ON THE MORAL/ETHICAL NECESSITY THAT EDITORS OF TEXTS ADVOCATE AESTHETICALLY AND PEDAGOGICALLY FOR THE USE OF PERSONAL PRONOUNS LIKE ‘I’ OR ‘YOU’ OR ‘ME’ OR ‘WE’ OR ‘US,’ ET CETERA, IN THE ACADEMIC ESSAYS OF BOTH STUDENTS OF THE ESSAY AND THE WRITERS OF ‘SCHOLARLY ARTICLES’ OR OTHER WRITINGS,
IN THE INTEREST OF LIBERATING AND PRESERVING THE SOUL AND ITS INTELLECTUAL INVESTMENTS WITHIN THE INDIVIDUAL WRITER’S VOICE
- (NOTE: I apologize for the long title. Sometimes it takes longer than usual to articulate a given thought, either in terms of its size, complexity, or mysteriousness [or all three terms] to the articulator.
This essay is transpired serendipitously in that its original purpose was to argue to one of my professors that their “rule” that we, the graduate school/MFA students were not to use words such as “I” or “you,” et cetera, in our essay assignments.
But it does also happen to be the case that my preface to this prosimetrum collection touched, in some depth, on questions such as the significance of paying attention to our “I”’s, our “selves” and balancing it with also being considerate of one another. While the verse’s context is more focused on the business/marketing implications of how both self interest and serving others are important and impact how we think about productivity and consumption [It is one another whom, transactionally speaking, we “serve” and/or “produce” for but are we doing so in the interest of mere mass appeal or as an honest expression of the aesthetics behind our productivity and service[[es]].] this essay explores the concept of voice, the “I” within a writer’s “voice” and how/why this matters both in an academic/pedagogical context and in a editing/publishing context.
The view point that students should not use words like “you” or “I” is something much more than simply that! It’s an attempt to establish or has the inadvertent impact of possibly establishing within the minds of our youth, and college students, and professional writers, an excess of “humility” or “modesty” such that it is actually self-deprecating, mind-control, and soul-crushing.)
One bit of instruction for this very essay which is tasked with “interpret[ing] what [i]’ve learned, identify[ing] and respond[ing] to issues or questions that have been raised and reflect[ing] on their implications for effective books and magazine editing” (Krasner). The instructions, despite calling for focus on “establishing an author’s voice, pacing, and transitions through developmental editing” leaves a pleasant degrees of openness for a thesis (Krasner).
A beautiful and ripe irony exits here in the context of these instructions which both permit for a thesis on voice and yet explicitly call for no use of “I” or “you.” At the same time, should one be like me, a graduate student who does not want his conviction-strong view of the alternative to his professor’s request for leaving out of his essay the “you” and the “I” to be received as malice-heavy rebellion out of mere hunger for some sort of conflict, speaking of what questions have been raised, an interesting one that arises here is whether or not this student — myself in this case, but I’m simply the practical, particular, and specific iteration as a means of speaking to a more universal and general and theoretical question: should I risk prospective consequences which may not be to my liking — such as a grade being lowered on account of flagrantly disregarding the professor’s request, or even my professor’s expression of not-disinterested displeasure or do I let it go and say “Sean, when you’re a professor of a writing class, then you get to make the rules?”
Well, as a matter of conscience and integrity, I’m not going to rid my essay of “I” and “you” and other such personal pronouns and as my defense I reiterate the fortunate case that I was told I was free to write about VOICE and I am confidently not alone in belief that in writing, especially in writing the essay, the “I” and its supplementary soulfulness in search not of mere disinterested Ivory-towerism or Academic-ese but rather… personal invested and hopefully applicable wisdom — lest our purpose here be something other than enrichment of the soul.
“But wait! There’s more!” as TV commercials often say!
In addition, I’m going to argue that there’s an inadvertent dishonesty to the distance called for by linguistic rules in this specific case, or even much conventional requirement in general (I mean, the nuances of MLA requirements or other group-think association “requirements,” even certain grammatical “requirements” really come across to me more like inadvertent [I hope they are inadvertent] and even ironic power claims [ironic because it appears to be the postmodern tradition which in a sense is so individualistic and yet is so impersonal!] because it conveys blatantly that certain VOICES, especially of the personal kind, are discouraged, which furthermore, apart from stripping students of pieces of their identity, could be argued as an attack on academic freedom in that in the Humanities, particularly, due to its specific study of the human experience, is rather dependent, logically speaking, on very personal, but substantiated and academic-ized voices within its research.
My final argument will be this: it’s ultimately un-essayistic for essays facing evaluation to have much restriction, especially that of voice, imposed on them, whether it’s dropping in the word “I” or even contextualizing some aspect of obtained or criticized research, as current works of ficto-criticism are currently bringing into academic writing.
