This paper was originally read in Indianapolis at the 1989 Indiana Teachers of Writing Conference.
Writing and the Art of Subversive Argumentation
Steven C. Scheer
In the act of writing the writer inscribes his or her consciousness. Since the act of inscribing is synonymous with that of writing, this deceptively simple statement (albeit highly commonsensical) may remain useless because of its tautological import. How does one go about inscribing one's consciousness? Isn't the inscription always already implicated in the act of thinking and isn't thinking always already implicated in the act of inscribing? Perhaps a version of the hermeneutical circle will prove helpful: in order to write well a person must first learn to think well, but in order to think well a person must first learn to write well. On the face of it, this would put both thinking and writing out of the reach of the average student. The paradoxical contention of the hermeneutical circle - which claims that one cannot understand the whole unless one first understands the parts, but one cannot understand the parts unless one first understands the whole - makes understanding seem just as impossible. Of course, the way out of this hermeneutical circle is to recognize the simultaneity of understanding the parts and the whole (or the whole and the parts) in one fell swoop. The same applies to the thinking/writing (or writing/thinking) dichotomy. We learn to think well as we learn to write well and vice versa.
As teachers of writing, though, our object is to have our students achieve this simultaneity on their own. We certainly can't think any more than we can write for them. They have to think and write for themselves. All we can do is help them along, assist them as best as we can. If what our students must do is something that they must do on their own, therefore, the best thing we as teachers can do is give them the kind of doing that will do the most for them. For a long time now I have been entertaining the suspicion that the most effective teaching of writing is synonymous with the giving of the most effective writing assignments. For a writing assignment to be truly effective, though, it must be so designed as to enable the student to discover for him or herself both the paradoxicality of the hermeneutical circle and its solution in the simultaneous re/cognition that writing is a kind of thinking just as thinking is a kind of writing, an inscribing of one's consciousness in the act of writing.
The first enemy of this recognition is, I think (and, therefore, I write), the commonsensical assumption that to help our students learn to write (and think) well we must allow them to draw upon the "sacred fount" of their own experiences. The second enemy is, in a sense, the opposite of this, the assumption that students will learn to write (and think) well by being initiated into the "ivory tower" of tradition. If my own assumption is correct, though, then neither their experiences nor their preformed convictions will move our students far along the path of exhilarating and significant progress as writers or thinkers in their own right.
Writing/thinking assignments of the sort that will generate writers or thinkers - that is, persons who in the acts of their writing will truly inscribe their consciousness - cannot issue from mere free-floating reflections on personal experiences, nor from grimly held though perhaps imperfectly understood convictions. What I am about to claim may seem shocking at first, but I believe that the best writing assignments are responses to words, to words and nothing but words, period. All writing is a kind of playing with words. This is not to say that all a competent writer has to do is go to his or her favorite dictionary and simply select a few thousand words in a random order. Such randomly selected words would not constitute the game of writing. Unreflected-upon words would certainly not clarify experiences, nor would they generate (however tenuously and/or temporarily) adequate convictions, in short, they would not constitute an inscription of the writer's consciousness.
When I say that what a good writing assignment should do is simply allow the students to play with words, therefore, I am not being forgetful of the fact that words are ideas. In fact, I would go so far to say that only words are ideas, that there are no ideas without words, other than words, beyond words. We are all, in a sense, constituted by our ideas, which are brought to us by the words of our respective languages. Not to know this is to be vulnerable to the very words that constitute our consciousness of and in the world - the sub and sum total of our experiences and convictions, in short. Either people think in words or words think in them without their even being aware of the fact (thanks, Lévi-Strauss). Good writing, like a good liberal arts education, should be in the business of subverting the preconceived notions of one's culture, the prejudices of one's time and place. At the same time, good writing should also enable one to anchor one's free-floating reflections on one's own otherwise chaotic experiences in an otherwise chaotic world. The most interesting aspect of this observation, one that may easily elude us, is that words (mostly in their dead but always already eminently resurrectable metaphoriticity) carry their own (and consequently of any given culture's) subversion within them. But rather than continue to elaborate upon the theoretical side of my point here, allow me to plunge into a demonstration.
