Daniel Drezner has some comments here about Michael Eric Dyson’s obliteration of Cornel West. Great as Dyson’s critique is, it still is a little too respectful to West, who has always been a flim-flam artist. Be that as it may, Drezner singles out Dyson’s important point that there’s a fundamental difference between speaking and writing that must never be overlooked: “Improvisational speaking bears its wonders,” writes Dyson, “the emergence on the spot of turns of thought and pathways of insight one hadn’t planned, and the rapturous discovery, in front of a live audience, of meanings that usually lie buried beneath the rubble of formal restrictions and literary conventions. Yet…[f]or scholars, there is a depth that can only be tapped through the rigorous reworking of the same sentences until the meaning comes clean—or as clean as one can make it.” Drezner adds: “for a scholar, the spoken and the written should ideally complement and not substitute for each other. The ‘on the spot turns of thought’ that Dyson references about spoken presentations are very, very real. The key is that they should be written down soon as possible and then examined with an astringent bulls*** detector before putting them into something approximating scholarship.”
As someone who does a lot of both speaking and writing, I can testify to the sometimes disconcerting differences between the two. I will on occasion devise some new phrase or idea in extemporaneous remarks that I think deserves further exploration…only to find that when I try to write it down, it loses the spontaneity and cleverness that seemed at the moment so vivid. I get bogged down, first, by trying to track down the source of a quotation—which then turns out not to say quite what I remembered, or it leads me to a source that adds a caveat that I’d forgotten. Then I find that someone else has written about the idea before and criticized it in a way I hadn’t anticipated. In trying to formulate a response to that criticism, I then circle around—and find my way blocked by some implausible consequence of my new idea…. And so the thread is lost. Or rather, it remains only a thread, too insubstantial to become a chain of thought.
Drezner adds, “The second thing is that good scholarship — hell, just good writing period — requires a curious alchemy of seclusion and feedback. In this day and age, good writing mostly comes from a solitary wrestling match between the writer, the keyboard, and the online distractions just waiting to sap one’s writing ambitions…[but] feedback matters as well. And the best ideas I’ve had when presenting don’t come from the presentation per se but from the back-and forth that comes the question-and-answer period.” Here I’m reminded of a favorite passage from Francis Bacon, who in his essay on Friendship says that
The second fruit of friendship, is healthful and sovereign for the understanding…. [I]t maketh daylight in the understanding, out of darkness, and confusion of thoughts. Neither is this to be understood only of faithful counsel, which a man receiveth from his friend; but before you come to that, certain it is, that whosoever hath his mind fraught with many thoughts, his wits and understanding do clarify and break up, in the communicating and discoursing with another; he tosseth his thoughts more easily; he marshalleth them more orderly, he seeth how they look when they are turned into words: finally, he waxeth wiser than himself; and that more by an hour’s discourse, than by a day’s meditation…. Neither is this second fruit of friendship, in opening the understanding, restrained only to such friends as are able to give a man counsel; (they indeed are best;) but even without that, a man learneth of himself, and bringeth his own thoughts to light, and whetteth his wits as against a stone, which itself cuts not.