10 things I wish someone had told me before I started writing code…

  • There is no such thing as an absolutely correct or ‘perfect’ way to write an algorithm. Moreover, while there are plenty of wrong ways to solve a problem, you’ll almost never write a truly ‘wrong’ piece of code. In general, if the code works as you expect it to, it’s good code.
    • There is no such thing as a final implementation—even the Apollo mission code (which wasn’t code in the modern sense, but a system of wires and physical registers) required modification—in space no less.
  • Given unlimited time, there is nothing a computer can do that cannot be done with a pen and piece of paper. This includes machine learning, AI and anything else you can imagine; there is nothing ‘magical’ about a computer’s capabilities.
  • A new technology is only better if it’s better for you. Don’t chase the language/framework/library of the day, if it isn’t broke, don’t learn a new language to fix it.
    • It is often better to use an existing solution than to build your own from scratch. BUT, make sure you don’t break your back integrating another’s code if it becomes more difficult than writing your own. (This is especially important for recent CS graduates, but all programmers fall victim to ‘I’ll just make it myself’ syndrome on occasion.)
  • Computer programming is not the same as computer science. Knowing how to use a language or framework is just as important as knowing how to build a language or framework from scratch. Put simply, knowing how to create your own computer programming language does not automatically make you a more effective programmer—it makes you a better computer scientist. Conversely, being good at writing Java doesn’t make you a good computer scientist—it makes you a good computer programmer. Knowing the finer details about how a computer operates does not always mean one is good at writing code.
  • The user is always wrong. Not about what they want, but don’t ever expect a user to use a piece of software in the way you intended when you wrote it.
  • Don’t optimize a piece of code until you’ve fully integrated it into the program its intended for. In other words, make sure it works before you spend any time making sure it will work efficiently. Effectiveness should always take priority over efficiency, there are some exceptions to this rule (i.e. database design and systems programming) but the average developer will almost never run into them a situation where their code cannot be optimized after it’s been integrated.
  • Prototypes are not optional for anything that will take you longer than a few working days to implement in full. Even the world’s greatest minds cannot reason effectively about a system with more than a dozen working parts without a physical model of its final form sketched out somewhere. An artist does not start work on a sculpture until they’re sure about what they’re going to sculpt, writing a computer program is no different.
  • Strict adherence to concepts like modularity, composition, inheritance, state, paradigm/pattern compliance, etc., is always less important than readability: a line of code is written once and read many times, don’t ever ignore the reader, even if the only person who will ever read it is you.
  • Don’t write notes about obvious things. For example:

# instantiate a csv reader.
reader = csv.reader(file)

In general, if you write clean, concise code, the notes will take care of themselves.

  • Don’t write notes about how a piece of code works, write notes about what it does. If you need to explain how a piece of code works, it’s probably shitty code.
  • Not all programmers write code in their free time, and those who do are not automatically better at writing code than those who don’t. You don’t need to spend your free time doing your job to be good at doing your job: most accountants don’t go home and do accounting in their spare time. Don’t let the keeners make you feel like a shit programmer because you have a life outside writing code.

Element of the Expository Essay

Element of the Expository Essay #1 – Thesis (or Conclusion)

What you’re arguing for or what you want to get your reader to believe

A thesis is not a topic.  A topic is the general subject matter of a paper, a thesis is a position on that subject matter.

Topic Thesis
Knowledge Knowledge is possible.
The banning of handguns Handguns should be banned.


Topic-Statement Thesis Statement
“In this paper, I will discuss whether knowledge is possible.” “In this paper, I will show that knowledge is possible.”
“Should we ban handguns?” “We should ban handguns.”

A bad thesis is like a cancer.  It will spread to all other aspects of your paper: style, transitions, argument, clarity, objections, replies.  It can even damage the most important element of the expository essay: the title.

A satisfactory thesis needs to satisfy three conditions.  It needs to be:

  1. Provable.
  2. Deniable.
  3. Focused.

Provable: you must be able to rationally argue for your thesis with the evidence at hand.  This does not mean it needs to be successfully proven beyond any doubt.  You need to be able to come up with an argument that makes it seem true to the intended audience of your paper.  Furthermore, you must be able to argue for your thesis with only the evidence at hand.  In other words, if every argument for your thesis requires tons of statistics, studies on human psychology, data from evolutionary theory, then (assuming you haven’t done the required research) it’s not a great thesis.  The solution to this problem is not to come up with a different (and bad) argument that doesn’t involve statistics or outside evidence.  The solution is to get a new thesis.

Deniable: your thesis must be able to be sincerely argued against in a rational way.  It must be controversial.  Merely provable theses are a dime a dozen.  “Humans generally have two arms” is a provable thesis.  But it is not deniable.  No one rational would sincerely argue against it.  Merely deniable theses are also a dime a dozen.  “I could survive the hottest flames of the Earth’s sun” is a deniable thesis.  But it is not provable.  There is no way to rationally argue for it.  It is a rare thesis that there is both a good argument against but a better and more decisive argument for.  It is rarer still to actually be in possession of that better and more decisive argument.  These are the theses you need to look for.  You need to look for a thesis that has a good argument against it, but for which you have an even better argument.  If the thesis you want to use in your paper does not fit this bill, you need a new thesis.

Focused: Your thesis needs to be small enough that a single (possibly complex) argument can prove it.  You shouldn’t have to provide 3 separate reasons why your thesis is true.  You need your final paper to be unified and the way you do this is by narrowing your thesis so that your entire paper all fits together.

Bad Thesis for a 4-6 page paper: Man is inherently evil.

Reason: What sort of evidence could possibly be brought in to a 4-6 page paper to show that this is true?  How many sociological and psychological studies must be done to show that all of every man’s actions are motivated by malevolence?

Bad Thesis: Belief in God is an important part of many people’s lives.

Reason: Who could reasonably disagree with this?

What you don’t want is: “There are three separate reasons why Descartes’ skeptical argument fails: 1) X, 2) Y, and 3) Z.”  Starting with a thesis like this leads to the dreaded laundry list style of paper writing.  You will end up with three discrete sections to your paper, tied together by nothing other than the fact that they are all arguments for a common claim.  This may be fine in a longer paper or a book, where you might try to marshal many arguments for a single point.  But the more unified your thesis is, the more focused on a specific line of thought, the better your paper will be.

You also don’t want: “In this paper I will be disagreeing with Descartes” or, “In this paper, I will be arguing for knowledge” These are examples of the “Yay-Boo Thesis”.  They are the equivalent of, “Yay knowledge!” and “Boo Descartes!”  These are too broad to count as nicely focused theses.  Your thesis should hint at some reason that you believe it.  (See accompanying handout.)

So, two kinds of theses to avoid:

1) The Yay-Boo Thesis.

2) The Laundry List.

