On Writing Accessibly (thoughts from book reviewing)

At the moment I am in the process of reading two books as part of writing a review for them. I’m reviewing the anthology ‘Philosophy in Children’s Literature’ by Lexington Books, and ‘The Mythology of Evolution’ by by Zer0 Books (written by Noumenal Realm favourite blogger Chris Bateman). One of the things I usually think about when writing a book review is a thing that is the complete opposite of how I write in my blog: accessibility to your audience. One book succeeds at this consistently, while the other is problematic about this.
I’ve been thinking about this lately because I’ve been asked to do some freelance proofreading and editing work lately, and this varies a bit to when undergraduates ask me to look over their essays. Sometimes the comments and criticisms I have a deeply technical affairs (like ‘the meaning of is’), while others are very general and come up time and again when I do book reviews.

The cardinal rule is to know your audience and write to their level of understanding. I am a massive hypocrite when I say this because on this blog many of my posts presume that my readership has read such-and-such an essay or such-and-such an historical text. I find the freedom of moderating my own blog is that I want to talk at my level, because I spend my real life emphasising how to be accessible and how to write and speak accessibly, when what’s going on in my head presumes a background in music, or philosophy, or comic books, or whatever. I personally don’t write usually for an audience all the time. Sometimes I write to make notes of my thinking. I am however very honoured at how many people around the world have come to visit and read Noumenal Realm posts, and I’m surprised at how often my posts are translated!

Let me give two different examples of writing accessibly about a technical issue. Firstly, in reading Chris Bateman’s ‘Mythology of Evolution’, which I have yet to complete, and secondly, a book that I am currently reviewing: ‘Philosophy in Children’s Literature’ (ed. P. Costello).

Bateman disseminating science

When reading through Bateman’s Mythology, I have found that he draws from a large array of sources, from technical issues in scientific journals, to generalist perspectives on biology, to the philosophy of science and philosophy of biology! In particular, Bateman explains a thesis in the issue of levels of selection in a way that was so clear, that the philosopher who he’s citing (who also happened to be a former lecturer of mine) couldn’t explain it clearer and simpler terms than Bateman. In fairness, the philosopher in question was very keen on using a lot of logic and game theoretic notations (preserving anonymity fail).

Bateman writes as if taking his thesis as a train journey and the simplicity and accessibility of his language is sure to keep an audience on the rails. Good writing tries to put a discussion in as simple terms as possible. Of course if one is writing for a more specialist audience this is not so much an issue. But there are some instances where technically oriented writing is not desirable, such as if we are bringing together areas of specialism where the experts don’t read each other and may be fluent in one set of terminology but not others. It’s one thing to talk biology (microbiology and pathology papers are the worst when it comes to readability!), and its’ another to talk philosophy, but communicating the two for a general audience is a masochistic task of accessibility.  

Continental philosophy jargon and children’s literature – a marriage made in the 7th layer of hell

I’ve finished a book that I am trying to develop an opinion about, for a book review. My overall opinion is that many of the articles are a genuine contribution to philosophy, while others are a very poor attempt at accessible writing. I’m sure many of you may be familiar with the genre of philosophy titles like ‘Philosophy and Metallica’ or ‘Philosophy and Twilight’ that have come out from the editorial mind of William Irwin. I think that there is a potential for connecting everyday cultural artefacts with philosophy, but if you do so, one must realise that there would be a targeted audience. I’m sure that less philosophers will read ‘Philosophy and Metallica’ than say Metallica fans.

‘Philosophy in Children’s Literature’ reflects a trend of philosophical literature that addresses issues in aesthetics, as well as ethics and critical theory in relation to children’s literature. I imagine that if there was such a thing as literary criticism for children’s books, it would surely welcome this kind of thinking. The anthology made me realise how exceptionally wide the scope of thinking is for philosophy in children’s literature.

