Friday, October 19, 2012

Was It Worth It? Critiquing a Blog Written in the Official Style

Imagine a time in your recent days when you sat sequestered in a classroom, test on desk, with a group of your fellow students. Someone, not you, finishes first and turns in the test. How many students will think to themselves, “that person is smart”? Better yet, how many people do you think will feel pressure to speed up the process of their work? This question assumes that intelligence is measured by the speed of test-taking. Although the statement “that person is smart” may or may not be true we are incorrect in assuming its truth based on the evidence we see. Even saying, “that person is a great test taker” is specious. Perhaps the person knew very little and gave up. In our lives we place judgments on people on things such as intelligence immediately at the first sign of the attribute. It’s only natural.

So then, what does it mean to be intelligent? Let’s ask this question in the context of blog-posting. Is an intelligent blog one that uses big words, cites scientific sources, crafts one hundred word long sentences and reads at the twentieth grade level? Maybe, if intelligence is what you’re going for. But is an intelligent blog a successful blog? Better yet, would you rather read a blog that sounds smart and has a lot of information or one that gives you something? I believe a successful blog post, like any good writing, is one that not only gives you something, but something new. In this post I will analyze a blog post by Kenneth W. Krause titled “Mapping Metaphor: This Is Your Brain on Figurative Language” from the July/August 2008 issue of the online blog “The Humanist." I will discuss the success of the blog post versus the amount of intelligence it appears to possess. The context I will be analyzing article will be the various activity systems to which it belongs. It is my goal to inform the reader if this article, for all its glorification of the Official Style, is worthy enough to delve into as I have.

The article we will look at summarizes studies scientists have conducted regarding figurative language, metaphor in particular, and what parts of the brain our ability to process language “comes from." The article is formidable to me, someone with no knowledge of neuroscience. But even the parts of the article not smattered with scientific jargon are tough to traverse. Krause begins, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. Then again, mischief is the hot smoke that curls off the end of a lit intellect. And sometimes a diamond in the rough is indeed just an ancient deposit of highly compressed carbon. But no facet of humanity’s evolved “genius,” as Aristotle put it more than 2,300 years ago, sparkles so brilliantly as our unique capacities for extra-literal description and comprehension.”

I believe the author is saying that we are quite fortunate to understand the flexibility of our language usage, or “extra-literal description” as he names it. As I am already confused, and we haven’t even begun to discuss brain functions, I certainly am discouraged from reading another word. What’s the point of continuing on to subjects I don’t understand when the introduction is incessantly cruel to the mind? The author also mentions Aristotle’s “genius." If this is a reference to a “genius” Aristotle created the reference is lost to me. The knowledge on Aristotle is seemed to be assumed by the author, or else we are to take his word that Aristotle did indeed say the word “genius” many years ago.

The article continues on, summarizing the paradigms and studies that have existed in the course of neuroscience, historically mapping all those who sought to find the effect of metaphor on the brain. It’s all legitimately intriguing, but in the midst of summary and explanation the author reaches a point that begs the question: what next? The author states, “But why should cognitive scientists of all people agonize over literary minutia normally regarded only in university humanities departments? Generally, because the days are long past when science could be neatly segregated from ‘other subjects.’ More specifically, because significant clinical interests are at stake as well. Several patient populations reliably suffer from diminished or otherwise altered comprehension of irony, humor, metonymy, and non-salient metaphors in particular. Certain diseases, therefore, might well find their causes in brain anomalies also responsible for linguistic deficiencies. Regardless, such deficiencies surely exacerbate the existing social impairments experienced among patients overwhelmed by serious psycho- and neuropathologies.”

Here we see the reasons for the article’s existence. “Clinical interests” include everything from pharmaceuticals to hospitals to clinics to patients. Millions of people and billions of dollars are at stake. Still, the statements made by the author and me are extremely superficial and require more detail. The author attempts, in the last two sentences of this piece, to explain the importance and although we see large words and science-related diction, nothing of value of said. If we were to translate the next-to-last sentence we might say, “Brain anomalies that cause linguistic deficiencies might cause other diseases.” What is this...sound reasoning dressed up in a suit? That seems like a safe assumption to make without doing all the research. Let’s simplify the next sentence. “Such deficiencies surely worsen the existing problems among patients suffering from psycho- and neuropathologies.” In essence, it is said that one problem makes another problem worse. Again, this can be said without trudging through the article. Still, that all sounds pretty intelligent. Don’t we feel like we are part of some great discussion, some great discovery? That is the power of the Official Style. It gives credit when credit is not always due and it creates the air of an intellect that may not exist. These two sentences work hard to discredit the author and reveal the shear lack of knowledge he has on these matters. Any credibility fostered in my own mind, through the tedious read through, is lost.

