Sometimes It Just Isn’t Worth Including, Composing, 26/01/2015

I was back to editing Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity at the end of this weekend, though most of my time was spent dealing with the logistics of my move to Toronto. That will be next weekend. As of Thursday, the blog probably won’t hear from me until a few days into February.

I posted this image in one of my earlier posts, but that
was over a year ago, and I think it just looks really cool.
But I made a significant cut to chapter seven Sunday evening. The original dissertation version included a brief passage of about three paragraphs where I analyzed a concept in a book called The Natural Contract by Michel Serres. My supervisor, Barry Allen, recommended the book as an interesting source of ideas when I was originally researching the project. While it’s a brilliant book, the concept I discussed in the dissertation had its problems.

It was the concept of an environmentalist scientist-philosopher-sage called The Third-Instructed, or Le Tiers-Instruit if I can formulate it in a language where it makes some grammatical sense.* I wrote about Serres a few times on the blog, because I was reading his book Le Tiers-Instruit (its title was translated into English as The Troubadour of Knowledge) in the early months of Adam Writes Everything.

* Serres is a brilliant writer in his native language, able to use many of its grammatical and semantic subtleties to communicate some fascinating ideas. The problem with this brilliance is that it’s so difficult to translate because his subtle points play off connotations that are idiosyncratic to French. 

Aside from my general interest in Serres’ thinking, I ordered this book during my first post-graduation round of revisions of the ecophilosophy manuscript because I thought I had dealt with this concept of Le Tiers-Instruit too quickly in the dissertation. I mentioned it briefly, over a mere three paragraphs, in the last major chapter, where I dismissed it as a concept with some potential, but which was limited because it was still described using the language of opposites. 

Serres described this troubadour of knowledge as “archaic and contemporary, traditional and futuristic, humanist and scientist, fast and slow, green and seasoned, audacious and prudent.” But he never progressed the idea beyond this union of opposites, which can only gesture at progress instead of actually pushing you toward it. Philosophical writing that unites opposites is all too often counter-productively vague.

I seriously couldn't find any decent
images of Serres through a Google
search where he looked younger
than 70 years old. It made me
wonder if he's always been an
elderly man.
Then I discovered that he followed up The Natural Contract with a book that explicitly focussed on Le Tiers-Instruit. This was a massive potential embarrassment, for me to have critiqued Serres’ concept without even considering the input of the book that spent 200 pages discussing it.

But when I read The Troubadour of Knowledge, I found that Serres had developed the concept more as a philosophy of education instead of the openly ecological and environmentalist direction it had in The Natural Contract. It was an appropriate development, but it made a full account of the concept at that point in the manuscript very inappropriate. 

What’s more, I only included Serres in the dissertation manuscript where I did because it was in a chapter that dealt largely with concepts from the influence of Serres’ contemporaries and fellow-travellers, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. How I dealt with the concept, critiquing the vagueness of its oppositional language, better suited my critiques of vague language in environmental philosophy more generally, in the earlier chapters. But because Serres developed the concept into a completely different context than this, discussing it in the context of environmental philosophy’s problems wasn’t appropriate either.

Why is this a Composing post instead of A History Boy, then, given how much time I’ve spent talking about my own history with Serres? Because of the result of this reflection on how limited the concept of Le Tiers-Instruit was in my manuscript, how its limitation came from working only from a book where it was treated briefly, and that the book which specifically focussed on it set the concept in a context that was completely different from the ecological philosophy I’m working in.

I cut it entirely. There are now no references to Michel Serres in Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity

When you write philosophy, you can reference a lot of whole bunch of stuff. It’s a complex tradition, and many different writers have dealt with similar concepts in different contexts across the last three thousand years. And I’m just talking about Western philosophy. Including Asian, Indian, African, and Amerindian traditions complicates our conceptual heritages even more. 

Serres is a better role model for me as a writer than in
his particular philosophical ideas and the problems he
explores. He uses language brilliantly, and weaves
concepts together with incredible subtlety. We're just
interested in different things.
When you write a dissertation, there's institutional pressure to include as much of what you researched as possible, because part of its goal is showing your committee the scale of research you can do in the program's time frame. 

When you're writing professional academic philosophy in other contexts, like journals, there's a similar pressure to include as much stuff as possible. Reviewers tend to default to a very obvious criticism: Why didn’t you include author X? Clearly, this paper is inadequate and not worth publishing because you didn’t include author X. 

Sometimes, this is a legitimate point because X is an important figure in the particular tradition that you set yourself in, so missing him is a genuine blind spot.

But academic publications, especially journals, operate in a prestige-based market. Part of a journal’s prestige lies in its rejection rate. And the more prestigious a journal is, the more submissions it will receive. So a reviewer will be under pressure to reject a submission at all costs. So he may think of any other writer who has dealt with a similar concept as you and your research background, and fault you for not mentioning this historically tangential but conceptually convergent figure. Not a morally blameworthy act on the reviewer's part, just the pressure of the institutional position. 

So sometimes, you have to take control of a creative process when you have the power to do so. Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity has been accepted based on a proposal that focussed on its conceptual originality, not as a historical work. What matters is the clarity of the concepts. In this case, cutting Serres improves the clarity of the conceptual argument. Better leave him aside entirely than treat him superficially.

So this is one of the few Composing posts where I actually have some direct advice about writing. Who ever thought that would happen?

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