Tuesday, August 29, 2006

On Careful Writing

The difference between international politics as it actually is and a rational theory derived from it is like the difference between a photograph and a painted portrait. The photograph shows everything that can be seen by the naked eye; the painted portrait does not show everything that can be seen by the naked eye, but it shows, or at least seeks to show, one thing that the naked eye cannot see: the human essence of the person portrayed.
Morgenthau, Six Principles of Political Realism

It is self evident that nothing concerning art is self-evident…
Adorno, Aesthetic Theory

It struck me in the first couple of pages that Morgenthau seemed a little sloppy in his writing -- nothing that struck me as awful, but a bit vague. And then this one hit me between the eyes. Using art as an analogy presumes that art is simpler, more easily understood, than the thing you seek to explain by that analogy.

Without going into the whole art-historical argument about photography and painting, I’ll just say that for Morgenthau, his theory derives from actual politics. Photographs and paintings exist on the same level of abstraction – both are, or can be, representations; one is not derived from the other.

Morgenthau’s theory and reality do not in any way compete with each other – it’s nonsensical to imagine such a thing; how would essays about the nature of Power replace relations between states? On the other hand, photography and painting serve similar ends, fulfill similar functions, occupy the same literal and figurative spaces.

Adorno and Morgenthau were contemporaries; yet Morgenthau’s aesthetics would have been conservative a century earlier, when Baudelaire attacked the mere descriptive nature of photography, “a servant-girl to the sciences.”

It’s just so careless, ignorant, and haphazard.

Speaking of bad writing, one of our professors – in a blurb on the cover of a book he assigned for his class – gives us the following:
“This is the best book in terms of its organization, writing, and quality of ideas as well as a superb framing of the problems and issues in this field.”

The structure of the sentence implies that:
1. This is the best-written, best-organized book. Ever. And it has the best ideas ever put in a book.
2. Also, it’s superb in its coverage of the field of study.

Even attempted praise for quality writing is poorly written. Are the standards of writing just that sloppy in this profession?

1 comment:

Mini Mao said...

Me says everybody from patterson writer gooder than anybody else.