messiness, unruly sentences and grammar

This is a slightly circuitous route from practice-as-research into grammar. Bear with me.

In practice-as-research we often write about abstract, complex experiences, actions or practices that are difficult to describe. Bob Whalley and Lee Miller suggest our practices are messy:

The peculiarity of an individual’s practice-as-research is not usually described as a steady process. Artistic research does not, and cannot, aim for equilibrium, being contracted and imbedded in the commitment to seek out new knowledges and/or substantial new insights. And yet, these are messy practices, and ones which have the capability to mess you up, and mess you around.[1]

We use language in different modes to attempt to do our writing work; for example analytical, poetic or descriptive.

It struck me recently[2] — while reading some PaR work — that we also often introduce complexity (or obfuscation) unnecessarily into our artistic-scholarly writing. We inadvertently create work for the reader and make simple concepts complex or impossible to parse.

One of the ways we create such obstacles is by writing long complex compound sentences that disrupt the reader’s momentum. If our writing is at all choreographic or compositional in how it generates experiences and ideas for the reader, then such disruptions are a problem.

There are three useful grammar concepts that I think could help those of you interested[3] in helping readers understand your thinking:

  1. Keep subjects and verbs close

e.g The cat (subject) sat (verb) on the mat.

Sentences where you have to wait a very long time between subject and verb, or where you’re having to fight through a thicket of modifying clauses before you even reach the subject, tax the working memory.[4]

More on this in number 3 below.

  1. Concrete nouns and vivid verbs

employ plenty of concrete nouns and vivid verbs, especially when discussing abstract concepts.[5]

  1. Right branching sentences

Right-branching sentences give you the subject and verb up front and are easier on the reader’s brain. Sam Leith writes that “Once you have subject and verb established, you know where you’re going with the sentence.” (p.74). He then describes two main ways that sentences get unruly (and I’m going to be quoting at length here from pp.125-126):[6]

a) Parataxis:

“A paratactic sentence is built like a string of sausages”:

The cat, but not the pig and the duck or the chicken, came into the room and looked around to see what would be the best place to sit, then circled it three times, kneaded the mat in the middle with its paws, and sat down on the mat.

Parataxis makes a mouthful, but it’s fairly easily dealt with: You just cut the sentence up into different sentences. In the above, for instance, the subject (“cat”) has five verbs to get through—“came,” “looked,” “circled,” “kneaded,” and only then finally “sat.”

The cat came into the room. The pig, duck, and chicken stayed outside. The cat looked for a good spot. It circled the mat three times, kneaded it with its paws, and sat down.

b) Hypotaxis:

Hypotaxis is a hierarchical construction. Your main clause becomes the kernel of a sort of Russian doll, and the central meaning gets swamped by subordinate clauses.

The cat, which is to say an individual of the species—originally descended from Felis silvestris—Felis catus, in this case a blue-furred Persian four years of age whose eyes gleamed red gold in the light from the lamp in the corner, sat, being by this stage tired of standing up, on the mat which was in the middle of the floor of the room.

These can be trickier to unpack. You need to decide, when you split the sentence up, what comes first. So you could do it like this:

The cat sat on the mat in the middle of the room. Cats are of the species Felis catus. They are descended from Felis silvestris. This one was a four-year-old Persian with blue fur. Its eyes gleamed red gold in the light from the lamp in the corner.

My guess is that hypotaxis in particular is rife in academia. I see it all the time, and in PaR it makes the description or analysis of abstract and complex experiences nigh impossible to understand. Sometimes sentences are so messy that I start to imagine that the person who has written them is not clear about what has been going on (and does not feel comfortable owning that lack of clarity).

And just in case you’ve got to this point and you are wondering why this matters, here’s Helen Sword:

We want writing to be taken seriously, as powerful and evocative performance, able to change people’s experiences of the world, rather than as a shriven, cowed and cowering path towards routinized, professionalized “publication”.[7]

[1]: Whalley, Bob. and Lee Miller, 2019. Moving Thoughts on Intersubjectivity.

