May 26, 2007

We All Want to Change the World

Filed under: writing — jrice @ 11:42 am

Reading through this piece by John Leo in City Journal, I’m drawn to its conclusion:

But writing isn’t a personal or private enterprise. It’s an attempt to change consciousness and change the world.

And this final line (after quoting Richard Weaver):

Writing is power. If you write well, you can have an impact.

There are fewer clichés stronger in writing studies than the one that “writing has power,” “writing changes the world,” “it is our obligation to make the world better through writing.” Why are we drawn to such phrases? Is anyone claiming that “writing should be powerless?” That it “should make the world a worse place”? When one takes a strong stance for something that really has no opposition (i.e. “family values”), what kind of gesture is one making?

When writing is framed in such a way, it serves (at least) a few purposes: hyperbole, high brow sentiment, self-satisfaction. The last point is found in service learning/critical pedagogy, where writing is posed as that which will solve the world’s or communities’ problems. The second is closer to Leo’s piece (a former speech), which works to distinguish “low quality” writing (like – according to his example, a student who uses “I”) from that which aspires to loftier expectations.

The high brow continues to be the measuring stick by which many dismiss, for instance, blogs. What is high brow about a 12 year old’s Livejournal, a nerd’s fascination with a complex show like Lost, a music buff’s thoughts on a current or past song, a daily collection of Tokyo oddities, and so on? The high brow, as well, ignores that most writing does not aspire to such wonderful goals: lists, tables, notes,maps, charts, etc. are the foundations of writing and the bulk of writing practices.

And that brings me to a point Leo makes:

Further, our minds are clogged with the clichés, idioms, and rhythms of other people, and we have to work to avoid them.

The high brow is as cliché as any form of expression (“hot as an oven,” “big as a house”). It draws on an imaginary moral ground that is non-contextualized and which is mostly based on the “feeling” that x is right, y is wrong. That “feeling,” like many clichés (“work hard and you will succeed,” for instance), is guilty of the very crime Leo quotes Paul Johnson for support: “stale expressions and combinations of words, threadbare metaphors, clichés and literary conceits.”

It’s sad to see a college address reduce the complexity of writing to such simplistic positioning. If Leo, or any other proponent of this thinking, was really out to use writing “to change the world,” he would be better off addressing the complexity of writing, not the cliché (or straw man) attacks on post-structuralists (see the longer version on his website) or the non-contextualized (and always inaccurate ) replay of teachers who are “against grammar” (again, see longer version). Leo’s work is the very cliché he is supposedly speaking against.


  1. Yeah, yawn city there. I had to check the date: Leo needs to update his cast of characters. Alan Sokal? Lani Guinier? Haven’t heard those names for years.

    Comment by cbd — May 26, 2007 @ 6:34 pm

  2. Great post, and one that– as I finish grading final student projects– touches on a lot of ideas and issues I’ve been thinking about lately, too. I’d like to think that Leo is the Sanjaya of speakers, performing a certain rhetorical move in order to parody it, but suspect that’s not the case. The whole question of “obligation” v. “self-indulgence” (and yes, I know that’s a problematic binary, but I offer it to give a sense of the terms I sometimes hear students and faculty use) is so fraught and strange. Students here are immensely bright and passionate, but often so committed to precisely the “world-changing” goals you highlight that it’s sometimes hard to get them to see different, “experimental” (or whatever term you want) writing pratices as something worthwhile: “it’s nice, and pretty, but doesn’t do much,” one student complained about just such a reading/assignment. I’m not sure if it’s the “do” or the “much” in that statement that is more important to challenge (and what’s wrong with “pretty”?). Nothing wrong per se with wanting to write with “purpose” or “change the world,” but you are dead right that foregrounding it as the end-all– and assuming you are speaking for anyone but yourself– is immensely, um, self-indulgent.

    Comment by Brian — May 27, 2007 @ 12:37 am

  3. I’m going to go out on a limb here but I think that other mediums are quickly replacing writing as the “change the world” medium. As video and audio become easier to produce than writing, will we not see them become more influential? A rousing speech that is well written may be moving but a passionate cry that demonstrates the passion of the person will be far more influential than any speech. Yes the highbrow will continue to view the blog as lowly. However, as we are seeing, the majority are not viewing it the same. We are in a societal flux where what was is being challenged by what might be or what is newly though of. To focus on writing as changing the world, one might really have missed the boat.

    Comment by Kelly Christopherson — May 27, 2007 @ 11:55 pm

  4. agreed.

    Comment by bonnie kyburz — May 28, 2007 @ 10:44 am

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