Steps to the Thesis Statement

Step Example #1 Example #2 Example #3
1) Decide on a large overarching issue.  This can be big. What is knowledge? What is the relationship between religion and morality? Which is more important: individual rights or the health of society as a whole?
2) Decide on a smaller question that illustrates, exemplifies, handles, or puts this larger issue into stark relief. What must a belief be supported by in order to be genuine knowledge? Could we legitimately judge Hitler to be morally wrong unless there was a God that declared his actions to be wrong? Can we ban private ownership of handguns if it would reduce crime?
3) Take a stand on that smaller question. In order to be genuine knowledge, a belief must be supported by first hand experience. Hitler can be legitimately judged morally wrong even if there is no God to declare his actions wrong. It is wrong to ban private ownership of handguns, even if it would reduce crime.
4) Think of an initial and compelling reason in support of your stand. Unless one has a first hand experience, one can too easily fall into error. There are pre-existing moral laws – laws that exist independently of God, but also independently of humans. It is wrong to punish law-abiding citizens for crimes that others commit.
5) When you state your thesis, your statement of it should include BOTH 3 and 4.  It is this combined statement that you will be arguing for in the paper (even though 4, strictly speaking, is also part of the argument itself). “In order to be genuine knowledge, a belief must be supported by first hand experience because, unless one has a first hand experience, one can too easily fall into error.” “We can judge Hitler to be morally wrong, even without a God, because we can use pre-existing moral laws, laws that are independent both of God and Man.” “We cannot ban private ownership of handguns, because this would be to punish law-abiding citizens for crimes that others commit.”

You don’t have to go through these steps in this order.  And be careful about step number

  1. It’s probably less important than the others (see the accompanying Introduction Rule). But you should, when you’re finished coming up with your thesis, be able to set it up with a main question (level 2), have a clear picture of your answer to that question (level 3), have a good statement of your primary reason for that answer (level 4), and a well-formed statement of and argument for the combined answer and reason (level 5).

Element of the Expository Essay #2 – Argument

How are you arguing for your thesis?

Argument: how you support your thesis/the reasons or evidence you use to show that your main claim is true.

Arguments are more than mere illustrations.  Illustrations are further clarifications of your thesis.  Arguments give the reader reasons to believe your thesis.

Thesis Illustration Argument
People only act to achieve their own self-interest. Whenever you think you’re acting unselfishly, you’re really self-deceived.  Really you’re just trying to feel good about yourself. People only act on their own desires (not anyone else’s).  But to act on one’s own desires just is to act in one’s own self interest.  Therefore, people only act to achieve their own self-interest.

The Only Two Ways That Arguments Can Fail

  1. The conclusion can fail to follow from the premises.


Oswald’s gun requires 2 seconds between shots.

Therefore, it takes 6 seconds to shoot 3 times with Oswald’s gun.

  1. The premises can be false.


All dogs are fish.

All fish are mammals

Therefore, all dogs are mammals.

The Game of “Why”

As is often pointed out, argument can go on forever.  You claim X.  I ask you, “Why believe X?”  You say, “Believe X because of Y.”  I ask you, “Why believe Y?”  You say, “Believe Y because of Z?”  I ask you, “Why believe Z?”  You say, “Believe Z because of A.”  This is a very fun game for a very short period of time.  When can you stop this chain of argument?

ANSWER: when you get to a claim that your target audience (those reasonable people who disagree with your thesis) agrees with.  If you are trying to convince me of X, then presumably I don’t yet believe X.  That’s WHY you are trying to convince me that X is true.  If you can show me that Y is a good reason to believe X, and if I believe Y, then you will have convinced me to believe X.  So, you need to keep arguing until you get to some foundation, some basic premises that your target audience believes.

Element of the Expository Essay #3 – Motive

Why your reader should care about your thesis/why it’s CONTROVERSIAL

You provide a motive for your thesis by showing the reader why the opposing view is very plausible.  You provide a motive by giving reasons to believe the opposite.  You do not provide a motive merely by showing how important it is that your thesis is true, or by showing what psychological trait would make people believe it, or simply by saying that there is controversy, or simply by saying, “The opposite view seems very plausible.”

Usually, you put the motive at the beginning of the paper.  Some authors will spend the first few pages of their paper doing nothing but showing why the opposite view is something worth believing.  However, you always need to Return to the Motive at the end of paper, to show how you’ve resolved it (see other side of this sheet).

Poorly Motivated Thesis Well Motivated Thesis
Thesis: Abortion is morally impermissible from the moment of conception.

Motive: In our society, opinion is split pretty evenly on the subject of abortion.  Many intelligent people think abortion is morally permissible.  So how can I be arguing that abortion is morally impermissible?

Thesis: Abortion is morally impermissible from the moment of conception.

Motive: It seems abortion is morally permissible in the early stages of pregnancy.  After all, surely a woman has the right to control what happens in and to her body.  At least at first, a fetus doesn’t seem to feel pain or have significant mental capacity of any kind.  So it looks like the right of the woman to control what happens in and to her body should be of utmost importance.

Thesis: There is no objective moral truth.

Motive: Since the dawn of time, mankind has been fascinated by the notion of morality.

Thesis: There is no objective moral truth.

Motive: Unless there were objective moral truth, it doesn’t seem like we could ever legitimately judge other cultures or societies or individuals.  We couldn’t even legitimately judge ourselves.  We could never say that Nazi Germany or slavery was morally wrong.  There would be no reason to ever act to change anything.

Thesis: People always and only act selfishly.

Motive: It makes sense to think that people sometimes act purely altruistically.  After all, people have a need to believe in the inherent goodness of individuals.  Without this belief, people would lose hope.  It makes us feel bad to believe that people always and only act selfishly.

Thesis: People always and only act selfishly.

Motive: It makes sense to think that people sometimes act purely altruistically.  After all, to claim otherwise is to make an incredibly general claim about human psychology.  The evidence for this would be extremely hard to come by.  All sorts of scientific studies would have to be done, the likes of which we cannot really even imagine.  How can we tell what the real motives behind any given act are?  Given the mind-boggling lack of evidence we have, it seems to make sense to say that we sometimes act selfishly, sometimes not, more often a mixture of the two.

Return to the Motive:

It is not enough to give a good argument for your thesis.  Your argument can be as good as can be, but if you leave the motive standing, the reader will think, “Yes, I know you have a good argument.  But what about that reason I had to believe the opposite?”  So, you need, at the end of the paper, to come back to the motive and explain why it no longer has the force it initially seemed to.  Ideally, this explanation should fall right out of your argument.  It should be because your argument is what it is that the motive no longer looks so good.  Here are the above three examples, with some sample Returns.  (I’m not saying the sample Returns successfully defeat the sample Motives – they just are of the form that you will want to emulate.)

Thesis Motive Return
Abortion is morally impermissible from the moment of conception.