[2]: Although PhD students who have worked with me will know all too painfully (I expect) that this concern is not really a new thing of mine.

[3]: I say “those of you” because I also recognise that some of us in the Academy are interested in creating work (often playfully) for our readers. What I’m suggesting are not hard and fast rules, more like principles that might come in handy.

[4]: Leith, Sam. 2018. Write to the Point: A Master Class on the Fundamentals of Writing for Any Purpose, p.74

[5]: Sword, Helen. 2012. Stylish Academic Writing. Harvard University Press, p.49.

[6]: Sam Leith, pp.125-126.

[7]: Helen Sword, p.160.

alternative knowing spaces

There is a large Science, Technology and Society (STS) conference in Prague in August 2020 called Locating and Timing Matters: Significance and Agency of STS in Emerging Worlds.

There are a large number of open panels that are currently inviting submissions, and one in particular called Alternative Knowing Spaces relevant to practice-as-research. It has been proposed by Henk Borgdorff and Peter Peters and here’s an excerpt of their call for papers (due 29 February 2020 I think):

Alluding to the ‘end of the cognitive empire’ (De Sousa Santos), this open panel focuses on how alternative ways of knowing are practiced in a variety of disciplinary, cultural, regional and historical contexts. In the humanities and social sciences mainstream research cultures are increasingly supplemented or amended by alternative epistemologies, questioning the dominance of propositional forms of knowing. In line with the agenda of this conference, these alternative ‘knowing spaces’ (Law) share an interest in the constitutive role of practices and things, in participatory and collaborative experiments that engage with matters of public concern, and in inclusivity with regard to the agencies and voices of the people involved in the generation of knowledge and understanding.

The link is here (scroll down):

I’d love to know that Law citation they mention. Anyone know?

working with theory

The artist Paul Hughes sent me this conversation between Renée Turner and Klass Hoek:

Here are a couple of extracts that caught my eye in relation to practice-as-research:

Often students from the UK were more versed in theory and fluent in English. They quickly took over the conversations—not because they were trying to dominate, but because they were equipped to verbalise thoughts. I wanted Dutch students to be able to do this, while at the same time to resist the idea that works should to fit into theory or be an illustration of theory. Again it comes back to establishing a dynamic relationship.

It’s about tapping into to something fundamental—someone’s curiosity and fascination. It’s the theory of closely listening, making, reading, looking, and being transformed by these encounters—this is actually a kind of chemistry. Sometimes we pick elements that resonate, and they trigger and inspire us. They provide a new way of looking and understanding. Since 1972, I could see these things influencing my work. The most relevant books I’ve read have changed the way I think about what I do. 2 Of course this has something to do with interpretation or even misinterpretation of these works. It might mean I distort the work of Derrida, Benjamin, Valery, or Brecht, because it’s not about them, but what their works and thoughts do to me.

This second extract in particular proposes a delicate, playful and useful way to help understand the roles theory might play in helping to deepen and understand one’s practice and how it is in the world.

I was reminded of an old-school piece of writing about artistic research methodologies by Julian Malins and Carole Gray from the wild west days of practice-led research in the 1990s:

[The] concern here is that ‘theory would side step practice’. We share this concern. We argue that critical analysis and debate, and the formulation of theoretical and philosophical frameworks is the responsibility not only of the ‘external’ critic, historian or theoretician, but essentially the responsibility of the practitioner – the Craftsperson. The informed, intimate perspective of the reflective practitioner leads to a greater degree of insight only possible from experiential, ‘tacit’ knowledge. Existing critics (e.g. Greenhalgh, Clark, Rawson, etc.), useful though their perspective are, are not engaged in the practice of Craft. Therefore, practice-led research has an important contribution to make to the development of this critical / theoretical context. (p.3)

Malins and Gray reveal anxiety about theory-practice that is diminished in Hoek’s ideas above. Hoek seems to recognise the skills, expertise and work of the practitioner, and how these attributes might be deepened and broadened by philosophical and theoretical thinking ideas from different disciplines. There’s less the sense that he imagines the artistic researcher would then contribute back to those philsophical projects.

community of practice

In her blog patter, Pat Thomson wrote earlier today about keeping up with the literatures. There’s great advice in the blog about not only attempting to keep abreast of what is current in one’s field, but also in not getting caught up in attempting to read all of everything:

I haven’t read the paper in entirety yet, but I do already know enough about it to be able to go back to it, if or when I need to. I may decide, depending on whether the paper is central to my own work or not, to eventually read the paper thoroughly.