Imagine that your task is to write an essay by responding to the following list of words:
restaurant - highway - nature - hammer
The first thing we may note is that two items on the list represent categories which are more abstract than the others. These are, of course, "nature" and "culture." The other items on the list seem, in fact, things that belong to either one or the other of these broad categories. What immediately suggests itself, therefore, is the following modification of the list:
Nature: wheat, snake, BS ("bovine excrement")
It is easy to see from these modified lists (we now have two) that what we may call the sorting-things-out method almost instantly leads us to the writing of an essay in which we compare and contrast nature with culture, giving an apparently random sampling from each. The task, then, is suddenly clear: we define our "major" concepts and show how the "minor" examples fit under each. What, then, do we mean by "nature"? Judged by its etymological origin (Latin natus = birth), "nature" must mean all things that exist as they were "born," so to speak - that is, all things that exist just as they are, that is, without human agency or interference. Using the same method of definition, we quickly arrive at the following: judged by its etymological origin (Latin cultus = tillage [that is, the tilling of the soil]), "culture" must mean all things that have been "cultivated" by human agency or that depend for their meaning on human "interference." Thus, snake, bovine exrement, and wheat are obviously products of nature, whereas hammer, highway, and restaurant are just as obviously products of culture.
The above represents a kind of minimal sorting out, and on the sheer level of content the resulting essay would be worth a C-. We will soon see why. Let's do some more sorting out, some further playing with words. Just what is a hammer? Okay, it's a tool. As such, it usually consists of a wooden handle and a metal "head" one side of which is flat while the other is tapered, usually with a gradually narrowed opening in the middle used for pulling out nails. Where do hammers come from? Okay, they come from hardware stores. And they get to hardware stores from factories where they are manufactured ("hand-made," if you will). But, on a more philosophical level, where do hammers come from? Okay, they come from a human need for such a nail-driving and nail-pulling instrument - that is, they represent a human invention (like the wheel, and while we are at it, let us not forget that necessity is the mother of invention). But, on an even more philosophical level, how do you suppose the hammer was invented in the first place? I think we can only speculate here. It won't take much imagination to see, though, that the "original" hammer was probably something like a stick with a knob at on top of it, or (perhaps) a shin bone. These primitive instruments having proven themselves useful may have led an enterprising soul to create one in the absence of an appropriate stick or bone by, say, tying a suitable piece of stone to the end of a stick (sticks and stones, you know) that separately would otherwise have been inappropriate for use as a "hammer."
Are you beginning to see the "beauty" of the sorting-things-out method? I hope you can also see where this speculation (etymologically a kind of "seeing," as in spectacle or specular reflection - such as in a mirror, for example) - as I was saying, I hope you can also see where this speculation about hammers is leading us: doesn't is take us right back to "nature" (stick or bone)? Yes, but doesn't it also take us right up to "culture"? Just think some more, will you? The "original" hammer may have been a stick used by a person in a way in which "nature" had probably never intended a stick to be used. Improving the hammer meant altering it ("cultivating" it) more and more - that is, manufacturing ("hand/making") it, until we arrive at our modern-day wooden handle with the metal hammer head, which is no longer literally manufactured ("hand-made") at all. Doing a bit more sorting out here, we inevitably arrive at the conclusion that "nature" and "culture" are much more intricately interconnected and interdependent than we would have originally thought. The "same" procedure, by the way, could be applied to "highway" and "restaurant." Our "originary" highway must have been a footpath "cut" into the wilderness, so to speak, by usage, while our "originary" restaurant must have been a place set aside for travelers in which they could purchase a meal that they did not want to bother to cook themselves. But aren't walking and eating "natural," in fact, "necessary" activities? Sorting things out on a bit more "philosophical" level, therefore, leads us to the exciting conclusion whereby we can claim that "culture" is, in fact, a kind of human "nature."