It seems abortion is morally permissible in the early stages of pregnancy.  After all, surely a woman has the right to control what happens in and to her body.  At least at first, a fetus doesn’t seem to feel pain or have significant mental capacity of any kind.  So it looks like the right of the woman to control what happens in and to her body should be of utmost importance. So now we can see why it doesn’t matter that, as pointed out earlier, an early fetus doesn’t seem to have any mental capacities.  It’s because the impermissibility of abortion stems from the fact that a fetus is a potential person, not from the fact that a fetus feels pain.
There is no objective moral truth.


Unless there were objective moral truth, it doesn’t seem like we could ever legitimately judge other cultures or societies or individuals.  We couldn’t even legitimately judge ourselves.  We could never say that Nazi Germany or slavery was morally wrong.  There would be no reason to ever act to change anything. So, once we take the view that there is no objective moral truth seriously, we realize that it makes no sense to say “it is not legitimate to judge others.”  Legitimacy is itself a moral notion.  So, judging others is perfectly “legitimate” but, of course, only in the relativist’s sense.  Since we personally feel that genocide is immoral, it is personally “legitimate” to judge it to be wrong.
People always and only act selfishly.


It makes sense to think that people sometimes act purely altruistically.  After all, to claim otherwise is to make an incredibly general claim about human psychology.  The evidence for this would be extremely hard to come by.  All sorts of scientific studies would have to be done, the likes of which we cannot really even imagine.  How can we tell what the real motives behind any given act are?  Given the mind-boggling lack of evidence we have, it seems to make sense to say that we sometimes act selfishly, sometimes not, more often a mixture of the two. So, given my argument, we can now see why evidence that people only act selfishly is unnecessary.  This is because the view that people only act selfishly is a result simply of the nature of voluntary action.  Voluntary action, by definition, is action that an agent wants to do.  Since it is the agent’s desires, and no one else’s, that make the agent act, the agent is necessarily acting selfishly, regardless of whether the agent wants to help others or to help him or her self.


Element of the Expository Essay #’s 4 and 5 – Objections and Replies

Objections: why one might plausibly think that your specific argument doesn’t work.

Replies: reasons that the objections fail.

Inclusion in your paper of compelling objections and replies has multiple purposes.  Most obviously, it gives you the opportunity to address complaints that your reader may have.  If your reader is left, at the end of your paper, with unanswered questions in mind, that is the one thing your reader will remember of your paper (if that).  Second, consideration of objections and replies allows you the opportunity to clarify what your thesis is and what your argument is.  You might say, in response to an objection, “This objection assumes that I am saying XXXXXX.  But, in fact, am saying YYYYYY.”  Third, you might consider objections that your reader hadn’t ever thought of.  It might seem strange to give your reader ideas – strange to help your reader see where your paper might go wrong – but in fact this maneuver can strengthen your paper and heighten its impact.  The reader will leave your paper thinking, “It answered everything, objections even I, the smartest in the land, had not thought of.”


An objection needs to be something more than an accusation that your argument fails.  Suppose your thesis is that Singer’s argument fails (for some specific reason).  Neither of the following are satisfactory objections:

“Someone might object to me that my argument fails.” Or, “Someone might object that Singer’s argument succeeds.”

You need to make each objection targeted at a very specific point in your argument.  The objection needs to show that you are wrong and why you are wrong.  You don’t have to consider every single possible objection to your view.  What you need to consider are the ones that the most intelligent critics will have in mind.  You shouldn’t pick objections just because they’re easy for you to answer.  For example:

“Someone might object that my argument seems too good to be true,” or “Someone might wonder how I developed such a brilliant argument without supernatural powers.”


A reply needs to be more than a restatement of your argument and more than a restatement of your thesis.  You need to supplement your argument with a new mini-argument against the objection.  The following is not a satisfactory reply:

“I respond that my argument actually succeeds.”

Where to Put Objections, and Replies

A thorough treatment of objections and replies often has a rather unpleasant side effect.  It can really drag the paper down into a list style, especially if you put all of the objections and replies at the end of the paper.  There are ways to avoid this:

1) Whatever you do, do NOT load all your objections and replies into the same paragraph and do NOT run through all of your objections and then run through all of the replies. 

2) Put the objections in surprising places.  Suppose your thesis is that Descartes’ argument is successful.  Suppose you want to consider the objection that, in fact, there is no evil demon consistently fooling us.  You could put this objection at the end, with all your other objections, thus expanding the already gigantic list.  Or, you could put the objection at the beginning, when you are spelling out Descartes’ argument.

You start out by saying:

“Descartes argues that, because the evil demon might be constantly fooling us, we cannot trust any of our beliefs.”

You then offer the following objection:

“Of course, we don’t actually believe there is such an evil demon.”

You then clarify Descartes’ argument by giving the following reply:

“But Descartes’ argument doesn’t depend on the evil demon actually existing.  As long as it is even possible for the evil demon to exist, we won’t be able to show that there is no evil demon who is constantly fooling us.  Any evidence we could bring up to show that there is no evil demon would also be there if there were an evil demon.”

By doing this you simultaneously clarify Descartes’ argument and dispose of a major objection.

3) Consider only a few objections, but make sure they are closely related to each other and to the motive.  That way, instead of a list of disparate objections, it will seem more like a variety of takes on one central objection.

4) Oddly enough, you can sometimes make the “list” seem less troubling by numbering the objections.  Though this seems like it will make the paper more despicably list-like, it can have the opposite effect.  But be careful with this approach.  It’s kind of a last resort.  If you use it, you should put each reply right after its objection.  You should make sure you deal completely with each objection; don’t leave any questions hanging.  And you should anticipate the numbered list by saying something like “My argument seems subject to three major objections.  I will discuss each in turn.”

These methods aside, it is very difficult to do a completely thorough job with objections and still have a smooth, unified-seeming paper with perfect transitions.  There’s usually a tradeoff.  Always err on the side of answering a crucial objection.

Element of the Expository Essay #6 – Sources

Any outside material that you use in your essay either as evidence for a claim, the basis for an interpretation, an example of an opinion, for any other reason.

A source is any material other than the fruit of your own intellect that you refer to or use in a paper. These vary widely in kind. All the following can be sources:

  1. A movie.
  2. an encyclopedia.
  3. another person.
  4. a work of fiction.
  5. a song.
  6. a work of art.
  7. a natural object.

and many others, including all the standard texts, reference books, essays, journal articles, television shows, magazine pieces, newspapers, and, ultimately, everything in the universe.

Sources can be used in a variety of ways, but we can fudge certain details and narrow down those ways to 2 basic categories.  Sources can be used:

  1. to get information or facts about the world and
  2. to reveal a claim, opinion, or interpretation that someone else has made.

For example, if, in a paper on population trends, you quote The Big Yellow Almanac of Truth as saying “The population of the earth is 6.2 billion.” then you are using the source in the first way; you are using it factively.  You are using it to get a fact about the world (how many people there are).