She also mentions a service called Browzine which I wasn’t familiar with. It looks great for keeping on top of a lot of publications at once.

Of course this all serves the traditionally published aspects of one’s community of practice in PaR. Yet, we have a responsibility also to keep abreast of current creative practices (in the professional and academic communities) and how these inform – and are in dialogue with – our own creative practices. Sadly, there is no centralised type of Browzine for artistic practices. Perhaps though you have suggestions for how you keep up to speed on current creative practices?

cognitive biases and the search for meaning

Buster Benson wrote a Cognitive Bias Cheat Sheet in 2016 and it’s worth a look:

Benson’s descriptions of various cognitive biases on wikipedia can be narrowed down to what he describes as four problems:

Problem 1: Too much information.
Problem 2: Not enough meaning.
Problem 3: Need to act fast.
Problem 4: What should we remember?

That is: a) “we don’t see everything”; b) “our search for meaning can conjure illusions”; c) “quick decisions can be seriously flawed”; d) “our memory reinforces errors”.

This might seem to have little to do with practice-as-research but I want to use problem 2 to share some ideas. In practice-as-research, we are in general dealing with experientially rich or “high-resolution” situations: think of complex the act of performing; or perhaps creating poetically detailed threads of meaning and metaphor in film. The conditions and conventions of PaR ask us to somehow make sense of those complexities or experientially rich situations: to search for and generate meaning. Often we do this through reading and para-phrasing theory to create or establish a way to understand what work our research (as practice) does. (I’m being deliberately crude or simplistic here). The danger is that in our desire to search for and find meaning, we simply conjure up texts and contexts that are less rich or what I could call “low-resolution”.

The trade-off between high-res experiences and practices and generating low-resolution texts or materials (such as materials of documentation) is a key problem in PaR.

scrivener on what might be

Stephen Scrivener’s work on epistemic concerns in practice-as-research has always been thoughtful, provocative and rewarding. See for example his work on the art object not embodying knowledge from 2002.[1]

In Scrivener’s contribution to Experimental Systems: Future Knowledge in Artistic Research (2013) he develops a case-study based on the PhD research project by Su Zheng (2007) called Eye-Jump:

Like problem-solving design research, the work was directed toward a desirable future. However, problem-solving design research begins with an undesirable situation in the designed world that prompts reflection, for example, "Why is this artefactual situation not as it ought to be?" That is to say, the process begins with the recognition that there is something known: a better world, which has not been realised. The Eye-jump story, in contrast, began with making and thinking that was not attached to specific instances of undesirable life conditions; it was not concerned with what ought to be but with what might be. In a problem-solving research process a theory of the problem is transformed into a theory of its solution, which is then affirmed through the testing of a new design; material interventions are solely for the purposes of testing the solution theory. In contrast, the Eye-jump project progressed from untargeted material interventions, through unprecedented artefactual situation, to reflection on its potential significance.[2]

This is important for all practice-as-research, including those of us working in dance and performance. We are all involved in the question of what might be, and then part of our responsibility is to attempt to communicate why these things matter and to whom (i.e. the question of significance). Although artists working outside of the academy are likewise profoundly working with what might be they are under no pressure to talk to the significance of their work (although many do).

[1]: Indeed, all of Scrivener’s writing for the various "Working Papers in Art and Design" series are fantastic (they can be tracked down with a Duck Duck Go search).

[2]: Scrivener, Stephen, 2013. ‘Toward a Practice of Novel Epistemic Artefacts’, in: Experimental Systems: Future Knowledge in Artistic Research, Orpheus Institute Series. Leuven University Press, Leuven, pp. 135–150. (excerpt from p.147)