21 December 2013

'Under Erasure' Continued

This post briefly extends the discussion begun in an earlier post concerning 'under erasure' writing. In Doing What Comes Naturally, Stanley Fish discusses that phrase in relation to Austin, Derrida, and Heidegger. Fish's work is interesting but often open to criticism. This criticism may frame part of a methodology that students might use to construct essays and meanings.

1. Fish's Propositions…

Fish states that Austin distinguishes two terms' ordinary meanings from the meanings they require in and for Austin's task (p 62). Fish accuses Austin, however, of distinguishing only after using the words. That is, after the words have already made some progress in evoking meaning in readers' minds:
The effect is complex: the names are on record and the distinction is in force, but at the same time the[y] (…) are under a cloud, and (…) "not hard and fast." (…) If one were to label this kind of writing, one might [call it] (…) writing "under erasure," that is, writing which simultaneously uses and calls into question a vocabulary and a set of concepts. (pp 62–3.)
Fish continues, to assert that 'under erasure' is borrowed from Derrida and Heidegger and so invokes a 'counterintuitive' message because it implies Austin's work is similar to Derrida's--which the reader is to assume is an unusual conflation (p 63).

Fish's argument is, structurally, quite simple:
  1. Austin says X
  2. Analysed, X means that…
  3. If X means that, one may infer this…
  4. And one may criticise this because…
Fish's argument, however, is as complex as he accuses Austin's as being. Let me explain.

Fish criticises Austin for his critical writing method, defines this method, and immediately questions and consolidates it with his preceding analysis. Fish simultaneously appears to criticise Austin for using a writing method that Fish himself is using.

2. The Problem…

This is a 'meta' problem: the problem where something refers to itself (because it must). The problem that Fish identifies is not unique to Austin, Derrida, or Heidegger--notwithstanding they may deserve recognition for the method's genesis, or at least its identification--but instead is a symptom of critical enquiry in intellectually demanding study: if esoteric language or ideas are discussed their foundations must be examined to prove they are indeed the most accurate words for the job.

Therefore no matter how accurate are Fish's accusations, he uses 'under erasure' to refer to an acute form of critical exposition. He should have realised and admitted that qualification. In so doing he would have been better equipped to notice that without realisation or admission, his accusations apply equally to his own words as to Austin's.

3. Beneficial Inference…

Nevertheless, Fish's observations may usefully be used in the method students use to write early essay drafts. They allow one to acknowledge how academic arguments are constructed--under constant reflection. From this, it becomes easier to see when an argument's path exponentially clarifies previous sentences or claims. After this is observed in one's own text, it becomes easier self-editorially to improve structure because the culminating technical exposition may be re-positioned to facilitate comprehension. This may allow (student) writers to explain to readers those terms' bespoke usage, and why that ad hoc usage is necessary. The ability to explain this 'what' and 'why' may make it easier for (student) writers to use the terms accurately in later essay drafts, which eventually are handed in for assessment.

4. In Law…

This term-usage and -qualification should be familiar to law students because law requires specific language. Cases may be won or lost by an argument for or against a certain word or concept's interpretation. Openly constructing arguments with an under erasure framework may help the reader understand why premises in an argument are rigorous and proper. Fish offers a pertinent warning, though: ensure there is substantive material or writers may simply cause 'impatience and irritation' (p 63).

Created: 20 December 2013. Version 1.0.

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