On the other hand, if you say, “Plato argues that knowledge is true belief plus personal experience,” then you are using the source in the second way; you are using it (for lack of a better word), non-factively.  (You are also using it incorrectly, because Plato never actually says that an account needs to involve personal experience.)  You are not using it to get information about the world in the same way as you used the almanac.  You are using it as an example of something Plato says.  You are using it as revealing a claim of his.

  • The very same passage in the very same source can be used in both ways at different times. For example, the almanac can be used factively, as above.  Or it can be used non-factively.  If you are writing a paper on whether The Big Yellow Almanac of Truth is reliable, you could use the very same passage above simply as evidence that the almanac has a certain thing to say about the population of the earth.  You would use the passage as revealing a claim that the almanac makes, not as necessarily revealing a fact about the world.
  • Depending on the situation, sources can sometimes be properly used in only one of the two ways. For example, in an essay on the nature of knowledge, it would be improper to use Plato’s text as a source of fact, as giving the truth about knowledge in the same way almanacs give the truth about population.
  • Sometimes it might be proper to use a source factively, but not proper at other times. In a newspaper article about why a plane crashed, it may be proper to use some physics textbook factively.  But in a scholarly article about whether that physics textbook is accurate, it no longer is proper to use that very textbook as a source of fact.
  • Generally, you can use a source factively only when there is no question as to whether the source is reliable. This happens only when both the author and the audience agree fully that the source is reliable.

How to Elegantly Weave Sources Into Your Paper (The Four “I”s)

Do not simply drop a quote into your paper as if it’s just another sentence.  The following paper excerpt is a misuse of a source.

Should we believe that we are awake?  “I see plainly that there are never any sure signs by means of which being awake can be distinguished from being asleep” (Descartes, 13).  So, we should not believe that we are awake.

The main problem with this excerpt is that the quote is dropped into the paper as if it’s the author’s own.  Simply giving the page number is not enough.  You have to….

Introduce the quote.  You must preface the quote with something like, “Descartes says…” or “Descartes makes the following argument:” Rephrasing the above excerpt:

Should we believe that we are awake?  Descartes says, “I see plainly that there are never any sure signs by means of which being awake can be distinguished from being asleep” (13).  So, we should not believe that we are awake.

This is better, but not quite there.  For, though the author brings in Descartes to support the conclusion, the author just drops the quote in without explaining it.  You not only have to introduce the quote.  You have to say what it means.  That is, you must…

Interpret the quote.  You need to give some example illustrating what the quote says or some further clarification of the content of the quote.  If the quote is an argument, you need to elaborate on the argument.  If the quote is a snippet from a piece of literature, you may need to clarify terms, concepts, or how it relates to the larger text.  Either way, this may end up seeming redundant to you.  That’s o.k.  Be redundant.

Should we believe that we are awake?  Descartes says, “I see plainly that there are never any sure signs by means of which being awake can be distinguished from being asleep” (13).  What does he mean, here?  Well, every experience and feeling one is having right now, one could have in a dream.  One could be sure one sees a table, sure that one is hearing a voice, sure that one is walking around.  There is no feeling, belief, desire, or thought that one could have awake that one couldn’t have in a dream.  So, we should not believe that we are awake.

This is still better.  But it’s lacking in two ways.  First of all, though the author has explained what Descartes means, the author has not yet taken a stand on what Descartes says.  The author has provided another version of Mavrodes’ argument, but the author hasn’t yet stated whether and why the author thinks the argument works.  So, the author needs to…

Issue a verdict on the quote.  (O.k., this isn’t the most natural way of saying this.  But I needed this step to begin with an “I” so I could keep with my 4 “I”’s theme.)  This won’t be as crucial when discussing literary quotes.  But even there, a verdict can be made on how important the passage is in the overall scheme of the work.  Your verdict can be a matter of simply saying, “And this argument seems exactly right (or wrong).”  More often it will be a matter of explaining why it’s right or wrong.  So:

Should we believe that we are awake?  Descartes says, “I see plainly that there are never any sure signs by means of which being awake can be distinguished from being asleep” (13).  What does he mean, here?  Well, every experience and feeling one is having right now, one could have in a dream.  One could be sure one sees a table, sure that one is hearing a voice, sure that one is walking around.  There is no feeling, belief, desire, or thought that one could have awake that one couldn’t have in a dream.

This argument seems correct.  After all, we can tell ourselves that we are certain right now that we are not dreaming – that the vividness of our current experiences is too strong.  But we could tell this to ourselves just as easily in a dream; our experiences could be just as vivid.  So, we should not believe that we are awake.

Almost there.  The remaining problem is that it is not clear how the quote relates to the ultimate conclusion (that we should not believe that we are awake).  Just because a connection might seem obvious to you doesn’t mean it’s obvious to everyone.  So, you need to tie the source with the main argument in the paper.  That is, you need to…

Errrr…. Integrate the quote into the main argument.  Why does the fact that there are no “sure signs by which being awake can be distinguished from being asleep” mean that we should not believe that we are awake?  The author can’t simply insist that it does.  Another argument is needed, here.  Thus, the final version reads as follows:

Should we believe that we are awake?  Descartes says, “I see plainly that there are never any sure signs by means of which being awake can be distinguished from being asleep” (13).  What does he mean, here?  Well, every experience and feeling one is having right now, one could have in a dream.  One could be sure one sees a table, sure that one is hearing a voice, sure that one is walking around.  There is no feeling, belief, desire, or thought that one could have awake that one couldn’t have in a dream.

This argument seems correct.  After all, we can tell ourselves that we are certain right now that we are not dreaming – that the vividness of our current experiences is too strong.  But we could tell this to ourselves just as easily in a dream; our experiences could be just as vivid.  What this shows is that we have no more evidence to show that we are awake than that we are asleep.  That is, from our perspective it is just as likely that we are asleep as that we are awake.  But if a belief is just as likely as its opposite, we shouldn’t believe either one.  I shouldn’t believe that the coin will come up heads – it’s just as likely that it will come up tails.  Since it’s just as likely that we are asleep as awake, we should not believe that we are awake.

One small paragraph on a single quote has turned into two rather large paragraphs.  This is as it should be.  Quotes are sacred things.  You cannot simply drop them into your paper, assume them to be clear and true (or false), and move on.  You need to investigate (another “I”) them thoroughly.  This is what is involved in elegantly weaving quotes into your paper.

The 4 “I’s” are:

  1. Introduce the quote.
  2. Interpret the quote.
  3. Issue a verdict on the quote.
  4. Integrate the quote into the main argument.

3 Ways to Misuse a Source

Assumption: you use a source as a source of fact, when it actually should be taken to be a source of opinion.  That is, you assume what the source says is true, that an argument presented in a source works, that the author is automatically authoritative, etc.  Usually, if a source presents an argument or makes a claim, you need to give reasons why we should trust the source in general and the argument or claim in particular.  Here is an excerpt from a student’s paper in which this sort of error is made.

