Grammaticae Personae

It’s becoming an irritating cliche that each new writing project shuns the lessons of experience and instead, dreams up some new pain. Some things get easier. New and harder things, take their place. Each new project drags along new company to mess with the routine I devised to accommodate the last bunch of unwelcome guests. I suppose if I was writing about the same thing, in the same way, all the time, this wouldn’t happen, but that would not build a useful academic career.

This new problem (and I refuse to adopt anything close to a positive, forward thinking vocabulary by calling this a ‘challenge’—to do so would be dishonest and patronizing to all involved). The new problem is that I am required, by the conditions of my editorial guidelines, to write a book chapter without the use of the first person, or its plural ‘we’, or any other gesture of self reference. Normally, this isn’t a problem. It is a problem now.

I don’t have the prejudice against the first person in academic writing the some people do. I know it sounds out of place in some circumstances. The use of ‘I’ in dissertations always seems redundant. We know this is what you think; it’s all about you from the start. Some articles and books start with some personal anecdote and occasionally this is effective. Often it feels artificial or self important when it’s done deliberately to ‘situate’ the author inside the project.[1] Sometimes it’s relevant to the larger question or problem. Often, using the first person is just good syntax.

What ‘I’ has going for it is action and direction. Academic prose slides easily into passive constructions and the heavier the load of specialized content, the more complex the construction of an argument, the more impenetrable it can become if there aren’t enough active and direct statements. The occasional acknowledgement that there is a real person behind the page, or some abstract ‘we’ (in the case of multiple authors) can clear away the fog. Maintaining a detached tone seems safe, but it can also sound defensive, or bloodless.

I get to use the first person all the time here because to do otherwise would sound strange. This is a blog, and while it’s still obvious this is just me talking, that constant self-reference doesn’t sound excessive because I’m mostly telling you about what I think anyway. It’s important to keep that clear because I may, at points, tell you what others think and I (or we, if I include you) don’t want to confuse the two (or three. Say, this is getting confusing).

This is a point of reflection today because the paper I am working on, and which has been the object of occasional reference since late February, is turning into an elaborate exercise in avoiding the first person without letting in passive constructions and bloodless generalizations.

Regular narrative history is comparatively easy to write without ever having to break the academic 4th wall by telling the reader what ‘I’, as the author, think about anything. Gary David Shaw, one of my favourite historians, if only for his prose (his work is too early, chronologically, for me to use for anything other than nice quotes and some methodology), used the first person a few times, and to great effect, where one would think a more aggressive editor would have insisted he take it out. He didn’t need to appear from behind the curtain, but having done so, he added to the experience of reading.[2]

Sometimes the author must stand before his work, or in a more appropriate image, he must stand behind the reader, and gloss the work as he goes. This is common in the more ‘polemical’ projects where it’s essential because the author is probably representing a minority (or singularity) on some contested topic. The more unconventional or controversial the claims, the more important it is (and often the more effective it is) for the author to remain ‘present’ within the text, and forestall any accusations of ascribing the unpopular to anyone other than he-herself.

Kelly De Vries took this approach in ‘Medieval Warfare and the Value of a Human Life’, which is a rare outpouring of historical empathy in a sub-dicipline known more for its stoic detachment from the painful realities of its historical subjects.[3]

My paper has a somewhat similar theme and about half of my time will be spent picking apart the work of others. It’s very hard to be that critical when you can’t qualify that criticism with some self-deprecating asides. I know that readers will mutter under their breath about my pedantry or my excessive concern with preserving ambiguities and so on. I know what it feels like to read someone who is being a little too ‘academic’ but seems not to notice it. I will happily forgive the pedant who confesses to the reader, without some passive-aggressive sub-text, that what he is doing is, in all probability, pedantic. I know that my argument, even if it’s framed in the most non-confrontational tone imaginable, will contradict half the essays that will appear in this collection. I hate that I can’t start my essay by telling the reader (and the contributors, and editors of the volume): ‘this will, in all likelihood, contradict many of the arguments you will read in other essays that follow in this volume. This is not intentional. Rather this is a contrarian’s approach to the problem and while my expectations may appear unreasonable, I think it is worth reading an alternative approach to the problems we all share.’

But I can’t.

I think I have figured out how to say the above without violating the editorial rules. I think I have managed to do it in a readable way, but it will feel a little empty and that, more than anything else, risks frustrating readers as much as this has frustrated me.


[1] I’m thinking of the otherwise valuable advice from Helen Sword, Stylish Academic Writing, (Harvard University Press: Cambridge, MA., 2012) which is good, but I think she over sells the 1st person such that it sounds like an alternate formula, and not actual, conscious, effort to communicate effectively. G. Lester’s little autobiographical sketch at the start of The Earliest English Translation of Vegetius’ De Re Militari, (Carl Winter, Universitätsverlag: Heidelberg, 1988) is important and entertaining. However, Steven Pinker’s revelations as regards the civilizing function of pea balancing on forks, or David Eltis’ formative reading of Cockle’s bibliography of military printing, feel, at best superficial, at worst, self-indulgent. [I’m not going to look for the actual page in Pinker, but trust me, it’s somplace in The Better Angels of Our Nature, (Viking: New York, 2011), and, for what it’s worth, Eltis’ DPhil thesis starts with the same anecdote that’s in David Eltis, The Military Revolution in Sixteenth-Century Europe, (I.B. Tauris: London, 1998)].

[2] David Gary Shaw, Necessary Conjunctions: The Social Self in Medieval England, (Palgrave Macmillan: New York, 2005).

[3] This is collected in Niall Christie and Maya Yazigi, eds., Noble Ideals and Bloody Realisms: Warfare in the Middle Ages (Brill: Leiden, 2006) pp. 27–55. I have mentioned this essay before, and while I am sure some readers would think De Vries goes too far with his emotional approach, it was a refreshing read, for its compassion and accuracy, compared to equally emotive, but a-historical, stuff found elsewhere.

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