The notion of attentiveness has been on my mind recently, as I find myself frantically jumping through hoops in the run-up to PhD submission. I’ve spent weeks chopping up a 70k word document, rearranging the pieces and plugging the gaps that appear as a result. After years of my PhD being so big and nebulous, it’s oddly satisfying to work so closely on it as an object, treating it as something which can be held rather than a context which is structuring my life. I find attending to it in this way a somewhat ambivalent experience. On the one hand, it inculcates care, as I see the continuities which run through it and the ways in which the discontinuities obscure them, working to bring out the former by shearing off aspects of the latter. On the other hand, it is leading me to rush, as attending so closely to it goes hand-in-hand with a feeling of time slipping away and a sense of the potentially open-ended nature of this kind of editing. It’s also framed by an awareness of the formulaic boxes this will need to tick: “does this chapter have everything it’s supposed to have in it?” is an internal conversation that generates instrumentalism rather than attentiveness.
I just read an interesting interview with Les Back which explores some of these issues. He has a lovely line about finding “ways of writing about the social world that don’t assassinate the life that’s in it”. That’s what I’d like to do but I really haven’t in this case. I’d love to blame it on the institutional structures of the PhD but that would just be misleading myself. There’s also a lovely description of what academics can learn from journalists:
On the economy of writing, on the importance of constructing pieces of writing in such a way that each element supports the other and if you take a few of those paragraphs out it all falls to pieces. The first piece I wrote for a newspaper here, they asked for 500 words, I gave them 1500. It was cut to 700 words, and the bits I felt most passionately about were cut. The craft of that kind of writing is such an important skill. Academics often view journalism as low-grade, simple, crude, raw. We have so much to learn from that kind of care with regard to construction of argument and clarity of purpose. I had this funny exchange with a newspaper sub editor, he said “you sociologists, you must hate the English language because the way you write you assassinate it.” He was wrong in the sense that I don’t think sociologists hate the English language, I think we love language so much that we tend to create a meta-language that makes sense to very few people. And we have to learn that language and become inured to it and take it for granted. Being sceptical of those academic types of short hand, the obfuscations of jargon, is important if we’re to have an engagement with a wider audience