According to Henry L. Stimson, Secretary of State during World War II, “the face of war is the face of death; death is an inevitable part of every order that a wartime leader gives.  The decision to use the atomic bomb was a decision that brought death to over a hundred thousand Japanese.  But this deliberate premeditated destruction was our least abhorrent choice.”  Therefore the United States was justified in using the atomic bomb to end the war with Japan.

Even if Stimson is ultimately correct, what the student needs is some argument that we should trust Stimson on this issue – some argument that Stimson’s reasoning is sound.  It might even suffice just to say, “Because Stimson was in a position to know what the potential outcomes were, we should trust Stimson on this issue.”  This may not be a great argument, but it makes clear that you know that you need a reason to trust Stimson – that is, you are not simply taking his word as a source of fact.

Misrepresentation: you represent the source as saying something that, in fact, it does not.  This might be because you are simply misinterpreting the source.  This is a simple matter of misunderstanding.  Or it might be because you are focusing too much on one passage in the source and ignoring other, relevant passages.  Or you might be putting words in the author’s mouth.  Here is an example of misrepresentation:

Plato argues that knowledge requires direct eyewitness experience.  But we can know many things via the testimony of others.  So, Plato’s account of knowledge is incorrect.

Plato never actually says that knowledge requires direct eyewitness experience.  What he says is, “When a jury is rightly convinced of facts which can be known only by an eyewitness… they are judging without knowledge” [908, emphasis added]  It’s up to you to interpret this passage in as plausible a way as possible.

Plagiarism: you represent other people’s ideas, phrases, essay structure, novel vocabulary as your own.  This occurs when you:

  • paraphrase without citing.
  • too closely paraphrase; even if you do cite, a paraphrase that too closely mirrors the text (without directly quoting it) represents the phrasing of the author as your own.
  • fail to quote a verbatim passage.
  • fail to note that you are borrowing the structure of an author’s paper as your own.
  • use an evocative phrase or even a single characteristic word, Plato’s “account” or Hare’s “blik”.

Element of the Expository Essay #7 – Transitions

The sentences you use to move from paragraph to paragraph and topic to topic.

Though your essay should be on one unified topic, you can’t help but include a number of subtopics within that main heading.  You want to make sure that you smoothly switch from subtopic to subtopic.  Usually, you switch topics by switching paragraphs.  And to do this smoothly, you need to make sure that the final sentence of the one paragraph indicates why you’re going to switch to the next subtopic, while the first sentence of the next paragraph makes clear why you are elaborating on the preceding paragraph.

The point is, you need to say explicitly why it is that you are switching subtopics.  Often, this will take a paragraph of its own.

Obviously, an unfocused thesis will make for some awkward transitions.  If your thesis isn’t focused, that means that your thesis contains a number of ideas that aren’t really closely related to each other.  With an unfocused thesis, when you skip from one idea to the next, it will be quite difficult to do so smoothly.  It will be quite difficult to make clear how your ideas are related to each other.  So, the first step toward smooth transitions is focused, unified thesis.


There are certain words and phrases that should signal to you that you may have written an awkward transition.  These words are:

“also”, “in addition”, “plus”, “another”

As in:

“Another problem with Bok’s argument is that she assumes that politicians aren’t qualified to know when it is dangerous to tell the truth.”


“Keeley also mention another reason why conspiracy theories ought not be trusted.”

Though these words don’t always indicate a poor transition, they should cause you to look closely at the sentence to see if the paper reads well at that point.  In particular, if these sorts of words occur at the beginning of a paragraph, that should really ring warning bells that you may have a quite sudden transition.

Words like “but”, “however”, “so”, and “therefore” have just the opposite implication.  If you begin paragraphs with these kinds of words, then you are likely transitioning well from idea to idea, because it is clear how each paragraph is CONTRASTED with what came before (“but”, “however”) or FOLLOWS from what came before (“so”, “therefore”).

Element of the Expository Essay #8 – Structure

How your paper is organized, the order the ideas and arguments are presented, the movement of thought from topic to topic.

Your essay’s structure is the order in which you present other central elements of the essay: thesis, argument, motive, objections, and replies.  There are many compelling ways to do this.  But there are also sure-fire ways to do it wrong.

Do Not Use the Following Methods!!!

The Walk-Through Approach: In the walk-through approach, you basically follow the order of some source that you are using, running through an author’s arguments and responding to them in basically the same fashion the author does.  When you do this, you are letting the texts use you, instead of using the texts for your own purposes.

Signs you are using the walk-through approach:

  • You say things like, “Then Smith argues that…”
  • You begin the paper with an introduction of the author instead of your own ideas. It’s fine to begin with a powerful quote from a source.  But it’s often dangerous to begin by saying something like, “Sociologist Maisie Jones argues that U.S. society has become less religious in the last 50 years.  Her argument is…”
  • There is nothing original from you.

The List Approach: We have already discussed this approach earlier in the year.  But, as a reminder, in the list approach, you arrange your essay by presenting seemingly unconnected ideas one after another without providing explicit connection between them.  As we have noted, this approach is usually indicative of a disunified or unfocused thesis.

Usually, if you avoid both of these methods, your structure will be o.k.  There are, however, a couple of strategies for making sure your structure is as effective as possible.

  1. Do not order your paper arbitrarily. That is, do not throw ideas into the paper in the order you think of them.  Objections, for example, might proceed from the less compelling and plausible to the most compelling.  Your replies can proceed in the same way, as might your arguments.  That way, your paper builds toward a climactic end in which you are considering the most important point in the issue you are writing about.
  2. Try this: physically cut your paper into pieces at the paragraph breaks. If someone who has not read the paper can put them back together in the right order, that will ensure that you have a paper which moves sensibly (not arbitrarily) from idea to idea as the paper progresses.  (Sometimes, if your paper is quite arbitrarily assembled, not even you will be able to reassemble it in the correct order, especially if you wait a while before trying it.)

Some Possible Structural Approaches

Title Description Pros Cons
The Default Model


1) Thesis

2) Motive

3) Argument

4) Objections and Replies

6) Return to the Motive

1) Lets the reader know exactly where the essay is going.

2) Ensures that all elements of the essay are included.


1) Can be quite dry and boring.  But any paper can be dry and boring.
The Slowly-Opening Delicate Flower


Like the amaryllis which, over the space of a few days, gradually emerges from dry brown bulb, to end in glorious bloom, so too will your thesis and argument, from the barest reflections on a topic, emerge by the conclusion into the glorious concept that it is. 1) Can be much more interesting than the Default Model. (but see Con #2)

2) Can be more compelling than the Default Model model, since the reader gets swept along with the essay.

1) Sometimes, crucial elements of the essay get left out (e.g. thesis, argument, motive, objections, replies, or all of them together).

2) Can be deadly boring, as the reader wonders when on earth you’re going to get to a point.

3) Can be quite confusing, as the reader wonders what on earth is going on in the essay.




