Rough Theory

Theory In The Rough

On the Move

The Great Office Relocation is underway (somewhat delayed after a last-minute stay of execution was granted late last week, when the incoming More Important Person who is taking over my old office decided to delay their arrival). Although I’ve griped about the disruption the move will cause, I actually like the new office better than the old: my old office was in a highly trafficked portion of the building, near the entrance and across from the reception area, which meant that people tended to congregate nearby. This both constrained what I could do with the office, since random passersby could (and did) peer inside if my door was open, and also led to frequent interruptions, as people hanging out in the area anyway would often decide to drop in for a chat, whether or not they had some pressing issue. The new office, although slightly smaller, is also much more remote – buried at the rear of a small hallway, which is itself buried in the middle of the building. I realise that this location no doubt continues my gradual progression (devolution?) toward a morlockish state, but what can I say: I find isolation, darkness and obscurity strangely soothing… ;-P

For reasons too ridiculous to explain, I’m having to swap a number of things between the two offices, rather than just move my things from one office to the other. The unequal size of the two spaces, combined with the fact that I can’t leave large objects in the hallway to get in everyone else’s way, has made the process something like a human-scale, 3-D version of one of those sliding tile games, where you have only one blank space spare, and everything has to rotate through it… This makes the move slightly more ornate than I would have expected. I have, however, triumphed over the shelving shortage that was threatening to make things even more difficult (I was told “the university has run out of bookshelves” – imagine!). I’ve managed to resolve this problem by pilfering some shelves that had been torn out of someone else’s office and left cluttering one of the meeting rooms (I’ve sworn to take to my grave the name of the colleague who helped me engage in this little midnight raid – although I do deeply appreciate the help), and so my new office is much better… endowed than my old – which means I can bring in more of my books from home (and no doubt provoke even more questions from colleagues about why I have so many books…).

At the very least, the move provides a handy excuse for why I’m feeling too unsettled to do any serious writing… ;-P In case anyone would like to do some serious reading, however, I thought I could at least direct your attention to some places that will no doubt have more interesting content for the next several days.

First, I’ve been meaning for a few days to call attention to Chicago-Beijing, where ZaPaper has been reflecting on how the research process never divides neatly at the seams:

I have to admit that research is like a fractal coastline. You zoom in on one small bit and it opens up into nearly infinite length and complexity. You zoom in again, and you find the same thing happening. In the end one has to accept the hated “logic” of generalization and case study, where your readers have to accept that the case study you present is truly representative. The ideal would be completeness–discuss every piece you have read, and then show how your conclusions have grown organically out of it–but in reality time is finite and what people want is just a good meaty case study… It’s a flaw in my disposition that my training has only exacerbated, the insistence on perfection… One ends up investigating everything and writing nothing.

No, better to just at some point get started writing things up.

Meanwhile, Scott Eric Kaufman at Acephalous worries about the ways in which the self-critical attitude required for editing, can spill over into a vast Zone of Irritation that gradually overshadows our ability to enjoy anything else:

I’m annoyed. I’m editing, re-editing and re-re-editing this week, so I have every reason to be…

I have every reason to be annoyed with myself… But that’s not why I’m annoyed right now. No, right now I’m annoyed by the way in which my annoyance radiates, how it establishes a Zone of Irritation from which nothing can escape. Beards, they can not escape it. Lettuce, it wilts. Other people’s work? You must be kidding me. Take this claim, from an otherwise impressive book:

Many domestic novels open at physical thresholds—such as windows or doorways — to problematize the the relation between interiors and exteriors. (43)

How many? The author discusses three, but looking through my shelf of roughly contemporary novels, I can find no others. Not a one. The nature of the claim-structure is backwards here: I believe X, and “many” cherry-picked novels begin by thematizing it. This is the academic variation of the classic Sportscenter statistic: “On the second and third Wednesdays in March, Bobby Knight-coached teams have only lost to unranked opponents twice in the five years he’s coached at Texas Tech.” Only it’s worse. The Sportscenter infographic remains faithful to its obscenely specific raison d’être, whereas the academic cousin hides its Wednesdays-in-Marchness behind a facade of general truth.

The “many” employed in this passage obscures the fact that many, many more domestic novels don’t open at physical thresholds. It also conceals the reason why many domestic novels would do so: they’re domestic. We should expect thresholds and windows to appear frequently for the same reason we expect spaceships to make regular appearances in space operas. Why even make the claim? Why not focus on how often tables or children appear instead?

Notice, too, the implication that the physical location where a novel begins is significant. Should the critic not establish that where a novel opens is more important than, say, where it closes? How could anyone even write this sentence? Isn’t the dishonesty of the claim evident to anyone involved in any stage of the writing process? What about all those people thanked on the acknowledgments page, did not a single one of them notice these grievous overstatements? Why not? I want to know. I need to know.

This is what life is like inside the Zone of Irritation. Everything is judged by the same unforgiving standards we apply to ourselves, and no one looks — or feels, for that matter — the better for it.

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