Verbing the adjectivised abstraction

by John Q on March 29, 2008

I’ve been reading William Dalrymple’s The Last Mughal: Fall of a Dynasty about the Indian Rebellion of 1857 with great interest. The complacent reports of the British commanders as they went about destroying the last remnants of independent Indian power are startlingly reminiscent of the “Good News from Iraq” we got so much of in 2003, and which was briefly revived during the now collapsing surge/awakening/truce. More generally, Dalrymple gives an evocative account of the Mughal court on the eve of destruction.

But I was, perhaps unfairly, amused by Dalrymple’s introduction where he extols the merits of archival research, as against the kind of “subaltern history” that pads out existing secondary sources with large dollops of theory to produce more or less interchangeable articles with titles of the general form “Othering the Imagined Construct” (feel free to permute the parts of speech to derive your own). I’ll leave it to others to decide whether this is better or worse than the old standby “Nonsensical Phrase Drawn From Primary Source: Random Word, Random Word, and the Actual Topic of this Book,” or the generic economic article of the form “Hot Current Idea, Established Field and Putative Application”.



SCM 03.29.08 at 12:35 pm

“Crooked Discourse”: Hypertext, Exemplification, and How the Link Needs to be Fixed.

Broken Link Alert:A Comment that Changed the Post-JQ


dsquared 03.29.08 at 12:52 pm

Mundane Item: How Something Which Pretty Obviously Didn’t Change The World Changed The World.


Matt 03.29.08 at 1:11 pm

Smallish group of proud people with modest accomplishments who quite obviously did not save civilization: How they saved civilization.


Adam Roberts 03.29.08 at 1:19 pm

What scm said.


Nick 03.29.08 at 1:48 pm

It’s all about hermeneutics . . . if you’ve not got the word ‘hermeneutics’ in your title you ain’t worth shit . . .


Chris Williams 03.29.08 at 2:11 pm

“Witty Quote” Mundane Title: Boring Subtitle

Some Aspects of Something Very Minor: How The Author is Hedging Their Bets

Interesting Generalisation About a Vast Tract of History: How it is Proven/Refuted by a Case-Study of Three English Parishes Over Twenty Years

PS – Given the ambiguity of the way he characterises it, I hope that JQ appreciates that quite a lot of ‘subaltern’ history is rather good. Were I taking the piss similarly, I might use ‘some bits of cultural history’ as my target. YMMV.


DJ 03.29.08 at 2:49 pm

It might have been a little cruel, but I had hoped that Dalrymple would actually go through all the permutations in that paragraph, since they’re all, sadly, plausible. What deliciously biting satire, and the larger point he makes about _real_ cultural history waiting to be done needs to be made, over and over, in the face of the Bizarro world of a certain corner of the humanities.

A fun parlor game: pick up a seminal book of Gayatri Spivak’s, turn to a random page and pick out a juicy looking sentence (one with some subordinate clauses or lengthy parentheses). “In Other Worlds” is rather good (for this purpose), and a limited preview is available through Google Books if you’d like to sample the game.


Uncle Kvetch 03.29.08 at 3:08 pm

the “Good News from Iraq” we got so much of in 2003, and which was briefly revived during the now collapsing surge/awakening/truce

This is how you know you’re not reading something written by an American. Over here we know that anything that happens in Iraq is, by definition, “Good News.” The collapse of the surge/awakening/truce is already being spun as Good News, and this spin will be disseminated without question by literally hundreds of pundits, columnists, and talk radio hosts around the country.

I don’t mean to pick on the esteemed Professor Q here. It’s just that I’ve been encountering a lot of variations of “Well, they won’t be possibly be able to put a positive spin on this” in the last few days, and I find it puzzling. We’re talking about people who could, and would, put a positive spin on bubonic plague if it suited their short-term domestic political purposes.