Start with just a gigantic motive.  Spend the majority of the paper arguing for that motive before finally, at the end, springing your own argument and thesis. 1) If successful, is completely convincing, since you’ve spent so much time convincing the reader that you’re aware of even the strongest arguments against you (and you’ve handled them.). 1) If unsuccessful, leaves the reader wondering how you’ve proven what you set out to prove.

2) Can be a bit confusing, at first, unless you foreshadow the conclusion you will eventually reach.


Note – I Josh Harkema, if for some reason you’re not getting this document from me, collected most of this information from Professor Jeremy Fantl at the U of C. I edited 10 documents from Fantl and collated this, massive, document on essay writing. I take no credit for this document.

Building a Better Mousetrap – The Digital Humanists’ Manifesto

“Literary criticism is exemplary” (Ullyot and Bradley 144). This opening line from Ullyot and Bradley’s section of Shakespeare’s Language in Digital Media serves as the impetus for the Art Criticism Lab’s (ACL) sonnet database project. The central question driving the creation of the database is simple: how can technology enable definitive critical statements? Tools like the Natural Language Toolkit[i] (NLTK) exist to aid in the analysis of digital texts, but tools for storing and querying digital text are almost non-existent. Project Gutenberg[ii] stores a vast quantity of raw text in various formats; however, these texts are not encoded for programmatic analysis. With the Gutenberg corpus it is possible to examine an entire text against another entire text, but an examination focused on the specific contents of a given text is difficult, if not impossible, using Gutenberg alone. The Gutenberg corpus contains data (page headers, footnotes, and editor’s introductions) useless to a digital analysis, as well as lacks data (delimiters for chapters, sections, and lines; and titles for individual poems) required for an accurate computational analysis. The primary aim of the ACL sonnet database is to address these issues of specificity: rather than storing a vast quantity of raw text, the database is designed to store only the sonnets contained within a text in a format that allows programmatic analysis. In other words, the database strives to gather and meta-tag all sonnets in the English language in a format designed to enable ‘definitive’ critical claims about its contents. Specificity of meta-data (data about data) is what separates the ACL sonnet database from other text-focused digital corpora. Other databases allow a user to search and obtain the contents of a single text, and some of the better databases allow a user to search the contents of many texts but lack a method to simultaneously ‘download’ the results of a search in a meta-tagged format for digital analysis. The EEBO corpus[iii] contains tens of thousands of digital texts, but unless a scholar is willing to download and meta-tag each document one by one, it is impossible to preform a wholistic analysis of the corpus’s contents. The EEBO database is perfectly designed for a human user, the ACL sonnet database is designed with both humans and computers in mind.

The primary difference between the ACL sonnet database and databases like the EEBO is the integration of a RESTful (Representational State Transfer) compliant public API[iv] (Application Programmer Interface.) This type of API is the standard protocol for moving structured data from one computer to another in a format both computers can understand. The ACL’s implementation of a RESTful API allows a user to preform queries on the database from a Python script, an R project, or other computer language without the use of the database’s browser-based website. However, all the features of the API are also available on the site itself, the API is a computational interface whereas the site is a human interface. The results of a user’s programmatic query to the API are sent back to their computer as a JSON[v] (JavaScript Object Notation) formatted file their computer program can interact with natively[vi]. The ACL site’s various API endpoints[vii] allow a user to gather only the specific data (sonnets) they require for their analysis; the JSON formatted response allows a user to preform an analysis across a large data set without the need to first strip away important details about the data. For example, a user can preform an analysis on all the text (i.e. the lines of poetry) in the database and easily locate the specific author and title of each sonnet in their results. Rather than analyzing a corpus of many different texts condensed into a single text file, the use of JSON files allows an analysis of many texts without the need to first condense them into a single file. While this type of JSON based API is extremely common in public websites, the academic world has yet to integrate them into their websites and databases. This lack of standardized digital corpora already presents a major problem to those working in the digital humanities: future failure to implement open-source, publicly available, meta-tagged, APIs of digital corpora will force any project in the field to spend most of its available time and budget collecting and collating data. Moreover, the creation of non-public digital collections of texts inevitably leads to a massive amount of duplication; digital humanists will spend sparse research dollars collecting and tagging texts already digitized by another researcher. The ACL sonnet database is the first step towards an API based open-source collection of text, and it is my hope many similar projects will follow the ACL’s example. Modifying the code used to operate the ACL database to integrate formats beyond sonnets is a project of trivial difficulty; the future of the digital humanities relies on individuals and groups willing to adapt, maintain, and contribute to open-source software projects like the ACL. While those with coding skill are always important, those willing to encode and sanitize (make readable/regular) raw text are much more important to the field. Gathering a huge volume of raw text to analyze is only the first—and perhaps the easiest—step of an algorithmic analysis, the text is practically useless until it is tagged, sorted, cleaned, and regularized.

Data regularization presents a problem to any project working with textual data, especially those working with texts from earlier periods. This problem seems straightforward, but digital analysis requires an attention to details a human reader can easily overlook. For example, how should spelling be dealt with if the misspelling is important to the metre of the line? For example, when Shakespeare uses an acute accent, “agéd” instead of “aged,” to add an extra syllable to a line the database must somehow account for this variation. Moreover, when preforming an analysis should agéd and aged count as the same word? Can the problem be solved by simply allowing agéd = aged? If so, how many other uses of an acute accent would we have to map onto such a system of substitution? The problem cannot be solved by a simple substitution, nor can it be solved by simply removing the accented letter: in both instances the loss of essential data is too great. Furthermore, how should non-standard spelling be corrected? Which standard spelling should be used? British English? Canadian English? American English? How is ‘standard’ defined? It is easy to switch “neuer” to “never,” but what happens when the spelling change is not obvious? What about misspelled proper names? How should words like “amazeth” be lemmatized? Any extant database for lemmatization will need to include archaic tenses or a newly created database will need to account for them. How should metrical contractions like “prick’d” and “imprison’d” be dealt with? Should we remove the metrical regularity by correcting the term to its dictionary spelling or should we map all possible metrical contractions to some form of substitution scheme? If we choose the former we lose the ability to algorithmically analyze the metre of the poem, if we choose the latter we must create a database to correct for all such substitutions when preforming a lemmatized analysis of word frequency. The solution is not simple, and I do not have answers to these questions. This serves as an example of how a seemingly simple problem becomes a hugely complex issue when one focuses on the details. Furthermore, these examples do not represent a comprehensive list of all the problems any large-scale text digitization project will face.

