Thursday, April 25, 2013

Murray on "Punishment and the Costs of Knowledge"

Yxta Murray (Loyola Law School Los Angeles) has posted "Punishment and the Costs of Knowledge," which is scheduled to appear in an anthology of essays dedicated to the Irish poet Seamus Heaney (Four Courts Press, 2014). The abstract on SSRN reads as follows:
A too-bookish law professor doesn't know if literature has helped refine her position on the death penalty, or just turned her into an insufferable snob: An essay on elitism, bibliomania, confusion, and capital punishment.
When Professor Murray contacted us about this essay, we asked whether she had a fuller abstract. She sent back the following text, which both previews the content of the essay (Heaney's poem "Punishment" (1975) is a jumping-off point) and meditates on the scholarly practice of writing an abstract ("What is an abstract, anyway?"):
From Yxta Murray:

The gracious editors of the Legal History Blog have offered to issue me my own post for my latest SSRN offering, Punishment and the Costs of Knowledge, provided that I write out a more complete abstract.  This request is, of course, quite reasonable and understandable, but along with my ambition to gratify the editors their petition has also given me occasion to wonder about the history of scholarly abstracts, and what they have to say about the difference between law and literature.
                  Punishment and the Costs of Knowledge is about – what again? Here is the abstract as it currently appears on my SSRN page: 
A too-bookish law professor doesn't know if literature has helped refine her position on the death penalty, or just turned her into an insufferable snob: An essay on elitism, bibliomania, confusion, and capital punishment.
That’s 34 words, which actually so paltry that makes it ineligible for the bracketing that I treat it to above, at least under Blue Book rules.  So we must ascribe my transgression of BB R5.1 to literary license.  My decision to less provide an abstract of my article than to traffic in threnetic quips also finds its inspiration in literary poses.  Punishment and the Costs of Knowledge is not a proper law review article, as it will appear in an anthology of essays dedicated to the Irish poet Seamus Heaney, I think sometime in 2014 (though the progress my anthology editor occasionally make me fear that I will not see publication until the end of days).  In any event, I took the opportunity to write a literary, not legal essay about poetry, democracy, my own teaching challenges, and executions -- but you see now that I am only rehashing my 34 words, which partook of a greater elegance than this second, nervously repetitive parade of nouns.
                  Why did I write such a short abstract?  I did so out of the artiste’s conceit that the essay I wrote could not be reduced, that every single word had been weighed and measured and not found wanting.  It is complete; it cannot be further boiled down.  The reader must see for herself.  Artistes often growl these types of maxims at interviewers, typically with Galouises smoke curling fetchingly from their nostrils.  Artists are not much tempted to explain their own work; they want the audience to puzzle their masterpieces on their own time; they think that a bit of reader befuddlement and personal inaccessibility only adds gloss to their own luster.  I agree with them.
                  So, we have the pose:  The artist speaks once, and then moves on, careless of her work’s reception.  This specter hides, as we know, the work of the marketer, who diligently writes jacket copy to boil down the work to a pleasing pitch that will convince consumers to pay for the product.  They write abstracts, in their own way, abstracts that surely reveal as much anxiety and desire to please as the many abstracts that we find floating about on mighty SSRN.
                  What is an abstract, anyway?  Abstract means drawn, derived, extracted, according to my Oxford English Dictionary.  Also:  To separate from mental conception; to consider apart from the material embodiment, or particular instances. Abstract derives from the Latin­ abstractus, meaning “drawn away.”  Oswald Herzog, when writing about Abstract Expressionism, said that such an art form was “[p]ure creation.  It casts spiritual processes into a corporeal mold.  It does not borrow objects from the real world.”[1]  This conveys the other take on “abstract,” which is its mood of fuzzy unreality, its status of pure idea untethered to gross material fact.  However, my 34-word abstract fails perhaps precisely for this quality.  My abstract proves doomed because it is insufficiently concrete.
