CULTURAL STUDIES AS A WRITER'S CRAFT

(Interview, August 2002.)

The following is an interview I did with my colleague Greg Seigworth and two of his students -- Laurie Gremminger and Mark McLaughlin – for a course at Millersville University on writing in cultural studies. Before the interview, the students read an essay of mine published a year ago last spring in the journal Cultural Studies entitled “A Machine to Hear for Them.” You’ll see some references to it in the text.  The essay argues that the telephone, phonograph, and radio as we know them today were made possible by new understandings of sound, hearing, and the body that emerged in the 19th century. 

Greg and his students interviewed other writers as well; I would have loved to have taken that course.  Critical scholars -- whether we consider ourselves "cultural students" or not -- should talk a lot more about our writing processes and the creative work that goes into scholarship, and so I post this interview in the hope that it will get others to think about some of the same issues. Anyway, here's the interview:

1. Describe briefly the space where you most usually write.  How is it arranged?  What must you have close at hand as you write?  Any special or unusual features to your arrangement or deployment of writing space?

My spouse and I dedicated the master bedroom of our house for a shared office.  It’s a big room with two giant desks, a table, four bookcases, two computers, etc.  My most important tools: a comfy, supportive but not too comfy chair; a decent computer monitor and good computer speakers; an optical mouse (a must for people with pets; it’s great not to have cathair in the trackball); a cat rug in the corner to provide cats with enticing alternative to sitting on my notes; air conditioning; and good light. 

Stuff at hand: scribbled notes relating to current writing project; kleenex box for occasional allergy attack; source materials, photocopied articles, and other people’s books arranged in a semicircle around my desk on the floor; pile of CDs, preferably stuff that really rocks or has a good groove to it; interesting atmospheric stuff can work well too (see below). 

I think it’s important to judge those kinds of things for yourself: how one likes one’s environment to look, sound, smell, and feel.  I like it cool to cold in my office, I like a clean work space when I start a project and some clutter when I’m in the middle of a project, and I like music at certain times of day.  But again, this is totally individual stuff.  Some people have to get out of the house to write. 

2. Before starting to write, how do you know when you have done enough research?

I don’t.  I don’t think it’s possible to know that unless you’re in some branches of the sciences.  In fact, I purposely start writing before I’ve finished my research so that I have a sense of where the real gaps are in my knowledge.  I’ve even presented papers as real “works in progress.”  Not in that meek “don’t pounce on me” way that some academics do, but in the sense that I’ve done a bunch of research on a topic, I have some ideas I’d like to share about it, but I know there are real gaps in my knowledge.  I don’t think research and writing are separate processes.  In fact, the “I don’t have enough information” thing can be a form of procrastination in and of itself if it keeps you from writing about what you do know. 

On the other hand, there’s no substitute for doing research.  I love going to the library, digging through archives, looking at stuff that nobody’s cared about for decades and finding new meaning in it.  More to the point, I learn more from bad research papers than bad theory papers.  If people do the work and find something out, their readers can learn a great deal even if they disagree with the author or are coming to the text from a very different perspective.

3. When in full writing mode, generally how many hours a day are dedicated to the task?  Are they consecutive hours or split up with breaks in-between, etc?

It varies.  During the school year, I’ve got a million things on my plate and it’s rare to get a full day to write.  On the days I really want to get writing done at all, it’s the first thing I do in the morning before anything else.  I’ll eat breakfast, maybe, but that’s it.  Four hours at the front end of an otherwise busy day would be excellent.  One hour is great.

During the summers and on “writing days” I can go for eight or ten hours, but never that long on the first day of a writing project or for more than two days in a row or more than twice in a week.  Other days, we’re look at more like 4-5 hours, I think, though I don’t clock in and clock out.  There’s not an average writing day for me, but it always starts with writing.  That’s key for me.  Also, if I’ve had a pretty mellow day, I can write well at night (this almost never works on teaching days during the school year).  If I write in the late afternoon, it’s usually “data entry” types of stuff – explaining source material, typing in quotes that I’ll analyze later, etc.  Most “writing days” actually have maybe five hours at the keyboard, with the rest of the time going to other activities like reading, arranging source material, or maybe some other unrelated task like correspondence, teaching, or “service.”

4. Do you proceed from an outline or some other pre-set framework/roadmap as you write?

Not in any formal sense.  I do a lot of scribbling on the backs of old printouts, and I talk to people about my projects before I do the writing.  So there’s lots of preparation, but not in a formal outlining sort of way.  The structure usually changes as I write, including my sense of proportion – what gets a paragraph and what gets five pages.  If my life were perfect, I’d spend most of my time talking about ideas with other people.  That’s a crucial part of the “writing process” for me and it’s also eminently enjoyable.