Now, I will address some of the solutions to specific problems I discovered while creating the ACL database, and, by extension, problems any similar database project undertaken in the digital humanities will face. First, what is meta-tagging and what should any such tags contain? A meta-tag is, put simply, a piece of information related to another piece of information. For example, each sonnet in the ACL database is ‘tagged’ with the author’s first and last name, the sonnet’s title, where the sonnet came from, how many lines it contains, who added it to the database, when it was put in the database, and so on. However, determining what information each sonnet should be tagged with is not a simple undertaking. In the initial construction of the ACL database I relied on the Text Encoding Initiative’s (TEI) P5 Guidelines[viii] to determine the structure of the tags; the TEI guidelines form the de facto standards used by many large-scale text digitization projects. To create a valid TEI formatted XML file, the file must contain the author’s first and last name, the names of any editors and/or contributors, a description of the text’s source, a publication statement, and a title (The TEI Consortium). However, these standards are not specific enough for use in an augmented analysis. The next step was to determine the domain of the problem the database needs to solve. For this step, I asked my fellow English 523 students and Dr. Michael Ullyot what kind of questions the database should answer. The common thread in these discussions came down to two questions: what is a sonnet? and, is the sonnet a form or a genre? From these questions I was able to separate the domain of the problem into a set of elements (or features) the database needs to capture. The chosen meta-tags must aid in computational analysis and database queries. Moreover, the tags must be unique enough to prevent a sonnet matching an existing sonnet’s title, source, and author last name from being re-added. Based on these requirements, I chose the following meta-tags:

  • The author’s first name (optional.)
  • The author’s last name (mandatory.)
  • The year of initial publication (optional.)
  • The title of the sonnet (mandatory, but the sonnet’s first line is used when a title is not provided.)
  • A timestamp of when the sonnet was added or the last time it was updated (automatic.)
  • A publication statement of the sonnet’s publication rights (mandatory.)
  • A description of the sonnet’s source (mandatory.)
  • The username of the user who added the sonnet, or the user who last edited the sonnet (automatic.)
  • The total number of lines in the sonnet (automatic.)
  • The period of initial publication (mandatory.)

Optional meta-tags allow for some flexibility within the data, and required meta-tags enforce a regularity across the varied contents of the database. Without a baseline of regularity, deriving definitive results from the data set is impossible; without regularization, the database becomes a motley assortment of poems with no definitive context one can utilize in an analysis, defeating its entire purpose. For the database to definitively provide a user with, for example, all of Shakespeare’s sonnets, every sonnet in the database must contain the author’s last name. In addition, each last name must be added to the database in an exacting format. To illustrate this problem, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s name could be added in two ways:

  • First name: “Elizabeth” | Last name: “Barrett Browning”
  • First name: “Elizabeth Barrett” | Last name: “Browning”

As this shows, regularization of inputs is extremely important. Entering information into the database requires a detailed consideration of every possible manifestation the data may present, not only the intuitive manifestations common to any given corpus. These regularized and specific meta-tags allow the database to produce valid TEI files while also allowing complex and specific analysis of the database’s contents. Consistent meta-tagging, in concert with a public API, is what separates the ACL database from other digital corpora like the EEBO database or Project Gutenberg.

The ACL database provides an augmented interface to enable augmented criticism, and the EEBO and Gutenberg databases provide standard interfaces to enable standard criticism. The elusive ‘definitive’ criticism the digital humanities aims to produce requires the former, but only the latter exists today. This presents an existential problem to any pursuit in the digital humanities: before any valid discussion around digital methods can begin, before any augmented tools can be built, such projects must first define and regularize the data set these methods and tools will utilize. In other words, definitive criticism must operate on a standard data set shared and validated across a broad spectrum of academic fields. Moreover, analysis of such a data set must use standardized tools and metrics designed by the same academics in their various analyses. In the pursuit of definitive criticism, an academic must produce repeatable results another academic can verify. Therefore, before any real work in the realm of digital humanities can begin, a shared data set must exist; and the only way such a data set can exist is if it is built and maintained by a community of academics. Before one can claim ‘all {x} equals {y}’ one must first collect all the {x} and ensure the resulting {y} is valid. Collecting all the {x} for a simple question like the one posed by English 523 (what is a sonnet?) presents a near-impossible problem. However, if this type of critical project is undertaken the way an open-source software project is managed, a critical project becomes a collaboration of many people working separately toward similar goals. Maybe the work of an academic digitizing and tagging the works of James Joyce would provide further data to another project on modernist literature; maybe someone digitizing and tagging all the works of unknown female poets would unintentionally provide profound insight to another person working on the feminist implications of the renaissance. The point is simple: definitive criticism is only possible if the data set under analysis contains anything and everything remotely applicable to its claims. And, the only way one could ever hope to create such a data set is through the massive, shared, open-source effort of many academics working together on different projects. In other words, we need many people to follow the same guidelines on the same database across many and varied projects before we can form anything resembling a definitive claim. Consequently, a comprehensive data set must always precede a definitive claim.

The technology to power a massive literary database like the one described above is the same technology used in large companies to power accounting, messaging, and other business-oriented tasks. The digital humanities does not need a new type of database technology or a new file standard for encoding and sharing data; any attempt to build such a technology would inevitably reproduce another technology already deployed in another field. For this reason, I chose to use Spring Boot[ix] (part of the Spring Framework) to power the ACL database and website. While many other technologies could handle the ACL’s specific needs, I chose to use Spring Boot because of my own familiarity with it, its wide corporate and open-source adoption, the availability of accurate documentation, and the availability of developers experienced in its use. Furthermore, the Spring project is open source and can be used without any special licensing or branding requirements. Spring enabled me to produce a working site quickly without the need for thousands of lines of boilerplate code[x] or abstract security considerations; Spring’s security and database modules are proven to work, and it would have taken me hundreds of hours to create and test code with similar functionality, and the resulting code would have been sub-par at best. The data is stored in a MySQL database using the InnoDB[xi] dialect to ensure high-speed returns of the most commonly queried data. Search is currently handled by the Apache Lucene[xii] search engine, but I plan to migrate onto Elasticsearch[xiii] (a more powerful implementation of Lucene) soon; Lucene does not provide the customization available in Elasticsearch, and the complex nature of the database requires a custom solution. Moreover, combining Spring and Elasticsearch enables easy expansion of the types, forms, and genres contained in the database without the need to start from the beginning and throw out existing code. For example, I could add another poetic form to the ACL database with the addition of less than 400 lines of code; an experienced developer could add a new poetic form to the database in less than a single day’s work. This is to say, any project in the digital humanities does not need to rebuild the wheel. Using existing frameworks allows a project to grow beyond a single academic and/or institution: a truly open-source project is developed in a way that allows developers unfamiliar with the project to quickly ‘get on board’ and contribute. For a large, multi-user project to succeed, its architecture must follow standard development practices and use widely available frameworks. When an open-source project is too esoteric for someone unfamiliar with it to quickly understand and contribute code, it is only open-source in name; no one will want to contribute if they first need to spend many hours learning a project specific nomenclature or design specification they cannot use anywhere else. Standards make everyone’s life easier, and there is no reason for the digital humanities to design a new standard when the current standard has already been shown to work. To ‘build a better mousetrap’ is not to ‘design a new mousetrap from scratch,’ one should only change the elements specific to one’s use case and keep what already works in place.

