The Subject and the Object

The design firm Pop Chart Lab has taken the first lines of famous novels and diagrammed those sentences. This one shows the opening of Franz Kafka’s Metamorphosis (from National Public Radio)

For about ten years, I did an annual summer coaching event for faculty members at a mid-sized private college. For a week, the participants had the permission to do nothing but write, while I and a friend led discussions about writing strategies, and read and reviewed and commented and cheer-led their work every day.

At the beginning, this writing retreat was sponsored by their academic division in the natural sciences, and so all of the participants were biologists and chemists and nursing faculty. Having been academically trained first in architecture and then in the social sciences, I had comfortably passed courses in calculus, statistics, physics, and building energy analysis, but I have never taken even ten minutes of chemistry, and remember nothing from my biology survey course aside from the slaughter of fruit flies as we tried to do rudimentary genetics. I am, when it comes to most areas of science, a half-intelligent layperson. And at different iterations of this retreat, I’ve been faced with a lab paper on the nutritional influences on folate uptake and production in drosophila melanogaster, a grant proposal for the acquisition of a Shimadzu QP2010 Ultra High-End Gas Chromatograph Quadrupole Mass Spectrometer, and instructions for classroom experiments in undergraduate physical chemistry (a field universally known by its rapper name: it’s P-Chem, yo…). I used to tell them that when I read their work, I was just praying for a verb, because I didn’t understand any of the nouns.

Verbs do the work of argument. Phenomenon X exists, or causes, or amends, or inhibits, or enables. You don’t really need any of the nouns to understand the basic claim of an argument. You just need to know that something does something, usually to something else.

Nora and I have recently started watching Season One of The Crown on Netflix, so we’re only four years out of date. The show is a sumptuous portrayal of unimaginable wealth and rigidity, a world in which mighty power can be exercised only when it’s kept squarely on the rails of convention. “The minute you become yourself, you shatter the illusion, break the spell,” Churchill warned the willful Princess Margaret. The role is greater than its holder, and convention is privileged above individual desires.

Writing has its own conventions, built to support different illusions. The illusion of objectivity in science is upheld by the rigid conventions of scientific writing, in which there is no subject, no unique consciousness allowed to intrude. The premise of objectivity is that facts exist in the world, equally observable to all, equally defined and described by all, and that our individual role as observer is irrelevant. You would never see a scientific procedure described in this way: “Then I chose to use a dilute form of the compound, because I wanted to see whether the material would react at that lower level of concentration.” No, it simply isn’t done. One mustn’t insert oneself into it. The minute you become yourself, you shatter the illusion, break the spell.

That level of subjectivity is all over real science, of course, and talked about easily and comfortably in the lunchroom and over drinks at the conference. Scientists talk about their work as though they were humans, about the decisions they made and the hunches they played and the guesses they called hypotheses and only discussed after they panned out. Science is filled with informed intuition, that we might try some action and we expect it might turn out a particular way. In fact, describing science as something people do is a standard practice for the recruitment of young proto-scientists. Science is fun. It’s a human activity with particular satisfactions for particular kinds of people.

But once we put on the robe, or the lab coat, we take on a legacy that simultaneously empowers and constrains. We inherit the mantle of Science, and in so doing set ourselves aside.

One hesitates to compare one’s own condition with that of the Monarch, but I find myself about to enter that same dilemma: to adopt the form, or to express a subjective consciousness. Specifically, I have contracted to write a handbook on academic assessment. But as I’ve led the online workshops that have culminated in this commission, the most common bit of praise I’ve heard is some form of “You make it seem possible. Not so scary.” And I’ve accomplished that through speaking as a person who has conducted assessments, as a warm and comforting and colloquial guide to the practices—and more importantly, the attitudes—of informal but productive research. I mean, if I can do it…

My goal for this handbook is that it carries that sense of reassurance, that sense that perfection isn’t necessary, that small steps can be immensely powerful. But that’s not how academic handbooks are. They carry not only their own work and their own intentions, they embody a lineage of handbook-ness, of matters settled and sealed. Their procedures are exportable to any setting. Readers turn to handbooks for “best practices,” hoping to be resolved of individual responsibility. The minute you become yourself, you shatter the illusion, you break the spell.

So, like a young member of the royal family, I will embody this tension as I carry this project forward: how to express a voice that’s welcoming and reassuring and enthusiastic, to actually make human contact with a reader… while simultaneously carrying the authority that I (and my client) hope will foster confidence. Will there be a subject doing the verbs of guidance? Or will the guidance simply exist?

It’s remarkable how much social power our words carry. Grammar relies on tradition and community every bit as much as it conveys meaning. When someone uses the term “wordsmith,” I know that person hasn’t thought carefully about writing, imagines that words are simply poured from the vat and hammered into useful form, a horseshoe or a hinge. But writers consider every single decision about sequence and synonym, about the presence or absence of the writerly subject, about the difference between a strong verb that conveys emotion and a meager verb that requires an adverb to prop it up. With every decision, we place ourselves somewhere on that spectrum between individual and role. We choose which traditions to uphold, which to amend, which to cast aside. And we seek out the guidance of the elders to keep our willful selves in check.