5. Do you keep notes before you write?  As you write?  Do you have any sort of system for keeping track of inspiration and insight as it arrives alongside or prior to writing?

Yes, I do two things.  One, I WRITE NOTES TO MYSELF IN ALLCAPS AS I’M WRITING THE ESSAY to remind myself of arguments I need to make, directions I want to go, etc.  I’ll also keep a clippings file where all of my deleted text goes.  This is useful as I can always retrieve something I deleted, and I can also make notes to myself or develop passages that I can insert later.  It’s also psychologically useful, since I’m not really “throwing out” the text I deleted.  It fits my packrat instinct nicely.

I’ll also occasionally scribble things down on paper, or a printout of an earlier draft. 

Also, I have a bunch of 1-page word documents that are just ideas for essays that may or may not get written, good quotes, etc. 

6. What writers (cultural studies or otherwise) do you admire?  Is there something that they share in common/something that links them?  Or, do they each provide different aspects or features that you take as important?

I admire any writer who helps me to think new thoughts.  I admire writers that combine lots of influences in an interesting way.

7. How does the eventual audience for your writing figure in to how you address the task itself?

My audience will have more fun reading my text if I have more fun writing it.  In practice, this has meant occasionally taking time out for the bad joke, pun, or irony; or lingering on details that aren’t crucial to my analysis but are “inherently interesting” as one of my teachers used to say.    Conversely, I try to avoid pointless word play, theory jokes, parenthetical phrases (or parts of words) in titles, and other staples of academic “wit,” because it’s not usually amusing to me.  

Though I don’t really have the time to practice it as an assistant professor under pressure to produce a lot of text before tenure, I really like to have time to spend an entire revision of a piece just on language, clarity, style, humor, presentation, etc.  I think most academics skip this stage of revision and that is why most academic writing is so unpleasant to read. 

I believe in genres, though.  Academic writing is a unique thing.  Academic writing can be difficult, thick, specialized, whatever – it doesn’t have to be easy to read (though it’s fine if it is), but I’d like my stuff to be friendly to motivated readers.   I don’t really think I’m there yet, but it’s a goal.  It’s like songwriting.  You don’t just pick up a guitar one day and write a good hook – that skill comes with practice.  I also make choices with each thing I write: if I’m trying to really engage and challenge other profs and grad students – as I did in my “Machine to Hear for Them” piece – my writing is more likely to alienate at least some smart and educated people like my own undergrads, members of my family, journalists, maybe even some colleagues, etc.  It’s a genre thing.  If I’m writing for the newspaper, or on this questionnaire, I try to write in a simpler, more conversational tone.  If I’m writing a letter to a friend, complete sentences aren’t even really necessary. 

8. What role do concepts and theory play in relation to your writing approach?  How do you conceive of the place of theory (as detour, as something to apply, as immanent, as relay, etc) in regard to the other subject matter of your writing?

I don’t believe in theory as something one applies.  Theory is inspirational literature, it’s like scales for a musician.  You practice scales, sometimes a scalar run shows up in a tune, but you don’t confuse the scales with songs.  Musicians who don’t know basic music theory are at a terrible disadvantage in terms of playing with others and moving across genres.  The same could be said for academics who don’t know their theory (and really here, we’re talking about the long run of intellectual history – since all those sexy European theorists Americans so love were thoroughly versed in the Western canon of philosophy).  It is possible to make something valuable in either field without knowing any theory, but it’s a lot harder, and it makes you more difficult for others to work with.  At the same time, religious devotion to one kind of theory (or one author) is also debilitating.  “Theoretically correct” music is boring, and so is a lot of “theoretically correct” scholarship.  Scholarship loses all its intellectual vitality when academics reduce themselves to going out in the world on reconnaissance missions for theorists: “Look!  A panopticon!” – or endlessly parsing out theorists’ concepts and correcting others.  Our job as academics is to learn things, think about stuff, and then to write so that we can help others do the same.  The best work in our field has an element of speculation to it, and inspires readers to speculate.

9. When has a piece of writing – yours’ or anyone else’s – “succeeded?”

I can’t tell you that, but I can tell you that it’s perfectly noble for academics to write things that then sit on library shelves for months, years, decades – only to be later discovered by others who have a totally different relationship to the topic.  That’s the ultimate triumph for a piece of writing – to go to places and times that the author couldn’t have.  And that’s one of my favorite positions to be in as a reader: to confront something that was written for reasons completely different than those that brought me to it as a reader. 

