The Essay and HCI

In my recent post on discourse analysis versus close reading, I got into a discussion in the comments on the origin of the critic’s understanding and the role of subjectivity, objectivity, and so forth. In the course of that discussion (and I’d like to thank Jeremy Hunsinger for his part of the discussion that helped clarify this for me), I realized that there are really two aspects of the problem I am talking about. The first aspect is the method or set of interpretive strategies that leads the text analyst to a certain point of view, and the second aspect is the structure of the expression (i.e., paper) in which this analysis is articulated and defended.

So my original gripe in that post is that people in HCI sometimes seem to think that unless one does some form of coding, one’s textual analysis doesn’t deserve the name, and one is instead merely advancing an opinion. The point I’m advancing in this post is its corollary: Unless one writes a recognizable scientific paper (intro, lit review, methodology, results, discussion, conclusion) one likewise runs the risk of being seen as merely advancing one’s opinions or writing (as one reviewer once accused me) like a journalist.

This calls to mind my regularly repeated rant that in CHI, the top conference of our field, there are eight “contribution types,” and these include “Development or Refinement of Interface Artifacts or Techniques”; “Systems, Tools, Architecture, and Infrastructure”; “Methodology”; “Theory” and others. The eighth of eight is “Opinion.” Now, clearly Opinion is the slot for essays; its accompanying description uses the term “provocative essay.” Because many trained scientists seem to hold the position that subjective = opinion = lack of rigor = not knowledge, I wrote a post distinguishing between opinion and judgment, and I’ll let that do its work and not restate it all here. Suffice it to say that I don’t believe many in HCI have a robust understanding of the nature and contribution of the critical essay.

What I want to do in this post is highlight the nature and goals of the essay as a form of discourse. It is structurally, substantially, and even epistemologically distinct from a typical scientific paper. This is not to suggest that one is better than the other, but rather only to suggest that essays cannot be evaluated on the same terms as scientific papers (and vice-versa, of course). Incidentally, Wikipedia has an entry on the essay, so if you want something more comprehensive, go read that. But I am going to share some quotes from one of my favorite essayists, Phillip Lopate. I offer this not as a final word on the essay in HCI but just to help HCIers recognize one when it lands in their laps and hopefully also to be able to evaluate them fairly.

Following are a bunch of quotes pulled from the beginning of Lopate’s essay, “In Search of the Centaur: The Essay-Film,” included in his collection Totally, Tenderly, Tragically. The essay considers why the essay-film isn’t more common than it is, and it works through definitions of its key terms and contemplates both films that broadly meet the criteria and those that are like essay-films but are not. But I’m not worried about the essay-film here, and so I focus only on Lopate’s attempts to define the essay:

the essay offers personal views. That’s not to say it is always first-person or autobiographical, but it tracks a person’s thoughts as he or she tries to work out some mental knot, however various its strands. An essay is a search to find out what one thinks about something.

Often the essay follows a helically descending path, working through preliminary supposition to reach a more difficult core of honesty.

This gets right at why I think critical essays are subjective and why it is so important not to fetishize objective understanding. I am not here rehearsing the Kantian argument that there is no such thing as objective knowledge that has taken such prominence in postmodernism. Rather, I am stressing a form of knowledge production whose source is not in empirical reality at all, but rather which is fundamentally embedded in the subject’s sensemaking, interpretive, and reflective practices. This sort of knowledge cannot be found in external reality, and so it is absurd to suggest that objective, empirical, or scientific approaches would be more effective in unconvering it.

I also want to stress the temporal unfolding of such knowledge: it is not a static representation of a state of affairs; it is a process of engaging, which has emergent outcomes. The essayist is likely to disagree with herself over time; indeed, Foucault’s response to critics who pointed out the inconsistencies in his work was to say (very roughly paraphrasing): “Of course! I write in order to change myself. At the end of a book, I am not the same person that began it. It would be a boring waste of time otherwise.” Back to Lopate on the essay:

Montaigne’s “What do I know?” is a mental freedom and cheekiness in the face of fashion and authority. The essayist wears proudly the confusion of an independent soul trying to grope in isolation towards truth.

This quote underscores the non-replicability, non-objectivity of the essay. The essayist has a voice, which is cheeky, confused, groping, truth-oriented but not arrived. To dismiss the essayist as merely providing her point of view utterly defeats its purpose. One can of course demand an accounting for that point of view (and the earlier quote, which stressed the temporal working out of a knot, suggests at least what that looks like), but the cultivation and expression of a point of view is arguably the essay’s raison-d’être.

Adorno, in “The Essay as Form,” saw precisely the anti-systematic, subjective, nonmethodic method of the essay as its radical promise.

