Four Words to Avoid When Writing English Essays

OK, this post is for all the undergrads out there who will be writing English essays for me (or frankly for anyone else) in the future. There are a few words that you really need to eliminate from your writing in order to make your prose more concise, analytically rigorous, and meaningful. Of course, I can only speak to my own experience as a professor here, but damn, these words are meaningless. Don’t use them.

  1. Effective
  2. Accurate
  3. Important
  4. Successful
Alrighty then, let’s go through these one at a time, shall we?

1. “Effective”

This word crops up a lot in papers on poetry and Shakespeare and I am always a bit confused as to what it means. It usually crops up in two ways. First, as a kind of disingenuous intensifier; second, as a way of signalling basic comprehension of the text.

The problem is that “effective” actually can be a term of analysis when you start applying it to basic rhetorical analysis. That is, it makes perfect sense to say that Brutus’ speech in Julius Caesar was not effective. Why not? Well, it didn’t convince the Roman people, but Mark Antony’s speech really did rile them up. 

And just look at how pretty he is… that is part of his effectiveness… no, seriously!

Thus, you can use “effective” as a way of opening up a discussion about the rhetorical distinctions between those two speeches. One posits the audience in this way, the other posits the audience in this other way; one uses metaphor in this way, the other uses metaphor in that way. This form of analysis is always looking to the audience, investigating the relationship with the audience and what “the audience” means.

Too often, however, “effective” in papers ends up presuming that “audience” is identical with “me, the student writing this paper.” To such a student, a text therefore becomes “effective” if that student comprehends the text.  

“Gerard Manley Hopkins’ The Windhover is an effective 
statement about the beauty of nature.”

Well, yes… sort of… but that, at best, is only showing that the student has reached the very bottom of Bloom’s Taxonomy, but is trying to sound like something more advanced is going on.  

One version of Bloom’s Taxonomy.

In university, it is great that you “get” the text. But so what? Now that you “get” it, what are you going to do with it? The point of literary study after all isn’t just to memorize texts and their basic meanings. We do things with words. That’s the fun part.

2. “Accurate”

This is another of those cases where the word sounds like it is signalling some form of analysis, but really all it is doing is saying “look, I understood the words on the page!”  Again, that’s great, but there’s more to university literary study than simply “getting” a text.

When I’ve seen this in the past, it has come up in regards to the terms of representation. That is, all texts are representations, and representations have a fraught relationship with reality. Indeed, there might not even be an accessible reality underneath it all, if the post-modern theorists like Jean Baudrillard are correct. Dealing with representations, where those representations are not derivatives of a prior, authentic, “real” original is a hard concept to wrap your mind around, I know.

It`s so much easier to think in terms of `truth`and `lies.`

So it is not surprising that people want to say things like “Shakespeare`s representation of gender in the early modern period is accurate.” That said, what the hell does that even mean? Does it mean that Shakespeare in this text provided a completely descriptive model of what “gender” meant in the early modern period? Does it mean that he provided a partially descriptive model of one aspect of gender, which may or may not be complicated or refuted by other aspects of gender in the early modern period? Hell, for that matter, what do you mean by “gender”? Gender presentation? Policing? Gender bending? Gender as power? Gender as… well, you get the idea.

It’s almost like trying to say there’s a reality that is X. There is a representation that is Y. Now write a compare and contrast between X and Y. Wow, they overlap! I guess Y is accurate.

The problem is that there is no reality that you have access to as a student. There is ONLY representation. Every book you read is a representation (of a historical moment, of a poem, of an individual), even the history books aren’t the real events themselves, but representations of history. So at best, what you end up saying is there is this representation that is Y. There are a bunch of other representations, A, B, C, that all say the same thing. Well, Y is accurate.

That’s not accuracy. That’s intersubjective agreement. If you want accuracy, go to Engineering.

3. “Important”

A personal pet peeve of mine.

Never say something is important. It wastes words and says nothing. 

You may as well just write this.

One (very old-school) way to think about an English essay is that you are being asked to show how a text works. It’s like being told to explain how a car works. Now, you can talk all about the car and all the details of it, but if you say “the brake is important,” then that’s just wonderful, but what the hell does this “brake” thing do? How does it work? Is there one component or many? What does it add or take away from the overall purpose of this “car” of which you speak?

