When the awkward becomes adequate: “An Awkward Echo” by Mark Dietz

Back in the 90s, when I first became acquainted with this strange thing called the net, I became a regular contributor to the now sadly defunct discussion board on the Penguin Classics site. We soon developed a small core of regular contributors – though others came and went – and, after a while, we started, in effect, exchanging essays. There were three of us particularly who indulged in this sort of thing: one, I subsequently found out, lived quite close to me, and we became friends in the real world as well as in the cyber-world (after initially having crossed swords on the board); and the other was a very genial chap who lived across the Pond named Mark Dietz – and who, I am pleased to see, has recently discovered this blog. I had thought I had lost contact with Mark, until he traced me down quite recently on Facebook. And he told me that some of the ideas he was considering while conversing with us on the Penguin website he had subsequently developed into a doctoral thesis, and that the thesis has now been published under the title An Awkward Echo: Matthew Arnold and John Dewey. And, what’s more, both I and my other fellow essayist on the old Penguin site had been named in the Preface to the work. 

All of this is a preamble explaining why I have been reading an academic thesis on education and the nature of communication. Academic thesis it may be, but it has none of the dryness normally associated with academic theses. I found it fascinating to see the thoughts Mark had previously sketched out on that Penguin site now being expounded in such intricate detail. 

So what is this book about? Mark himself admits towards the end of the book that he finds it difficult to express in a few words the theme of the book. One may say it is about education, but that seems an inadequate description of the book’s contents: the perspective of the book seems wider than that. If I were to try to do what the author himself says he finds difficult – i.e. state in a few words what the book is about – I’d say it is about communication, and about the problems and difficulties involved in transmitting something from one mind into another. Can a thought, an idea, be transmitted precisely? The obvious answer to this is “no”. Leaving aside the possibility of telepathy, the thought has to go from one mind to another via some sort of medium – in the form of spoken words, perhaps, or a written text. And this text can only be an approximation of what had been in the author’s mind – maybe a good approximation, maybe a poor one, depending upon the skill of the author. But approximation it is – an awkward echo. And when the reader reads the text, the reader’s interpretation introduces another level of uncertainty. The echo that the reader takes in can be a very awkward echo indeed. But how awkward? Can these awkwardnesses (which is about as awkward a word as has ever appeared on this blog) be negotiated? If so, how? 

Having read over the last paragraph, it seems to me to be an inadequate – indeed, awkward – summary of the book, but since I don’t think I could do much better, let us move on. Mark considers two directions of thought – that of the author attempting to communicate with the reader (i.e. rhetoric, the art of persuasion), and, in a reverse direction, that of the reader trying to understand the author (i.e. hermeneutics, the art of interpretation). And in particular, he considers two major poles: Matthew Arnold, that apostle of authority and of established cultural values, and the American educationalist John Dewey, whose emphasis was on personal experience. It is hard to imagine two more sharply contrasted figures, both in terms of their personalities and their ideas, but for all their apparent differences, Mark finds surprising common ground between the two, and argues that they were approaching the same issue from different directions. 

This finding a middle ground is very typical of Mark’s approach. In our times, the very phrase “middle ground” reeks of anodyne compromise, of intellectual and moral pusillanimity, of lack of passion. But there is nothing anodyne about the search for the middle ground here: indeed, Mark is a passionate searcher for this ground, arguing that only in this middle ground can ideas from different sources meet, and interact fruitfully: 

One of the great peculiarities of our age is that we have taught ourselves that great thought takes the form of extremes, and only those thoughts that challenge the past and move us quickly and forcefully into the future are intellectually credible. The diminished middle ground with its nuance and hard-won sense is all too often missing in our arguments today. But, in most ages, I suspect the middle ground is that to which we must turn for an adequate solution to our needs, be they educational, or social, or spiritual, or intellectual.