Do I really need to say this? What Adorno is obviously contrasting the essay to is science. This is by no means a rejection of science! It is, rather, an effort to develop and articulate alternative practices of knowledge production, which are both non-scientific and nonetheless rigorous and legitimate.

Note also the word “radical” in that sentence. Radical implies an effective activism that actually will lead to substantive, desirable change in the world. Criticism generally has a progressive orientation, which seeks to complement the often conservative outcomes of science (that is too rich a claim to defend here, but short version: whose agenda does science typically serve?).

Whatever twists and turns occur along its path, and however deep or moral its conclusions, an essay will have little enduring interest unless it also exhibits a certain sparkle or stylistic flourish…. Freshness, honesty, self-exposure, and authority must all be asserted in turn. An essayist who produces magisterial and smoothly ordered arguments but is unable to surprise himself in the process of writing will end up boring us. An essayist who is vulnerable and sincere but unable to project any authority will seem, alas, merely pathetic and forfeit our attention. So it is a difficult game to pull off. Readers must feel included in a true conversation, allowed to follow through mental processes of contradiction and digression, yet be aware of a formal shapeliness developing simultaneously underneath.

I have spoken about the importance of the critic’s voice, and here Lopate develops the idea and puts some flesh to it.

I now give Lopate the final word, and he, in turn, passes the final word onto the great Marxist critic György Lukács. As you read this final quote, in light of the other quotes that precede it, consider how this relates to a field like HCI, with its interface design, user research, and growing awareness of its own socio-cultural responsibility (e.g., sustainability, aesthetics, etc.):

An essay is a continual asking of questions–not necessarily finding “solutions,” but enacting the struggle for truth in full view. Lukács, in his meaty, “On the Nature and Form of the Essay,” wrote: “The essay is a judgment, but the essential, the value-determining thing about it is not the verdict (as is the case with the system) but the process of judging.”


  1. Pin Sym

    I have a question:
    What is the intended response to the tracking of “a person’s thoughts as he or she tries to work out some mental knot, however various its strands”? As I understand it (correct me if wrong) you are saying that the essay’s value is in following the potentially great thoughts of a great writer, regardless of the final “judgement”. So if the reader is intended to value the process more than the product, what is he/she intended to do with it? I hope I have my question clear!

  2. jeffreybardzell

    We read critical essays to cultivate our own critical capacities. As I read others working through their mental knots, they model for me how I might work through mine. Less abstractly, I might learn a strategy or tactic for reading a difficult cultural text; or I might become much more sensitive to an issue that had hitherto been invisible to me; or I might encounter a concept and see its utility such that I want to start making use of that concept as well.

    So the short answer to your question is that rather than revealing external reality as it is (which science is better at), critical essays about cultural texts transform us, make us better readers, better content creators, more sensitive/imaginative to the suffering of others, etc.

    In my case, I read film theory to help me better understand how culture is represented on the screen, how reality can be presented on the screen, and the ethical, aesthetic, and functional implications of that. I read fashion theory to help me understand identity and subjectivity, which in turn helps me understand how people present themselves in social media. Yet both fashion and film also help me cultivate a sense of visual literacy, so I can not only see a visual style I appreciate, but so I can also critique it robustly and derive a wide array of potential design insights. Feminist, Marxist, and Queer theory help me understand how these designs reflect ideologies and assumptions about “normal” everyday life, and how these reflections emancipate and/or repress others. I read this kind of criticism to make me a better “reader” (of cultural texts) and a more sensitive, ethically informed designer. It’s a lifelong task.

  3. jeremy hunsinger

    I’m actually not sure that science is better at revealing external reality as it is. Science might be better at mapping what appears to be, the empiricisms of the world, but in terms of revelatory capacity toward that essay, i’d tend to give more weight to the essay. I think that developing the subjective position of the reader is what the essay does, and since that is the only position the person has direct experience of in any phenomenological sense, then that is certainly aiding revelation.

    In terms of what essays do for a field of research… I’d say that essay are the fundamental activity of research, as the essay is what opens that area for research, even if the essay has been eviscerated down, and i think i see this a fair amount in many fields, to the ‘theory’ and ‘literature review’ sections of scientific papers. The essay, stated or not, exists in scientific papers in those sections and perhaps in other sections, but as one reads texts like leviathan and the airpump or laboratory life, one quickly sees that all scientific writing is a matter of fitting the essay into the literary genre accepted by the field. In the essay…. that’s where we describe how we came to the position to do research, both universally, and specifically, it tells the readers which problems we are fighting with, how we understand them, etc. etc. Now, of course, scientism rears its ugly head here as do issues of clarity, terseness, etc. etc. that are part of the ideology surrounding transfer of knowledge that developed in early modernity to publish experiments and results, and still reigns today… much of that ideology is why the essay has been eviscerated in scientific genres, or at least that’s the argument i’d make.

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