Building a Better Description

Introduction to the special issue Description Across Disciplines
edited by Sharon Marcus, Heather Love, and Stephen Best

The introduction begins …

Academics don’t necessarily know what description is, but they know they don’t like it. “That talk was wonderfully descriptive; let’s give him the job”—said no one ever. When scholars from multiple disciplines gather to evaluate grant proposals, they can usually agree on one thing: the wisdom of rejecting any project they consider “merely descriptive.” And at least one university department’s grading rubric formalizes its low judgment of work that “is correct but largely descriptive, lacking analysis” by assigning such papers a C. Boring and static, rote rather than creative, reproductive rather than productive: description in such moments does not even rise to the status of a necessary evil. Instead, it is defined by failure or falling short: lacking a compelling argument or organizing perspective; insufficiently self-conscious of its own procedures; basic in the bad sense of naive and mechanical. Even the clearest accounts of description often contrast it to what it is not—not interpretation, not explanation, not prediction, not prescription.

Yet description is everywhere, a ubiquitous and necessary condition of scholarship, and in practice, if not in preaching, attitudes toward it vary across and within disciplines. Although scientists aim at explaining causal mechanisms and identifying predictive laws, many consider description an activity sufficiently worthy in its own right that one can find highly cited articles whose titles identify them as “descriptions”—of forest geckos, road surface roughness, molecular excitations, or valence bonds. Social scientists express more overt ambivalence about description. In 1980, economist Amartya Sen wrote, “It is fair to say that description as an intellectual activity is typically not regarded as very challenging. To characterize a work in the social sciences as ‘purely descriptive’ would not normally be regarded as high praise.” Three decades later, John Gerring similarly noted that in political science description “has come to be employed as a euphemism for a failed, or not yet proven, causal inference. Studies that do not engage causal or predictive questions, or do not do so successfully, are judged ‘merely’ descriptive.” But Sen and Gerring also contest this view by underscoring the fundamental importance of descriptions in social science and by foregrounding the skills needed to produce them. Nor are they alone. Many historians and ethnographers would say that without description, albeit of a highly interpretive kind, they could not produce historical narratives or field notes. Humanists often keep their engagement with description tacit and articulate their explicit discomfort with “mere description” by insisting (rightly) that description cannot be separated from interpretation. Even so, art historians, literary critics, and musicologists must learn to describe the paintings, sculptures, texts, and musical works that they study.

We believe that description is a core, if unacknowledged, method in all scholarship and teaching. In order to proceed, interpretations, explanations, and prescriptions must give an account of—describe—what they interpret, explain, or evaluate. Description makes objects and phenomena available for analysis and synthesis, and is rarely as simple as its critics imply. An elusive object that travels by many names, and sometimes by no name at all, description’s dictionary definitions include representation, drawing, report, portrayal, and account. Description can take many forms, including lists, case studies, sequences, taxonomies, typologies, genealogies, and prevalence studies, and it involves many actions, including observing, measuring, comparing, particularizing, generalizing, and classifying, using words, images, and numbers.

We write from the perspective of literary critics who became interested several years ago in questioning the dominance of interpretive methods in our discipline. In 2009, Stephen Best and Sharon Marcus published a special issue of Representations called “The Way We Read Now.” The introduction to that volume gathered a set of recent developments in literary studies under the rubric “surface reading,” referring to methods trained on “what is evident, perceptible, apprehensible in texts.” In 2010, Heather Love published an essay called “Close but Not Deep” that proposed the observational social sciences as a model for descriptive readings of literary texts. It was in part the controversy generated by these essays that prompted us to take a closer look at description: to assess what were widely cited as its limitations, or even dangers, and to further explore what we still imagined to be its unacknowledged and even untapped potential. What, we wondered, would it mean to acknowledge the ways that our critical and pedagogical practices make description central—to prosody, plot summary, histories of the book, even to allegorical and symptomatic interpretations? What would we learn if we widened our purview to ask scholars and practitioners from disciplines beyond literary studies to reflect on their own practices of description? Continue reading (free access until October 31, 2016) …

Universally practiced across the disciplines, description is also consistently devalued or overlooked. In this introduction to the special issue “Description Across Disciplines,” Sharon Marcus, Heather Love, and Stephen Best propose that description is a critical practice more complex (and less contradictory) than its detractors have taken it to be.  They argue that turning critical attention toward description’s nuances gives us access to the ways that scholars conventionally assign and withhold value and prestige. The authors set forth a number of principles (using their contributors’ essays as a guide) toward the end of “building a better description.”