 This search for the middle ground takes us on a fascinating intellectual journey. Mark is not prepared either to accept wholeheartedly or to jettison any ideology, even those with which, one suspects, he may not personally sympathise. Whatever the ideology, his aim is always to see if elements of it, in conjunction with elements of other ideologies, can produce something worthwhile. Or, if we cannot help the various echoes being awkward, let us, instead of chafing at the fact, consider at which point the echoes may become, at least, adequate

Having first given us sketches of the ideas and the personalities of Arnold and of Dewey, and having defined and proposed what he terms a “educational pluralism” – which, Mark contends, is what both Arnold and Dewey were approaching from their very different perspectives, Mark goes on to examine the nature of our perceptions. He starts with Hume, who argued that the relationship of causality, i.e. our understanding of how the world around us works, is not something that we perceive, but rather a concept we formulate in our own minds. This mode of thought (simplified to the point of absurdity though it may be in my summary above) has, says Mark, “arguably … dominated philosophy from the German idealists to today’s post-structuralists”. But Dewey, the pragmatist, wasn’t impressed: he refused to allow that any thought could exist independently of experience. He refused to go down the path to a dead end in which each human mind is trapped within its own confines, and introduced the image of the “tentacled mind”, which has the ability, born of experience (which, as Mark reminds us, is derived from the Latin ex peri – i.e. “from trial”), to leap across boundaries. The individual human mind, in Dewey’s world, is by no means an isolated thing in a sea of other isolated things, and imagining it to be such leads us only into dead ends. 

In the next chapter, “The Critical Mind”, Mark then gives us a potted history of the art of literary criticism, of interpretation. To simplify (as I must here, even with the attendant danger of introducing echoes so awkward that Mark may well be gritting his teeth in frustration as he reads this), traditional criticism privileged the author: here, the best reading was that which came closest to understanding the author’s mind. The “New Criticism” that emerged in the earlier decades of the 20th century abolished the author’s mind as irrelevant, since we have no way of knowing for sure what the authorial intentions were: instead, it privileged the text. And in our own times, postmodernist ideology privileges the reader: all that matters is the reader’s interpretation. True to form, Mark isn’t willing to throw any of these away; instead, he tries to see how these three approaches can be combined, can be made to interact each with the other, to produce something that cannot be produced in any ideological extreme – a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. In the process of doing this, Mark provides wonderfully lucid accounts of all these different ideologies, not allowing his own personal biases to deflect him from fairness. 

Here, I must confess that I have long had difficulty with much of postmodernism. The first of these difficulties is to do with the seeming inability of proponents of postmodernism to write clearly. Now, I do appreciate that difficult ideas require difficult vocabularies; however, I do know from my personal reading experience that it is possible to explain to varying degrees of lucidity all sorts of extremely complex ideas; and it does, I admit, make me suspicious that I have never encountered any degree of lucidity at all in any ideological exposition I have come across written by the postmodernistas. However, I am content to lay the blame on myself on this matter: no doubt it’s just me being thick. The more important issue is that they appear to me either to be saying too much, or too little. If they are saying that all responses are necessarily subjective, and that any subjective response is as valid as any other subjective response, then that is clearly nonsense: I doubt very much whether anyone proposing so preposterous an idea would carry their paranoia of authority so far as to take equally seriously, were they to be taken gravely ill, the diagnoses of an experienced doctor and of an unpractised amateur. However, if all postmodernistas are really saying is that different readers can legitimately differ in their interpretations of a single text, then, as Shakespeare’s Horatio might have said, there needs no “-ism”, my lord, come from academia to tell us this. And in practice, the ideas of postmodernism have led us, I believe, to doubt the importance of what is termed “High Culture” to such an extent that we seem no longer to believe it worth propagating: if differing subjective responses are all we have to go by, then, if we are to develop communal values (as we must if we are to live together in a community), the only criterion we can go by is that of popularity – i.e. by those subjective responses that occur most frequently to the greatest numbers of people. Under such circumstances, that which is valuable but difficult stands little chance, and it is deeply ironic, though, sadly, not surprising given the prevalence in our time of so much of postmodernist thought, that democracy is sidelining those very cultural values that Arnold thought would prepare us for it. 

