2.28.2010

For Exposition; Against Critical Analysis

[This is new for me: watching the gold medal hockey game while doing a blog post. I expect the quality of both activities to decrease, now that I'm hip to the laptop way.]

One of my hobbies is trying to see my way out of the matrix. For most academics, there's an unwillingness to believe that the matrix could have a hold of them. Oh, the hoi polloi, sure, but not us. Or if they admit that they are as much inside the matrix as others, they are likely to tell you there's just no getting out. And that's where I disagree--which is why I'm always talking about enlightenment and awakening and the "hymn of dialectic" and so on.

Let me get to my point: the matrix trapping most contemporary academics has a hundred dead-end corridors marked "Analysis of...," and one escape hatch that's marked, "Exposition of..."

If you're like me, you haven't thought of writing an expository essay since your own freshman composition class (and if you aren't like me, but are in academia, you probably tested out of freshman composition!). Expository writing can serve some really valuable purposes, though; and just as analytical writing corresponds to analytical thinking, expository writing turns over into expository thinking.

Let's take a text for example (James Madison's Federalist No. 10):
AMONG the numerous advantages promised by a well constructed Union, none deserves to be more accurately developed than its tendency to break and control the violence of faction.
Now, the analyst my write something like:
In that excerpt, Madison overemphasizes the threat of faction to such a degree that we might wonder whether he was trying to frighten his readers into favoring the ratification of the Constitution. The fact is, a Union can subsist in good health without a strong centralizing force for Union; and faction may in some cases be evidence of a healthy attitude toward cultural diversity.
Importantly, the analyst takes a rhetorical position that assumes his or her own intellectual superiority over that of Madison. The analyst is not concerned with demonstrating his or her own understanding--and he assumes that his readers have a basic and thorough understanding of the historical context, the political situation, and Madison's terminology. The expositor, on the other hand, might write:
In that excerpt, Madison laid out his primary claim--that a strong Union is the necessary and wise antidote to the social problems collectively dubbed "faction." Madison, like many of his contemporaries, feared that the many states and micro-cultures that were originally united by anti-crown sentiments, would (in the absence of a shared enemy) go separate ways. There are other advantages, he suggests, associated with a strongly united central government, but if there were no threat of faction, his support for a "well-constructed Union" might be less intense.
In the exposition, the writer takes a rhetorical position that is just-barely co-equal with Madison, and he assumes that his readers are in the process of trying to figure out what's going on in Madison's essay. He does not assume understanding, or shared terminology, and forgoes "criticism" altogether. He may be accused of bias only by default (a Howard Zinn type might say that, in not objecting, he was tacitly consenting to Madison's ideological position).

We've gone separate paths for a while. Let's return to the parlor now to explain, carefully and in the spirit of mutual regard, what we've discovered. Patiently explain to me what you've learned, and be patient with my questions; I may be trying to learn in your footsteps. Let's gain understanding before we set off on our independent critical projects.

4 comments:

Wishydig said...

but i see your example of analysis as "judgement" and your example of exposition as "analysis". and in my experience academic writing is often like the second.

is it possible you were just in all the shitty classes?

Casey said...

I can see it how you see it, but just barely -- unfortunately, I don't think I was in all of the shit classes. I think that in the past ten/fifteen years, "judgment" has taken the place of analysis and called itself analysis. That's what I'm getting at, in fact.

So I'm not sure my terms are correct, but you're getting what I'm giving. Obviously, I'm speaking of "soft" disciplines like literary criticism and Theory, as opposed to your noble disciplines like Linguistics.

But those soft disciplines often translate into action... and I'm sick of seeing "politics," for example, be all about judgment and never about analysis. Today's political discourse consists almost entirely of ascribing blame, with almost no time seriously devoted to exposition, or your old-fashioned, non-judgmental "analysis."

Wishydig said...

well, i'm hardly one to defend the current state of literary criticism. i'm a New Critic at my core. and i really really can't stand anything from post-structuralism onward. new historicism. bleah.

so i think i'm actually with you on this.

why do you think i walked away from a lit MA?

Casey said...

I figured you discovered something esoteric about the relation between "the Word" and words-per-se, and just couldn't resist Linguistics as a discipline.

I just feel generally like "thinking" is in a real shambly state right now. But I guess this blog isn't enough "product" to complain about it?