When thinking of a wide scope, there is more of an onus to write accessibly for the printed word. There are some articles which do very well at this in the book. Some articles such as Court Lewis’ The Cricket in Time’s Square examines the philosophical ideas underpinning the story and then the story. Then there are obscurantist, inaccessible and horrid-to-read articles like The Giving Tree, Women and the Great Society (Milena Radeva), and Lovingly Impolite (Lindsay Lerman) which do no favours for accessibility. Although part of this I maintain is because of the impenetrable and ugly writing styles of the philosophers whom they cite, such as Derrida and Agamben, who make philosophy sound like word games and apply puzzlingly pretentious equivocations. If you are going to reference a ‘continental’ philosopher, it would do one favours to try and re-pack what they say in accessible English.

Writing in a difficult way alienates one’s audience. Although sometimes this is seen as a purposeful thing such as the case of Nietzsche, or maybe even Schopenhauer, who force people to know their intellectual background in order to understand them. There were a few good articles in the anthology and it is good to emphasise this with the bad. The idea of philosophising about Children’s literature is very appealing. It was unfortunate for me that the piece on Frog and Toad was a bit difficult to read, because I love Frog and Toad.

The exception to accessible writing

I do believe that there is an exception to the desideratum of accessible writing, and that is when one is deep in terminology that it is impossible to explain in lay terms. Or where the intended audience is definitely not the lay-person. One thing that I’ve noticed lately are certain people who shall remain nameless who consider themselves experts about certain issues only to find that they haven’t read very much literature on an issue and suddenly find themselves that using accessible language is imprecise, irrelevant and unhelpful to the advances of how an issue is in the present state of the art. This is what I call the ‘out of Kansas amateur’.  

I think that the intricacies of 20th Century music involving very fancy methods and technical terms would be an example of something that is a challenge to explain explicitly with accessibility. The philosophy of Kant often uses a certain syntactical structure which involves long sentences, and lots of lists and details as part of a system. This systematic thinking also leads to a very dry sort of language being employed. Sometimes accessibility is over-rated. But then again in these situations, it is being written for an audience.

There are many instances where a writer has to write for their audience, but for a select number of things. The content is important enough to challenge a reader to take a journey and grow in order to be able to understand the text.

Michael (following conversations with Sinistre)

Closing reflections on Hakim’s ‘Erotic Capital’

I know this blog post is about a week later than I intended it. I’m ridiculously busy and spending half the time enjoying my last few weeks of being 25. Doing this book review has reminded me of the importance of sociology as a discipline, including how it can be informative towards feminist and wider gender issue discussions. I have a few specific points I’d address that sum up aspects of my thinking on this book:

What informs our understanding of gender?

Such a general question: what informs gender notions? One of the things about working in a sociological area that hits close to home is that the researcher will have some personal stake or experience in this issue. Gender is arguably one of the few issues that people can escape for better or worse.

Hakimappeals to a variety of sources to create her notion of femina sociologicus [note: Destre told me not to say ‘homo feminis’ due to the absurdity of it] by a variety of qualitative and quantitative sources:

  • Interview histories: some of which Hakim admits details are ‘changed’ for dramatic effect, as well as the standard ethical anonymity reasons. Some of her interviews often tell a story, but seem so contrived and suggestive I feel they are unhelpful. For example, Hakim’s examples of the two sisters (one ugly, one attractive) where one predictably has self esteem issues and is an underachiever, and the other is a social climber.
  • Cultural references: Hakim references a bit of erotica such as ‘The Story of O’ and ‘Secret diary of a call girl’. The point of these references are to establish a sense of zeitgeist of how real people live. Cultural references are a good resource for getting insights on social perspectives and issues, but methodologically speaking lack the rigour of strong operationalism
  • Public health data: This is really the meat of the research that backs up Hakim’s conclusions. One may quibble about the comparison issues of say USA and Finnish datasets or the measuring and melding of the data, but I see this as immaterial to the conclusions made which were coarse grained. The data gives an indication for instance that more male men report a lack of sexual satisfaction than females in the data. When looking at massive datasets, we may entertain exceptions from personal experience or testimony, but as social scientists, one should know better than to regard personal or anecdotal testimony higher than the wider dataset. I thought this point was unhelpfully highlighted when incumbent London Mayor Boris Johnson reported in the Mayoral debate that crime in London was down significantly and a person in the audience reported she’s never seen so much knife crime around her before. This point may have made Boris red in the face, but the data is dispassionately more comprehensive, even if it tells us things we don’t want to accept