Mark, however, with a fairness that I must admit would have been well beyond me, smoothly and elegantly brings together such apparent opposites as Arnoldian reverence for High Culture (which, he points out, was not intended to prepare us for democracy rather than act as a bulwark against it), and reader response theories of our own time. He proposes a “pluralism” – a middle ground that is no mere compromise, but which incorporates elements from all the different approaches, and in which the authority of the author does not compromise the independence of the reader, nor vice versa; in which the reader is by no means merely a passive element in the process; and in which the reader’s response, the text, and indeed, even the author’s intentions, are all equally privileged. One may ask, as practitioners of New Criticism did, “Can we really know the author’s intentions?” To which Mark will no doubt answer: “Up to a significant point, yes.” The echo may be awkward, but it is not completely unrelated to that which it is echoing. The echo may indeed, in many cases, be adequate. Or even, perhaps, more than adequate. For why should we not see it as a positive feature that the authority of the author, while not to be rejected, is not absolute? Why is it not a positive feature that the reader is not merely a passive component in the procedure, but takes an active part in the creation and apprehension of meaning? 


Any summary of complex ideas is bound to be a simplification, and I fear I have, in the above, over-simplified, and, hence, distorted, many of the ideas that Mark expresses in his book with such elegance. I suppose the only remedy for that is to recommend the book itself, which, though a thesis, is as far from academic dryness as I can imagine. 

One final word: it is a temptation on reading works of non-fiction to skip, or at least merely to skim through, the notes. That would be unadvisable here, as Mark frequently allows himself a far more personal expression in his notes than he does in the main body of the text. These notes, ranging in reference from Moby-Dick to Star Trek, are frequently a delight in themselves. My favourite, I think, is the little riff Mark gives us on the theme of sentimentality – an issue we used to discuss often back in the days of the Penguin Classics discussion board. Most people, I think, would see sentimentality as necessarily a Bad Thing, but Mark, keen to find elements of worth in everything, no matter how obscurely hidden, thinks otherwise: 

Now, according to a rather curious definition, sentimentality is false emotion; however, if we take a closer look at sentimental emotions what bothers us is not their falseness, but a tendency to represent emotions that are too large, too close to the surface, too awkward, too cloying, too freely expressive. In none of this is falsehood really at blame; were falsehood present, we would have another complaint altogether – chicanery, deceit, subterfuge – all of which suggest a second level to the emotion, a something underneath the surface, an irony, perhaps. Sentimentality is thus, to my mind, if it is true sentimentality, to be valued as sentimentality (and frankly, I do think we ought to learn how to value sentimentality, for without it the world is missing a rather common and surprisingly varied ingredient), an emotion that resides on the surface of life – untempered, unalloyed, unprofound – large, voluble, broad, impersonal, awkward, and vast. 

Such scrupulous regard for fairness, such determination to examine everything for any possible nugget of value, is entirely typical of the author, and is among the many features that make this academic treatise so enjoyable to read.


13 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by alan on June 25, 2011 at 5:42 pm

    Ambiguity could be the intent of some communication, not just the result of communication.
    Drama is particularly suited to this. The dramatist could be a good observer of human behaviour and proceed to reproduce realistic situations with convincing dialogue, with the intention that the audience invents for themselves the internal motivations of the characters. Perhaps because the author is as puzzled as the audience.
    Also, several authors have admitted that they start with the formation of characters and then let the characters evolve a story. Of course there might be some formulaic story telling (e.g 3 tasks of increasing difficulty, or the raising, relaxation and sudden increase of intention). The intention of communication in this case is to write stories that sell, but sometimes art happens along the way – unintentionally.


  2. Posted by alan on June 26, 2011 at 3:21 pm

    There’s a lot of stuff in your review of what sounds like fine book that addresses a lot of your concerns, but I cannot comment on the book because I haven’t read it, so as usual I’ll talk about one of your concerns and mine: Education.