Also, which part is it?

Texts that we study in university are usually as, if not more, complex than your average VW Golf. If all you tell me about Isabella Whitney’s use of geography in her poetry is that it is “important,” then you’ve done no real analysis. On the other hand, if you tell me that it is important and here’s why, then why did you need to say it was important?

That is, if you explain what a “brake” does in a car, it is self-evident why it would be important for the functioning of the vehicle. You don’t have to then add “isn’t that important?!” Similarly, if you show how geography informs Isabella Whitney’s poetry, then you don’t have to add how important it is. It is self-evident from the explanation. 

Seriously, read Isabella Whitney’s Last Will and Testament. She’s awesome.

Finally, there is another reason why you should avoid saying “important.” I said above that in university literary analysis we do things with words. We tear them apart; we put them back together in new ways; we burrow into the different ways that they are related to each other; we fill old words with new meanings; we trace the changes in meanings of individual words… we do a lot. None of it is “important” – but then nothing is. That isn’t to say you should dive into the depths of existential despair, but that without being tied to the idea that what we do is “important,” we can play. We can seek Jouissance.

4. “Successful”

This is closely related to all the other ones insofar as the use is predicated on a misunderstanding of texts-as-representations. That is, what does it mean for a text to be “successful”? 

When I get this, usually students aren’t talking about sales or box office, so that metric is out the window. Usually students seem to talk about a text being successful if the text communicates some larger thematic concern: “Macbeth successfully depicts the struggle between good and evil.” 

Is this what it is to depict the struggle unsuccessfully?

Of course, all this actually means is that the student has identified a certain thematic element within the text and wants to communicate that. Whether or not those thematic elements are, in fact, in the text is another matter entirely.

Another way to think about why this word doesn’t work is to ask, why is one text successful and another not? I’ve seen this word attributed most often to Hamlet, to be honest. Undergrads seem fairly certain that Hamlet is a successful text. OK, fair enough. But why is Hamlet successful and, say, The Room is not?

Really, how different is this from “O that this too too solid flesh would melt…”?

When you start exploring that question, you have to start looking into how texts produce meanings and shape them, as well as how those meanings are determined and shaped by certain cultural moments, generic proscriptions, and audience expectations. Suddenly, the interest is not about how one works well and the other doesn’t – a matter of taste – but how both texts work in terms of what they do and how they do it.

Ultimately, as a professor of English, I don’t care about your taste. Like Shakespeare, don’t like Shakespeare; either way works for me. Tell me that you think he’s successful, sure, fine… I don’t care. What I do care about is that you are seeing how the text is both shaping you and shaped by you. I want you to move beyond knee-jerk aesthetic judgments and into analysis of the text that isn’t a matter of “success” or “failure.”

After all, as far as I’m concerned, all texts fail to communicate. In fact, that’s the most interesting part of them. But that’s probably for another time.


Birth of Tragedy Quotes

In our dreams we delight in the immediate understanding of figures;; all forms speak to us; there is nothing unimportant or superfluous.

Thus the aesthetically sensitive man stands in the same relation to the reality of dreams as the philosopher does to the reality of existence; he is a close and willing observer, for these images afford him an interpretation of life, and by reflecting on these processes, he trains himself for life.

The higher truth, the perfection of these states in contrast to the incompletely intelligible world, this deep consciousness of nature, healing and helping in sleep and dreams, is at the same time the symbolical analogue of the soothsaying faculty and of the arts generally, which make life possible and worth living.

… Schopenhauer has depicted for us the tremendous terror which seizes man when he is suddenly dumbfounded by the cognitive form of phenomena because of the principle of sufficient reason, in some one of its manifestations, seems to suffer an exception

With respect to these immediate art-states of nature, every artist is an “imitator,” that is to say either and Apollonian artist in his dreams, or a Dionysian artist in ecstasies; so we may perhaps picture him sinking down in his Dionysian intoxication and mystical self-abnegation, alone and apart from the surging revellers and we may imagine how, through Apollonian dream inspiration, his own state, i.e. his oneness with the inmost ground of the world, is revealed to him in a symbolical dream image.