But, I have failed thus far to answer: what are the “implications for effective book and magazine editing” in this respect?
Well, editors 1) risk losing authentic voices if pedagogy pedals the restriction of then “I” and the “you,” and et cetera personal nouns and pronouns as today’s students of composition whether in high school or college are likely tomorrow’s published writers; they are inevitably influenced by this pedagogy! Why else would the pedagogy exist, but to be asserted and impactful? And 2) from a moral/ethical context, our editors have a responsibility to the liberation and preservation of the writer’s voice — the writer’s authentic and personal voice that is. The editor whose fundamental goal is to try and convert the writer’s voice to something it isn’t is, isn’t editing a writer, that’s manipulating a writer’s voice to serve the “editor’s” own ends.
There’s a profound relationship between what in English we refer to as the “essay” and the concept of a writer’s voice, in that, an essay is generally the most literal expression a writer’s voice that we can observe.
What is the essence of this so-called “voice” which an essay serves as the most literal and explicit and direct evidence of? Editor Scott Norton defines “voice” in the writing context as “those qualities of style that define an author’s unique stance among the host of published writers. These elements convey the author’s personal blend of attitudes toward subject, audience, self, the world of ideas, and society” (158). Of note, for me: Norton’s reference to the words “unique” (“unique stance among the host of published writers”) and “personal” (“the author’s personal blend of attitudes…”). I don’t see how this would be indistinguishable from common conceptions of “soul.” Indeed, one Oxford English Dictionary definition for soul is as follows: “The seat of a person’s emotions, feelings, or thoughts; the moral or emotional part of a person’s nature; the central or inmost part of a person’s being.” Indeed, both Norton’s definition of “voice” and the OED’s definition of “soul” emphasize thoughts and feelings, for what else could we call that which articulates one’s “unique stance” and “personal blend of attitudes?” Maybe, if we must draw some sort of distinction, the “voice” might be slightly more nuanced than the soul in that the “voice” is the array of pieces of verbalized soul. And I should like to add that in the context of an essay, there is more than just the soul in free-flowing form. It’s a soul with a sense of it’s investment in its essaying! As Montaigne puts it:
“We know how to say ‘this is what Cicero said,’ ‘This is immorality for Plato,’ ‘these are the ipsissima verb of Aristotle. But what have we got to say? What judgements do we make? What are we doing? A parrot could talk as well as we do” (154) (emphases both Montaigne’s — italics — and mine — underline and bold)
and paraphrasing Seneca he says “We are not merely to stick knowledge onto the soul. But we must incorporate it into her; the soul should not be sprinkled with knowledge but steeped in it” (158). I repeat: the essay reflects the soul along with its investments in some form of wisdom, even if only in a sense of clarity, but that it is that individual person who is invested!
In his dissertation on fictocritical writing Gerrit Hass talks about how one motivation and/or result from academic writing that embeds personal narratives (in this case, fictively) is that it accentuates the “deficiency of the allegedly objective, uninvolved, and removed perspective” (53). Or, as he puts it in no less parsing of words:
“the ficto/critical trope has wider discursive consequences for all our textual practices — but especially for generically academic ones. To put it pointedly, from a ficto/critical perspective there is nothing innocent about our allegedly disinterested and objective academic textual practices” (54)
Hass’ point re: “the allegedly disinterested and objective academic textual practices” gets to the core of something else very important — the claim of impartiality is dishonest. In the book On Essays, edited by Thomas Karshan and Kathryn Murphy, they go even further, describing the ironic depersonalization of essays:
“nowadays the criteria used to assess essays in pedagogical contexts: definition of terms and method, orderly structure and clear argument, lack of digression, impersonality of tone, avoidance of conjecture, provision of evidence, summative conclusions, completeness and coherence” (13).
To be fair, they’re describing a precedent set by Francis Bacon, who is not the first essayist as such but is considered the first English essayist.
Bacon was rote and empirical. But there’s a difference between Bacon choosing to write as such and educators requiring the Baconesque approach. The Bacon standard of academic voice, I shall call it for now, when held as a standard, has created, as fundamental to the essay in progress, a pretense, a prompting that pressures a student to think outside their investment, the very meaningfulness of the essay they could write! It’s an inherent dishonesty because as Nietzsche put it — we are “Human, All Too Human.” Is it not better to be upfront that we realize we are inevitably beholden to our imperfect minds and what that context is? The alternative is to pretend, make believe, feign objectivity, as opposed to admitting an essayed (i.e, attempted) objectivity. “An ideological fantasy,” is what Karshan and Murphy call the notion of when we “adopt the disinterested persona of the essayist” (15).
