Long ideas

Thus far, the composition of claims in my pieces has followed a simple pattern, even a rule: I break down a claim into a series of reasons that, when processed in serial fashion, leads up to the final thing. This has made writing pieces easy. As long as I had a claim, and deemed it to be good by whatever parameters, all I had to do was break it down into a linear chain of reasons, to be understood in sequence.

This sort of communication has an obvious disadvantage: it doesn’t lend itself to the composition of long ideas. By these I mean claims that can’t be understood by parsing one reason after another, like pulling on Ariadne’s thread. Instead, they require an Ariadne’s weave, so to speak – multiple reasons understood at once. Think of it like a particularly long series of instructions, and that to understand each instruction, the reader should be expected to have only two pieces of information: that contained in the immediately preceding instruction and that contained in the current instruction. I think I can do this well. What I’ve struggled to do, and in fact have frequently avoided (by reconfiguring what I’m trying to say), is to require the following: to compile a long series of instructions with three pieces of information at a time – that contained in the immediately preceding instruction, that contained in the present one and that contained in an arbitrary prior instruction. It’s hard for me to construct such claims or arguments fundamentally because I don’t fully understand how the reader might cognate them. (I assume here, of course, that making sense of claims made one after another is the simplest way to cognate complex ideas.)

For example, in the movie Arrival, the aliens communicate using circular logograms. Each logogram is equivalent to a full sentence written in English. But while an English sentence constructs meaning by placing down one word after the next (so that the order of words can change the overall meaning as well as that the claims made towards the end of the sentence are overemphasised, by virtue of being more recent in time, and thus memory), the aliens’ logograms make meaning by presenting all the parts of each ‘sentence’ at once, forcing their interlocutor to cognate them at once, in parallel as it were. There is an analogy in a post I published recently (‘Climate: The US needs to do more – and India needs to, too’, August 31, 2021). Here, I write that understanding claim X* requires us to consider two sub-claims at once; let’s call them P and Q*. In my post, I specify P and Q, and then I explain Q before explaining P. I did this so that the post would have flow – of the narrative moving (as) seamlessly (as possible) from one argument to the next. (You may notice that most articles in the news, especially those published by Indian mainstream English newspapers, almost always reject flow in favour of laying out P and Q, whatever they are, in that order.) Which of the two ways is better? Neither, in my view; instead, I’d prefer a visual layout that more faithfully reflects the structure of the argument:

* X = despite its rating on Climate Action Tracker, India’s climate actions are insufficient; P = climate change will affect India more than it will affect most other countries; Q = ‘they aren’t cutting emissions, so we won’t either’ is a real, if misguided, argument.

This way, the reader doesn’t have to consider P and Q one after the other but can in parallel. (Of course, literary purists may consider this to be an abdication of the writer’s duty to write in such a way that the reader isn’t at all confused about the relative weight of two sets of arguments (P and Q), but if we had to pacify purists to begin with, I wouldn’t be writing this post. (This said, I must say that I don’t like listicles for the same reason: each one of them represents a failure on the writer’s part to not give a damn about things like flow, structure, etc. – and each instance is in effect an abdication of the writer’s responsibility to write. However, on this slippery slope, both listicles and visually representing the writer’s intended location of arguments in the reader’s psyche are higher up than demanding that we must fully embrace our immutable linearity of the human condition at all times.)(Strained argument, I know.))

I’m writing all of this down because I recently composed a long idea, and noticed it as I was doing so. The long idea was for the post ‘They’re trying to build a telescope’ (published August 19, 2021) – specifically, the following portion:

And now, astronomers in China have published a paper expressing their excitement about having spotted a new location at which to mount a telescope, themselves overlooking considerations of whether the people who are already there might be okay with it. As a result they may have effectively shut one option out. This is an important factor because, as Rao has written (see excerpt below), many people seem to think that Hawaiians’ resistance to the TMT and others of its kind on the islands is fairly recent; this is not true. They expressed their opposition how they could; the rest of us didn’t pay attention.

Here, I’m talking about how astronomers didn’t allow Hawaiians to say a telescope couldn’t be erected at a particular site by framing the terms on which they commenced negotiations in a way that precluded the option of not having a telescope. Making my point here required me to draw on the conclusion of the post until that point in the narrative and, more importantly, a point Rao builds up to in the excerpt (from his article) that follows. As a result, I ended up effectively telling the reader: this is what I’m saying; Rao’s words will prove my point, but unfortunately, you’ll have to read them yourself; I won’t be able to guide you to the end; once you finish reading the excerpt from his article, I hope you will be able to see what I’m trying to say. Alternatively, if I had to represent this visually, the narrative diagram would look something like this:

That is, Q follows P, but at the same time they ought to be considered together in order to understand what follows. I don’t know about you, but psychologically, I’d find any argument presented this way to have greater potential to be misconstrued than an argument that is entirely, and straightforwardly, linear. Axiomatically, I edit any text to ensure that an idea it contains that is already likely to be misunderstood (due to certain historical connotations, say) is couched in a narrative that is linear to the extent possible; any bit of non-linearity will allow readers to order reasons the wrong way – particularly, placing effect before cause – and construe a claim that isn’t being made at all. Finally, I acknowledge that this post may seem wholly confused, in which case I apologise for wasting your time; I also didn’t conduct a literature review before I started, and am more than likely to have recreated something scholars already know, may have articulated better, and in fact may have debunked as well. If you’re aware of any such things, please let me know (by email or on Twitter, where I’m @1amnerd).