The essence of nature is now to be expressed symbolically; we need a new world of symbols; and the entire symbolism of the body is called into play, not the mere symbolism of the lips, the face, and speech, but the whole pantomime of dancing forcing every member into rhythmic movement.

The same impulse which calls art into being, as the complement and consecration of existence, seducing one into a continuation of life, was also the cause of the Olympian world which the Hellenic “will” made use of as a transfiguring mirror.

Only insofar as the genius in the art of artistic creation coalesces with this primordial artist of the world, does he know anything of the eternal essence of art, for in this state he is, in a marvelous manner, like the weird image of the fairy tale, which can turn its eyes at will and behold itself; he is at once, subject and object, at once poet/actor and spectator.

The Limits of Humour

I’m teaching a course on Comic Drama in the Winter Semester at WLU and so I’ve been thinking in the past few days about the nature of humour/comedy/genre/farce/absurdity, etc.  Heck, I still don’t even have a reading list together, so if anyone has any suggestions, I would be more than happy to entertain them.  Just drop me a line.

Begging for help with my course is not why I am writing this, however.  

One of the ideas that I had regarding course delivery was to start off each class with a relevant joke or reading or something.  Whether it be a knock knock joke when we are talking about structure, “Why did the chicken cross the road?” when we are talking about dated humour, or describing a situation like what I will get into below… I want to start off each class with an example, then move into the theory and the plays.

Yesterday, as I was basking in the post defense hangover, I watched as twitter blew up with discussion of a few interrelated stories.

  1. Daniel Tosh, comedian, told a crowd of people in regards to a female heckler: “Wouldn’t it be funny if that girl got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped her…”  The defense offered for publicly suborning assault?  There are “awful things in the world but you can still make jokes about them.”
  2. Anita Sarkeesian, feminist writer and cultural critic who started a kickstarter campaign to get funding to study gender in video game culture had a video game made about her where the whole point is to beat her to a bloody pulp.  The defense offered for the hate-speech game?  It’s just a game…

There’s no real point in my going on at length about how and why these particular cases are seriously problematic.  Indeed, Tosh looks like he is liable to lose support from his network and the twitter account of the man who created the Sarkeesian game has been mysteriously suspended.  I join the condemnation of these acts, of course, but I’m wondering how I am going to insert them into my class on comic drama.

Tosh’s stance on “awful things in the world” is a position that I have heard time and again in recent months, especially following the whole debacle a few months back.  Individuals claim that they can make jokes about anything they want, without consequences, because they have the seemingly God-given right to make those jokes.  The smarter ones cite George Carlin for some kind of evidence that white, privileged men can make jokes about violence, race, money and it can be funny.

Thing is, they are stepping on a few questions of privilege and comedy without thinking about what they are doing.  Are there jokes that are funny?  Certainly.  Humour seems to be largely a social construct, but it does seem to be the case that there is some kind of a concept of humour across cultures.  This seems to be a part of the general human condition.  There are also jokes that are simply not funny.  Either they are not told well, they are offensive, or they lack structure (or something else), but there are certainly jokes that are not funny.  Are there jokes that are so offensive that they are inherently unfunny?  Here we step away from a philosophy of aesthetics and into ethics.

  1. A joke can be immoral itself, or 
  2. It can be told for immoral reasons.  

That is, a joke suborning rape (an immoral joke) can be told by someone as an illustration of rape culture without the expectation that anyone will find it funny (say, in a classroom), or that same joke can be told for immoral reasons (for example, to actually dehumanize and degrade another person).  There are very few jokes that are structurally immoral, I think.  Think, for instance, of what the philosopher Noel Carroll calls “moron jokes,” which are jokes that defame or degrade a social out-group.  In Canada, Newfie jokes are the prime example of these.  I’m not sure if these are structurally immoral in the sense that you can swap out the “moron” group of the joke.  They are unpleasant, they are derisive, but they rely on an interchangability and basic humanity of the other in order for the joke to make any sense.

