story “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” Jorge Luis Borges tells of an obscure modern artist who decides to rewrite a passage from Don Quixote, the famous seventeenth-century novel by Miguel de Cervantes. What makes this goal interesting, and more than a little crazy, is that Menard doesn’t want simply to copy or transcribe the Quixote but instead “to produce a number of pages which coincided—word for word and line for line—with those of Miguel de Cervantes.” And to make matters even more difficult, he resolves to do so without referring back to the text of the Quixote or conducting any research on Cervantes.
To be a popular novelist of the seventeenth century in the twentieth seemed to Menard to be a diminution. Being, somehow, Cervantes, and arriving thereby at the Quixote—that looked to Menard less challenging (and therefore less interesting) than continuing to be Pierre Menard and coming to the Quixote through the experiences of Pierre Menard.
Jorge Luis Borges, “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote,” in Collected Fictions, trans. Andrew Hurley (New York: Penguin, 1998), 88–95.
It’s an absurd project, to write as your own part of a book that has already been written by someone else, and one that the narrator of Borges’s story (who seems no less eccentric than Menard) admits was never completed. And yet, when the narrator rereads Don Quixote as though it were written not by Cervantes but by his friend, he finds that while the two versions are (of course) “verbally identical,” the one composed by Menard seems “almost infinitely richer”—since one is no longer reading a romantic novel from another time and place but a contemporary text written as if it were such a work. Why would someone write or read such an odd text? Well, as the narrator observes, “ambiguity is richness.”
Rereading Borges
Read “Pierre Menard” with the aim of assessing my use of it here. What aspects of this short fiction do I emphasize? What do I gloss over or omit? How might you add to or counter my reading of Borges?
There are few things harder to do than to explain a joke without seeming a bore, and I am aware that I have started this chapter by trying to do just that. “Pierre Menard, Author of the Quixote” offers pleasures to its readers that no summary can replicate, as Borges subtly and affectionately mocks the wild ambitions of writers, the pretensions of critics, and the backstage politics of the literary world. And certainly it’s hard to take either Menard or his friend and biographer as seriously as they take themselves. But even still, I think that for all its ironies, Borges’s story also hints at a theory of reading—which is that to understand a text you need, in a way, to rewrite it, to take the ideas and phrasings of its author and turn them into your own. Texts don’t simply reveal their meanings to us; we need to make sense of them. Like Menard, each of us comes at what we read through our own experiences and concerns, and so each of us makes a slightly different sense of the texts we encounter. We all write our own Quixote—at least to some degree. There is no such thing as a completely accurate and objective summary, a view from nowhere. All readings are interested (including my own here of Borges).
But if you cannot be neutral as a reader, you can strive to be fair and self-reflective. This is why I find it helpful to think of the kind of rewriting in which you strive to represent the work of another, to translate the language and ideas of a text into words of your own, as a coming to terms—since, among other things, the phrase suggests a settling of accounts, a negotiation between reader and writer. In coming to terms you need both to give a text its due and to show what uses you want to make of it. You are not simply re-presenting a text but incorporating it into your own project as a writer. You thus need not only to explain what you think it means but to say something about the perspective from which you are reading it. In coming to terms with the work of others, then, you also say a good deal about who you are as a writer, about your own interests and values.
Of course, the idea of coming to terms also emphasizes that we are dealing here with words, with connecting your language to that of the texts you are reading. Such work involves a dialectic between paraphrase and quotation. On the one hand, to make strong use of the work of another writer, you need to be able to restate what she or he has to say in your own terms, to offer your own paraphrase of her or his project. On the other hand, you also need to attend closely to the specific features of the texts you deal with, to note and respect their key moves and phrasings—or you run the risk of turning every text you read into a version of what you already want to say.
In coming to terms with a text by another writer, then, it seems to me that you need to make three moves:
• Define the project of the writer in your own terms.
• Note keywords or passages in the text.
• Assess the uses and limits of this approach.
I will discuss these three moves in detail in the rest of this chapter. Before I do so, though, I need to say that simply because this is the first chapter doesn’t mean that coming to terms with other texts is always the first thing you need to do as an academic writer. There are few things more tedious to read than an essay in which a writer spends so much time carefully summarizing and restating the work of others that, in the end, you’re left unsure about what he or she actually wanted to bring to the conversation. Good writers thus often draw quickly on terms and ideas from other thinkers. In writing an academic essay, though, there is usually a set of texts and perspectives that you need to consider at some length so that you can define your own views in relation to them. Such work is not always done at the start of an essay or in some other, closely demarcated section of it, like a “literature review”; instead, you are likely to find that you need to slow down and think through the views and phrasings of others at various points in a piece you are writing. And although I will keep my examples here brief, you can’t always expect to come to terms with a text or a writer in the space of a paragraph or two. Some views and texts you encounter will almost surely seem to call for a much more sustained analysis and response. But even if executing them may sometimes become more complex, I think that the three central moves that you need to make in coming to terms with a text—defining projects, noting keywords, assessing uses and limits—stay the same.

