The Representation of Knowledge in Writing

I often compare writing to drawing. My own amateur sense of the difficulty of drawing objects (hands, trees, boats) is that you have to represent a three-dimensional object in a two-dimensional space. I got this idea many years ago when I tried modelling heads in plasticine based on photographs. I found it surprisingly easy, and I assumed it had something to do with the extra dimension the plasticine gave me to represent the information in a two-dimensional picture. In the same way, it’s easier to reproduce a photograph in a drawing than it is to work with a live model. It’s the disparity between the amount of dimensions that the object has and the amount that the representational space has that determines the degree of difficulty. That’s the idea I got, anyway.

On this view, we can think of writing as a one-dimensional representational space. One word follows another in single file. Especially in prose, where there is no “line” (as in poetry) to work with. It’s just a series of words that form a sentence and series of sentences that form a paragraph–a series of paragraphs that form an essay. It’s one-dimensional and even uni-directional (you can’t read a sentence backwards). Prose is linear. It is a very impoverished representational situation. It lacks dimensional resources.

If we think about what our writing is “about” the situation gets even worse. Writing rarely confines itself to three-dimensional objects. Normally, what we write about will include a fourth dimension, namely, time. We are writing about facts that change over time, events that transpire in history. Moreover, we are normally trying to represent not just how they actually are, but what they could have been or what they might one day become. That is, we are representing the possibilities that are implicit in our object of study. Indeed, I would argue that an object of knowledge is “objective” precisely in so far as it determines the possible ways in which it can be combined with other objects. (Readers of the early Wittgenstein will perhaps recognize this point.) That is, our objects are located in logical space.

Lastly, we have to consider that, as scholars, we are as often representing “ideas” as we are representing “things”. When we are representing our knowledge, we are representing a rich set of competences, both individual and social, that imply both perceptual and communicative abilities. We are claiming to be able to see certain things and to talk about them with others. We are claiming to have collected and analysed data. We claim to understand the methodologies that we and our peers use to construct our facts. We claim even to uphold certain ethical standards and open ourselves to particular forms of critique.  (Here readers of Foucault will perhaps feel on familiar ground.) That is, the objects of our knowledge are located also in discursive space.

I don’t know how many dimensions all this implies. But it’s certainly more than the single dimension that the space of writing (the “page”) provides. (A piece of drawing paper has two dimensions to work with and the eye can scan it in all directions; but the written page of prose, like I say, has only a single line along which the reader’s attention passes in one direction.) I think this is the basis of the felt difficulty of writing. Indeed, it may indicate the real difficulty.

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