SHARON MARCUS is Dean of Humanities and Orlando Harriman Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University as well as the co-founder and co-editor in chief of Public Books, an online review of books, arts, and ideas.

HEATHER LOVE is R. Jean Brownlee Term Associate Professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the author of Feeling Backward: Loss and the Politics of Queer History (Harvard) and the editor of a special issue of GLQ on Gayle Rubin (“Rethinking Sex”).

STEPHEN BEST is Associate Professor of English at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of The Fugitive’s Properties: Law and the Poetics of Possession (University of Chicago, 2004).

New Special Issue on Description


edited by Sharon Marcus, Heather Love, and Stephen Best

Number 135, Summer 2016 (read on Highwire)

Now available


Building a Better Description (the issue introduction: free access until October 31!)

Observable Behavior 1–10 

The Point of Precision

Cloud Physiognomy

Description and the Nonhuman View of Nature

Audio Description Described: Current Standards, Future Innovations, Larger Implications

Interpret or Describe?

Description in the Psychological Sciences

No Problem

Royal Accounting as Political Discourse

From Virtue to Surplus: Jacques Necker’s Compte rendu (1781) and the Origins of Modern Political Rhetoric

by Jacob Soll

The essay begins:

In modern politics, it is common for politicians, political theorists, and economists to discuss the legitimacy of their administrations and the health of their states through the impersonal terms of budgets, deficits, and (of the prime political virtues) surpluses. Balance sheets are part of the elemental rhetoric of modern political debate, true or false as they may be. Yet we don’t have a clear history of how political virtue came to be described as a budget surplus. Indeed, few political historians have examined the role of accounting language in political culture and in the rise of a modern, depersonalized fiscal state.


Jacques Necker. Wikimedia Commons (Public Domain)

In the case of France, there is one clear moment when the modern tradition of accounting language in politics began. Building on a series of eighteenth-century debates about government accounting and transparency, Jacques Necker (1732–1804), the famed Protestant Swiss banker and director general of French finances, linked accounting language with modern political discourse to define the effectiveness of a state. The author of the Compte rendu au Roi (1781)—an explanation of royal accounts and one of the best-selling pamphlets of the late eighteenth century—Necker has generally been seen as a leader in French financial pamphleteering. In the Compte rendu, Necker claimed a budget surplus of 10,200,000 livres based on a chart of royal accounts of tax receipts and expenditures, which, he stated, was the essence of his political virtue. He boasted—not altogether truthfully—that the publication of his accounts represented the first time in the history of the French monarchy that a finance minister had shown himself accountable for his administration by revealing his calculations to the public. The importance of Necker’s act was not so much in its questionable accuracy, as historians have argued. His lasting legacy, in fact, was his popularization of the use of accounting calculation as a language of political publicity, credit, and good government. In the process, the modern state came to be defined not as the domain of a king, but rather as an impersonal entity managed by financial professionals.

Numbers and accounts have been a part of politics since the dawn of states. However, in the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, with the rise of political economy and political arithmetic, proto-economists such as the French duc de Sully, the Dutch Pieter de la Court, and the Irish William Petty, to name a few, began measuring the management of states via financial accounts and economic statistics. What Necker did was part of another, less-known tradition. He popularized the work of earlier French political economists who fused classical political rhetoric about virtue, corruption, and political transparency from the Machiavellian, Tacitean political tradition to account books. J. G. A. Pocock and other historians of ideas have talked about a critical, often republican tradition in political language that emphasized exposing political secrets. Necker and his predecessors were well aware of this tradition, and they saw how state accounts were more and more becoming essential state secrets, or arcana imperii. Thus, to expose political corruption and bring virtue to the rising administrative states, political critics and reformers saw the force of exposing not only diplomatic or political secrets but also financial ones. Necker’s Compte rendu was part of this tradition, while at the same time it was directly responsible for popularizing the idea of good financial management as a classical political virtue and helped to enshrine this idea in the French Revolution. Continue reading …

This article explains how, during the time of the French Revolution, the financial language of accounting became part of modern political discourse with surpluses representing virtue, and deficits, failure.

