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Environmental Rhetoric: Editing for Specificity

October 30, 2014

We are in the second writing project thinking about the rhetorical effects of Dillard’s writing as both particle and wave, particular element and dynamic movement at the same time. We can and should think about this in our writing as well. The last workshop on counterargument provides a way to think about that for revision, when you are looking to extend and refine the overall argument. When we edit, and focus in on our language and sentence style, the narrative elements of the essay (effective introduction and conclusion, transition sentences, sentence variation), we can also think about particles and waves.

1]Argument check: Conclusion, Introduction. Let’s start with a wave: before turning this project in, as one final check of the argument and its purpose, make sure that you have the strongest statement of your argument or thesis as possible. Recall that Dillard did this in Pilgrim, adding the introductory chapter. See seems to have been pressed into doing so by her editor, thinking of her audience. I think it makes sense in the book. In your case, there is a good chance that you have a stronger statement of your argument (and possibly better introduction) in your concluding paragraph. Check that out–and possibly move it around. In your conclusion, you can reiterate the focus and some keywords but also continue to move the reader forwards and outwards: rather than go back to your beginning, help the reader think about some implications of this argument, where the reader might go from here. Think of the ways Dillard does this with her conclusion.

2]Transitions. Work on the specificity of your topic sentences. Those sentences need to introduce the specific focus of the paragraph, as well as signal its relation to the larger argument; stylistically, it also helps to transition from the previous paragraph. Make use of keywords from your argument in these sentences.

3]Specificity of language. Think about your verbs, with Dillard as a strong model for us of the ways verbs in our sentences, as much if not more than the nouns, need to evoke the substance of what we are thinking and seeing and arguing for. Watch out for too much nominalization–or what one editor calls “zombie nouns.” Hear is some further discussion on that:

Helen Sword’s discussion of “Zombie Nouns”: a problem wherein sentences become weighed down with verbs that have been turned into nouns (yes the passive is deliberate), and the subject of the sentence runs into hiding. An extended excerpt from her argument follows:

Take an adjective (implacable) or a verb (calibrate) or even another noun (crony) and add a suffix like itytion or ism. You’ve created a new noun: implacabilitycalibrationcronyism. Sounds impressive, right?

Nouns formed from other parts of speech are called nominalizations. Academics love them; so do lawyers, bureaucrats and business writers. I call them “zombie nouns” because they cannibalize active verbs, suck the lifeblood from adjectives and substitute abstract entities for human beings:

The proliferation of nominalizations in a discursiveformation may be an indication of a tendency towardpomposity and abstraction.

The sentence above contains no fewer than seven nominalizations, each formed from a verb or an adjective. Yet it fails to tell us who is doing what. When we eliminate or reanimate most of the zombie nouns (tendency becomes tendabstraction becomes abstract) and add a human subject and some active verbs, the sentence springs back to life:

Writers who overload their sentences with nominalizations tend to sound pompous and abstract.

Only one zombie noun – the key word nominalizations – has been allowed to remain standing.

At their best, nominalizations help us express complex ideas:perceptionintelligenceepistemology. At their worst, they impede clear communication. I have seen academic colleagues become so enchanted by zombie nouns like heteronormativity andinterpellation that they forget how ordinary people speak. Their students, in turn, absorb the dangerous message that people who use big words are smarter – or at least appear to be – than those who don’t.

In fact, the more abstract your subject matter, the more your readers will appreciate stories, anecdotes, examples and other handholds to help them stay on track. In her book “Darwin’s Plots,” the literary historian Gillian Beer supplements abstract nouns like evidence,relationships and beliefs with vivid verbs (rebuffoverturn,exhilarate) and concrete nouns that appeal to sensory experience (earthsuneyes):

Most major scientific theories rebuff common sense. They call on evidence beyond the reach of our senses and overturn the observable world. They disturb assumed relationships and shift what has been substantial into metaphor. The earth now only seems immovable. Such major theories tax, affront, and exhilarate those who first encounter them, although in fifty years or so they will be taken for granted, part of the apparently common-sense set of beliefs which instructs us that the earth revolves around the sun whatever our eyes may suggest.