    You mention in your piece: “Arnoldian reverence for High Culture (which, he points out, was not intended to prepare us for democracy rather than act as a bulwark against it),”

    The relationship between Education and democracy is an ever controversial subject.
    Coincidentally there is a piece in this weeks Economist reviewing an NBER paper called “Education as Liberation?”( Friedman, Kramer, Miguel and Thornton).
    Here is a sample from the review relating to a study of Kenyan girls who were randomly selected for scholarships:-
    “What they found was in many ways contradictory. For instance girls who benefited from the scholarship and got more schooling were more independent and less accepting of the traditional sources of authority within the family. But although education seemed in some sense to have “liberated” them in terms of their personal aspirations, it did not seem to have the broader effects that the proponents of the modernisation hypothesis would have expected. In particular, those with more education did not become more favourably inclined towards democracy. In fact, education deepened their sense of identification with their ethnic group and increased their toleration for political violence. There was no evidence that having more education made them more engaged in civic life or political organisations.”

    Of course this then leads us into the question of “What kind of education did the girls receive?”. The article doesn’t go into this, but I do wonder if they were taught to question things or just accept arguments from authority.


  3. Posted by alan on June 26, 2011 at 3:38 pm

    A bit more red meat for you.


    • Hello Alan, sorry I haven’t been around much recently, but it’s possibly best to answer all your ponts together.

      If I may go in reverse order, and address your last point first (the “Red Meat”): if the questionscited are representative of the overall standard of the test, then it is shocking that someone who has failed such a test, even once, could still end up a teacher.The NUT response reads like parody.

      On the question of the study relating to Kenyan girls, the question that obviously comes to mind is, as you say, what sort of education they received. A good education should encourage an inquistive and sceptical mind, but this is not to be confused (as I think it so often is) with rejection of all received wisdom simply on the grounds that it is received. If one is to question received wisdom, one should have a good idea of what one is questioning. Iconoclasm merely for its own sake is no evidence at all either of scepticism or of intelligence: quite the contrary. Indeed, if I understand Mark’s thesis correclty, then the pluralist education he is advocating involves building upon what is past, rather than automatic, knee-jerk reaction.We must acknowledge thatthere are many different kinds of authority, not least the discipline a properly educated mind places upon itself: indiscriminate rejection of all authority, far from resulting in freedom, leaves our minds prey merely to whims and fancies of the passing moment. And that is a tyranny in itself.

      As for your first point – once agan, I think, there are different types of ambiguity (William Empson famously identified seven). Unless we are talking about the ambiguity that results from imprecise writing, we often encounter in literature ambiguity that is, as you say, deliberately placed. And I think all great practitioners of literature recognise, or have recognised, that there is a great mystery at the heart of humanity that cannot all be explained away. On top of that, the author may have intentions of which he or she may not consciously be aware. Pushkin, while writing Eugene Onegin, is reported to have said “Tatyana rejected Eugene: I hadn’t expected that of her”. And Gustav Mahler once said “We don’t compose – we are compsed”. Not being a creative type myself, I do not know what it feels like to create something worthwhile, but quite frequently, writers and composers and artists speak of their works developing in certain directions that they had not initially planned. However, unless we ascribe this sort of thing to supernatural solicitings, we must accept that there is nothing an artist can put into the work of art that has not come from some part of the artist’s mind: whether artists are fully conscious of those parts of their minds is, of course, another matter.


  4. Posted by alan on June 26, 2011 at 11:30 pm

    “Supernatural solicitings” are not necessary – we are social beings.
    You might like the bit the following where Alan Bennett describes the moment when he suddenly becomes conscious of why he doesn’t like Dutch paintings.


    • Alan, I’m not entirely sure I follow. Alan Bennett’s article is characteristically amusing, but given that I can’t see its relevance to the discussion I thought we were having, I rather suspect that I failed to follow you.

      What I thought we were talking about is the ambiguity in the text intended by the author, and also the ambiguity in the text not intended by the author. My point about the “supernatural soliciting” is that the author may have intentions that are obscure even to his or her own self (a point you raise); but even when this is the case, the intentions, hidden or not, are still the author’s, and not, as some overly Romantic interpretations have it, from some external source.

      (I accept that my quip about “supernatural soliciting” was a throwaway line, but the barb was aimed not at you: it was aimed, rather, at those who spout such nonsense. There have been (and still are) many who have said, or say, that, for instance, Mozart was but a conduit for the music he composed, and that the music itself comes from some mysterious – presumably divine – source. The play and the film version of Amadeus, for instance, plays with this idea. While both play and film are very entertaining, the idea itself is plain silly.)

