Sunday, April 03, 2011

Units of Composition

On my other blog, I have been emphasizing the paragraph as the unit of prose composition for academic writers. Scientists and scholars should compose themselves in orderly paragraphs that each make a claim and support it. A standard academic journal article consists of about 40 paragraphs, which are crafted to articulate what the author knows. The text is intended to represent the objects of the author's knowledge.

If the paragraph is the unit of scientific composition, what is the unit of political composition? Let's keep in mind that "composition" here means putting words together articulately for the purpose of producing a representation. Scientific writing represents objects in prose. Political writing represents subjects in prose. So my hunch is that political writers will also compose themselves in paragraphs. These paragraphs, however, will not state claims. They will, perhaps, make promises. Or something like that; threats, perhaps? I haven't quite thought it through yet.

One of the reasons I'm not wholly comfortable with the idea of the paragraph as the unit of both scientific and political composition is that the symmetry does not repeat with philosophy and poetry. Here at the Pangrammaticon, after all, philosophy is supposed to be to science what poetry is to politics. And we already know that the unit of poetic composition is the strophe, while the unit of philosophical composition is the remark. So when we ask about the unit of political composition, we are really asking: what is to the paragraph as the strophe is to the remark?

But what really counts as "political writing?" A bill (i.e., a proposed law)? A speech? A platform? Here, again, it seems most useful to think of such texts as divided up into paragraphs. But instead of representing objects, these texts represent subjects. "We the people..." pervades such texts, even if the author's idea of "who" the people are may vary widely from text to text. The paragraphs of science describe what there is; the paragraphs of politics prescribe who ought to be. "Who ought we to be?" Or, better, "Who ought we to become?" can be considered the fundamental political question.

I'm thinking a great deal about these things these days because I worry about the influence of social science on political expression. I am myself making a return to scholarship, and while my position is resolutely "critical", I will be working squarely within the social sciences, more specifically, the administrative sciences, whose articulateness I've been working to improve over the past five years as a language consultant at a business school. Ezra Pound has never been far from my thoughts.

Should I not, rather, be writing "a poem that contains history"? Can I devote myself to the composition of paragraphs that represent (as an object!) the life of society? Or should I not, rather, explore more deeply to find that epic (or at least lyrical) subjectivity that is the true heart of our becoming? Does the paragraph or the strophe, finally, situate the problem of my composure?

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