More on quotations

John Mcreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Fri, 25 Mar 1994 14:45:41 JST

John Langdon has offered a thoughtful reply to my queries about the
use of quotations in scholarly writing. Here are some things that he's
written and some thoughts in response.

"1. Often students quote a source when they do not fully understand it
enough to paraphrase it. It represents laziness on their part, but it is
fairly easy to see through it. I would hope this reason does not apply to
professional writing."

On the whole I agree, especially if I were teaching beginning writers. It
occurs to me, however, that it might be useful to draw a distinction
between (1) quotation for the sake of authority and (2) quotation for the
sake of dialogue. Sloppy use of (1) is intellectual laziness and indicates
lack of understanding. (2) gives the quoted source a voice of its own in
the conversation. There is always the chance of bias in selection of
quotes--thus the frequent charge of "quoting out of context." But
mightn't it be more honest to say directly, these are the words to which
I'm responding; here's my reading and here's my response, as opposed
to imposing a reading by not reporting the original words?

"2. Another reason for excessive quoting in students' papers is that they
are immersing themselves in secondary journalistic sources rather than
primary literature. A science journalist uses extensive quotes for two
reasons. First, the people he quotes often are the story at least as much
as are the ideas. Second, he is usually not an expert on his topic and
does not write with authority. Therefore he derives his authority by
quoting others. I encourage my students to present themselves as
authorities on their topics and thus to speak in their own words. I tell
them they cannot hide behind the quote of another because all such
authoritative statements are subject to critique.

Perhaps this explains why informants should be allowed to speak for
themselves. Anthropologists in part are serving as journalists, when
they present data and as experts only when they analyze it.

I do not know anything about classic Chinese literary styles, but permit
me to hazard a guess that the preference for extensive quotation (like
the use of classical citations in 19th century western scientific writing)
expresses a tradition of undo respect for ancient wisdom, like the
tendency of medieval scholars to accept Aristotle and similar sources as
unimpeachable truth."

I like that first point about the scientific journalist. Yes, the people are
part of the story--and that is precisely what the canons of
scientific/scholarly writing deny by adopting a tone of impersonal
omniscience as a mask for objectivity. It seems to me that much of the
current debate about including informants' voices in ethnography
comes down to a battle between a view of anthropology as a natural
science of society--with the self-effacing objectivity science demands of
both its writers and their subjects--and the view that ethnography is,
first and foremost, the unique and rather odd experience of a few
hundred individuals who have crossed radical cultural boundaries and
may have learned something worth telling in the process by interacting
with other particular individuals.

"3. The third reason that applies to all types of writing is that
quotations break up the flow of the writing. It is difficult to work a
quote taken out of context smoothly into one's own writing. Even when
this is done skillfully, the reader is aware of the disruptive punctuation
and shift of voice."

I think it's Baudrillard (though it may, in fact, have been Frederick
Jameson) who notes the importance of paying close attention to things
that seem boring or disturbing as pointers to material repressed by
cultural conventions. Why is it that we're socialized to expect a single
voice in scholarly/scientific writing while multiple voices in fiction are
quite acceptable? Could it be that scholarly writing assumes a
"schooling" situation where what we're expected to do is to listen to the
teacher, paraphrase the answers the teacher wants to hear, and leave
off serious bitching until the teacher's left the room--at which point
we're free to criticize without the risks of direct conversation?

Over to you.

"Making Symbols is My Business"--John McCreery (JLM@TWICS.COM)