Taking a brief break from marking, as I grade student essays I find myself thinking dark, unfair things: bad writers are bad people. Before explaining just why this thought occurs to me (and I think I’m wrong to think this) it’s first important to clarify just what I mean by “bad writing”. I’m not talking about incomplete and awkward sentences, nor am I talking about poor spelling and bad organization. These things are instances of bad writing, of course, but they are not the sort of bad writing I’m talking about.
Rather, the sort of bad writing I’m talking about might be described as solipsistic writing. It is a form of writing that fails to consider its audience or what it’s audience would need to know in order to understand what the writer is talking about. Such writing just jumps into the topic without telling the reader what the topic is– e.g., it simply proceeds to answer the question of the essay prompt without introducing the question being discussed –it provides no context, fails to define terms, provides no examples to illustrate concepts and points, and fails to provide supporting reasons (that a stranger from another very different culture could share) for controversial claims. The bad writer in this sense is the person that assumes their audience is just like them (or forgets that they have an audience at all) and assumes that their audience has all the “knowledge” that they have. The bad writer, in short, is a solipsist.
These considerations are what lead me to think, in my darker moments, that the bad writer is a bad or unethical person. How, I wonder, could a person who shows such a lack of awareness of audience possibly be a good person? In failing to explain and develop their points in a way that attends to audience I get the impression that the bad writer lives in a self-centered world in which they’re completely unaware of others and that therefore they are constitutively incapable of attending to others. The world of the bad writer seems to be characterized by “me! me! me!” Nobody else seems to exist in this world, and certainly no one who is different from the bad writer.
When I think about these things I sometimes experience despair, seeing before me a future, an eternal return, where for the rest of my life I will have to read the essays of self-centered, bad writers, never to escape the phenomenon. To make matters worse, I worry that I will become embittered, convinced that the world is populated by all sorts of horrible people incapable of thinking about others.
However, as I reflect on my theory or hypothesis about bad writing, another thought occurs to me. Perhaps my premises are mistaken. Perhaps bad writing doesn’t reflect a lack of awareness of other people, but a different way of being aware of other people. Perhaps the phenomenon I encounter among so many of my students reflects the difference between literate and oral culture, described by Walter Ong and theorized by Luhmann in volume 1 of A Theory of Society. In Orality and LIteracy, Ong shows how the cognitive and phenomenological structures of people in oral and literate cultures are very different. Lumann elaborates similar points beautifully in chapter 2.5 of A Theory of Society. There Luhmann argues– among other things –that with the advent of writing, the structure of communication changes. Because the audience and context are not present for written texts, because the audience can no longer be presupposed or anticipated in the written text, written communication comes to be characterized by a high degree of redundancy. Redundancies contribute no additional information to the communication, but rather function as a sort of back-up or ramification of the information, expressing it in a variety of ways, insuring that if it is not understood in one way it will become understood in other ways. In short, in writing all sorts of additional elements have to be added to the text to insure that it is able to communicate with the stranger or the unanticipated reader. Writing thus takes on a certain phenomenology for the writer and reader alike.
In face to face communication, by contrast, things are very different. If we don’t encounter the elaborateness of written communication in spoken communication, then this is because often it is not necessary. For example, the speaker need not define what a tree is, nor explain what living beings are because she can just gesture at these things. The two speakers, face to face, not only have facial expressions and tone of voice, but also have a shared environmental context that gives sense to what they’re saying. Where something isn’t understood, the other person can simply ask for a clarification. The first speaker need not introduce all sorts of redundancy into her discourse to get her point across– in a conversation (an academic presentation is different) –and would, at any rate, become tiresome, annoying, and potentially insulting if she did (we’ve all been trapped in the orbit of our academic friends who perpetually “hold forth” in discussions, failing to notice the difference between a conversation, a lecture, and a written text). Clearly in spoken communication it’s not that the speakers are solipsists, but rather that speech has a different phenomenology and otherness is related to in a different way. In other words, intersubjectivity is manifested differently in writing and speech.
