#6 On idiosyncrasies

Dear Jamie,

You’ve reminded me that you dabbled in high school debating. I remember something funny about that story. You undermined it or won by completely distracting the crowd or something?

I’m thinking I’ve been wrong to use the word “rhetoric”. That word captures the style aspect part, but still focuses on an end result: being effective or persuasive. The thing is, if we live in a world is too complex to be understood, what good is persuasion? Wouldn’t it be disingenuous or even unethical to argue for a point you can’t be sure is true? I am very sure that religion on its face is more cruel than beneficial. But I can’t say for sure that humanity can flourish better without it on other scales. And I think if we were all being fully honest, we would all admit we can’t know it for sure like I mean 100% sure. We also can’t be sure what things are facts and what aren’t. So an article aiming for the truth is a painstaking endeavour at being rigorous built of uncertain facts to an end that has an uncertain effect.

I’ve been trying to work out a metaphor for this and I think I’ve cracked it. Writing a rigorous article in anything other than fundamental science is like some guy determining his exact latitude and longitude with a meticulous scientific experiment while in a small boat, in a fuck-off massive storm. He could parry your criticisms, holding onto his hat yelling through the torrential rain, “I’m being scientific!” or “At least I’m trying!”. The dork could hype it up: “The direction I choose to sail based on this experiment is critical!”. What’s worse is that this happens on the scale of disciplines. Imagine his “peers”, look out upon hundreds of other dinghies being knocked about with people doing their own experiments. Then we realise to our horror that the one writing the article isn’t even on the water, but a third party combining the “knowledge” into secondary research; a first class wanker who can’t say for certain where we should be going anyway.

The style I talk about is the attempt to make the writing worthwhile even if it can’t be productive. If something has a beat, some grace, reflects the author’s character, parodies something, or follows a stylistic rule (say, a genre) then at least it can achieve something in and of itself. I’ll call these applied styles idiosyncrasies. These things give a piece of writing character and, unlike the experiments above they are possible. Merely satisfying a stylistic rule is more than saying nothing in a rigorous way. Style ensures that at least what you write could never be written by chance, which is more than I can say for some economists.

This is kind of like a least-entropy argument. Some say life is the local increase in order, the local reduction of entropy. The odds that it wouldn’t happen by chance. An article that explores what it is to be conscious, while in the style of a Victorian tragedy, while rhyming, can only achieve this combination of rules in a very precise way.

Take your famous self-referential article where you review yourself, I remember you saying that after every change from the magazine’s editor you had to rewrite bits of the article for it to make sense. Even the number of words in the article needed to satisfy some rule. It was very fragile, only you could have written it and to remove a word broke some rules and stopped it being yours. That’s idiosyncratic, that’s a joy to read, that’s the style I think I mean.