For Fun

Enjoyment of Writing

August 23, 2009

Up until very recently, I wasn't interested in writing essays. And that's because I've only just realized their potential. Essays, as I've discovered, are extremely effective at communicating one's ideas. This might seem so obvious to you that it seems silly for me to point this out. But at the time of its discovery, this was a very foreign concept to me, and I'm sure it still is for many people, otherwise there wouldn't be so many terribly written essays out there, which I will talk about.

I will cite predominantly from social science publications to illustrate my point. This isn't entirely fair, because I'm sure there are equally badly written essays from many other disciplines. It just seems that it's easiest to find an example in the social sciences. Here's an excerpt from a well known author:

Peter and I have proposed to introduce, each in his own way, two set of concepts, one coming from spheres and the other from networks. And let me say at the beginning that I have to agree with Peter that what is usually called networks is an "anemic" conjunction of two intersecting lines that are even less plausible than the vast global space of no space that it pretends to replace. Fortunately my own notion of network, or rather of actor-network, has borrowed more from Leibniz and Diderot than from the Internet, and, in a way, one could say that Peter's spheres and my networks are two way of describing monads: Once God is taken out of Leibniz's monads, there are not many other ways for them but to become, on the one hand, spheres and, on the other, networks.

This is an excerpt from "Spheres and Networks: Two Ways to Reinterpret Globalization" by Bruno Latour, a very well known author in his field. This paragraph was taken from the introduction of the paper, so it's not as if there has already been a set of terms that's been defined earlier in the paper, so I can't be accused of citing this out of context.

First and foremost, I must say that I did not even remotely understand what Latour was getting at. This could be for a number of reasons. One reason could simply be that Latour isn't getting at anything. It could all be just rhetorical fluff. I am not knowledgeable enough about the field to be able to tell whether this excerpt has substantial content behind it, but I know that Latour is a very respected figure in this field, and this particular essay is to be published by Harvard Design Magazine. Those are some very big names, so it's unlikely that Latour wrote a big essay about nothing ... I hope. Latour had a point and he expressed it. It's only my fault that it eluded me.

So then if Latour was indeed making a point with that paragraph, then how did I come to miss it? Well there were some complicated sounding words and phrases in there, and even familiar words were not used in familiar ways. I am out of my field in this regard, so perhaps all of these terms (eg. spheres, networks, spaces, etc...) have clear and unambiguous definitions that I simply don't know. So one might argue that I find the language in this essay difficult to understand for the same reasons that a social scientist might have difficulty understanding the formulas in a quantum mechanics paper. That is, the language is necessarily difficult because of the complexity of the topic.

I disagree. Physics papers (or at least the ones I have read) are written with great care taken to make the concept as straightforward and as simple as possible. Quantum mechanics is a subject that's difficult enough to understand as it is without having it muddled by ornate vocabulary and grammar. But sometimes the need for mathematical formulas can't be helped, and the occasional equation is necessary. For example, I would assert that Schrodinger's Wave Equation is a fundamental concept in quantum mechanics and it would be foolish to discuss quantum mechanics without referring to it. Perhaps social scientists would similarly defend Latour by asserting that it is impossible to talk about globalization without referring to the "vast global space of no space" ... but I think it unlikely.

As it turns out, I found out later from one of my professors who works in this field, that many of these terms (eg. spheres, networks, spaces, etc ...) have no universally agreed upon definition. Each figure in the field has their own interpretation and opinion on what they think the term should refer to. So effectively, Latour is writing with very intricate sentences made out of ambiguous words that are interpreted differently by every reader. I think the blame for not getting Latour's point can hence be safely taken off me.

Another final counterpoint that can be made against me though is that I'm not a social scientist. I graduated with a degree in electrical engineering and what could an engineer possibly know about society? Now this would be a valid point, if it was simply I who did not understand the paper, and that all the social scientists understand what Latour is talking about. But I highly doubt this to be the case. The physicist Alan Sokal was famously able to publish his parody (an essay consisting of nonsense rhetoric with arbitrary quotations mixed in) in the leading cultural studies journal Social Text, suggesting the likelihood that no social scientist really knows what any other one is talking about.

So the conclusion is that this piece of work by Latour is not well written. It failed to communicate its idea (if it had one) to its reader. This, in itself, is not such a problem. There are plenty of poorly written essays from every discipline out there. The problem is the fact that this is getting published and the accompanying esteem in which it will be regarded with, which brings me to the main point of this essay. Somewhere along the way, people have forgotten, like I have, what it feels like to have an essay effectively communicate its ideas to them. At one point, I became accustomed and complacent with reading through an essay from start to finish without having grasped one solid original idea. And that is how essays like this one can get published and even lauded. People became used to not understanding what they read. Essays don't have to be clear. This is just how they are.

I distinctly remember how foreign it seemed, the first time I read an essay that genuinely contained some original and rational thought. The essay happened to be "What is Science" by Richard Feynman, but that's not important. What was important was the impression it left me. The immediate impression was that this essay was extremely enjoyable to read. This was new. Furthermore, it was easy to read. It was almost effortless to grasp Feynman's point, and his points were subtle. What was happening? I didn't know such clear thinking could be expressed using such simple words. Anyway I loved this essay, and I went on to absorb the rest that Feynman had written in his lifetime.

After reading "What is Science" I became very selective about the essays that I read. The essay had to present its ideas clearly, openly, and plainly. If after reading two or three paragraphs I still had not extracted any clear idea out of the piece, I simply considered it not worth my time. You might think that's awfully arrogant of me. Who am I, an unknown engineering graduate, to consider the writing of such a renowned writer as Latour to be not worthy of my time? I justify it like so. There exists so much great writing in the world, writing with insightful and original ideas presented in clear and unambiguous English, that it is impossible for me to ever read it all in my lifetime. So in the face of all this great literature, how can I whittle away my hours on essays that I can't make heads or tails out of?

So this is how I became interested in writing and why it took so long. There was just too much fluff to dig through to find the truly good essays. But after finally hitting upon one, you realize that it's indeed possible for an essay to be clear, to be comprehensible, to be insightful, and above all to be enjoyable. And it would be wonderful if I can write those sorts of essays.

There are topics that I find interesting that I've given a lot of thought to, and I want to share my thoughts with whomever is interested. I hope to continue to write for as long as I am able, and perhaps one day, if I work hard enough at it, I can have the tremendous honor of influencing someone in the same way as Feynman has influenced me.

Afterword: Something I realized in the middle of writing this.

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