Lemma: Ideology and prejudice

I’d like to talk a bit about prejudices now. Prejudices can take a whole variety of forms. A few months ago I was making a music suggestion to someone who will remain nameless of a band they would like. I made this decision on the basis of knowing their interests and wider outlook on life. However it was because I biased the conversation by talking about Black Metal in the same sentence that primed her to say she would immediately not like it. Months later a facebook post magnanimously accepted the bias involved in her initial judgment. Cognitive bias 1, passive aggressive okayguy.

There is currently a book review of Magnanti’s book on Sex Myths which would also point to a greater commitment to ideology than actual facts. Note how few of the empirical points or the methodology are critiqued, and how the review reads as the immortal: ‘it’s not what you said, it’s the way you said it’. Hakim embarrasses feminists. Which feminists, you might ask? As I’m sure Hakim would identify with the advancement of womankind. The ones who are committed to being a vague unspecified feminist. The kind who is like the Christian who refuses to acknowledge that denominations exist and genuine disagreements and disputes can and should exist even among people who are supposed to be allies. It’s one thing to acknowledge your opponents, its another to misunderstand your detractors.

The commitment to an ideology undercuts the commitment to facts, conclusions, or the revision of said ideology. This was a big problem in Adorno’s work where his view on social research was basically anti-methodology and all theory, and even ventured to essentially say that ‘research’ is an undermining conspiracy against his agenda. Antisophie said in a comment earlier this month how when anyone says ‘I believe’ it immediately smells fishy. Nobody should be allowed to say ‘I believe’ in an argument, you either justify your conclusions or you don’t contribute constructively to a discussion. Feminism as an ideology with propositions is definately a bad idea. The immunity to criticism is also really bad. Liberal men have spent hundreds of years adopting this position of engaging in amicable disagreement about the most fundamental notions. It upsets me when there are politicos who refuse to accept a conclusion contrary to their own, solely on the basis that it is not their own. This is dogmatism, and challenging notions such as whether sex work is always criminal, or whether sex work is ‘oppressive to women’ needs to be challenged, opened up and critically considered. Dogmatism has no place in decent social thinking.

The Ski Jumpers

One objection about subcultural research is that it overemphasises the deviants of society. What about people who are boring and not part of a subculture? If we judged solely by media representation the year of 1977 most Londoners would be savage punks opposing the Queen or protogoths in the early 1980s. The point about the Ski Jumpers is that while there were movements of social ‘cool’ credibility through things like subculture, it didn’t affect everyone. In fact, most people wish to overlook the naff fashions of yesteryear, like the Ski Jumper. Likewise, we might think that Hakim is overemphasising erotic capital, even if we concede the data about sexual focus between men and women, or her points about how sex work should be considered a legal enterprise, perhaps for most people it would not change their mundane lives.

Is Hakim overemphasising the place of Erotic Capital for women? My initial thought was that this may only apply to something like the upper 2-4% of attractive women. However Hakim would have a reply to this, in the idea of upper class ideals and virtues filtering down social classes. Hakim links this to the idea of Elias Norbert’s take on the historical process of social etiquette which was initially held by aristocratic classes that was then filtered down to other social classes through guidebooks. Erotic capital could also have a ‘filtering’ process, it may be the upper percentile of extremely attractive women who provide the recipe of success that can in some ways be replicated such as good manners, social attractiveness, improving coded signifiers of attractiveness like jewelry, hairstyle, fitness etc. In that way, highly attractive people who use erotic capital successfully act as trendsetters or shepherds for others to follow as a guide of erotic capital’s successful execution. My initial critical thought is therefore addressed.

