Monday, July 18, 2011

Look first or think first - both are honorable and productive

I’m going to steal something from Stewart Brand’s How Buildings Learn: What Happens after They’re Built (1994) and not write about the book itself beyond this paragraph.  Brand argues that architects should concentrate not just on how buildings are used but how use changes over time, and he suggests how this could happen .  The book is filled with fascinating photographs of houses, factories, and other buildings transforming from one thing to another.  It is very much in the spirit of John Ruskin, of The Stones of Venice, although the prose is entirely conversational and non-technical.   It seems to have already become a classic in the literature of architecture, and is easy to recommend.

I don’t want to follow that thought.  I want this one:

To completely reunderstand buildings would require both of the fundamental approaches to knowledge – observation and theory.  I called them “Look first” and “Think first”… [T]here were two types of people in the world – those who deal with something new by really looking at it, devoid of preconception, versus those who prefer to form hypotheses first and then study the thing to see which ideas were right.  Both are honorable and productive. (211)

Although he uses different labels than I do, Brand has identified one of my most important frames, a tool I use all the time to think about writers and books.  The “Think first” writers are the conceptualists and theorizers, Alfred Jarry and Gustave Flaubert, writers whose works demonstrate their ideas.  The “Look first” authors are those who learn by doing, who have to write in order to discover their ideas.  I do not think I am distorting Brand too badly here – for writers of this temperament, writing is a major part of how they look.

Charles Dickens is the 19th century exemplar of the “Look first” author.  He developed his unique comic voice very quickly, but for every other aspect of novel-writing – characterization, plotting, rhetoric, and so on – his development is visible in his novels, from novel to novel, sometimes even within a single novel.  It is no coincidence that Dickens was the master of serialization.*  I am recycling the example of Dickens, but it is the best one I know.

Why do I bother with these distinctions?  Neurosis is a good answer, but that’s not it.  Understanding the temperament of the writer (or of the book – perhaps writers change from book to book) can provide an entryway to a work.  Conceptual novelists, for example,  often abandon standard components of the novel.  It is the “Think firsters” who are most likely to do without sympathetic characters, or clever plots, or common sense.  The concept they are working with is often explicitly literary, a response to earlier literature.  The writer is not incompetent, but is deliberately isolating the parts of the novel.  The “Look firsters” generally worry less about literature, or about the formal aesthetic properties of fiction, and more about the world around them, the part of the world not contained in books.

Perhaps it is more accurate to imagine a continuum.  Every successful conceptual novelist has to produce an actual novel, not simply describe his idea for a novel.  Every successful exploring novelist has to discover something along the way, something that gives form and meaning to his journey.  All of this is much easier to apply to art history, where the distinctions are often much clearer, where the difference between Pablo Picasso and Paul Cézanne, great innovators of opposite temperaments, is clear enough, without having to resort to, I don’t know, Rembrandt and Yves Klein.  Literature has been fortunate (although poetry has been less fortunate) to have avoided many of the conceptual extremes of 20th century visual art.  Books consisting of a single word repeated ten million times exist, but most conceptual writers still produce novels that are recognizable as novels and poems that behave like poems.  Weird novels, weird poems, but still.

I do not know if this is clearer than any other attempt I have made on this subject, but it is surely useful to define my terms once in a while, especially since I am, on the continuum, a “Look firster” who wishes he were a “Think firster,” a muddled and even disastrous combination.

*  Flaubert serialized Madame Bovary, too, but not before he had written every word of it.


  1. I haven't thought of writers in this way before, but it makes complete sense to me. I wonder if writers are self-aware of this process or if that too develops over time.

  2. This is good, this is the kind of thing I will subconsciously steal, my brain working on it as I read. Then perhaps one day I will have something of value to add!

  3. Both are honorable and productive.

    What a calmly reassuring statement.

    I am a think firster who always worries that I'm not getting around to looking carefully enough. Or even that thinking first is inherently wrong, somehow.

    I bought How Buildings Learn for my dad for a birthday a few years ago. He's a home and building inspector, so I thought it would be of interest. I had no idea it contained such useful ideas!

  4. Anna - Are writers, artists, aware of the distinction? Some are. An early self-description by Picasso was "I do not seek; I find" - this great conceptual thinker knew exactly who he was.

    But often, I wonder. I am sure there are writers who damaged their work by misunderstanding their temperament, who wanted to come up with startling innovative leaps when their gift lay elsewhere.

    That's a possible extension of the idea, by the way: Both kinds of writers can innovate, but do they create different kinds of innovations? Do they have different careers?

    In the 20th century, there has been a shift towards innovation, toward valuing innovation in art and literature - how has that affected the different types of writers? I think the story in literature is quite different than in music or dance or visual art, but why?

    Recent Josipovici readers might find this concept useful, too. He does not seem to agree that "both are honorable and productive."

    Anyway, nicole, steal away, please.

    Emily, it's a marvelous book. Much of Brand's interest, even his aesthetic interest, is so practical that I found few parallels with literature. A useful book in many other ways, though.

  5. You raise some interesting and thoughtful questions in your response. I think you're right to point out a possible point of departure that modernism (in the 20th century) takes from its 19th century predecessors.

    As for Stewart Brand, I would be interested to read his book in comparison with Gaston Bachelard's The Poetics of Space (an oldie but a goodie as they say). I would venture to guess that the poetics Brand describes is not too dissimilar from Bachelard's psychoanalytic approach, though having not read Brand, I could be way off the mark.

  6. The big Modernist switch seems like the clearest test case for a change in elite tastes, but I could be wrong. The early modern period might be even more interesting. Or your period, the Romantic challenge to the Enlightenment.

    Thanks for the Bachelard recommendation. Reading his bio, I see that I must have heard of him, but no bells are rung. I think you are right about the connection - Bachelard is interested in attics and storage and such spaces, how they are used.