Defining the Project of a Writer

“Who’s against shorthand? No one I know. Who wants to be shortchanged? No one I know.” So said the New Jersey poet and doctor William Carlos Williams to another doctor and writer, the psychiatrist Robert Coles. Williams’s remark appears in an essay by Coles, “Stories and Theories,” in which he warns against the damage that can be done when complex views and experiences are reduced to easy labels. And yet, to respond to another text you have to summarize it, put its key phrasings and ideas in some kind of shorthand. So how do you do that without shortchanging it, too?
Robert Coles, “Stories and Theories,” in The Call of Stories (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1989).
The usual advice is to restate the “main idea” or “thesis” of a text. Such advice imagines a piece of writing as something fixed or static, as an argument that a writer has “constructed” or a position that she has “defended”—and which can thus be condensed and reified into something like a “thesis statement.” But there are many writers who don’t so much argue for a single claim or position as think through a complex set of texts and problems. Their books and essays offer not sharply defined positions but ways of talking about a subject. The questions to ask of such work draw on metaphors of movement and growth: What issues drive this essay? What ideas does it explore? What lines of inquiry does it develop? To try to reduce this kind of open-ended text to a single main idea or claim would almost certainly be to shortchange it.
Instead the question to ask is: What is the writer trying to do in this text? What is his or her project? A project is usually something far more complex than a main idea, since it refers not to a single concept but to a plan of work, to a set of ideas and questions that a writer “throws forward” (Latin, pro + jacare). The idea of a project thus raises questions of intent. A project is something that a writer is working on—and that a text can only imperfectly realize. (Of course, any text you write will also hint at possibilities of meaning you had not considered, imply or suggest things you had not planned. A text always says both less and more than its writer intends.) To define the project of a writer is thus to push beyond his text, to hazard a view about not only what someone has said but also what he was trying to accomplish by saying it.
An example may help here. In her book In a Different Voice, Carol Gilligan shows how mainstream theories of psychology stumble in helping us understand why women respond to moral conflicts in ways that often differ from men. Gilligan doesn’t suggest that previous generations of psychologists were wrong but rather that their views of the self were shaped and limited by their focus on the development of men. And so here, for instance, is how she approaches a seminal essay by Sigmund Freud:
In 1914, with his essay “On Narcissism,” Freud swallows his distaste at the thought of “abandoning observation for barren theoretical controversy” and extends his map of the psychological domain. Tracing the development of the capacity to love, which he equates with maturity and psychic health, he locates its origins in the contrast between love for the mother and love for the self. But in thus dividing the world between narcissism and “object” relationships, he finds that while men’s development becomes clearer, women’s becomes increasingly opaque. The problem arises because the contrast between mother and self yields two different images of relationships. Relying on the imagery of men’s lives in charting the cour...

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