I also think it is fascinating how Hakim links Hoschild’s work on ‘The Managed Heart’ as a piece of microsociology to the macrosociological theme of Elias’ social filtering. Methodologically speaking, Hakim tries to breach the qualitative/quantitative gap, as well as the micro-macro in the social. feminis socialis is both homo sociologicus and homo economicus.

Phsyiognomy, the worrying conclusion

Hakim alludes to Erotic Capital as if it were like the process of Shaw’s Pygalion, transforming from a peasant to a queen. If there was a 19thC English writer that I’d allude to with Erotic Capital, it’s Oscar Wilde. Wilde’s ‘Picture of Dorian Gray’ is a story of a man trapped by his beauty, but also simultaneously blessed by his beauty. The world of Hakim’s erotic capital is quite a cynical one. A world that says that the pretty candidate gets the job in an interview; the most attractive barrister wins the case and that your looks will be an asset or a discredit in the same way that say, your economic background or education might.

In essence I think that Hakim has not discovered a new way of female emancipation from men by manipulating their sexual urges to benefit the former. Rather, she’s unveiled a new form of discrimination. There’s no legal opponent for not discriminating on the basis of one’s looks, and in the most intimate of competitions (sexual), that is the truest of judges.

I put forward the normative question: is that really how we want to judge society and our values as modern people of today? Hakim would say yes, and point to how private sector employees tend to have a beauty premium over those in public sector, where looks are valued in commercial ventures. The problem with Hakim’s world is not that she’s given us the wrong depiction of the social reality, the problem is that it looks like she’s right. More than anything this is the worrying concern. A similar problem with Goffman’s ontology, where is the authenticity of the social in the interaction-based world of erotic capital? How much of the real person is behind all that flirting and nice presentation for others?

When Goffman shows intricately the ways in which the ‘front’ stage of social performance permeates so much, I think how in the early 21st century the personal has become commodified: people can talk about what they’ve had for breakfast on Twitter or Facebook and even though these experiences are immensely personal (and mundanely boring), they immediately lose rights to those thoughts and ideas, as they become official data owned by Facebook and privacy is diminished. The cultural focus on the personal in television programs such as documentaries which try to document how people feel in their experiences, or the proliferation of 24 hour media even further limit the scope of privacy or authenticity for public officials and significants, for they are always on ‘stage’. So too is the social presence to want to be these celebrities. We are always on the front region of Goffman’s stage and Erotic Capital shows how one of the most personal worlds we inhabit (our sexuality, attractiveness and set of social intentions) are essentially a commodity.

Perhaps many women may read Erotic Capital as a guide to social and economic advancement, I read it as a pessimistic reminder of how authenticity is under attack.


All rivers run through Vienna

I wanted to write a self-indulgent post that says nothing at all.

I’ve recieved a copy of a book that I’m set to review for The Marxist Review of Books. Looking at the blurb, and the contents, I find a very interesting read ahead.

The book I’m set to read is ‘Dreams in Exile: Rediscovering Science and Ethics in Ninteenth-Century Social Theory’, by George E. McCarthy. The book sets itself a task (so the blurb and intro seem) to relate Aristotle and Kant to the theoretical underpinnings of early Sociologists and sociology theory. Both the subjects of Kant and social theory are close to heart, and the chapter headings look pretentious and verbose. While this doesn’t look terribly prospectful, it is a book about philosophy and social theory written by a sociologist (sociologists don’t have a reputation for much classical learning) which itself seems an interesting mix of insights.

Also, this looks interesting from a personal view because some of my postgrad work was on Kant and the origins of social science.

Just an aside, I found out that Otto Neurath (the figurehead of the Vienna Circle and proponent of the Unity of Science movement) had an economics background and he also had Ferdinand Toennies as a supervisor. The link between the early social sciences and philosophical thinking is a fascinating aspect of the history of the mid-19thC to the early 20thC, especially as its rivers run through Vienna.