Thursday, 21 December 2006

How to Open an Academic Essay, Part VIII: Ekphrasis Outside the second-floor bedroom of a small suburban mansion, dark clouds conspire in thunder. Rivers will swell, cattle drown, claps one. Gaudy Christmas sweaters will be drenched, another crashes. Unaware of the cumulonimbus cabal overhead, Scott slips into an overlarge black leather chair and prepares to study. The welt of its exaggerated box cushion wrinkles under his weight, revealing the richer shade of black the chair had been before the morning sun (which would have crawled the through east-facing window by now, were it not obscured by the chattering thunderheads) bleached its treated hide. So Scott reads, his left heel tapping the chair's tapered maple leg, his right elbow relaxing on its thick scrolled arm. His head lolls, resting briefly on the descending crest of its thick, upholstered back. In his left hand, he holds a copy of Amy Kaplan's The Anarchy of Empire, open to a chapter entitled "Manifest Domesticity." It begins with a description of a white pioneer family in a small clearing surrounded by a dense, towering forest. The mother stands at the center of the picture, with her husband at her side holding his rifle, and her children at her feet, staring at a freshly killed deer. An open cooking fire, a crude log cabin, and a few stalks of corn complete the scene. (23) Kaplan's approach to academic writing appeals to Scott, who smiles at how cleverly she employed ekphrasis to set the scene of her argument. The critic of novels should be familiar enough—be it intuitively or theoretically—with the techniques of the novelist to use them as Kaplan has here. Why not draw your readers in, he asks himself, with the one thing you can be certain appeals to them? As if in answer, a vision of himself writing the first paragraph of this post appears before him. He reads his overblown prose and is disheartened by its forced archness, the way it wishes to be taken seriously but reeks of preemptive, defensive irony—tidy bulwarks against the possibility of suck—and remembers the old chestnut: Those who can do, do. Those who can't, write dissertations about those who can. Previous Installments: Part I: The Dawn of Man Part II, part I: The State of the Field Part II, part II: Killing All Fathers Part III: The Historical Anecdote Part IV: The Self-Aggrandizing Personal Anecdote Part V: The Meta-Theoretical Apparatus Part VI: The Balinese Cockfight Part VII: The Modernist Newspaper Clipping

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