      Most authors do make deliberate use of ambiguity. In such cases, the ambiguity itself must be seen as part of the author’s intent. Where ambiguity comes from inadequacy of expression, it becomes a different matter – and here I’ll defer to Mark in his analysis of “uncertainty”.


  5. Posted by Mark David Dietz on June 27, 2011 at 1:29 am


    I am quite sure I could never thank you enough for this wonderful review. Frankly, you seem to have understood a great deal of what I was trying to get at and applied a very keen critical perspective to the whole. Despite all the language about awkwardness and such, I really did have things I wanted to say — (thing, by the way, as I point out in the book, is a technical term, for Arnold, Dewey and myself, used to describe the space where objects and the mind meet — the word comes from the old Danish ding, a meeting place). These things I had to say I quite dearly hoped would find their way through the text and into the reader’s mind. Your review makes me feel as if a good deal of such movement could very well be possible if the book were only able to find its readership (quite dreadful sales at this point — as is all too common with academic books).

    Trtuth is, I did not at any point, while reading your review, find myself gritting my teeth as you suggest; to the contrary I was all smiles as I read your excellent handling of my thoughts — in some cases, I rather thought you outdid me. The paragraph where you speak of your personal response to post modernism I thought rather eloquent, and I am sure I do not need to tell you I share much of your concerns.

    The book is clearly a bit all over the place, but that is so for several reasons: 1) I was quite set on trying to bring disciplines together, not continue to hold them apart as we too often do with our culture’s tendency toward compartmentalization, which for most of us is something of a defense mechanism against the complexity of modern life; 2) I rather thought this would be my one chance at publication and did not want to leave anything out; and 3) I was having fun (that’s it, my best defense really — and I mean to stand by it).

    And, as you noted, the sentimentality section came from the penguin site — indeed, from a thread you and I debated at length if I remember rightly. Neither you nor Hadrian wanted to give up on sentimentality as a welcome punching bag. A friend recently suggested that I was really outlining the difference between bathos and pathos, which may be true to some extent, but that particular distinction is not likely to communicate nearly the same level of outrageousness.

    Again, thank you so much. My first review!


  6. Posted by Mark David Dietz on June 27, 2011 at 2:17 am


    Like Himadri I will answer your questions in a single post, but first I should like to suggest, if it is not too forward of me — buy the damn book and read it! Woe, that might have been a bit too much of a hard sell, but I’m quite sure you get the picture (isn’t the internet great — hundreds of miles away, don’t know you from adam, and yet we can come doiwn to brass tacks so easily).

    Let me start with the education bit: to most of us education means not the process of learning our culture or our relationship to the culture or the ends toward which we and our culture are moving, but rather a very circumscribed set of explicit institutions whose content, as you and Himadri both point out is not awlays quite what we assume it to be. I tend to follow closer to Arnold and Dewey on this: education is a process that involves experience, develops our habits (and if we develop critical skills, the means by which we may manage those habits), requires us to absorb the culture in which we live, but also, increasingly, those cultures that surround us, but we may not find ourselves identifying with, etc. This process will happen whether we get an “education” or not. Arnold uses the word culture in something of an older sense than is common today. He tends to mean high culture, or “the best that has been thought or said.” Dewey was close to Franz Boas and the founders of cultural anthropology; as a result he saw culture in the more modern sense — as the way we, as some definable group of people, act, speak, believe, etc.

    Both Arnold and Dewey did tend to believe in the virtues of a liberal education and in particular in critical thinking as it derives from a liberal education. They both linked education to democracy; they both believed that education was necessary for a democracy to function well. Dewey did in his later years try to deal with the kind of quesiton you raise. For Dewey how we act was as important as how we think, and he was aware of the studies that were already appearing in his lifetime suggesting that education was failing to effect social change — that is to say, it was failing to fully democratize the population. I think we will be dealing with this question for some time to come — it is a truly “awkward” question, which is my way of saying it is very human; and being human it will no doubt have a long and desperate life in the public arena. In other words I think you raise a very important issue.

