Machine. Ecosystem. (7) – Style is content (text as system)

Style is content.

Poet Marvin Bell reminds us that the content of a poem is not the same as a poem’s contents, reminding us that when we paraphrase what a poem is about (its contents) we are not talking about the poem itself (its content or meaning), losing sight of what it does to us as we read it. The same is true of sentences.

Or, to put this another way, the informational or propositional content of a sentence is not the same as the sentence’s meaning, since sentences don’t just carry information, like putting objects in a canister, but do things with it and to it, shaping it to particular purposes and effects. In this important sense, sentences work like verbs, doing things, taking action, rather than like nouns that only name.

Most of us have been taught to think of style and meaning or form and content as two different things. We think of content as the ideas or information our writing conveys. We think of style as the way in which we present those ideas. Many aphorisms and metaphors have been used to describe style, ranging from “Style is the man himself” to “Style is the dress of thought.”

If we have to use a metaphor to explain style, we might think of an onion, which consists of numerous layers of onion we can peel away until there is nothing left—the onion is its layers, and those layers don’t contain a core of onionness but are themselves the onion.

Brooks Landon – Building Great Sentences: Exploring the Writer’s Craft (amazon)

He’s right, of course. I’m not ready to dismiss propositional content just yet, but the danger more often comes in the opposite direction, as we try to reduce the irreducible, rather than living with complexity.

Texts are complex adaptive systems: the whole is more than – and different from – the sum of the parts. They change, too, as the meanings, ideas, feelings that we bring to them change. They change even as we read them, because we’re changed by the very act of reading.

If it’s nonsense to speak of the meaning of words outside of text, or of sentences in isolation, then it’s nonsense to speak of trees apart from forests, or people in isolation from their contexts, or cars in isolation from the ecosystem that they’re part of.

And yet… we do, and frequently find it useful or necessary to do so. The important thing is to see that the lines we draw are arbitrary (although some work better than others). The best we can do is try to hold the whole in mind even as we think about the parts, avoiding both the trap of mechanistic, reductive thinking, and the equal-and-opposite trap of of using complexity as an excuse to avoid the hard work of paying attention to detail.

I'd love to hear your thoughts and recommended resources...