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Discussion Post | Lyrical Ethics

Embarking on a summer of reading towards a candidacy examination, I’m navigating a maelstrom of content with what feels like a tissue paper sail and toothpick oar. So much to read, so little time—it’s easy to paddle around for days without really getting anywhere. Just being on the water is not going to make you any better at steering a boat.

“Read” is common advice to writers who want to get better at writing. I haven’t found that advice to be particularly compelling, and I should probably write about why at some point. Now, though, it’s clear that I have learned far more from writing than from reading. Nothing about “doing your reading” guarantees retention, learning, or mastery. But it’s hard to write about something without understanding it more deeply. (That’s what this has been about!) I could sit in a chair and read a hundred books, but I don’t think I’d get very far. These posts, styled after the respond-to-the-reading discussion posts of the best classes I’ve taken, are meant as a way to get my thinking out of my head and into prose. At the very least, they’ll way to have something to show myself after all the reading I’m doing. Hopefully, though, they will also serve as a way of channeling the oncoming tsunami of text into a directed and purposeful flow. We’ll just have to see.

This week, I did some stirring around in matters of ethics and writing. In his Ethics of Rhetoric, Richard Weaver observes that “any utterance is a major assumption of responsibility,” pointing out that language has the capacity to “move us toward what is good,” “move us toward what is evil,” or, at least hypothetically, “fail to move us at all” (6). Uncontroversially, Weaver asserts that the way we use language matters: we can move our audience for good or ill, so it’s worth paying attention to where our utterances lead.

“We soon realize,” Weaver later states, “that different ways of saying a thing denote different interests in saying it,” and, conversely, “different interests in a matter will dictate different patters of expression” (115-116). It is not just what we say but how we say it that has the potential to move our audience, or at least betray out intentions. We make arguments, sure, but we make them with language, and the quality of the language is what gives the argument its effective substance. (Consider for example the partisan outrage split between terms like illegal and undocumented: often the argument is made by the author’s choice of one or the other without needing to say much else.)

But I’m not especially interested in political language—the diction of ideological opposites. Really, I’m after an ethical language—not an orthodox one. Thus, Andrew Abbott’s call for a lyric approach to sociology and sociological writing draws my attention. He writes: “[T]hat there are pathologies is no reason not to try here and now to cherish and develop the lyrical voice. It is our best hope for a humanist sociology, one that can be profoundly moral without being political” (96). Ideological language cannot bridge the ideological gap. Lyric sociology—and I might expand that to lyrical style in any discipline—offers an alternative to explanation, lecturing the reader on their ideological transgressions in an attempt to inculcate political rectitude, providing instead, “the use of a single image to communicate a mood, an emotional sense of social reality” (Abbott 73), giving readers an experience through different eyes. Indeed, Abbott argues, “The lyrical text directly confronts us with the radical chasm between our own here and now and that of its subjects. Yet while the lyrical text shows us this chasm clearly, the chasm itself is crossed by our moral recognition of the common humanity we share with those we read about” (95). The lyrical text is not explaining or lecturing—it is inviting and enveloping. Reading a lyrical text we do not just learn about another’s life or viewpoint or claim—we experience it.

Richard Brown, in his A Poetic for Sociology, from which Abbott’s article takes its cues, offers a distinction between two writers with differing styles:

[T]he conventional writer puts images into an existing code; the pioneer writer is an inventor of codes—his language creates space for the act of ciphering, surface for the enactment of transformations. With such writers we do not merely collaborate imaginatively—that is necessary to properly read even conventional fiction. With the pioneering writer a further commitment is involved: To Realize his fictional world, he requires us to derealize our own realities and hence to test ourselves against the world he has create. (35)

The conventional writer parrots the codes of orthodoxy, reproducing familiar arguments rather than producing genuine insight (much less starting from genuine insight). The pioneering writer, however, must create something new, a new way of using language that requires the “derealizing” of established realities in order to make genuine insight possible. It’s not difficult to see resonance between the paradigm-altering writing of Brown’s pioneering writer and the confronting chasm of human difference and similarity of Abbott’s lyrical style: both involve texts that ask readers to step outside the bounds of interpreted sociality and into the wilds of experience.

Such powerful, humane, and moral writing is attractive enough, but what does it look like? Coming through the phenomenological writings of Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Daphna Erdinast-Vulcan asserts that the “the power of ‘speech,’ which finds its most powerful and authentic expression in the language of literature, has nothing to do with ‘what it says (ideas or themes); it is to be found in the ‘how,’ the peculiar dynamics of literary discourse” (402). Weaver identifies a contrast between the how of neutral, utility language and more lyrical language thus: “Whereas rhetorical language…must always be particularized to suit the occasion, drawing its effectiveness from many small nuances, a ‘utility’ language is very general and one has no difficulty putting his meaning into it if he is satisfied with a paraphrase of that meaning” (8). But such paraphrasable meaning is impossible in Erdinast-Vulcan’s conception of ethical writing, citing Cleanth Brooks’ “heresy of the paraphrase," Erdinast-Vulcan writes that the ethical implications of reading are to be found “in the way [the text] acts, generating its truth in and through the encounter of self and other” (408).

Thus, it would seem that the more particularized the language—the closer to experience and further from interpretation—the more ethical the text. Abbott argues that lyrical texts are defined by “the intense engagement of their authors, and by extension their readers, in precisely their indexical, located quality, the transitory and particular nature of their present here(s) and now(s)" (94). A style rooted in the author’s here and now appears to be the most transparent about the author’s experience and orientation. “[A] man's method of argument,” Weaver writes, “is a truer index in his beliefs than his explicit profession of principles" (58). Thus, an author who is willing to write lyrically, to wipe away the accumulated film of explanations, ideological terms, and abstractions, is an author who is willing to share experiences with the reader. The reader, then, freed from the familiar noise of familiar language, must deal with the data of another person’s experience—not as a vignette in an ideological explanation but as a human life.

The ethics of a lyrical style, one invested in particularities and images, is an ethics of experience, one that values the legitimacy and persuasive force of life as lived. A lyrical text is invitation rather than invective—a gesture of trust as author welcomes reader into a specific and personal human experience and as reader surrenders to a different yet deeply human life as presented in prose. Only the particular can enact this exchange: the paraphrase is too polished and, therefore, too slippery. It seems, then, that to write truly ethically, one needs to let go of the reassuring “universality” of the abstract and proceed instead with the incisive lyricism of the particular.

Works Cited

  • Abbott, Andrew. “Against Narrative: A Preface to Lyrical Sociology.” Sociological Theory, vol. 25, no. 1, Mar. 2007, pp. 67–99. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1111/j.1467-9558.2007.00298.x.

  • Brown, Richard H. A Poetic for Sociology: Toward a Logic of Discovery for the Human Sciences. Cambridge University Press, 1977.

  • Erdinast-Vulcan, Daphna. “That Which ‘Has No Name in Philosophy’: Merleau-Ponty and the Language of Literature.” Human Studies, vol. 30, no. 4, Nov. 2007, pp. 395–409. DOI.org (Crossref), doi:10.1007/s10746-007-9069-2.

  • Weaver, Richard M. Ethics of Rhetoric. Henry Regnery Company, 1953.

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