Thursday, August 28, 2008

Just Good Enough to Deconstruct

John McIntyre has one of my favorite blogs on writing. Today's post looks at public apathy toward quality - in consumer products and in writing. While I agree with most of his points, I want to take issue with what he does at the end, which is take a cheap shot at deconstruction. In my view he mis-characterizes deconstruction by making it a philosophy of meaninglessness. It's rather an unfortunate cheap shot that glosses over the real insights that a deconstructive approach can yield.

Let's go through the post in sequence. He begins:

Here’s a start for a profoundly depressing day.

The estimable David Sullivan, my colleague at The Philadelphia Inquirer, has a sobering post at That’s the Press, Baby on copy editing and quality. Reacting to a section of a long analysis of American newspapering by Vin Crosbie, he explores the idea that for most readers, good enough is the only standard that matters.

Much of the video quality on Youtube is poor, he points out, but it’s good enough to amuse people; cell phones are less reliable than land lines, but they are good enough to satisfy the customers; a great deal of the writing on the Internet is less than optimal, but it is good enough for all but the most demanding readers. And it’s all free. You could pay money for a newspaper that is better edited, but why would you, if you can get basically the same information, for free and good enough.

Then he says -
It’s not hard to see where this is going. Where this has already been going, as newspapers cut back on all that expensive and time-consuming editing and give the reader the “unmediated” work of reporters, God save the mark. For the past 28 years, I have closed the day in some confidence that the next morning’s paper was better in some respects for my having been on the desk. But the number of people willing to pay for a product with some assured level of quality* — and worse, the number of advertisers confident that such a quality product is the right vehicle for their sales pitches — dwindles.
He closes out with this -

Mr. Sullivan is probably right in speculating that the novelty will begin to fade from many of the currently popular Web sites. I suspect that the great and painful sorting-out under way among American newspapers will result in products — electronic certainly, and perhaps even in print — that have readers and the revenue to support the enterprise. And somewhere in these emerging enterprises there will be a desire for accuracy, precision and clarity. That will require editing. So maybe it’s not the best idea to cut loose all the copy editors just yet.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have to go into the office and put out a newspaper. If I do my job properly, it will be some better than good enough.

In an interesting move, he gives not one but two footnotes, and the real action of the post - for me, anyway - happens here. The first note undercuts possible objectors:
* Before you write about all the ignorant errors you have spotted in The Baltimore Sun and whom do I think I am fooling, let me save time by giving you the answers in advance: (1) You have not seen the ignorant errors that the copy desk caught, and (2) you have not taken into account the quality of most other American newspapers.
The second note, however, goes after deconstruction. McIntyre says:
** If I can digress — and who will stop me? — I suspect that the slow seepage of deconstructionist ideas from the academy into mainstream culture over the past 30 years has contributed to the difficulties in mainstream journalism. If it is the case that any text is merely a reflection of certain interests and power relationships, and if there is no external reality to which a text corresponds, then all of us will think what we prefer to think (or what those power relationships have programmed us to think), and the mainstream media’s preoccupation with fictitious concepts such as “objectivity” is merely another sham. That this is the case may be seen plainly in political journalism, in which people read and tenaciously hold on to assertions that are demonstrably false.
Is it the case "that any text is merely a reflection of certain interests and power relationships"? Well, yes, any text reflects interests and relationships, but a text has more to it than this - so it is NOT merely a reflection. A text actively constructs such relationships. It defines them and gives them a concrete grounding visible to all in and as writing. The reflection is not derivative and it is not identical; rather it is innovative and differential, and this is the whole problem of language. Language is not backwards referential but forwards.

But then I should come back a bit because there's a fundamental quality of text that I think needs to be recognized. Text is not a thing. Just like knowledge is information put to use, text is inscription/writing put to interpretation. In other words, text consists of both the thing being read and the process of reading together. The idea that text makes the scene of (social/political/personal) interests and relationships is not deconstructionist per se. But deconstruction's proponents suggest that these interests and relationships can be inferred and that they matter - at the point(s) of writing and reading.

Monday, August 25, 2008

Pointing the Way

A wonderful article by Roy Peter Clark that illustrates how to read with sensitivity and an eye towards rhetorical analysis.

And ... there's a great bit on the role of punctuation. Clark says -
When I took a close look at the punctuation, I marveled at its unobtrusive richness and variety. Without calling attention to itself, the punctuation helped organize and drive the meaning of the text. When you admire a cathedral, it's easy enough to see the rose windows, soaring steeples and flying buttresses. But it is often the little things -- a carving near a choir seat -- that reveal the true genius and attention to detail.
In my days as a literary scholar, I too marveled at the power of punctuation to influence the evolution of meaning in texts. Punctuation, done right, can have an awesome "ripple effect" in how meaning emerges.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Removing Any Doubts ...

... that the Boston Globe is part of the established order and no longer the people's check on it:

Taxachusetts no more

August 11, 2008

EFFORTS TO tamp down antitax sentiment in Massachusetts got an unexpected boost last week: the small-government advocates at the National Tax Foundation in Washington, D.C., issued a report showing that the state's tax burden has dropped a few notches this year. The epithet "Taxachusetts" has been difficult to shake, but the foundation report ranks the state 23d out of 50 for the bite state and local taxes take out of a resident's paycheck. That's just about the middle by anyone's calculation.

As incomes rise and taxes remain fairly stable, Massachusetts' standing improves. The report shows the tax burden here declining steadily since 2005, when Massachusetts ranked 18th among the states. Back in 1980, the year a property tax revolt fueled passage of Proposition 2 1/2, the state ranked second, just behind New York.

States with higher tax burdens include many considered competitors for jobs and skilled workers: California, North Carolina, and Virginia, for example. New Jersey has the highest tax burden of all.

To avoid statistical distortions, it is important to calculate taxes as a proportion of personal income, instead of just per person. States with lower incomes than Massachusetts may have somewhat lower tax rates, but the tax bill hurts more for poorer residents of Arkansas (which ranks 14th for tax burden) or Georgia (16th). It is somewhat akin to the wind-chill factor: the temperature (raw data) may say one thing, but what matters is how much the cold hurts.

In November, voters will be faced with a ballot question to eliminate the state income tax. The tax foundation's report shows Massachusetts moving in the right direction. It should help inform a debate based on facts, not slogans.
Of course, I fully support efforts to eliminate the state income tax. Clearly this piece wants me to reconsider, as if I should be wowed by our number 23 ranking. Or as if I should feel uneasy that "competitor" states such as California rank higher.

This is unabashed propaganda. Denounce it, all.