This is the basis of Plautine humour.  Plautus, the Roman playwright, knew that though we claim we want to see edifying and cultural drama, we really go in large numbers to see people falling on their arse.  More people would come to see Homer Simpson give a public talk than Professor Frink, both in the fictional Springfield and in the real world.  Making fun of other people is not structurally immoral in the sense that, if done right, you recognize that you are liable to be the person who is the butt of the joke next.  It puts all humanity in the same place: a buffoon incapable of doing the simplest of tasks.

There are jokes that are structurally  immoral, however, and the distinction is when there is no possibility of switching out the roles.  That is, as I just spent the past five years of my life talking about, one of the primary discoveries of feminism of the past 50 years was that the way that we gender in society is through certain narratives where men take on certain roles and women take on other roles.  Men are the active agents of narrative, women are the passive acted upon objects.  One of the logical conclusions of this narrative structuring of gender is that rape in particular works to gender us.  Men rape.  Women are raped.

Now we have recognized that this is how gender works, we can undermine the binary and men who have been raped by their partners or by strangers can come forward and give a name to their experience.  The work can happen now, but it was only possible through the recognition that the structure of rape is such that it feminizes the person who is being raped.  It forces that person into a certain gender position of victimhood and dehumanization.

So to come back to the joke.  If the narrative rape is structurally about the gendering of bodies, such that femininity is in part defined by the ability to be raped,then rape jokes can’t swap out individual groups and thereby make a claim to general human fallibility.  It merely reinscribes privilege.

The counter argument that I find particularly fascinating about the Tosh case is, IF he really wanted to make a joke about rape in order to test the boundaries of what can and cannot be joked about – then why didn’t he talk about being raped himself?

Why didn’t he say: “Wouldn’t it be funny if [I] got raped by like, 5 guys right now? Like right now? What if a bunch of guys just raped [me]…”?
There’s another possible counter to what I have just said and that is encapsulated in the video by Clever Pie and Isabel Fay “Thank You Hater!”
There, the tone is everything.  There we have moved into sarcasm, which upsets the structure of the rape joke altogether.  Part of what it is to be rape (an essential quality of it) is that it is an enforced dehumanization and an enforced feminization.  You can’t want it.  You can’t desire it.  Once you do, it ceases to be rape.  Indeed, to seek out objectification is a very complex position vis-a-vis one’s sexual identity (think BDSM).  In Fay’s song, she expresses regret that she won’t be raped in the eyes by the internet troll, and she plays with the gendering that comes with rape by presenting herself in a mid-1950s costume and song.  This is… to put it mildly, a bit more “meta” than what Tosh did.  Further, though it is related to Plautine humour where the interchangability of the object of derision is the point, this complicates that position by insisting on the humanity of the people who are putting themselves out there online.  The humour offered by the trolls is dehumanizing, while this song insists of feminine agency through irony.  (Can you tell I like this video?)

Structurally, rape jokes told by privileged white men against women… not funny.  Immoral.  Predicated on dehumanization and violence.

What about the other point noted above?  A joke can be told for an immoral reason?  In the case of Tosh, I wasn’t there and I don’t really want to get into specifics of supposed “context.”  Similarly, in the case of the Sarkeesian video game, I haven’t played it and I don’t want to.  So, does that undercut my position?  Not at all.

Even if we grant that the video game and what Tosh said are jokes or analogous to jokes, then you merely have to look to the larger cultural position to recognize that the work the jokes are doing is to dehumanize and assault a particular group.  If we would be (rightfully) upset at a joke that posited that it was funny to lynch a black man, why would we possibly accept that an analogous joke about a woman was somehow ok?

The cultural argument is, in some ways, the more obvious one to me, though undoubtedly there will be people out there who don’t see it.  North American culture is a culture/is a network of cultures that is/are biased against women acting as fully independent human beings.

So, I doubt anyone has read this far, but at least I got some of my thoughts down on “paper.”  Now, if anyone has any comments, please let me know.  Also, if you have any suggestions for my Comic Drama course, please drop me a line.

The links below are just a smattering of what I have found in the past few moments.  There’s a lot out there for you to learn more about this, if you are so inclined.
Tosh Links

Sarkeesian Links