How to Write, and do other things

I’ve been studying François Jullien’s book The Propensity of Things: Toward a History of Efficacy in China (Zone Books, 1995, original French 1992). It’s not the book I’d recommend for starting to read Jullien, but I want to work with some of his thoughts. The book is an extended study of the multiple sense of what’s meant by shi, a word that Jullien keeps redefining throughout but basically refers to how factors or forces are disposed, in the sense of the disposition of pieces on a chess board. Shi is an arrangement of what can have an effect, the actors in an Actor-network, to use Bruno Latour’s terms that seem remarkably compatible with the Chinese ideas. Efficacy in any action depends on correct assessment of what is disposed how. And because situations are always evolving, efficacy depends on timeliness, in sensing when the time is right for a particular action. When Hamlet, in Act V, utters his enigmatic line, “The readiness is all” (V.2.200), maybe he’s showing a newly gained awareness of disposition. He can act only within that disposition, and he must sense at what moment the disposition is optimal for his action. Lear, at the start of the play, represents the utter failure to recognize shi. He doesn’t know who’s who, and what could happen when resources are redistributed.

On Jullien’s account, efficacy depends on balancing two factors, which we can call the objective and the unprecedented. He describes these factors: “On the one hand, a historical situation–seen as a set of factors operating in a particular way–can be used to determine events objectively, since it allows one to constrain the initiative of individuals” (178). People can act only with resources at hand, whether those resources are cognitive, emotional, or material. How resources are disposed–which are available to whom on what terms of use–is objective; initiative depends on disposition, not vice versa. But: “On the other hand, every situation is new and unprecedented in character, one particular moment in an evolving process. As such, it cannot be reduced to previous models; it leads the course of things constantly to take new turns.” The measure of Shakespeare’s major characters, and some minor ones, is how they adapt to situations constantly taking new turns.

My whole career has been exploring balances between the objective and the unprecedented: how to give each its due. The core issue of doing any kind of narrative analysis is how to recognize that, on the one hand, a storyteller is working with a disposition of resources: character and plot types, available genres, listener expectations, how long a telling can last, what the censors will allow, and so forth. The versions of structuralism that I started off studying extend that: stories are structured in oppositions that are objective. In post-structuralism, discourses structure telling. So any story is predictable in many of its aspects; it mirrors the objective disposition of which it is part. But any story is also unprecedented. People, individually and in groups, are justifiably committed to the uniqueness of a story as theirs, which can require patience from a listener who has heard what sounds pretty much like that same story from others in pretty much that situation. But the patience is justified because each story is unprecedented and distinct.

Institutional medicine seeks to assimilate the individual patient’s story into a generalized disease trajectory. Healthcare research readily takes up thematic analysis, because it discards whatever is distinct in anyone’s story and holds onto what codes as generalized themes. By contrast, narrative medicine seeks to hold onto what is singular and unprecedented in each patient’s story, because to miss that loses a potential for healing that exceeds remediating the disease. Healthcare professionals working in narrative ways don’t give up using diagnostic categories. They just refuse to understand the diagnosis as all that needs to be known.

Now let me flip this and consider the process of writing, telling the story. Jullien paraphrases and quotes the 17C scholar Wang Fuzhi: “If a writer merely positions words here and there without the conscious mind truly expressing itself, the body of the poem ‘will resemble a sickly donkey laden with a heavy burden'” (142). Which pretty much describes how I see many journal articles, and it may say something about burn-out in healthcare professionals. “This is bound to happen if the inner feelings of the person composing the poem have not been truly engaged and [the writer] is simply opting for some subject or another in an artificial manner, and then decorating it with rhetorical figures.” In social science, such rhetorical figures include excess attention to generic matters of method.

Now we finally get to the punchline, quoting Wang Fuzhi: “Make the emotional will-to-tell the principle (factor) and the shi the next factor” (142). It’s more complicated than the apparent binary opposition of this quotation, because there’s also an emotional shi. What Jullien calls the emotional will-to-tell strikes me as what’s left out either in telling researchers how to write their reports or in teaching clinicians how to intervene. Timeliness, sensing the right moment, is not just intuitive but depends on knowing the objective disposition, through study. Write too soon, and your views lack maturity of reflection; delay and writing goes stale.

Shakespeare’s most successful characters act in small ways, assessing and preparing, and then they catch the moment when the disposition is right. The readiness is all, but it’s the readiness of the situation. At the right moment, the person just has to show up–Imogen (Innogen) in Cymbeline keeps herself in the game, and then is there when being there counts, pretty much what Viola does in Twelfth Night. Northrop Frye and others emphasize Prospero’s sense of acting at the right time, only when the disposition is favourable. Hamlet in Act V senses that, but he will still get killed. Of his death, Jullien provides a fitting epitaph: “What counts is not the individual’s moral caliber, but the age in which [that individual] lives” (178-79). Although throughout Hamlet, we’ve seen how much Hamlet’s moral caliber is a product of the age in which he lives.

The priority between the objective and the unprecedented constantly shifts; what else would we expect? In artistic production, the will-to-tell is necessary but depends on preparation; in politics, objective factors determine outcomes but skilled actors know how to use these factors. Life being a constantly shifting layering of personal and political, we have to attend to both the objective and the unprecedented, their relation always unsettled. But we have Shakespeare’s characters as companions.

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