Of course, it’s also good to write for a broad audience.  But you can’t do everything at once in a piece of writing.  You have to make choices, and I think both types of writing are entirely valid on their own terms.

10. To your mind, what one or two key things (though there may, of course, be more) sets cultural studies writing apart from other forms of ‘academic’ writing or writing done in different disciplines?

I think it’s a conceit of cultural studies scholars that their work is special in every regard, and I’m not sure that our writing is special because we do cultural studies.  I think everything that you could note as “good” or “special” in cultural studies writing can be found in other fields as well.  You could say the same about the faults of cultural studies writers (which have, of course, been meticulously catalogued by writers in other fields).

11. Walter Benjamin once wrote (of ‘writing technique’) that there are three “[s]tages of composition: idea – style – writing. . . . The idea kills inspiration, style fetters the idea, and writing pays off style.”  It’s that intermediary term that we were wondering about: what, if anything, does ‘style’ have to do with cultural studies writing?

See #10.  Beyond that, style is really important, and I wish academics spent more time on the craft of writing itself.  I wish I had more time to spend on the craft of writing itself!  Style in any creative endeavor is the result of practice, practice, and more practice. 

12. Any pithy (as short as a single sentence) advice to give to a beginning cultural studies’ essayist?

Leave a lot of time to revise.  Write to stimulate, educate, or challenge.  Know who your readers are and write with affection for them.  Never write to impress. 

13. Are there any ‘rituals’ (take that word any way you’d like) that you take part in before/during your writing?  What role, if any, does music play in your writing?

Music is crucial for me.  At certain times of day it helps me think, or alternatively, it keeps part of my mind occupied and energized.  In the mornings and early afternoons I prefer silence.  Late afternoon’s a bad time for me to write, but if I need to write then, I always play something that rocks.  I write very well at night, and music is important then as well.  For instance, I wrote this over an evening and an afternoon, and the full length Aereogramme album has been playing.  Last night, I was also listening to a band called All the Quiet.  I don’t even know that I really listen to the music – sometimes an album will play over and over while I write. 

Playing music is also a big part of the writing process for me.  If I’m really tired or just jammed up on an idea, I can head down to the basement and play the bass for a few minutes.  I can actually feel the change – maybe it’s in my brain, maybe it’s just the muscles on my skull relaxing after I’ve furrowed my brow for hours on end. 

I also think in musical terms about the craft of writing: the relationship between creativity and constraint, for instance – writers often feel like they should be able to do anything they want, but this is sheer folly.  In any piece of music that you like, there’s a nice blend of expectations that are met and expectations that are subverted.  The same is true of how people respond to a piece of writing.  There are lots of other parallels – for instance, practice and revision.

Food is also a ritual for me with writing – I like to celebrate a finished project with a good meal or to go out for a drink with friends.   I also like talking about ideas and current projects over a long, lingering dinner.  That said, I never, ever, ever eat while I’m writing.  I’ll take a break, but there’s never any food around the computer.  If I bring a beverage up to the office, it’ll just sit in its glass because I’ll forget about it.  I don’t smoke, but if I did, my work pattern is such that I wouldn’t smoke while writing.

I pick up my home office and put stuff away before I start a new project.  If I’m having a good writing day, I check email quickly once (or not at all) and I don’t answer the phone. 

14. What inspired you to write the essay “A Machine to Hear for Them” and begin this whole project on sound’s reproduction?

It’s an early draft of the first chapter of my book, The Audible Past: Cultural Origins of Sound Reproduction.   I’ve always had a fascination with recording technology and the whole artifice of recorded music (although there’s actually not a lot of music in that book).  As an undergraduate, I read all this stuff about “visual culture” and the relationship between “visuality” and modern life.  As someone deeply invested in music (I’ve played bass since age 10), I kept wondering where all the stuff was on sound.  Though there were people writing about sound, there were many fewer of them, and a few orthodoxies seemed to circulate through all the writing.  I was especially distressed by the notion that the phonograph, for instance, more or less fell out of the sky like a gift from heaven (or Thomas Edison) to change the world of listening.  That seemed intuitively wrong to me, as did some very common notions of the sense of hearing as somehow the opposite of sight (for instance, in the work of Walter Ong).  So rather than writing critiques of these things, which anyone could do if they read the books and hung around the house long enough, I tried to tell a different story.  That’s when the research started.

Here's a flip answer that's just as true: once I found that Alexander Graham Bell and a friend had nailed some person’s ear to a machine, I had to write an essay about it.  That’s just too weird and too interesting not to explore.