But we haven't really finished yet, have we? What about "wheat, bovine excrement, and snake"? It takes little imagination to see a process here, which is identical to the above, except (of course) in reverse order. Pray tell, isn't wheat, in fact, "cultivated," isn't it (in fact) a product of agriculture? Wow! And when we speak of "bovine excrement" (usually of the kind produced by bulls rather than cows), do we really mean the excrement that creatures of the species in question excrete? No, we mean something like "worthless," "nonsensical," or "unimportant," etc. The literal stuff, if anything, may (in fact) be used to, well, fertilize the wheat field, may it not? Surely, you will say, "snake" must escape this process of humanization! Really? What about the biblical "serpent"? I rest my case ("case," by the way, means "fall," etymologically). Now, this essay (on a level of sheer content) is worth an A+, don't you agree?
In summary, then, the "sorting-things-out method" means "playing" with words, for words are ideas, and ideas have origins as well as meanings. The method employed in the example above is always already the same (more or less) in every act of "writing." And every act of "writing" is (of course) also (and at the same time) an act of "thinking." You see how it works, don't you? The more you think, the more you write. More importantly (perhaps), the more you write, the more you think. And vice versa. And so on ad infinitum. We don't, then, start with the "sacred fount" of our experiences or the "ivory tower" of tradition, we start with words out of which we forge the "sacred fount" of our experiences or the "ivory tower" of tradition. That is, by "merely" (?) playing with words, with their originarily etymological connections with "nature" out of which we have always already (and frequently forcefully) created the "culture" in which we live, we may clarify our experiences and at times may even put into question our tradition(s).
The foregoing is, of course, an imaginary writing assignment, the one I use in the classroom to explore with my students the "sorting-things-out" method by "merely" playing with words. It does, though, result in real assignments where the students, having selected a handful of random words of their own, go through the same process of looking up etymologies and of making connections. The assignments usually produce some very interesting essays, though that's not my ultimate goal. My ultimate goal is to free up the thinking my students do about their experiences and the traditions that guide them. I cannot overemphasize the beneficial role that playing with etymologies adds to the process. My favorite exercise is the exploration of the etymology of the word "reason." Please consider its bewilderingly undecidable roots and its multiple "origins" in the Indo-European stem "ar" whence we get, by way of Greek, Latin, and Germanic "corruption," arms (both anatomical and military) and army; also harmony, art, artist, artisan, inert, inertia, aristos, aristocracy, ordain, order, ordinal, ordinance, ordinary, exordium, primordial, ornament, ornate, adorn, arraign, rate, ratio, read, hatred, kindred, and riddle. Yes, all these words are related to "reason." No wonder the human species is both so wondrously reasonable and so inexplicably unreasonable at times. Encouraging our students to just play with words, then, is no mere exercise in futility. On the contrary, it may well turn out to be the most advantageous passage toward a writerly consciousness of their own. It is not until our students will have learned to play with words for keeps that they will have been enabled to discard the ones that stand in their way. By giving them writing assignments in which we merely ask them to just play with words, therefore, we are giving them a chance to discover for themselves what words are for. The assignments generated by this principle (and the possibilities are endless) have the added advantage of eliminating the customary artificiality that plagues most assignments. My students quickly learn that playing with words is not a childish game. For this is the stuff of which both the "sacred fount" of our experiences and the "ivory tower" of our traditions is made. The only trouble is that, having learned the game, our students may not want to end it. But perhaps I am dreaming by now, in which case I had better bring this paper on the art of subversive argumentation to its conclusion by saying a few words about my title.
I could easily have called this paper "Writing and the Art of Playing with Words," but what my own experience with the assignments generated by my demonstration above clearly indicates is that by "merely" (?) playing with words my students (more often than not) end up with essays which subvert some of their own most cherished received opinions. Because by playing with words they uncover forgotten meanings, they also inadvertently discover that the source of all meaning is in the interplay between language and mind. Playing with words enables them to overcome the counterproductive drive of writing for grades alone; they begin to write for the higher stake of their own inscribed consciousness, which keeps growing as the students begin to use words rather than merely being used by them. And isn't this what writing assignments should be all about?
Send e-mail to: email@example.com