The slow, enervating daily grind of the quagmire has been transformed into exciting, blood-pumping action. We’re finally taking the gloves off, taking the fight to the enemy, no more pussyfooting, the Iraqi government is demonstrating some of that all-important will, the American people have a brand new crazy-ass boogeyman to hate and fear in the person of “Mookie,” and the Iranians are, of course, behind it all. If you think this is a bad time to be a Bushie, you don’t really get Bushism.


c.l. ball 03.29.08 at 3:08 pm

The issue for Dalrymple was the minimal use of subaltern primary sources at the Indian National Archives. Apparently, the script is hard to read — both because of its style and text size — and Dalrymple credits Mahmood Farooqui for much of the translation.


Colin Danby 03.29.08 at 3:10 pm

So, John, does Dalrymple cite actual examples? And if so have you followed any of them up? The subaltern studies works I can remember reading draw rather heavily on archival research.


Dan S. 03.29.08 at 4:19 pm

#2 + #6 + #7 (“We’re talking about people who could, and would, put a positive spin on bubonic plague if it suited their short-term domestic political purposes.“)

“Oh happy posterity”, or, Plague: How a single bacterium spread freedom, democracy, and capitalism, and helped create the modern world.


Nick L 03.29.08 at 4:35 pm

Erm… I hate to sound like a neo-con shill defending the bubonic plague and all, but I’ve heard the argument made that the black death in Europe lead to the emergence of early capitalism by upping the bargaining power of tenant farmers and providing new opportunities for petty land owners to amass private property. Wow, this is off topic.


rm 03.29.08 at 5:47 pm

Observed in philosophy articles, the form “Abstract Noun, Abstract Noun, Abstract Noun.” Three different nouns, of course.


BCist 03.29.08 at 5:56 pm

So I should avoid the title “Calling Radio Machete: The Nahimana Trial and Emerging Norms in International Hate Speech?”


sal 03.29.08 at 5:57 pm

Then that should rather be ““Abstract Noun, Different Abstract Noun, Yet Different Again Abstract Noun.”


Uncle Kvetch 03.29.08 at 6:53 pm

Well, nick l, thanks for totally harshing my buzz there. 8^)


Zippy the Comment Frog 03.29.08 at 7:46 pm

Another time-honored title format: “[Verb]ing the [Abstraction]: Toward an [X] Theory of [Y].”

(It’s “toward” because then you’re not expected to actually come right out and accomplish something.)


engels 03.29.08 at 7:50 pm

Might be of interest:

The Black Death and the Transformation of the West by David Herlihy (1997)

In this small book David Herlihy makes subtle and subversive inquiries that challenge historical thinking about the Black Death. Looking beyond the view of the plague as unmitigated catastrophe, Herlihy finds evidence for its role in the advent of new population controls, the establishment of universities, the spread of Christianity, the dissemination of vernacular cultures, and even the rise of nationalism. This book, which displays a distinguished scholar’s masterly synthesis of diverse materials, reveals that the Black Death can be considered the cornerstone of the transformation of Europe.


Roy Belmont 03.29.08 at 8:03 pm

Noun colon article noun preposition adjective noun


Kieran Healy 03.29.08 at 9:21 pm

There’s also the ambitious but often seen “Noun.”


John Quiggin 03.29.08 at 9:30 pm

Chris and others, as I tried to say, I didn’t take Dalrymple as offering a fair assessment, but rather an amusing snark.


Zippy the Comment Frog 03.29.08 at 10:45 pm

Subtitles of the form “Reading [X] With [Y]” are also very effective.


ajay 03.31.08 at 9:25 am

In fifty years’ time, an ambitious young historian will start work on “A Little Learning: How Books Of Shallow Popular History Distorted Discourse, Deluded Governments And Changed The World”, with specific reference to Max Boot, Victor David Hanson, Bernard Lewis, etc, etc.


Chris Williams 03.31.08 at 11:31 am

Why wait?


Alex 03.31.08 at 12:12 pm

Books on programming tend to have the form Programming Book: Very Long Subtitle You Can’t Remember and Will Need Your Copy In Order To Cite Correctly.


Van Hayhow 04.02.08 at 1:16 am

Wish I could take credit for this, but I can’t. Someone once posted on HNN that he was waiting for the book: Ketchup, the condiment that changed society.

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