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Monday, November 02, 2009

Who Cares?

During the Q&A of a recent session at which I presented a paper, a member of the faculty whose work I very much admire asked, “Who cares?”  The question was asked very graciously, and accompanied by a conciliatory addendum that sometimes the questioner struggles with it in her own work.  But I still was somewhat arrested by it. 

I offered two responses.  I said, first, that it is important simply to think clearly about a particular issue or legal puzzle.  Theoretical precision and acuity – “getting it right,” as Bernard Williams said, in a late essay, of the question 'what should philosophy become?' – is its own reward.  This response was received with polite skepticism, I thought.  My second response acquiesced to the questioner a bit more, as I hypothesized somewhat clumsily about how my ideas might change the ways in which one could think about a jury’s role, or about the burden of production in an affirmative defense, and so on.

In retrospect, I think these responses rather inadequate. 

The reason is that the question itself invites other, deeper questions, questions about the ‘point’ or ‘aim’ of a paper beyond the argument that it advances.  And as to those points or aims, I have to say that I am comparatively agnostic.

“Who cares?” can be collapsed into two separate sorts of interrelated inquiries.  The “who” question is the inquiry about audience – who one wants one’s audience to be.  The question presumes that one is writing for a target audience – one wants to speak to the sorts of concerns on the audience’s mind, to raise arguments that will pique it.  That’s where the “cares” inquiry fits.  The characteristics of the audience will presumably determine what sorts of interests are important to them – why they will or will not care, and how they will care. 

The tacit assumption of “Who cares?” is that an audience of pastry chefs will care about ideas for sharper knives, more durable pastry bags, non-curdling cream, and the like.  An audience of late Renaissance art historians will have not only different substantive interests, but also completely different reasons for thinking their interests worth having in the first place.  Any writer, the question seems to urge, ought to have thought about these matters well before setting pen to paper.  Afterward, it may be too late: one may be all alone, without any audience at all.

As for the “who,” then, I ought to have said that it doesn’t particularly matter to me who is or is not interested in my ideas.  It probably is true that I hope vaguely that someone, somewhere, now or in the future, will be interested in them.  If no one ever thought them at all interesting, I would likely find that regrettable.  But I do not write with the purpose to address a particular audience.  Even when something I write addresses a particular scholar’s claims, I do not take that scholar, or his epigones, to be my audience.  In fact, I usually give no thought at all to whom I am writing “for.”

I have a similar reaction to the “cares” component.  When I write, I don’t really care who cares, or why they care, or whether someone will care in the future for reasons I cannot guess.  I am not writing with the practical aim of influence in mind, or with an ulterior motive, or with the hope that I will make it easier, or harder, for pastry chefs to frost cakes with greater velocity or skill.  This is different, I think, than saying that one ought not care if one’s ideas are put to deeply harmful use, or that one ought to be utterly indifferent to the consequences of one’s ideas.  Rather, it is to say that one should not have as one’s conscious writing object the excitement of anyone’s cares.

Italo Calvino once wrote in a book of literary criticism called “Why Read the Classics?” that there is no practical point to reading literature.  It will not scrub up one’s moral hygiene; it will not solve the world’s problems; it will not fill one up with useful information by which one can improve others; it will not even necessarily teach one anything that one did not already know.  The reason to read literature – the “who cares?” – is that one finds it enjoyable.  The audience is you, and the “why” is, in a word, pleasure, and if it is not pleasurable, and if you feel only a great white void in staring at a poem or a novel, the void is in your mind’s eye.

There is much in this conception of writing from which legal academics could draw.  The reason to write is that one enjoys to write – one enjoys seeing the solitary process of writing unfolding within oneself afresh, again and again.  One delights in the ways in which ideas are styled and thoughts chiseled over the span of a writing life.  Admittedly, it is a difficult pleasure at times, a cultivated and acquired taste perhaps, but a pleasure nonetheless.  “Who cares?” – who will find one’s ideas interesting, or useful, or wrongheaded, or stimulating, now or in the future – is too idiosyncratic and unpredictable to matter during the period when one writes. 

More than this, however, to ask “who cares?” too insistently of one’s writing is to strip away the aesthetic core of it, to deny that writing, very much including legal academic writing, is a delight.  To ask “who cares?” is to replace that edification with dusty and contrived manoeuvre, all for the sake of what one calculates (probably erroneously) to be foreseeable practical influence.  What a waste.

Thanks to Dan and the crew for the pleasure of writing here.

Posted by Marc DeGirolami on November 2, 2009 at 05:22 PM | Permalink


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Tracked on Nov 4, 2009 4:41:07 PM


Quote Luke Skywalker: "I care!"

Posted by: Chris | Nov 2, 2009 6:08:51 PM

This is an elegantly written response, but I wonder: is it a sufficient rationale for the high salaries law professors receive, or for the almost single-minded emphasis in academia on scholarly publishing as a measure of reputation?

Posted by: Jim | Nov 2, 2009 6:44:30 PM

Writing is a delight. The aesthetic core of writing is important. One should write because one enjoys doing so.

At the same time, one should not be surprised if someone asks 'Who cares?' or 'So what?'

Value is a subjective measure, and extrinsic value -- the value of others -- depends exactly on who cares.

Another way to look at the question is 'why is this important?'

If you want people to read a work, you have to sell it. Not sell it in the Willie Loman sense, but in the abstract sense.

A short, succinct statement of why one should read a work is helpful to all readers.

Sure, you can always just wait and see who will come to read your work by serendipity, but I would not wager your bread on the endeavor.

Posted by: John | Nov 3, 2009 10:49:46 AM

I agree that the "who cares" question is best translated to mean, "why is this important?" That is, the question is not meant literally to identify the people who will have a passionate engagement with the article. Rather, it's a way of asking the author to identify why the author thinks the article is a valuable thing (with the obvious caveat that different people see different values in different things).

Posted by: Orin Kerr | Nov 4, 2009 3:01:31 AM

I guess I don't understand why, if you're just writing because you find it enjoyable, you would go through the rigmarole of publishing in scholarly forums? Isn't that because (whether or not you acknowledge it) you are writing for a particular audience? If not, why not just keep a diary or a blog?

I'm afraid I've read too many academic articles where it seemed apparent that the author didn't really care whether anyone found their writing useful or interesting.

Writing is communication and all communication involves a two-way relationship. Just because one party in a relationship doesn't care or think about the other doesn't devalue the second group's import in the exchange. Perhaps the views of your readers matter more than you think they do, or perhaps they should.

Posted by: Gritsforbreakfast | Nov 4, 2009 3:51:53 PM

I read the "who cares" question differently; especially in the current context of retrenchment both in the universities and in law firms, I read such questions to ask "why is this important?" If scholars write solely for "delight," and truly don't care if their writings ever find an audience (a claim I'm also skeptical about, considering the fuss so many authors make about SSRN downloads), why should anyone treat such scholarship as valuable? In other words: law professors are among the most highly paid professors in academia, and their worth is measured almost solely by their scholarship. If the pure pleasure of writing is the purpose for doing it--if the delight of writing is its own reward--shouldn't such self-indulgent scholarly writing be viewed as a hobby which may be indulged, rather than as the primary measure of the quality of a law school's faculty and the justification for their high salaries and prestige? And, if delight is the source of value, shouldn't blogs, podcasts, video and films be valued just as much as scholarly articles in law journals?

Posted by: Jim | Nov 5, 2009 9:41:24 AM

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