What Commentary Is For, Composing, 11/03/2018

When I gave up on a conventional career in the university sector – prof hustling the tenure and paywalled journal circuit – I also realized that I’d have to change how I wrote philosophy.*

* Some of the comments are going to be part of my next book review at the Reply Collective. Still not sure precisely how I’ll lay it out, because it’s my biggest critical point.

When we write our dissertations, they have several different functions. Some of those functions can make you a generally good writer, but others can cause some bad habits.

One of the first people who ever taught me about Jewish philosophy
told me about how Talmud works – commentary upon commentary.
But unlike too many humanities academics, the goal of commentary
isn't to demonstrate who among commentators is perfectly correct.
It's to return again and again to the Torah and commentary to work
out how best to apply the old thoughts to new situations.
An example of a dissertation habit that makes you a good writer – You’re able to analyze, synthesize, and explain with reasonable clarity some incredibly complicated ideas, concepts, and discussions. Transdisciplinary projects like my Ecology, Ethics, and the Future of Humanity are especially good for this.

An example of a dissertation habit that makes you a worse writer – You have to demonstrate to a committee of elders how much you know. Doesn’t sound like a problem, but let me explain.

Of course, any big research project, no matter the discipline(s), requires you to learn and come to know a lot. But on the dissertation, you have to put all those references and arguments in detail, as explicitly as possible – because the work itself has to demonstrate to the committee members that you actually did all the research.

They’re obligated to go through your work with a fine tooth comb, if they want, to catch you out. Wider audiences can largely take an author on a bit more faith.

Say you’re a non-fiction author writing a passage that you want to make a specific argument to your audience. You don’t want to fill that passage with so many details that a reader loses track of the point, and so many references that a reader can’t even tell what your own idea is.

A related, but different, example of a dissertation habit that makes you a worse writer – Having to include as much commentary, interpretation, and disputation as you can. This is part of the dissertation’s function to demonstrate a writer’s expertise.

See, there are a lot of side effects to academic overproduction. One, as I’m very familiar with, is creating a class of well-educated researchers and writers who have to hustle their way into second careers in a corporate environment that devalues education.

Talmudic commentary offers a better model for knowledge production
than conventional academic norms in the humanities. Its purpose is
to adapt and update the application of abstract laws and implicit
commandments to the unforeseeable changes of human life as we
create history. Originalism is an obscenity; life is dynamism.
The most important side effect for what I’m writing about today is that commentary proliferates. Because there are so many outlets in academic publishing for historical work and battling interpretations – secondary material – it’s an incentive against an early-career researcher trying for ambitious projects.

By the time you’ve earned an institutional place secure enough for more ambitious work, you’ve been producing commentary for so long that it’s difficult to do new stuff.

This is my long-winded way of talking about why I approach the research for Utopias differently than a standard academician’s project. I’m focussing the manuscript on discussions about ideas and concepts themselves – unpacking the process of engaging ideologies and moralities in our daily lives.

So I don’t need to prove to a reader how much I’ve learned of the proliferating commentary from an always-expanding group of interpreters. I’m not writing a book of commentary myself, so I have no imperative to argue about other people’s commentaries. That’s just not the message or purpose of what I’m writing.

It’s why I chose Ian Buchanan’s book on Anti-Œdipus as one of the few commentaries I’ll rely on. He’s already produced some excellent primary material – a book applying concepts and insights from ethology and animal behaviour to ontological questions about the nature of perception and thought.

Since I’ve already seen him write high-quality primary philosophical work, I know that a commentary he writes won’t get bogged down in interpretive squabbles. Exegetical and practical all at once. That’s the best way to use philosophy – as the explicit raw material to make more philosophy.

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