Her subject matter – scientific theories – could hardly be more cerebral, yet her language remains firmly anchored in the physical world.

Contrast Beer’s vigorous prose with the following passage from a social sciences book:

The partial participation of newcomers is by no means “disconnected” from the practice of interest. Furthermore, it is also a dynamic concept. In this sense, peripherality, when it is enabled, suggests an opening, a way of gaining access to sources for understanding through growing involvement. The ambiguity inherent in peripheral participation must then be connected to issues of legitimacy, of the social organization of and control over resources, if it is to gain its full analytical potential.

Why does reading this paragraph feel like trudging through deep mud? The secret lies at its grammatical core: Participation is. . . . It is. . . . Peripherality suggests. . . . Ambiguity must be connected. Every single sentence has a zombie noun or a pronoun as its subject, coupled with an uninspiring verb. Who are the people? Where is the action? What story is being told?

To get a feeling for how zombie nouns work, release a few of them into a sentence and watch them sap all of its life. George Orwell played this game in his essay “Politics and the English Language,” contrasting a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes with his own satirical translation:

I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Here it is in modern English:

Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account.

The Bible passage speaks to our senses and emotions with concrete nouns (sunbread), descriptions of people (the swift, the wise, men of understanding, men of skill) and punchy abstract nouns (race, battle, riches, time, chance). Orwell’s “modern English” version, by contrast, is teeming with nominalizations (considerations, conclusion, activities, tendency, capacity, unpredictable) and other vague abstractions (phenomena, success, failure, element). The zombies have taken over, and the humans have fled the village.

Sword offers a machine for testing the “health” of our sentences, the Writer’s Diet Test.

Another language resource: Wordnik.


Environmental Rhetoric: Counterargument

October 25, 2014

The second writing project challenges you to engage with the ways that Annie Dillard’s thought and vision moves: has specific elements and particles, particular focal points; however, those particles move, like the waves she refers to, yielding a larger field of vision that is often hard to pin down. That’s what will make your essay, your reading of Dillard, worth writing and arguing.

We can think of this element of her writing and vision in terms of the rhetorical principle of counterargument. As a strategy, a counterargument is when the writer/speaker deliberately engages in discussion of views that are opposed to her argument, and even further, limitations of her own argument. In this way, she anticipates where readers will object to the argument. Left alone, this would be contradiction, logically problematic. However, by answering the objections, or at least qualifying them, admitting that she has taken them into account (added them to the picture), the writer turns back to her argument having strengthened it.

Does this not sound like Dillard, a strategy she uses in “Fecundity.” The vernacular term for this, one that appeals to her: devil’s advocate. And might this strategy also be compared to the ways Purpura sets up the “argument” or at least the purpose of her book of essays in the opening lines of the “Buzzard” essay: the problem of paying more attention to this strangeness, of finding and understanding its rough likenesses?

Understood in this way, we see that counterargument can go beyond a rhetorical strategy deployed in one place in an essay. It is that: and for more guidelines, consult this useful description from Harvard’s Writing Center. But think through this, as Dillard and Purpura do. The very idea of an argument, of a thesis–the very purpose of an essay–involves the countering and complicating of an existing argument. So, every good argument has a counterargument built into it.

The light by which we see–as Thoreau, Dillard, and Purpura might put it collectively–is both particle and wave.

Rough Likeness: this is not a metaphor

October 22, 2014

Speaking broadly, the genre we encounter in taking up Lia Purpura’s Rough Likeness is creative nonfiction. The type or tenor of essay writing that she produces and performs in the collection has come to be known as lyric essay. In other words–as the series this semester at the Literary House frames it (with Purpura one of the featured guests)–poets who write essays. Or essays written poetically. Or, with Annie Dillard in mind, a kind of older sister in the family of lyric essayists, we can think of these as essays whose poetic and rhetorical interests are part and parcel of the project and the world the writing explores.

