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… quotes this sentence from an English professor’s book about the history of creative writing programs:

Technomodernism identifies with the ‘emptiness’ of pure formality — that is, with the systemacity of the system itself, drawing the machine to itself in a form of ontological prosthesis.

McGrath comments:

[Writing like this] may explain why creative writing is so popular. If stuff like this is what you get to read in regular English class, then no wonder students would rather write texts of their own.

What was that sentence again?

Technomodernism identifies with the ‘emptiness’ of pure formality — that is, with the systemacity of the system itself, drawing the machine to itself in a form of ontological prosthesis.

Let me pull on my ontological prosthesis and see what I can make of this.

[Deep breath.]

[Expulsion of breath.]

[Overwhelming sense of futility.]

[Reminder that you have clicked on University Diaries because you’re in desperate need of something beyond the ’emptiness’ of pure formality.]

Okay. The sentence appears to want to help us understand what an artistic movement, technomodernism, is. We cannot help but note, however, that the sentence does not help us. It hurts us. It hurts our understanding, and it hurts our sense of beauty. Unlike Susan Boyle who is not pretty but can sing, this sentence is not pretty and cannot sing.

Problems start almost immediately. What can it mean to say that an artistic movement identifies with something? People identify with things; things do not identify with things.

And yes. My prosthesis edges
toward the author’s upcoming
quotation marks like a ouija
pointer loaded for bear.

Emptiness, pure, and formality all mean pretty much the same thing in this sentence, but only emptiness gets the mysterious quotation marks. Why? Our sense of confusion deepens. Is pure formality — the simple functional working of this or that machine, let’s assume he means — not empty? Why not?

Have you ever seen the word systemacity before? I ain’t. I’ve seen systematicity, though I’m not proud of it. I’m not proud I hang out on street corners where people use words like systematicity, but systematicity is in fact a word. You can look it up.

You will not find systemacity in the dictionary.

Not that you won’t find it used! Google it and discover that it’s a very specialized word, used mainly by mathematicians and linguists. Why would a writer, in an effort to help people understand something, use a word like systemacity?

… drawing the machine to itself in a form of ontological prosthesis.

The repetition of “itself” only deepens our sense that instead of getting out of a confusing and circular world, we are entering it more and more surely. And what can it mean to draw a machine to itself? The word draw is clearly the problem here. What sort of an act is this? Artists draw, and the subject is art, so our mind goes perhaps to the visual arts and reads draw literally. But this can’t be what the author intends. Who or what is doing the drawing, and what sort of drawing is this? Dunno.

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest that the idea behind ontological prosthesis is that the technomodernist attempts to lend life (ontology — being) to lifeless empty machines by infusing a kind of aesthetic vibrancy, a presentness, into the technological object. This infusion is an artificial construction, as all art is, and therefore it’s …prosthetic.

Have I made myself clear?


Update, correction: A reader who has looked at the book writes in this post’s comment thread:

[T]he Times seems to have misquoted the sentence from the book, which uses the word “systematicity,” not “systemacity.”

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21 Responses to “Charles McGrath, of the New York Times…”

  1. RJO Says:

    Ha, this is why my friend Vjesci, who has writerly ambitions (is he listening?), will do well to take courses in good old literature, and skip the creative writing track.

    —RJO, whose original field is systematics, the most scholarly and intellectual branch of natural history, wherein for two centuries we have written about systems, systematists, and even occasionally systematization, but where the barbarism systemacity has never appeared.

  2. Dave Stone Says:

    Now that you’ve cleared that one up, maybe you can help me with my own discipline. Gabrielle Spiegel, the President of the American Historical Association, penned a paean to post-modern mumbo-jumbo and unreadability. To wit, her Presidential Address informed me that "in contemporary historiography, the sign of history has become less the real than the intelligible, an intelligibility achieved through the production of historiographical discourse according to narrativist principles, hence always flirting with the “fictive” that is intrinsic to the operation of narrative. In this process, the historical “referent” (or what used to be called the “real,” the “true,” the “fact”) is not so much obliterated as displaced. No longer a “given” of the past that offers itself to the historian’s gaze, the referent is something constantly re‐created in the recurring movement between past and present, hence ever‐changing as that relationship itself is modified in the present."

    Help me, University Diaries–you’re my only hope.

  3. Jonathan Mayhew Says:

    Why would you read someone’s history of creative writing programs in "regular English class"? I doubt that’s ever happened. I don’t get it.

  4. RJO Says:

    "in contemporary historiography…."

    That one’s easy! Chauncey Wright provided a translation in 1878: "All history is written on dramatic principles."

  5. Bonzo Says:

    To be understood is to be found out?

