16 July 2005

hermeneutic circle time

The audience for a piece of writing emerges in response to the writing; indeed, ideally the piece helps to form the audience, to bring it into existence. But one cannot write (well, I cannot) without, to some extent, imaginging who the audience for whom one writes; a good piece of writing needs to know its audience beforehand. The audience comes after; the audience comes before. I'd call the whole thing untimely, but it might bore you.

But where and how to enter the circle? I ask the question, specifically, because I'm currently writing two pieces on what I might call 'the political theory of television' (PTTV). Of course, PTTV doesn't really exist – I made it up. It just happens to encapsulate my own particular intersection of political theory and cultural politics of TV. Thus, if I want to write for someone other than myself (I do), then I must consider two (or more) previously consolidated audiences: 1) political theorists, and 2) cultural studies folks who do TV. Problem is, the first group doesn't like to take TV seriously, and the latter group seems to get edgy if I do too much theory (and that's what I do).

Luckily, the deadlines on these piece creep up on me so quickly that I cannot be bothered to let this dilemma paralyze me. Yet, I think the topic is intrinsically interesting, and I wonder what others think about it. Perhaps some comments?


Ruth said...

It's an interesting question, in good part because one is usually asked (or usually asks one's composition students) to imagine "an audience"—and what you're saying is that you have two, perhaps mutually exclusive, ones. So you really are more in the business of audience creation.

The practical answer, in this particular situation, is to not only speak to the presumed concerns of each audience half (and in such a way as to not turn off the other), but also to create a compelling argument for both groups that addresses this very question of melding. Acknowledge, up front, that you're transgressing boundaries; explain why; and articulate (in terms each group will understand) the logic behind political theorists and cultural studies folks having common intellectual concerns (that will then be addressed by your piece).

In 25 words or less.

By the by, as a cultural studies type, I'd recommend clarity as a way of avoiding theory alienation. We like to actually be able to read what it is we're reading.

On a more philosophical level, I'm not sure what to say. I'm a bad composition instrtuctor (confession): I do, probably, simply write for myself.

Sam said...

Yes, yes, acknowledging the difficulty is just the strategy. Indeed, I wrote an entire essay on that intersection between political theory and cultural politics, in an effort to do just that.

More significantly, I think your confession hits on something very important. Some of the worst academic (and other) writing remains overly concerned with its audience; this has the tendency to muffle the author's voice and blunt his or her arguments. If it's true that we must produce the audience for which we write, then writing for ourselves (as a part of that audience, perhaps) might well be the best start.

Ruth said...

Well, that's a generous interpretation of what I might designate my own lack of imagination. I like it, though...

sageblue said...

i largely don't give a crap about audience, and thus don't talk to my students about it that much. frankly, i think well-written work transcends audience--how is it we can still learn from and enjoy works from centuries ago when they clearly weren't writing for us?

anywho, i'm sort of echoing ruth her, perhaps, but i think talking to your competing audiences and saying, listen, i am talking to you, but i'm not talking like you, because i need to use a different (hybrid?) style to adequately address the issues at hand...without sounding like a pompous ass.

again, bio time, but in my diss, i was talking to 18th-century people and calling them idiots and talking to poco people and calling them idiots and saying, you all need to talk about the stuff i'm talking about, the way i'm talking about it.

i don't think it's a bad strategy.

Liz said...

I feel compelled to comment here on how I've learned to interact with an audience through my work -- it's not specifically academic writing, but it comes up surprisingly often in my field, where we are trying to (you may be able to hear my colleagues cringe) sell the benefits of a sustainable world to people.

My job is to review programs (is energy star working and why?), and get that message to program funders ("show me the money!"), policymakers ("vote for me,I support/despise this great/crappy program" or "why are we spending money on this social program?"), program implementers ("that didn't work for xx program, so let's try something different"), and advocates ("It doesn't matter how many energy star fridges there are out there, what we need is a shift away from the whole fridge paradigm"). Sometimes, we even try to include scientists/engineers: "This program would work better if we had a fridge that ran on fusion - could you hook that up for us?" It gets challenging, and although these audiences appear to all be part of the same audience (those that run in political circles?), they have fundamental differences in how the world should work and how we should talk about it, just like political theorists and social science TV people. Unfortunately, the impact of writing to all these audiences is that you write for no one, since the policy types think it's too technical, the environmentalists think it's greenwashing, and the program implementers think it doesn't apply to their specific case. Oh, and the scientists and engineers think it's too touchy-feely.

So what's the other option? Embrace what I refer to as "the bias" and othe people euphamize as their beliefs? Of course, I have my beliefs/biases about what's right but to please all these audiences I also spend a lot of time convincing them that I'm don't have those. They know, as I get my name out there that I'm lying about my beliefs. I could ignore the need to hide my beliefs, but then I lose the part of the audience that my bias needs the most (the people I want to be reading my work). As I noted above, however, they aren't reading it anyway.

I'm thinking about Bono here. He certainly doesn't hide his beliefs, but I know people who have stopped going to U2 shows because the political message is to offensive to them (hey, everybody has an opinion). In the case that people of other beliefs avoid the shows, Bono is quite literally preaching to the choir. Are there one or two that stick around and maybe (gasp) change? Sure, but I think Bono might agree with me that in the case of human rights and the environment, we don't need one or two, we need everyone. I think what Bono (and Bon Jovi and Billy Corgan, now that I think about it) figured out is that you can't get everyone into your camp by pleasing them all, so you might as well stand up.

So here is my point, if you try to write for multiple audiences and you'll lose them all (probably more out of their own pride and arrogance in their own field than anything else). If you write for yourself then you don't have to hate yourself for ignoring a bias you KNOW is correct and you may pick up one or two beleivers along the way. It's not a fast way to gain an audience, but (unfortunately for melting icebergs and thawing tundra) it may be the only way.

Therefore, I think once you figure out what your bias is (the environmental field's current problem), you're better off just embracing it, and preaching to that audience and picking up a few stragglers now and then, slowly increasing your audience. There are others out there that understand what your ideas are, and although a certain amount of defining is necessary to help people understand that they agree, if you write to please all of them, your writing will be as effective as Al Gore's.

p.s. No offense to Al Gore, I'm a big fan, but you get my point.

Rebecca said...

coming back into life PB (post-book, not peanut butter, although the latter does have a large role in my life), I thought I'd add that Liz's post is awesome heeheehee. totally lol baby.

yep. stand up. say something. this is what I tell my students: you're not saying anything here. say something! Better than wishy-washy, pleasing everyone, making up verbs from nouns. or nouns from verbs. verbifying? hm.

viggo mortensen said...

rebecca's right, better to say something than wishy-washy please eveyone pablum...

maybe she should sign on as a democratic consultant.