slidingtext_frGraham has a terrific post up on how to write productively that is well worth the read for any struggling grad students or academics. While the entire post is great, I think a couple of his points are particularly valuable as they have to do with the psychology and sociology of writing. This latter dimension of writing might come as a surprise as we so often think of writing as a private affair, but just as science is a collective activity and scientists are the product of collective action (i.e., the idea of the lone scientist creating out of his sovereign genius is a myth), so too is it the case with writing.

With respect to the psychology involved in difficulties writing, Graham observes that,

whatever horrible hole you’ve dug for yourself with written work– whether it’s countless incompletes, a never-ending dissertation, a feeling that there is absolutely no one who will care about the work, I’ve been in all those places before. So, you can get out of it. And just as importantly– I and others *want* you to get out of it. I can’t read the work of every one of you, but some of that work may hit me or my friends on the right day and rock our worlds. The old cliché holds good: if these words help even one reader, then I don’t mind baring part of a soul in this fashion.

In this connection, Graham’s point could be described as a point about the role that transference plays in the process of writing. Regardless of whether we’re aware of it or not, there is always an audience involved when we set out to write. One of Lacan’s central claims is that the end of analysis involves overcoming our belief in the big Other. To believe in the big Other is to believe that the Other wants something in particular from us, that it has specific desires, or that there is a set of well defined norms as to what we should be, what we should do, what we should desire, etc. To overcome belief in the big Other is to encounter the collapse of the idea that there’s some set of established ideals telling us what we should be and do, and also overcoming the view that something specific is desired of us. In short, we simply don’t know what others desire because desire is singular and unique and different for every subject.

Belief in the big Other, I think, is one of the easiest ways to squelch our ability to write. We believe that the academy wants something specific and that we are unable to provide it. We believe that our ideas are facile and uninteresting because they don’t measure up to other ideas out there. We believe that we are saying what is already been said before. We believe that there is no place for our thought out there in the world. Take the example of believing that we are simply repeating what has said before. First, it is impossible not to repeat because nothing can come from nothing. All of us work within a cultural milieu from which we draw our thoughts, reconfigure this tradition, and work in a manner akin to the potter with his clay. This tradition, in part, is our material or the matter with which we work.

Read on

However, the crucial point is that the idea that we are merely repeating is premised on the idea that the big Other exists or already knows. That is, it is premised on the idea that everyone out there is already familiar with this things. In other words, we create a sort of ideal audience in our minds that already possesses knowledge of everything we’re trying to say and then deny ourselves the possibility of writing because writing under these circumstances is impossible. Yet, if Latour’s Principle is true, if it is true that there is no transportation without translation, it is impossible for our writing to merely be a vehicle of what has already been said. It is impossible to repeat because each repetition already produces differences by virtue of the phenomenon of translation. More importantly, even if our thought is not highly original, even if you are not Heidegger, there are nonetheless always others that have not heard these things, that have not understood these things, that are not familiar with these things, or that have not seen things put in precisely this way. There is always someone who will find what you have to say valuable, but this cannot occur unless you actually sit down to write. As I’ve liked to put it in the past, writing is not simply about something, it is something. It is a real inscription in the world that produces differences. Yet if that inscription does not take place, these differences can never be produced.

Look at what Graham, Brassier, Hallward, Toscano, DeLanda, Iain Hamilton Grant, Johnston, etc., have accomplished. One will say that this is a brilliant group of thinkers who have simply produced excellent work capturing the attention of a number of people. Yet this isn’t how it is at all (not that they aren’t brilliant or producing excellent work). If we consider the intellectual context of academic Continental philosophy in which these thinkers began their work we’ll notice that there was, at that time, no place for that work. Few things could be more anathema to Continental philosophy than realism and materialism. They had to create a place for their work by finding allies and others interested in these questions and lines of thought. Nothing was certain at the outset. Yet networks were formed, an audience was created, and a place began to open for this sort of thought. That required translation and work. In other words, all of those involved in this trend of thought had to invent both an audience for themselves and a place for their thought. It wasn’t already there just waiting to be filled.

Graham makes an enormously important observation when he remarks,

don’t compare your productivity to that of established people in your field. There’s a reason that they’re doing 15 articles and 1 book every year, and it’s not because they’re working 20 times harder than you. It just means they’ve reached 20 times your reputation, and with reputation people start asking you to do stuff. No one ever asked me to write anything for them 5 years ago, and now every week someone is asking, and on paper it seems (falsely) as though I’m working much harder now than then. Writing articles or lectures because people asked you to do so is an absurdly effective prod, because you don’t want to let them down.

It’s no longer any mystery to me how the Zizeks and Derridas churn out three books per year. Not there myself; not enough time on my hands. But if you were that famous, and had that many requests for material, you’d get it done too.

It is easy to look at other scholars, academics, and thinkers and be awed and disgruntled by the amount of work they do. They must be inhuman! They must never sleep! The must be inherent geniuses. Yet things don’t work that way at all. Productivity is sociological or collective in the sense that the more your reputation grows the more work you’re asked to do. Since the publication of Difference and Givenness and the rise of this blog, I have gotten more and more invitations to write articles and give presentations every year. It is not that I set out to write four or five articles a year, but rather people approach me asking if I would like to contribute to their project. Like an idiot I accept and then have to rush about doing all sorts of work to avoid [hopefully] disappointing those who have made the request. As a result of doing this work more opportunities emerge and things snowball from there. Productivity is not so much the result of a solitary individual as it is the result of a collective assemblage.

I’d like to close with two further remarks in relation to Graham’s post. First, the more you write the more you will write. This sounds like an idiotic tautology, but the point isn’t that if you write more you’ll write more. Rather, the point is that thought and writing grow It is very difficult to write a lot if you don’t write at all. However, if writing becomes a part of your daily routine, this writing will generate further concepts and ideas, which will, in turn, become the ground of yet other ideas. The activity of inscription allows thought to come into being. As you write the more you write the less painful this experience will become, the more your plant will grow.

Second, and above all, get involved! It astonishes me that there are so many graduate students and beginning academics that don’t blog or participate on the internet. I can appreciate the anxiety involved in approaching another academic out of the blue at a conference (say at the Smokers at the APA). However, with the net you have nothing to lose and everything to gain. You can blog anonymously, thereby protecting yourself from the danger of your production hurting you professionally. However, through blogging and participating on blogs you also create the opportunity to develop all sorts of relations to other thinkers that create opportunities for you and which enhance your thought. I have been participating on the net in one form or another for over ten years now and I can confidently say that nothing has been more productive for my thought and more valuable professionally than my engagement with others in this medium. Through encountering others whether on the old Deleuze list, the Lacan list, or on this blog I have constantly been placed in a position where I have to respond. In responding my thought refines itself and leads to other thoughts. Additionally I have landed all sorts of opportunities for publication and conferences. Blogging isn’t simply a pleasant diversion– indeed it’s often unpleasant –but a professional necessity. Don’t allow fear of the big Other to prevent you from getting involved with other academics.

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