Monday, March 21, 2011

Writing style VS. Thinking style (from my critique of Donald Kuspit's book The End of Art)

The issue of writing style vs. thinking style arose in my mind as I read Donal Kuspit's book "The End of Art". It was a difficult read overall, due to Kuspit's manner of writing. I found myself wanting to critique his writing style. Other online reviewers have noted it as pretty bad. One reviewer referred to it as "leaden", which is funny. But when I think about it, I'm not even sure that he has a writing style. Rather, he has a "thinking" style that you become aware of through his writing, so there is a tendency to describe his thinking as a writing style. I think this is a mistake.

I have a metaphor in mind to describe the difference between a thinking style and a writing style. Imagine a person who is kind-a crazy... who walks around mumbling to himself the names of the presidents of the united states. Imagine he does this over and over again. Now imagine that this person is asked to write down his thoughts. Probably he will write down the names of the presidents of the united states over and over again. This will produce long sentences with lots of commas between the names. When we read this, we might be inclined to conclude that this writer has a ponderous and wordy "writing style"... when in fact the answer is that he is simply crazy, and that his writing is simply in the service of his craziness.

Could this crazy person be tutored in "proper writing style" so that he didn't write lengthy sentences that go on for a paragraph, and that simply list the presidents of the united states over and over again? No, he could not, because his crazy manner of thinking is the dominant factor in how he writes. In fact, to change his writing he would have to change the way he thinks. In other words, to not write crazy, he would have to stop being crazy.

We have to stop blaming "writing style" for the craziness we read. We have to hold the mind of the author responsible. We have to recognize that it is "thinking style" that is the culprit. When we don't, we end up in the strange situation of blaming writing style for what confuses us, but attributing non-confusing writing as being from the writers mind. In other words, the author (his thinking style) gets credit for anything he says that makes sense, but the blame is passed to "writing style" when things don't make sense.

Is Kuspit crazy? Well, no, not really. If he mumbled the names of the presidents of the united states over and over again we would say he is. But he doesn't. What he does do is mumble and intone the names of one intellectual after another, in the form of attributions of quoted material, that he constructs into run-on sentences. Nothing seems edited or streamlined or culled or reduced to it's essence, or abstracted. We bear witness to the totality of Kuspit's consciousness as he performs a core-dump of his brain.

And what a brain it is! It's chock full of knowledge. He knows all about Kandinksky, and all about Duchamp, and all about all kinds of modern artists. And he knows all about what lots of other critics say about these artists. And he knows all about what Hegel said, and Kant, and Plato and Aristotle. He knows all about what all these postmodern, post-art artists said and did. And even though I'm saying this in a semi-mocking tone, I don't mean to suggest he doesn't know this stuff. I think he does. And when he mixes it all together into page after page of dense references and attributions that he pulls from this sea of knowledge... I'm sure I'm not gonna tell him he doesn't know what he's talking about.

But although he knows what he's talking about, I don't think he knows what he is saying. He just seems to be talking non-stop. He doesn't mumble the names of the presidents of the united states like the crazy guy does... but on a higher intellectual level, I think he's performing a similar act of craziness. Of course, when you are an educated art critic, you aren't called crazy. Perhaps you are called "difficult", or "dense", or "involved", or "deep". Those are all polite ways of not dealing with the underlying.... uh... insanity?

There is of course the tired, old counter argument to what I'm saying, which is that Kuspit's intended audience is other academics and intellectuals who expect this kind of writing style. That's the kind of argument that grid-locks critiques of post-modern writing, wherein some hypothetical "intended audience" legitimizes even the most incomprehensible writing. It's also an ad-hominem attack on the critic, who is cast as not-smart-enough to understand the writing.

The clarity of writing directly impacts the clarity of the ideas expressed in writing, for if it did not, we would have to admit that there is a disconnect between the form of writing, and the subject of the writing. That is, we would have to accept that there is a disconnect between the WAY something is written, and the MEANING of what is written. This makes no sense.

Conversely, the clarity of the meaning directly impacts the clarity of the writing, for if it did not, we would have to accept that confused ideas could be expressed in a clear and direct fashion. But we don't see this in practice. In practice, confused ideas are typically hidden inside dense, incomprehensible wordplay.

To summarize the combinations of writing and meaning, I would say...

Clear Writing + Clear Ideas = Ideal
Clear Writing + Confused Ideas = Doesn't really exist
Confused Writing + Confused Ideas = post modernism
Confused Writing + Clear Ideas = Doesn't really exist

I know someone is going to think, "Who cares if the writing is verbose, as long as the ideas are clear". Unfortunately, the last category above (verbose writing, clear ideas) is a nebulous category. If the form of writing impacts the meaning of the writing, then to some degree the poor writing drags down the meaning, and so the ideas are never completely clear. I think that this is the case with Kuspit. I say that his ideas are clear enough, but the truth is, they are only just clear enough to keep me somewhat satisfied, and to struggle through his foggy writing. In fact, the fog of his writing makes his ideas (when they appear) seem more satisfying than if there were no fog at all. His writing withholds clarity, making you desperate for it... so that when it occasionally appears, you devour it, and feel satisfied. But this is not the as being clear.

As mentioned above... his ideas seem clear when they emerge from the fog. But the very fact that the fog is included in his writing makes it impossible to understand his writing in it's entirety.

Like I said before, Kuspit indulges in verbose writing practices. I assume this is due to some academic background that he can't escape from. This practice not only impacts his writing (verbose) but also his general mindset. He seems unable to consistently take a position, preferring instead to use a constant stream of attributions to other thinkers to support marginally important ideas.

Here is a made up example that dramatizes the point. I might say the following in my own voice...

"It was a really nice day, so I decided to go for a walk and enjoy nature for a while".

Now, if I Kuspit-ize that sentence, I would write it as follows...

As Hegel noted, "Being on the occasion of a day finer than it's antecedent"... I likewise noted my own moment self-same, and so, as Aristotle noted in Posterior Analytics, between consideration and action lies choice... I just so did choose to go for a walk... and in so doing did I thus, as William Morris advised, "Drew deep into my breath the full measure of the natural world". And this went on for a temporal and spatial interval.

Now obviously, I exaggerate and use fanciful examples... but you get my point. Kuspit employs this approach consistently. It's mostly annoying. And draining. And when you do finally parse from it's complexity the underlying idea of... "It was a really nice day, so I decided to go for a walk and enjoy nature for a while", your mind is tired in a way that robs that sentiment of the direct expression it deserved. Ideas and art and people deserve to be presented directly, not mediated through a series of intellectual filters, whose purpose is all to do with habituated writing styles of intellectuals.

Verbiage is a bad thing. It is defined as an overabundance of words, so in one sense, reducing the number of words can reduce the verbiage. This assumes that the same idea can be communicated in fewer words, and that this reduction will be clearer. Sometimes this is possible, but sometimes the only way to reduce the number of words is to make the expression even more terse and difficult to comprehend.

If a reduction in words it too terse, then the writer should use MORE words. The expression should be fleshed out into more words, more sentences, etc. Make it longer, but clearer. This is often possible.

Kuspit needs to strive for clarity through fewer words, or more words. He also needs to stop couching every little thought in terms of attribution to other intellectuals. So this book suffers mightily from these poor practices. However, it is not fundamentally incomprehensible, and the ideas contained in it are of interest... so go knock yourself out and read it.

By the way, I'm sure that someone might note that this review... where I'm so critical of Kuspit's verbose writing... is itself verbose at times. This is true, too... I could have done a better job of condensing in some spots, and expanding in others. But this is no contradiction. It simply points out that great writing requires time and energy, and my alloted time is up for now.

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