    On testing, I have mixed feelings. I see value when it is treated as an integrated part of a learning experience. I get frustrated when it becomes a heavy-handed form of social engineering. Arnold actually appeared before Parliament to speak out against the testing that was being introduced into the poor schools (he was, by profession, a school inspector). I am not sure to what degree concerns with testing students should apply to teachers, but I do think that both sides of this debate (those pushing for stronger standards, and the teachers association which regards the test as irrelevant) are being a bit too extreme and as a result are probably overlooking the real issues. After all, shouldn’t someone be asking why the data of failures is what it is?

    On ambiguity, I think you may be slightly missing the point. No matter how unambiguous the language is the writer’s intentions can never exactly equal the text or the reader’s inference. No theories of ambiguity are needed to establish that. Moreover, by “text” we mean ALL human behavior so this applies to anything you do which has communicative potential — that would, of course, encompass all of your behaviors whether observed by others or not (the argument for this is in the book, so I won’t rehearse it here). Also while no text is ever absolutely perfect in its communicative ability, no text is ever absolutely imperfect. The absolutes are important because they cut off the extreme poles.

    In this sense something that we might call “natural ambiguity” resides in all texts whether intended or not. If the text is meant to be ambiguous, i.e. the writer wishes to be ambiguous that simply means that we are less likely to achieve an equation between intention and inference (assuming the writer has some skill at subterfuge). It does not, however, change the basic conditions of communication. All communication contains uncertainty. But — and this is a very important “but” — uncertainty is not an extreme condition; it is a middle state. The opposite of certainty (in our case absolute equality between intention and inference) is not uncertainty, but ignorance (i.e. absolute inequality between intention and inference). For uncertainty to exist we must know something of the variables in question (intention, text and inference). Even if we are not quite sure what we know is correct or not. Thus, all communication is uncertain and awkward.

    Our goal is to raise the level of congruity across the variables (intention, text and inference). As we grow the congruity, our uncertainty becomes less a pathology and more an active and animating ingredient in human discourse — a necessity that keeps us ever moving toward a state of perfection that can never be reached but is nonetheless worth attempting to achieve at some reasonably adequate level (perfection is Arnold’s term). When uncertainty is treated as a pathology it undermines the entire process, becomes an isolating quality and tumbles us into the valley of post modern regrets.

    A writer who consciously uses ambiguity (all good writers do) is not really intent on being misunderstood (although under the influence of bad post modern critics, many writers today have been parroting words to that effect), but rather on creating an impetous toward the depth of understanding that can only be achieved when congruence requires protracted critical effort. (In other words, do not interpret anything I am saying as just simplistic communication theory — I am not really in that camp.)



  7. Posted by alan on June 27, 2011 at 8:24 pm

    Thanks for dignifying these comments with a charitable reply. “When uncertainty is treated as a pathology it undermines the entire process, becomes an isolating quality” -that I agree with.
    A for conscious ambiguity providing a deliberate impetus towards understanding due to the need for protracted critical effort (if I’ve summarised that correctly) – that is certainly a charitable view, and texts should be approached with the principle of charity in mind. However, I do wonder, like Himadri, if you are not being too charitable.
    I’m not going to rush out and buy your book, but if Himadri shows me a few pages then I might consider buying it…as a new resource for bar room conversations.


    • I’ll bring the book into our next boozing session! We’d better talk about it before we’ve had too many drinks, though…


      • Posted by Mark David Dietz on June 28, 2011 at 1:42 am

        Perhaps I am a bit charitable, but I really offer that thought as an alternative to the easier and more common notion that such amnbiguity serves no other purpose than to further isolate us one from another. It is hard not to counter such ideas without resorting to a bit of hyperbole now and then. In other words, why must it be one or the other? Ambiguity can serve more than one purpose, can it not? And my apologies for the hard sell on the book; I really meant it as a joke…

  8. “The diminished middle ground with its nuance and hard-won sense is all too often missing in our arguments today. But, in most ages, I suspect the middle ground is that to which we must turn for an adequate solution to our needs, be they educational, or social, or spiritual, or intellectual.”

    This recalls Confucius for me, this return to the middle ground. It’s a very utilitarian and wise concept.


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