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The Poetics of Academic Writing

Written by Dr Rodanthi Tzanelli


In this post, Rodanthi Tzanelli reconsiders the politics and poetics of academic writing in an age of uncertainty over personal values and commitments.

IT is almost three decades since Clifford and Marcus published Writing Culture: The Poetics & Politics of Ethnography. Nonetheless, the authors’ conception of interdisciplinarity as not just the act of ‘picking a theme or a subject’ but the decision of ‘creating a new object that belongs to no one’ (p. 1) is still relevant across the social sciences.

Admittedly, Clifford’s focus is on ethnography and the ethics of partial truth excavation in scholarship. However, his observations certainly apply to writing as a form of agency – a way of shaping the social in broader terms. His decision to expand on writing as a metaphor of ‘pilgrimage’ in Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late 20th Century (1997) shifted debates on movement in phenomenological and interactive terms. In Returns: Becoming Indigenous in the Twenty-First Century (2013), he also suggested that collective and individual subjectivities are processual and emergent; that we are affected in some respect by the presence of an interconnected network of cultures – so much so, that our own (auto)biographic rootings remain ever-shifting and malleable.

Credit: Rodanthi Tzanelli

 The lengthy reference to the politics and poetics of writing makes sense in the contemporary context of Western academia as this undergoes ideological changes due to the invasion of unregulated market ideologies in its informal ways of ‘doing things’. Looking past this polemics – possibly, also past any ‘publish or perish’ ultimatums (Colquhoun, 5 September 2011) – one discovers a world of barely visible networks of people striving to articulate what matters to them and not for the sake of a Research Excellence Framework. With all the hassles of the academic job, putting an idea into words and shaping an argument or arguments persist as values referring to other values. Prominent among these values is the most assaulted freedom of expression.

Writing is an adventurous act. Not only does it release feelings and ideas the author never manages to fully tame into fixed programmatic statements – for meaning always exceeds its original articulation – it puts us into indirect contact with other equally adventurous voices. My mental closets are full of significant others who fade or return in my desktop every time I type up a new idea. If, as de Certeau (1986) noted, spatial trajectories find a way to project their creators’ psychic world, then it is true that writing will always invoke and release some form of darkness. By ‘darkness’ I refer to the innermost recesses of our intellect and heart, not to a chiaroscuro artistic exercise, a black-and-white mechanical action. As Neil Gaiman recently said, our stories should openly ‘[ask] whether any fictions should in fact be “safe places”, or whether their purpose should instead be to “hurt in ways that make [one] think and grow and change”’ (Kennedy, 25 October 2015).

By Sarah R., Flickr, Creative Commons

 Scholarly writing, in particular, encompasses both the politics of friendship and the poetics of love. Friendship follows a code of paradigm affiliation, which binds scholars into the same dark space, coerces them to fumble around for the right words, stumble upon writing consociates and provide mutual support via all sorts of direct and indirect exchange. Occasionally, stepping on another’s toes leads to cursing and an unamiable exchange, but even then, such accidents release a force of recognition that we all struggle to shape ideas.  ‘Exchange’ becomes interchangeable with ‘reciprocity’ because writers are supposed to be bound by a norm of mutual acknowledgement of sharing in intellectual projects. Where this is absent, the relationship dies before it grows into a stable and more permanent friendship.

I am constantly engaging in such precarious exchanges, often guessing the identities of those who proclaim solidarity, retreating in disappointment for broken links with others, or building new unexpected connections. ‘Muses’ assume a different form, context and content in my writing ventures, often via faint and fleeting interactions, indirect communications or textual sites that I discover during searches. In such complex and interconnected virtual and terrestrial encounters, belonging remains emergent (much like Clifford’s politics of belonging).

Nevertheless, there is another side to this shared darkness that leads one down a more dangerous path and straight into the poetics of love. To explain, I refer again to Clifford’s original point about interdisciplinary writing (the decision of ‘creating a new object that belongs to no one’), which links to a direct quote from Roland Barthes’ work. Clifford is less interested in Barthes’ interdisciplinarity. He is instead more interested in making a point about the interpretative nature of fieldwork in Malinowski’s ethnographic journeys. It is this bringing together of Barthes with Malinowski in Writing Culture’s introductory chapter that allowed Clifford to make an enduring ethical statement on authorial violence, creative representation and partial truth-making. Had they been brought together, would the two scholars have looked eye to eye?

Synthetic referencing always involves the effacement of one’s original inspiration, even though the source’s acknowledgement is an act of love. Such ‘violence’ might also creep up ex aposteriori when manuscripts have already been published – especially when stylistic similarities or intellectual compatibilities eventually prompt new source-searching and writing. These occurrences are not uncommon in scholarly networks and coerce authors to readjust their cognitive panoramas, resort to accepting new significant others into their own dark field, or even explore new collective or individual opportunities of articulation. Ironically then, though the poetics of authorial love are dedicated to humanising ideas, they may have to resort to some dehumanising techniques to objectify those we cite or acknowledge in our writings.

Clifford, J. & Marcus, G. (eds.) (1986) Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography, Berkeley and Los Angeles, California: University of California Press.
Clifford, J. (1997) Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late 20th Century, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Clifford, J. (2013) Returns: Becoming Indigenous in the Twenty-First Century, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Colquhoun, D. (5 September 2011) ‘Pressure on scientists to publish has led to a situation where any paper, however bad, can now be printed in a journal that claims to be peer-reviewed’, The Guardian.
de Certeau, M. (1986) Heterologies, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Feminist Media Studio (2013) James Clifford discusses his new book 'Returns: Becoming Indigenous in the Twenty-First Century' with Trish Audette, a doctoral student in Communication Studies, at the Feminist Media Studio, Concordia University, October 2013.
Kennedy, L. (25 October 2015) ‘Trigger Warning by Neil Gaiman review – nasty surprises and bold recastings’, The Observer.


Dr Rodanthi Tzanelli

Associate Professor of Cultural Sociology