  6. dave.s. Says:

    Count me with Bonzo: you are in an academic department, you have nothing particularly important or insightful to say. You need to impress all the other folks, if you write something transparent they can see you for a fool. If you write something murky, they’ll be impressed, and you can keep going to their parties.

  7. John Murray Says:

    "Every decoding is another encoding."

  8. david foster Says:

    "When ideas fail, words come in very handy"–Goethe

    (spoken, IIRC, by Mephistopheles)

  9. theprofessor Says:

    Thanks for that pearl from Gabrielle, Dave.

    Fortunately, in this county it is a crime to expose one’s ontological prosthesis, UD. Our women and children can still sleep safe without fear of encountering the turgid systemacity of referential intelligibility.

  10. Brett Says:

    I am not an academic, so I am afraid I lack the patience and curiosity to gird my intellectual loins and decipher said sentence. I would probably put the book down, back away slowly and fetch my hog-butcherin’ kit to make sure it didn’t hurt anyone else.

    Should a situation arise that required me to know just what the eff Prof. McGurl is talking about — and I admit the probability of that is minute, but it is not quite zero, so we must consider it — I would initiate correspondence or obtain an interview with him to learn it. My opening question would be, "What the eff are you talking about?"

  11. Roy M. Poses MD Says:

    I have to find a quote by a prominent post-modernist admitting that it is all about playing mind games to confuse the reader or listener. Such confusion is advantageous because it makes the post-modernist appear to be a very powerful magician.

  12. david foster Says:

    Somebody should run a blather-off contest. The objective would be to find out who can generate the worst examples of meaningless blather. Academia (broken down by discipline)? Business (broken down by industry and function)? Government (separate categories for military and for civilian agencies)? Nonprofits? K-12 schools?

  13. Christopher Vilmar Says:

    Dave, I’ve got another quote that seems apposite:

    Samuel Johnson: "We must consider how very little history there is; I mean real authentick history. That certain Kings reigned, and certain battles were fought, we can depend on as true; but all the colouring, all the philosophy of history is conjecture." (In Boswell’s Life of Johnson)

  14. Townsend Harris Says:

    Tin Pan Alley lyrics are a terrific antidote after the tough slog of parsing graceless prose.

    Listen to Louis Armstrong sing Johnny Mercer’s "Jeepers, Creepers". Then hear Fred Astaire ask Jane Powell "How could you believe me when I said I loved you | When you know I’ve been a liar all my life?" This reader recovers in no time.

  15. Bonzo Says:

    Meaningless blather?

    This would be a never ending contest.

    My current favorite (adminspeak category:

    "As many of you realize, we live in a knowledge-based economy in which our fundamental mission as a University must be deployed in service of the broader transnational learning process." Provost Thomas Sullivan, November 19, 2008

  16. david foster Says:

    The "knowlege-based economy" meme seems to be getting ever-increasing play, particularly among those who want to make K-12 education even more soft & squishy than it already is. "Knowledge-based" is often combined with paeans to the importance of learning about "collaboration" and "teamwork."

    Apparently, all the scientific & technological advances of the last several centuries had nothing to do with knowlege, and the vast projects from the Pyramids to the Brooklyn Bridge and the Hoover Dam and the space program had nothing to do with collaboration/teamwork.

    Lots of temporal bigotry going on…

  17. Roy M. Poses MD Says:

    Anyone can use the Postmodernism Generator to produce this stuff:

    The essay it generated for me started:

    "’Society is part of the fatal flaw of language,’ says Marx; however, according to Long, it is not so much society that is part of the fatal flaw of language, but rather the paradigm, and some would say the futility, of society. Baudrillard uses the term ‘Derridaist reading’ to denote the collapse, and subsequent rubicon, of neodialectic class."

    It will generate a new pomo essay every time you click on the URL.

  18. Edgar AP Says:

    I’m sorry I just happened upon this old post while doing a search on the book discussed. For what it is worth, something didn’t seem right and I checked, and the Times seems to have misquoted the sentence from the book, which uses the word "systematicity," not "systemacity."

  19. Margaret Soltan Says:

    Edgar AP: Many thanks. I’ll note that in an update of the post.

  20. University Diaries » Trash a Guy’s Writing Style, Get a Free Book. Says:

    […] Remember when I went after Mark McGurl, author of The Program Era: Postwar Fiction and the Rise of Creative Writing? I quoted Charles McGrath’s citation of a cryptic sentence from the book, and went to town on it here. […]

  21. University Diaries » Come again? Says:

    […] systems, diagrams dot The Program Era, a feature that some early reviewers have found off-putting. Charles McGrath did some eye-rolling in an early, unkind review for The New York Times in which he likened writing programs to Ponzi schemes and chastised McGurl for cluttering his prose […]

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