15. Your ‘Machine’ essay works at several levels (compositionally) at once. That is, in its most basic bifurcation, it is almost as concerned with parsing (and critiquing and de-/re-constructing) the existing discourse on ‘sound reproduction’ as it is with specific, historical intersection of technical invention, medicine, institutions, and other formations and discourses.  In part, ‘diagram’ and ‘diaphragm’ are shorthand for this dual (though deeply intertwined) purpose in your essay.  This consciousness about the essay’s own mode of assemblage and address has got to make your writing doubly hard (at least) to pull off.  What kind of struggles, if any, does this present to your writing, and how do you manage to keep a balance between creation of a discourse and the more immediate object (or its sets of functions) of the discourse?  Any advice?

This is the hardest part for me.  I am very interested in the past but I’m not a proper historian in style or approach.  I think I break a lot of the rules of “good cultural history,” which is to take nothing away from good cultural historians.  Historians already write long essays, and they don’t spend a lot of time at the level of interpretation – history writing often presents a lot of material within some kind of overall narrative framework.  That’s the goal.  In contrast, I’m trying to describe stuff and at the same time explain why the description matters at the level of ideas (rather than, for instance, fill in a gap in the historical record).  It’s next to impossible and it takes up a lot of space.  For my book, it resulted in what can only be described as brutally long chapters: it’s a 450 page book with only eight chapters (including the intro and conclusion).  Even if my writing is pristine – which it’s not – that’s asking a lot of the reader to hang in there at 50-60 pages a shot.  The “Machine to Hear for Them” article is also somewhat long by today’s journal article standards.

Meanwhile, most of what passes for “theory” today in America is really commentary on other writers.  I am fascinated by theory but my favorite “theorists” – Foucault and Bourdieu to name two – both find their abstractions in the concrete details of social life.  So the concrete stuff is really important, and it can’t be swept aside for a simple accounting of ideas in their “pure” form.  The “ideas” and the “stuff” go together, and again this tends to draw out my writing.

So my next frontier is to figure out how to do this in smaller chunks of prose.  As far as advice goes, I think the main thing is that it comes together in revision.  Since I’m trying to work at two registers almost at the same time, there’s just no way that can come together on a first draft.  Once I have pages full of description and pages full of “theory” I can start to draw out the connections.  I can also figure out a logical order for presentation.  In the “machine” piece, for instance, there’s a fairly long theoretical schtick that sort of sits there like an introduction.  Also, I abandoned a straightforward chronological sequence – timewise, the piece is all over the place.  That’s not a problem, but it’s also not meant to be avant-garde or experimental.  It just seemed better to organize things logically than to organize them chronologically.

One other thing.  I really try and avoid importing tons of terminology from other people.  I use fancy words now and then, but I think it’s easy to get lost in the terminology of other writers.  “Diagram” worked well for the piece, so it stayed.  This goes back to the theory question above.

16. You write what you call, at one point, a ‘social ontology’ meanwhile Ian Hacking has been long working on ‘historical ontology.’  Both of these ontologies find their main impetus in Foucault, but it seems that, in a pinch, Hacking is more decidedly tipped toward the human and human agency than either Foucault or yourself.  (Hacking, in fact, critiques Bruno Latour for giving too much to the non-human and to matter as historical agents.)  When, as you conclude, sound recording, telephony, and radio “take on a life of their own,” how free of the human does this ‘life’ truly become?  What is at stake in calculating the human to non-human ratio when it comes to agency?

They’re not “free of the human” at all.  There are certainly nonhuman forces in the world that have agency.  We didn’t make the sun and we really need it.  But the stuff I’m talking about is really a pretty general feature of large human societies: machines, practices, and institutions congeal around one another and appear to take on a life of their own because they’re no longer reducible to their constituent parts.  We dwell in concretized abstractions: cities, houses, property, music, power.  Telephony, for instance, is this kind of abstraction.  It seems to “just exist” and it seems obvious enough to us what does and does not count as telephony.  But if you look at the technology of your cellular “phone” it’s really a radio.  We still call it a “phone” because of where it is and what it does; “phone” is really a lot of sedimented history and practice – it’s a social habit.  You could say the same thing about language, or buildings, or whatever.  There’s nothing special about sound technologies or even technologies in this respect.

To put it another way, I don’t think there can be a formula for calculating the human-nonhuman ratio of agency.  I’m not even sure that’s how I’d want to talk about it. 

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Copyright © 2002 Jonathan Sterne, Greg Seigworth,Laurie Gremminger and Mark McLaughlin all rights reserved. Permission to link to this site is granted.