February 2, 2011

I’m not sure if I can express just how dismayed I was to read Gavin’s post to me on Facebook.

“More revisions….

just when you thought you were out (of academia), they pulled you back in.”

We have both submitted papers to a journal for publication on the urging of our advisor, and last week received word from them that they’d like a few more changes made before they publish. I’d be lying if I said I wanted to do this. In fact, I actively don’t want to do it. Despite the (obscenely) high marks I received for it, I don’t think this was the best paper I wrote while I was in Belfast, and much of the paper is recapitulated– better, I think– in my dissertation.

But I have to revise it, if only because it isn’t as good as it could be, and I should be willing to go back and make changes. Publication would be huge for a resume, and mine needs some serious padding. I have to go back and change things. Everyone does.

Because where would we be without revision? Listen to the demos of some of your favorite musicians. It’s a good thing those tracks weren’t released on the original album. Sure, you can usually hear a kernel of what became a good song, but that thing needed polished. All writers revise. (Well, all good ones do– which is I cannot count myself among their company.) The truly good biographies of authors lay this bare. Often the biographer will explain the evolution of a seminal passage in literature by showing the different iterations of that passage. It’s thrilling to see a writer hone in on a good thing.

So why the hesitancy to revise? I mean, beyond pure laziness. We’re supposed to be a dynamic species that’s comfortable with change and able to adapt quickly to new information, but we also betray in our actions a hidebound refusal to change our ways. If it sounds right or it’s worked before, then it must be the right way of going about things. And surely there’s an advantage to that. Far be it for me to suggest that conservatism and stubbornness are genetic immutable things, but that reluctance to change can indeed be a good thing. At it’s best, it is a voice calling for a bit of calm and deliberation in the midst of changing circumstances.

But it is a mistake to elevate that voice to a god. We have to change, and change is not a sign of weakness. It is the signifier of an alive mind. A person has to be willing to grapple with new information, assimilate it, and revise their conclusions as required. Sometimes the new information can be fit into the existing narrative without too much trouble, but at other times a painful break with the past is required to avoid paralyzing cognitive dissonance. I don’t know if there’s any way for me to reconcile the way my religious and political beliefs have progressed over the past six years or so, but me then would not recognize me now. And yet, it was constant revision that resulted in me now. There’s no single point I could isolate as the turn, no simple story to wrap a narrative conceit around.

If this is true with people, then it also should be true with our societies. Slavish adherence to old codes may be reassuring in the way that a home-cooked meal is safe for the taste-buds, but seriously, have you seen what they’re doing at Alinea? And lest you think I’m merely talking about conservative adherence to the Founders, this critique extends to all old codes. In our rush to uphold traditions, we should make sure we’re doing it for the right reasons. It reminds me of a story Pete Rollins is fond of telling.


There’s a cat at this monastery that’s always interrupting teacher, so the teacher takes to tying it to a tree. A few years later, the teacher dies. The disciples keep tying the cat to the tree during teaching periods, until it, too, dies. But instead of just letting it stay dead, they get a new cat and continue doing what they’d done before.

The words of those who came before us are valuable, and we should pay attention to them. But just because they tell us to tie a cat to a tree doesn’t mean we should.

Plus, who ties cats to trees?