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.

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.

bolt explains

Barbara Bolt has written an "explainer" called "What is artistic research?" for the University of Melbourne’s online (and offline) magazine.

She focuses on the role of the artist and their privileged position as being both inside and outside of the artistic research; that artistic research has made it possible for artists to "find their voice where hitherto they have been the object of study by art historians, musicologists, critics, curators, and cultural theorists, amongst others."

According to Bolt, the researcher as "maker and observer" identifies and argues the "research’s claim to new knowledge, or rather new ways of knowing".

It’s strange to me that Bolt would imply that the research is laying claim to knowledge, and, rather confusingly, that it is the researcher who identities and argues for this claim. Perhaps this isn’t quite what she meant, but as it stands there’s circular logic here, a snake biting its own tail: the research has claims to new ways of knowing, but only until that is identified by the researcher, who has also made the research, which in turn claims …

What a mess.

And then Bolt suggests that somehow the researcher is some kind of decoder or interpreter; the person to unlock the mysteries that aren’t yet "open to others":

The role of the artistic researcher is not to describe his or her work, nor to interpret the work, but rather to recognise and map the ruptures and movements that are the work of art in a way not necessarily open to others. The artist-as-researcher offers a particular and unique perspective on the work of art from inside-out as well as outside-in.

I think there is terrible danger in overstating the value of the researcher as subject; the researcher as all powerful, knowing and loving. Here’s Hans-Jörg Rheinberger (again):

This also means getting rid of the age-old thinking about Erkenntnistheorie as being about an I, an ego, a subject that tries to cast a theoretical net over an object. Instead, let us be a little bit more humble and see the experimenting subject as engaged in an activity that has, to put it in Ian Hacking’s (1983,150) words, "a life of its own," and one that is in need of many good eyes to see and many good ears to hear. Let us get rid of what could be called the tyranny of the subject.[1]

[1]: Rheinberger, Hans-Jörg, and Michael Schwab. ‘Forming and Being Informed’. In Experimental Systems: Future Knowledge in Artistic Research, 198–219. Orpheus Institute Series. Leuven: Leuven University Press, 2013, p.199.

a mess

A while back I read Kieran Healy’s book about using plain text[1] in the social sciences. He writes this early on:

The problem is that doing scholarly work is intrinsically a mess. There’s the annoying business of getting ideas and writing them down, of course, but also everything before, during, and around it: data analysis and all that comes with it, and the tedious but unavoidable machinery of scholarly papers—especially citations and references. There is a lot to keep track of, a lot to get right, and a lot to draw together at the time of writing.[2]

Healy is of course talking about the nuts and bolts of collecting ideas, managing materials, etc, but his writing did make me think about the beautiful messiness of practice-as-research in particular. It can be a remarkable cocktail of uncertainty, rigour, care, intuition, desperation, and failed experimentation.[3]

  1. Any of you who follow my personal blog will likely know that I am interested in text-based workflows. See if you are super keen.  ↩
  2. Kieran Healy, The Plain Person’s Guide to Plain Text Social Science., 2018, p.4.  ↩
  3. I’m currently reading Experimental Systems: Future Knowledge in Artistic Research (edited by Michael Schwab, 2013) and I’ll discuss the book – and the nature of experimentation in practice-as-research – in a future post.  ↩