As I mentioned of Bacon in the paragraph above, there are clearly templates and models of the so-called essay which express themselves impersonally, but the Bacon Standard is just that…it’s Bacon’s standard! The “disinterested persona” to repeat Karsha and Murphy’s phrasing, is not the only notion of the essay. In fact, a number of famous essayists who have theorized on their aesthetics see it in a much more Montaign-ian perspective.
Referring yet again to Karshan and Murphy: “what another author said becomes the utterance of the essayist’s own voice” (12). The own-ness implies first of all the reality or existence of the “I” whether or not one wants to speak as if “I-less” or “selfless” but also the freedom of the essayist to be the main characters of their own essays, to have an “I” in the context of whatever academic or non-academic discourse they please. (Now, if the essayist uses the “self” as some sort of excuse to be utterly subjective, as if ruled only by emotion, that’s an entirely different conversation — one which is more utterly epistemological!) The own-ness implies the reality of the “I” that is a writer of an essay (unless it was explicitly collaborative). The “I” is the very IDENTITY of the voice!
So what should this part aesthetic and part pedagogical theorizing matter to an editor of a text?
Well, whether or not we embrace or explore it explicitly, we are all ultimately, philosophical. That is to say, we each have some sort of view on how very basic aspects of life “ought” to be. This relates as much to more conventionally ethical questions — such as, let us say, whether or not a person in general ought to seek to thrive or ought to live for the thrill of the moment and take refuge in a perhaps shorter but less psychologically confrontational existence — as it does to one’s work related philosophies.
In a sense, all productivity could potentially have a sort of artistic aspect and thus an aesthetic one. The editor either does or does not have an explicit view of how to regard and treat the writer’s voice but I am saying that the editor OUGHT to embrace the “I”-ness of essayistic voice as a matter of respect for one’s person, as such. The editor should ask really only whether the author’s voice is or isn’t muddled.
If it’s muddled, what questions are piercing the editor and making it a harder, less cogent read?
If the editor wants to change the essence of the “I”/voice/soul, well, of course they should feel free to partake in dialogue, but in so doing, they’re veering from “editing” to trying to change a person and that person’s voice, that person’s self, that person’s soul. In which case maybe the editor should have been a philosopher!
Standards, like definitions and theory, are pretty paradoxical because on the one hand we need working guidelines, even ideals!
And yet, standards very, very often CHANGE and do so dramatically at times. As Robert Musil rather poetically phrased it in describing his fictional character Ulrich, in his novel The Man Without Qualities:
“And when he sometimes thinks he has found the right idea, he perceives that a drop of indescribable incandescence has fallen into the world, with a glow that makes the whole earth look different” (270).
And just because this sort of talk and thought can get so “abstract” and “theoretical,” such that it should, in academic contexts, respect the roles of science, reason, and the historical record, and such does not mean it either necessarily is, or shouldn’t be personal! After all, if I’m writing this essay nihilistically or in detached manner, it still raises the question, “what’s it to me, what I’m writing?” Is it meaningful or just paperwork? Do I hope it somehow grants me some sort of greater clarity of life, of which I am a part, or is it rather in vain? I quote Musil re: his protagonist Ulrich once more to “rest my case,” so to speak:
“What better can he do than hold himself apart from the world, in the good sense exemplified by the scientist’s guarded attitude toward facts that might be tempting him to premature conclusions? Hence, he hesitates in trying to make something of himself…he seeks to understand himself differently, as someone inclined and open to everything that may enrich him inwardly, even if it should be morally or intellectually taboo” (269–270)
Haas, Gerrit. Ficto/critical Strategies: Subverting Textual Practices of Meaning, Other, and Self-Formation. Freie University Berlin and the University of Western Australia (dissertation). 2014
Karshan, Thomas and Murphy, Kathryn (editors). On Essays: Montaigne to the Present. Oxford University Press, 2020
Krasner, Barbara. “Assignments.” Blackboard. https://bb.wpunj.edu/webapps/blackboard/content/listContent.jsp?course_id=_999_1&content_id=_583440_1&mode=reset
Musil, Robert. The Man Without Qualities. Translated by Sophie Wilkins. Vintage International. December 1996.
Montaigne, Michel. The Complete Essays. Translated by M.A. Screech. Penguin Books, 2003.
Norton, Scott. Developmental Editing: A Handbook for Freelancers, Authors, and Publishers. University of Chicago Press, 2009.
Oxford English Dictionary. “Soul” (3a). https://oed.com/view/Entry/185083?rskey=N1ISFh&result=1&isAdvanced=false#eid