These observations, I think, allow for a much more generous theory of the origins of bad writing; a theory that helps to ease my heart and reduce my self-serving, moral outrage. What if bad writing reflects not a moral failing, not a form of solipsism, but a shift in culture? Following Marshall and Eric McLuhan’s analysis, there seems to be a very real sense in which we are becoming a new form of oral culture. While, to be sure, there is written media all about us and we swim in the medium of writing like fish in water, the nature of the written seems to have changed. Rather than letters and books, for example, we have text messages, facebook discussions, blog discussions, etc., that, in many respects, resemble spoken communication. To be sure, people in facebook discussions don’t possess shared “surround” or environment like face to face communication, but in and through their discussion they create a shared context or surround that can be more or less assumed in subsequent communications (one of the frustrating things about blog discussions– and a major source of so much acrimony on blogs –arises when someone new stumbles across the blog who is unfamiliar with all the discussions that have come before, such that the context or environment of the writings has to be reproduced all over again).
As an aside, it should also be noted that communities of writers (whether they be scientists, humanists, novelists, etc) have always created artificial environments, or shared textual assumptions through intertextuality, introducing things into writing that need no further explanation for that community of writers and readers. What appears to be bad writing might not be bad writing at all, but might instead reflect the “local dialectic” of a particular intellectual community to which one is an outsider. Additionally, studied obscurity has probably also been cultivated as a political strategy in many circles. This certainly seems to be the case with respect to Revelation in the Bible, which is likely a critique of Rome and Nero during the time. Expressing that critique in a straightforward way would have been politically dangerous for the mysterious John of Patmos. Likewise, when we look at the early writings of the Italian autonomists, it’s not unlikely that their obscurity was a sort of defense or caution to protect against political oppression by the fascist state. One has to be a part of the privileged community to decipher the esoteric teaching.
Returning to the issue at hand, it’s also noteworthy that our students are decreasingly readers (or perhaps this is a prejudice on my part, or maybe again it is moreso true of the sorts of students I have as a junior college professor). Rather, their primary mode of communication seems to be audio-visual, whether in the form of television and film, or in the more metaphorical form of text messaging and facebook communications. Certainly, as thinkers such as Ong, McLuhan, and Luhmann argue, this will have an effect on their phenomenological way of experiencing the world, of the way in which their umwelts are structured. If this is the case, bad writing would not be a reflection of a moral failing, of solipsism, but would result from a mismatched encounter between two very different types of umwelten: the umwelt of literate culture with all of its need for redundancy and construction of an abstract other and context in the absence of other and context, and the umwelt of spoken culture that encounters the face of the other and context as present even when writing.
Recognition of this would have, I think, profound pedagogical consequences. Here I can’t recommend Ong’s Orality & Literacy enough. First, if Ong is right about the phenomenology of oral cultures, then much that we encounter in the classroom as reflecting either moral failings or learning disabilities might very well be the result of how phenomenological experience is structured in oral cultures. Ong’s claims are, of course, highly controversial, but he attempts to show how structures of cognition and reasoning are very different in oral cultures and he does so in a way that is resonant with my experience of teaching both philosophy and logic and the common mistakes I see my students making. Recognition of this might lead to different pedagogical strategies, but might also lead us to question our own assumptions about what, exactly, constitutes reasoning and valid cognition (which is very different than abandoning reason). It might also lead us– as my meditations this evening have led me –to question the ethics of our own positions. In having the initial reaction of seeing my students as suffering from a moral failing, I’m reflecting a standpoint of judgment from within the umwelt of literate culture and how the phenomenology of experience is structured within that culture. In this way, I might be doing something equivalent to seeing the person who, for example, has autism as somehow failing morally when, in fact, they’re just structured differently at the cognitive level. Recognition that this framework is an umwelt rather than what is natural or obvious, helps to render that structure of judgment contingent, leading to the recognition that there are other ways of being and experiencing that are no less attentive to otherness, though in a different way. Mea culpa.