Still, this critique is about more than how I preceive things. Who is affected by this piece? To whom is it of service? The major activity systems to which this piece belongs are as follows: the scientific community, students researching topics discussed in the piece, and people surfing the web. How would this article benefit the scientific community? It is doubtful that this article will spur scientists to put aside other goals in order to take up the mantle offered by Krause. It is safe to assume that scientists working on cognitive-related experiments are aware of everything that has already been discovered and put into words. If they didn’t and went on with their experiments they could be embarrassed for discovering something that had already been discovered. They are charged with coming up with something new, with applications. Students could find this article useful in citing for research papers as it sums up this history of cognitive research. It lays out many of the names and discoveries and quotes that a student would love to explain and delve into. The final activity system is the population of people surfing the web, specifically for this subject or not, and I believe this is the largest and most important activity system.

And here is the rub. The grade level of this piece is 15.6, or college juniors and seniors. Each sentence contains an average of 22.7 words. Is there not discouragement for the reader after spending a very short time in this piece? It does not invite young readers or those without such high grade levels. Yet the piece is not condescending to readers in its tone. Where there is a sense of the author in this piece, specifically the paragraphs bookending this work, the tone is one of positivity and wonder, wonder at the loveliness of our brains. Why can’t this tone be reflected in words “regular people” will appreciate?

Let’s look at that last paragraph. The author writes, “Figurative language is surely more than an intellectual extravagance. It is as much a fiber of our very being as each of the countless neurons contained in our big, beautiful brains. Most fortunately, however, comprehension of novel expression serves as a useful barometer of our personal and communal health as well. So one might permit a writer the guilty pleasure of mixing his metaphors on occasion, despite academic decorum.”

There seems to be an importance hidden in the subtle humor. Is writing in a higher grade level a celebration of how amazing our brains are? Should we spend the time reading things we can barely understand in order to challenge our minds? Should we have this forced upon us by most or everything we read? The author has taken it upon himself to write in such a way that forces us into new planes of confusion. Someone has to keep writing in Official Style to combat legislative and societal attacks, why not him? The author uses the word “decorum” to end his work. “Decorum” means “dignity” or “modesty.” Let’s change the final sentence. “So one might permit a writer the guilty pleasure of mixing his metaphors on occasion, despite academic dignity.” Is it any less confusing? I believe he is saying that it is academically “undignified” to write outside of the Official Style. Perhaps, instead of being a steward of the Official Style he is acknowledging that he is a slave. Breaking free of that, using metaphors and such, is a “guilty pleasure." Of course, the true meaning of the author is shadowed because “decorum” has several meanings more than I have listed.

The author could be forgiven, in my mind, for not adding something new to his summary of scientific discovery in the way of application if he had spent more time connecting the scientific to the humanistic, such as he attempted in the previous example. I do not wish for a long stream of outpouring of beauty, but the author wasted an opportunity to ask questions, even ones he could not answer.

So I’m left to ask, why should I care? And yet, who am I to judge this article for separating itself so far from the average reader through its language and voice? Who am I to criticize it for failing to find applications for discoveries I don’t understand in fields that don’t greatly interest me? I am limited by my own desire or lack thereof to learn about what is placed before me yet I have the right to critique an article in the same spirit in which it was created. Those of us who write in one form or another all reserve the right to critique others who write about things we’d rather not touch. I can admit that the blog article written by Mr. Krause is full of intelligence in its words and research and successful in summarizing the studies done in figurative language abilities in the brain. Still, it is not successful in expanding upon the possible applications of this science nor in expanding upon the faint notions of beauty it touches upon. As thus, it leaves me to wonder on my own, what does it all matter?

By Matthew T. Bauman

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