So, one question we can ask as we extend our reading of Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek forty years into contemporary writing about the environment: what do we see and hear of Dillard, or of Dillard’s interests and rhetorical work, in Purpura? Is there in Purpura, to use some of her key terms, a resemblance, an equivalence, a rough likeness?

My initial answer is, yes and no. Perhaps that’s one way to think about what a rough likeness means. It is something there and not there at the same time. Something partial. That’s a word and idea that Purpura mediates upon in the essay “The Lustres.” There she borrows the phrase and idea of partiality from Whitman, having already borrowed the title for the essay from Emerson. Partiality, for this writer, means a vision that is both particular and necessarily incomplete. It suggests a representation that aims through its language, and by means of its deliberate meditations on words, and on its own words, to convey the things of the world it observes. Partiality also means the limitations of perspective, the necessity of subjectivity, of one’s position and bias in the observation.

“How can I say this–about sunlight, early morning, the path from kitchen to porch in my grandmother’s house–except here, in the company of others who have acknowledged the impossibility of saying and press on” (18).

Dillard, echoing Thoreau before her, concludes her pilgrimage, her earnest exploration, with the recognition of the unfathomable. For both of those explorers, the impossibility concerns the knowing of nature. One term for that impossibility used by Dillard, granted by 20th century physics, is uncertainty. Another, used by Thoreau, is nature: we can never get enough of nature.

For Purpura, the unfathomable seems to exists in the language she uses. In this, I think it fair to say that she is more engaged in the poetics of environmental writing and thinking.  However, I would argue that there is a rhetorical strategy, if not larger rhetorical project, at work through these essays. Her concern with representing the rough likeness of her world, what she thinks and the things she encounters, speaks toward an interest in writing that mediates or refracts the real world in ways that go beyond something called metaphor.  “This is not just a metaphor,” she writes at the end of another essay (28).

As we continue to read, we can think back to discussions of metonymy and the ways that it focuses attention on things by way of partial relation. We can also think back to Buell’s discussion of environmentality. Dillard, as we have seen, is more given to metaphor. This would be a point of contrast worth pursuing for the writing project.

That metonymic vision and expression of nature comes out in a later essay: “The compact forms, expressive, responsive–as architect Louis Sullivan wrote, ‘A proper building grows naturally, logically, and poetically out of all its conditions” (126). And so, Purpura seeks to express the compact forms growing out of her conditions. Thus she writes about shit. Check out the OED entry on this unlovely word.

She takes her title “Poetry is a Satisfying of a Desire for Resemblance” from an essay (published in The Necessary Angel) by the poet Wallace Stevens, where he discusses resemblance as an important element of the real in poetry:

The study of the activity of resemblance is an ap- 
proach to the understanding of poetry. Poetry is a satisfy- 
ing of the desire for resemblance. As the mere satisfying 
of a desire, it is pleasurable. But poetry if it did nothing 
but satisfy a desire would not rise above the level of 
many lesser things. Its singularity is that in the act of 
satisfying the desire for resemblance it touches the sense 
of reality, it enhances the sense of reality, heightens it, 
intensifies it If resemblance is described as a partial simi- 
larity between two dissimilar things, it complements and 
reinforces that which the two dissimilar things have in 
common. It makes it brilliant. When the similarity is be- 
tween things of adequate dignity, the resemblance may be 
said to transfigure or to sublimate them. Take, for ex- 
ample, the resemblance between reality and any projec- 
tion of it in belief or in metaphor. What is it that these 
two have in common? Is not the glory of the idea of any 
future state a relation between a present and a future 
glory. The brilliance of earth is the brilliance of every 
paradise. However, not all poetry attempts such gran- 
diose transfiguration. Everyone can call to mind a variety 
of figures and see clearly how these resemblances please 
and why; how inevitably they heighten our sense of real- 

To return to some terms from earlier in our exploration, Purpura, by way of Stevens, seems to be interested in thinking and writing the experience of the sublime in nature–but as something also real: earthly brilliance. Not merely metaphor.

For further reading on the definition(s) of the lyric essay.

For further reading on Lia Purpura, see her website.

To hear Purpura read from “There are Things Awry Here,” published originally in Orion.


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