                  When I first began in this profession seventeen years ago, we did not write abstracts for our articles.  At least I did not, as I had never heard of such a convention.  I have attempted to research the history of legal scholarly abstracts, but have come up with nothing but an abundance of yet more abstracts, which now seem as inevitable and necessary as oxygen.  I have a suspicion that elite law review editors originated the custom because of time starvation, and that the requirement that we write abstracts has trickled down to me from the great heights of the Harvard Law Review.  No – I should not be self-deprecating.  It trickled sideways and hit me, like the hard spray of a hose.
                  Abstracts reveal the difference between law and literature because they quickly assure the reader of what will be argued in the article.  Literature is a long game: You read Flannery O’Connor’s A Circle in the Fire, say, and it may take you a good ten years of rereading to understand what she is saying:  That everything is wrong, that the way you live is wrong.  This is one of literature’s great gifts, in its taking up residence in the reader for eons after the rental contract has lapsed.  It is a squatter.  But in legal scholarship, we read on the clock, and lucid, readily absorbed argument is prized above all.  So, we have intro theses, road maps, we repeat arguments throughout our long papers, we have tables of contents, and we have concrete abstracts.  This is not beautiful writing, but it is clear. 
                  I try to write like this in my legal scholarship, but sometimes I find it a bore.  Don’t you guys, too?  I would like to write something infuriatingly puzzling in legal scholarship, like dada poetry, but the problem is that I also want to carry around that carnal glow that only well-read writers possess.  I could aspire to a Howard Roark-like detachment, but I fear that treading such a path will only lead me to be wan and cranky like William Gaddis (“I was very frustrated when [my novel The Recognitions] came out and so many reviewers saw it as . . . that terrible word erudition kept appearing.”[2]).  Also, I know that Jorge Luis Borges once crowed about the virtues of having a limited readership; if I recall, he said that no writer should aspire to anything above a reading roll of 300.  The problem is, my SSRN “download” number for Punishment and the Costs of Knowledge right now is 2, and my “abstract views” are 8, and these metrics collapse far below the Borgesian recommendation.  And so here I am, trying to write an abstract that readers will find compelling enough to make them click the magic button.
                  Readers of Punishment and the Costs of Knowledge can rest assured that they will find more of what I have attempted to distill here:  My disobedience and querulousness and bad habit of not wearing my learning lightly.  The article concerns Heaney’s great poem, Punishment, which tells two stories.  First, it limns the tale of the execution of an adulteress who lived in the Iron Age.  It then cultivates that story so it blossoms into a meditation on a tar-and-feathering correction that occurred in the 1960s, when Belfast girls found themselves chastised for dallying with occupying British soldiers.  In Punishment, Heaney pays great attention to the punished body, and one of the chestnuts to be plucked from my essay concerns the question of whether we, too, should have a very clear conception of what victims of capital punishments endure.  Should we watch executions on HDTV?  Or would this just lead to greater barbarity?  This proves an inquiry that plugs neatly into the legal scholarly project, and I answer that I do not think that executions should be broadcast because the boring visuals of lethal injections would frustrate the body politic, who may call for more terrifying and painful and exciting methods of official killing.
                  My essay, however, travels into other dimensions as well.  I use it as an opportunity to worry about my teaching and about how disgusting I think people can be when championing executions.  I stress about whether all of my education has made me into a better person or whether I simply use it as a barrier to keep me separated from my fellow Americans.  I describe my love of literature, of Toni Morrison, and my mixed feelings about Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr..  The essay simultaneously exists as a paean to justice, a eulogy for the book, and quailing, activist humblebrag.
                  I hope you enjoy it.
                  ymm



[1] Der Abstrakte Expressionismus (1919).
[2]  Zoltán Abádi-Nagy and William Gaddis, The Art of Fiction No. 101, The Paris Review (1986), http://www.theparisreview.org/interviews/2577/the-art-of-fiction-no-101-william-gaddis.

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