In a Tortoiseshell: In this essay on Moretto da Brescia’s painting ‘Entombment,’ the author transitions seamlessly between descriptive orienting and insightful analysis. Using evidence in the form of the painting’s scenery, figures, and lighting, she argues for the nuanced depiction of instantaneous and eternal anguish in the representation of Christ and the Virgin Mary.
In a Tortoiseshell: This excerpt exemplifies a successful attempt to find an appropriate language to analyze a medium that might at first seem resistant to description — music. The author is able to justify his unusual method, describe and problematize the melodic lines of two very different pieces of music, and use that analysis to argue about the pieces’ respective influences.
Often in academic writing, the sources we use are written down. While this poses unique difficulties in terms of analysis and tone, the “meta” act of writing about writing itself allows the writer to use the same rhetorical devices that composed the evidence as tools for analysis. However, when the primary sources of an academic study are not written—in the case of art, architecture, music, and more—what strategies are possible to create a language that is not only descriptive (painting a word image of a source outside of the reader’s knowledge), but also argumentative? The pieces in this section are but two examples of academic writing that manage to find an appropriate language for analyzing a specific medium.
In her essay on Moretto da Brescia’s painting Entombment, Sandy Carpenter transitions seamlessly between descriptive orienting and insightful analysis. Using as evidence the scenery, figures, and lighting, she argues for the nuanced depiction of instantaneous and eternal anguish in the representation of Christ and the Virgin Mary.
The excerpt from Ming Wilson’s “What is Truth?: The Relationship between J.S. Bach and Arvo Pärt Considered from their Respective Versions of the Johannes-Passion” exemplifies a successful attempt to find an appropriate language to analyze a medium that might at first seem resistant to description—music. In the text below, Wilson justifies his unusual method while describing and problematizing the melodic lines of two very different pieces of music. Thus, he uses that analysis to argue about the pieces’ respective influences.
Lastly, editor Natalie Berkman’s “Works in Progress: writing about a nontraditional topic for a traditional audience” concerns her own challenges writing about 20th century French math for readers in the humanities.
Let’s face it: there is a divide between the humanities and STEM fields. As an undergraduate at Johns Hopkins, I felt like I was on the losing side of a battle. I was a triple major in some very different fields: mathematics, creative writing, and French literature. However, this combination was not always well received by professors, and much less by administration. I still recall how the registrar’s office spent an hour telling me how it was not possible to complete a degree with three majors, even though I had finished almost all the coursework and had the appropriate signatures!
As a doctoral candidate, I have been able to combine these interests into a doctoral dissertation about the mathematical methods of an experimental group of French writers, the Oulipo. While it’s been a joy for me to investigate the subtle channels that lead from mathematics to literature and back again, for some hardcore literature scholars, using the word “mathematics” evokes fear and anxiety, which brings me to a big question: how do you write about one discipline to people who have been trained almost exclusively in another? More specifically, how was I to write about mathematics for people who took their last mathematics class in high school?
Below are some of the strategies I’ve found that help me deal with these challenges. Hopefully my experience can be beneficial to others who intend to fly in the face of disciplinary boundaries at some point in their studies.
In my project, I have found that defining a clear thesis early on was key, and that the thesis had to be motivated not just by the interdisciplinary nature of the project but grounded in my own discipline. To use the magic thesis statement (MTS):
By looking at the mathematical methods of the Oulipo, we can see
- The historical reasons behind these choices and how the Oulipo situates itself within a literary tradition that precedes it as well as within the larger history of mathematics,
- The way the mathematics changes the compositional methods of these authors, and
- How this changes the reading experience, which most people don’t see.
This is important because it helps us understand:
- The Oulipo’s singularity among other 20th century French experimental groups,
- The Oulipo’s influence on mathematics and computer science, and
- How mathematics and literature are complementary, and how one can influence the other.
As you can see from how I divided my MTS, I found it necessary to break down my argument and motive into their constituent parts, not only because a doctoral dissertation is extremely long and therefore requires a more complex thesis, but to facilitate the reading experience for my audience. To that end, I have three main parts of the thesis:
- History (both literary history and history of science/mathematics)
- Compositional methods (rhetorical analysis, the heart and soul of literary scholarship)
- And finally the reader (situating the Oulipo within a theoretical context)
In the last part of my MTS, I broke the motive down into three parts, again for my intended audience, which bridges disciplinary boundaries:
- Why this matters for literary scholarship of 20th-century France (or Europe in general)
- Why this matters for historians of mathematics or science
- Why this matters for larger disciplinary questions
This brings me to orienting. The primary reader of my dissertation is my advisor, who is unlike any other literary scholar in that he is not afraid of mathematics! As a translator, he had to learn a great deal about mathematics and the Oulipo to translate the works of Georges Perec, and he has continued to do a great deal of work on the group and mathematics. That said, my other readers are not well acquainted with mathematics, so I felt that I needed to assume a novice reader. Now the question was, how can I orient such a reader without talking down to him or her? Paradoxically, I came to the answer in preparation for my prospectus defense, during which I had to give a brief presentation about my work and answer questions from the French Department faculty. To get them thinking mathematically, I realized, they needed to do mathematics!
So I walked them through a proof, a simple one to say the least. Beginning with a mathematical anecdote to hook them in, I explained the mathematical reasoning that Gauss used as a child and how to abstract that into a theorem about sums of positive, consecutive integers. Then, I linked these notions of formal language and axioms to literature through the Oulipo and a few key texts. Mathematics is the study of abstract patterns, and literary sensibility as well depends upon a human capacity for pattern recognition. In that sense, the reader of my dissertation—regardless of his or her mathematical background—already possesses all the tools needed to decipher the Oulipo’s use of mathematics! It just requires a different kind of reading and—as I have learned—writing.