JACOB SOLL is Professor of history and accounting at the University of Southern California. He is the author of Publishing “The Prince”: History, Reading, and the Birth of Political Criticism (2005), The Information Master: Jean Baptiste Colbert’s Secret State Intelligence System (2009), and The Reckoning: Financial Accountability and the Rise and Fall of Nations (2014).


Badiou’s Paradox

Heideggerian Mathematics: Badiou’s Being and Event as Spiritual Pedagogy

by Ian Hunter

The essay begins:

This paper is an experiment in redescription and reinterpretation. It seeks to take a text that enunciates a Heideggerian metaphysics of the “event”—understood as an encounter in which a subject meets itself emerging from the “void”—and to treat this text itself as an event in a quite other sense: as an ordinary historical occurrence. I will thus be approaching Alain Badiou’s Being and Event historically, in terms of the publication of a written work, but of a highly particular kind. This is a work whose discursive structure programs a refined spiritual pedagogy, and whose composition and reception only make sense within the historical context of the elite academic-intellectual subculture in which this pedagogy operates.

If we consider that Badiou regards his text as a “metaontology” that enunciates the emergence of events and indeed of historical time itself from the domain of nonbeing, then to treat this work as a kind of writing that occurs wholly within a particular historical subculture will imbue our redescription with an indelibly polemical complexion. It should be noted at the outset, however, that this complexion arises from the choice of a particular intellectual-historical method, rather than from any normative contestation of the content of Badiou’s work. This method or stance treats even the most abstract objects of reflection as products of an open-ended array of historical intellectual arts: rhetorics of argument, formal and informal languages, mathematical calculi, “spiritual exercises,” pedagogical practices. As a result, even a mode of reflection that claims to apprehend its objects at their point of emergence from the “void” and the “unthought” will be described in terms of the contingent historical use of a particular array of such arts. These will be those arts through which a philosophical elite learns to fashion an illuminated self whom it imagines keeping watch at the threshold of the void for the emergence of things newly minted from nonbeing through their naming. It is the task of a certain kind of philosopher to fashion such a self. The task of the intellectual historian, however, is to describe the intellectual arts used in this “work of the self on the self,” and the historical circumstances and purposes governing their transmission and use. Continue reading …

This essay provides a historical redescription and reinterpretation of Alain Badiou’s major work, Being and Event. The work is approached historically, as a text that uses Heideggerian metaphysics to perform an allegorical exegesis of mathematical set theory and does so as a means of fashioning a supremacist spiritual pedagogy for a philosophical elite in the context of a national intellectual subculture.

IAN HUNTER is an emeritus professor in the Institute for Advanced Studies in the Humanities, University of Queensland, Australia. He has published a number of studies on early modern philosophical, political, and juridical thought, most notably Rival Enlightenments: Civil and Metaphysical Philosophy in Early Modern Germany (Cambridge, 2001). Professor Hunter has also published a series of papers on the history of “theory” in the humanities academy, including “The History of Theory,” Critical Inquiry 33 (2006), and, most recently, “Hayden White’s Philosophical History,” New Literary History 45 (2014).

T. J. Clark Lecture

NASSR 2016 poster finalOn Friday, August 12, T. J. Clark will give one of two keynote lectures for the 24th Annual Conference of the North American Society for the Study of Romanticism (NASSR). The lecture, “Too Deep for the Vulgar: Hazlitt on Turner and Blake,” will take place at 6 pm in room 2050 of the Valley Life Sciences Building at UC Berkeley.

Clark is Professor Emeritus of Modern Art at Berkeley and was a long-time member of the Representations editorial board. His books and other writings, several of which found form originally in Representations, have influenced a generation of scholars.

The NASSR conference will take place from August 11 to 14 at various venues in Berkeley. More information and a full program are available at