Good Bad Writing: Williams, Cooper, Stoler

by zunguzungu

“In current descriptions of the world the major industrial societies are often described as “metropolitan.” At first glance this can be taken as a simple description of their internal development, in which the metropolitan cities have become dominant. But when we look at it more closely, in its real historical development, we find that what is meant is an extension to the whole world of that division of functions which in the nineteenth century was a division of functions within a single state”
(Raymond Williams, The Country and the City, p279)

Raymond Williams uses the word “development” twice, and while “division of functions” is clearly the object of the final sentence, the verb (“extension”) is embedded in a kind of quasi-passive voice clause, obscuring the sentence’s subject. How does this division of functions manage to extend outward,? hy does development happen? Where is the motive force coming from? Not sure, which is why this is bad writing when my students do it. But for Williams, in his book, I think that ambiguity is necessary, or at least useful: how does the periphery become peripheral? “Empire” is one word for it, but how does empire come about? What is empire? Does the word answer the question or just beg it? Williams doesn’t here employ the term at all; his focus is on structural changes that don’t match up with a political rhetoric of empire, nation, or globe. And I think that’s significant.

In 1997, Ann Laura Stoler and Frederick Cooper write the following:

“Europe’s colonies were never empty spaces to be made over in Europe’s image or fashioned in their interests; nor, indeed, were European states self-contained entities that at one point projected themselves overseas. Europe was made by its imperial projects, as much as colonial encounters were shaped by conflicts within Europe itself. How one goes about identifying the social and political reverberations between colony and metropole is a difficult task.
(Stoler, Cooper “Between Metropole and Colony: Rethinking a Research Agenda” in Tensions of Empire: Colonial Cultures in a Bourgeois World, p.1)

More of what would probably be bad writing if it came from my students. What is the thesis here? The first two verb-phrases in the first sentence are negatives–colonies were not, Europe was not–and the key sentence, the second one, is a tautology: Europe was made by its colonies, but its colonies were made by Europe. And the final sentence is an admission of defeat that looks forward to the future, a statement of what we don’t know, and an admission of the problem that makes it difficult, as a first step towards figuring out what we can know.

I habitually demand that my students replace questions in their papers with statements. But I do that because they so often prefer not to answer those questions, or even admit that they’ve begged them; it’s easier to say something like “science in Alexander Von Humboldt is a very complex idea.” And since I think that a better paper engages with that complexity, asks that complexity a question and waits for an answer, I push them. I write “Why?” “How?” and “So what?” in the margins, getting more specific when I can, and holding their feet to the fire, to the extent that I‘m able, to try to answer these questions. But reading Stoler, Cooper, and Williams, it occurs to me that sometimes ambiguity is useful. I used to have arguments with the good country gentleman of buono da mangiare about whether or not we could allow our students to use the passive voice, whether prohibition or regulated legalization was the appropriate response to the epidemic of abusers we faced. And a certain kind of infantilization of the students underpins both of our responses that, while it makes me uncomfortable, I think is unavoidable: they can’t be trusted not to abuse the thing, so pedagogical attention is necessary. That’s what teaching is.

These writers, on the other hand, use it well. The brilliance of Williams’ book is that the “structure of feeling” he’s going after, the conceptual sense of organization into rural and urban, metropole and periphery, doesn’t match up with anything that can be concretely pinned down by social science. Generalizing about the homology between the relationship between English pastoral and city and the relationship between Nigeria and England only reveals that generalizations are mighty tenuous, and that they are more likely misleading than not. In this case, that question is an invitation to overstate, to make an unsupportable claims. So he evokes without getting specific, suggests and gestures rather than making claims, begs a question he can’t answer. But an awareness that the homology is there, that there is some kind of structural continuity between Derbyshire and Nigeria relative to London and England, is an important first step.

Stoler and Cooper do something similar: for them, the point is that imagining “empire” as actively re-making its colonies in its own image, the kind of “logocentric” paradigm in which the word strides out into the world and proclaims “Let there be” and there is, is unsustainable. It’s a fiction that we’ve maintained for a long time–and people keep wanting to sustain it–but the categories fall apart under closer analysis. Empire wasn’t empire until it already had colonies, but those colonies couldn’t come into existence until there was already an empire to colonize it. Chickens and Eggs. But the tautology here isn’t about avoiding the problem, as it so often is for my students (who so often want nothing more than to avoid thinking hard about the questions they raise), but a way to illustrate the insufficiency of the models we’re accustomed to using to answer the problem. “Empire” and “Colony” can’t tell us about their origins because the terms themselves presuppose each other, presuppose the existence of the very relationship we want them to model coming into existence. And this problem is the sort of thing scholars need to look seriously at.

A few months ago, Scott Kaufman used satire to address something interesting: within the humanities, we are unaccustomed to research projects which disprove their hypothesis, the way a scientific agenda might find value in suggesting a principle only to find the evidence that overturns it. As he suggests, that’s a problem; if we hold the general project of criticism to the same standard we hold our infantilized students, we produce a situation where every piece of scholarship must make a claim, must prove a point, and must fulfill its hypothesis. But sometimes, when the task is so very much bigger than a single book, or edited collection, or career, the real value of a scholarly intervention is simply that it can disproves a hypothesis, or illuminates the limitations of a set of terms, in ways which open up what had been foreclosed by a constricting paradigm. In these cases, it seems to me, it’s the bad writing (the very best bad writing) that enables that to happen.