In conclusion, the ACL sonnet database provides an example of how a large-scale text digitization project could use existing technology and standards to satisfy the needs of the digital humanities. It strives to improve upon existing human-centric online corpora by enabling programmatic access via an JSON based RESTful API and standardized meta-tags. Rather than providing large blocks of raw text, the ACL database provides specific and regularized text with the important meta-tags intact. Moreover, the open-source nature of the code behind the database provides a template for other projects with similar aims. However, rather than building a domain specific database, those in the digital humanities should focus on the creation of a collaborative general-purpose database of as many and varied texts as such a group could obtain. Any potentially definitive claim requires a vast corpus of supporting data, and it is nearly impossible for a single person or institution to gather, sort, tag, and regularize the volume of data such claims require. The digital humanities cannot thrive in the realm of individual critics making individual claims on a set of data judged applicable by an individual’s opinion; for the digital humanities to succeed a massive collaborative effort must be undertaken to collect and regularize a massive set of literature. Without a comprehensive set of data to ground our arguments upon, we are simply extending our existing critical conceptions to include more data. For a truly definitive claim our conceptions must include every piece of data with any potential to influence our claims. To build a truly definitive criticism, we must allow every piece of literature—irrespective of canon, creator, and critic—the same status. To create a definitive criticism, we must first remove the critic from the claim.

Works Cited

Jenstad, Janelle, et al., editors. Shakespeare’s Language in Digital Media. Routledge, 2018.

The TEI Consortium. TEI P5: Guidelines for Electronic Text Encoding and Interchange. Edited by C.M. Sperberg-McQueen and Lou Burnard, 31 Jan. 2018, http://www.tei-c.org/release/doc/tei-p5-doc/en/Guidelines.pdf.

Ullyot, Michael, and Adam James Bradley. “Past Texts, Present Tools, and Future Critics: Toward Rhetorical Semantics.” Shakespeare’s Language in Digital Media, pp. 144–56.


[i] https://www.nltk.org/

[ii] http://www.gutenberg.org/

[iii] https://eebo.chadwyck.com/home

[iv] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Representational_state_transfer

[v] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/JSON

[vi] A native file is a format a computer can use with no additional components (i.e. a file the computer can use without installing any new software.)

[vii] An endpoint is a URL (i.e. https://database.acriticismlab.ort/sonnets/all) that preforms an API function.

[viii] http://www.tei-c.org/guidelines/p5/

[ix] https://spring.io/projects/spring-boot

[x] Code that runs the ‘plumbing’ of a piece of software (i.e. HTTP handlers and database connectors.)

[xi] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/InnoDB

[xii] https://lucene.apache.org/

[xiii] https://www.elastic.co/

Newspeak, Computability, and the Subject of the Master’s Discourse

“You think, I dare say, that our chief job is inventing new words. But not a bit of it! We’re destroying words—scores of them, hundreds of them, every day. We’re cutting the language down to the bone” (Orwell 69).

In Orwell’s 1984, Big Brother’s primary goal is the total mind and body subjugation of those living within its sphere of influence. One of the methods used to achieve this goal, as quoted above, is to cut ‘language down to the bone.’ However, this attempt to limit the meanings available to the people of Oceania is not, nor can it ever be, a solution to the problems faced by a totalitarian regime. As we have recently seen in China’s attempt to suppress the use of Kim Jong-un’s name[i], outlawing a word (or sequence of words) does not prevent a human subject from simply using their remaining vocabulary to create new metonymic, metaphoric, and idiomatic forms of oppositional expression. Simply restricting the words available to create meaning is not an effective method for restricting thought; one of Big Brother’s chief fanatics, O’Brien, tacitly acknowledges this intrinsic failure when telling Winston “our neurologists are at work” removing the “sex instinct… laughter… literature… [and] science,” from the human subject (Orwell 450). In other words, O’Brien knows an attempt to restrict oppositional thoughts by placing limits on vocabulary cannot succeed; they must remove the human subject as such for Big Brother’s project to accomplish their totalitarian goals. Such failed attempts to control opposition through language are a common theme in human history: Turkmenistan’s former dictator, Saparmurat Niyazov, changed the word for “the month of April and the word for bread… to his mother’s name, Gurbansoltan” (Mathis-Lilley). The Brits employed tactics similar to those of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth during WWII, the wartime “Ministry of Information” was “designed as ‘the center for the distribution of all information concerning the war’” (Irving). As history has shown, these attempts to control language inevitably fail. The extreme level of censorship Britain’s Ministry of Information employed to suppress dissent remains a black mark on British history and Niyazov’s linguistic modifications were never able to take a solid hold. In this paper, I will show how language’s ability to infinitely abstract meaning into complex systems of difference renders any direct attempt at suppression of thought impossible.

History’s failed attempts to suppress dissent through linguistic restriction demonstrates one of language’s most overlooked elements: its infinite ability to generate new meanings and capacity to take on new, unexpected, and seemingly contradictory meanings. When applied to the fields of computability and computer science this infinite ability becomes truly sublime. Computers understand two things, on and off. However, from the computer’s perspective these two things essentially amount to one thing, on or nothing. In other words, from a computer’s perspective all meaning is founded on being and absence of being. Computers are only capable of manipulating this single state of knowing (on/not-on) with three basic functions: reading a sequence of ons, writing a sequence of ons, and modifying a sequence of ons. A common maxim within the world of computer science, ‘if you can’t do it with a pen and paper, you can’t do it with a computer,’ is not a joke or metaphor. Computers are only capable of doing three basic things to a datum only capable of existing in a single state. The implications that arise when one applies the concept of linguistic meaning making to the concept of computability cannot be understated. No one (beyond those prone to masochistic academic pursuits and certain forms of mathematics) writes computer code as a sequence of ons; the development of FORTAN in the early 1950’s rendered the use of binary code in computer programming needlessly esoteric. While programming in binary is not technically impossible, such programs are unmanageable, complicated, and entirely without practical use. The impracticality of communication with a computer in its native language necessitates a disconnect between the computer and the computer programmer. This disconnect is one of the foundational principles of computer science; in a surprisingly apropos turn of phrase, this process is called abstraction. Computer scientists have devised hundreds[ii] (if not thousands) of different ways to abstract a computer’s binary limitations into human readable coding languages. Many programmers consider it terribly bad form to ‘get to close to the hardware’ and avoid abstraction when designing a program. These methods of abstraction have enabled a computer’s restrictive system of being and non-being to devise massive virtual worlds (World of Warcraft, Second Life,) networks of communication billions use every day (the Internet, Facebook, Twitter, etc.,) mathematical feats (Machine Learning, Wolfram Mathematica,) and enhancements to human capacity previously outside the scope of our wildest dreams; Google’s AlphaGo beating the world’s best go player[iii], and IBM’s Watson proving better at diagnosing cancer than a team of doctors[iv] are two recent examples, and every day a new wonder is revealed. This incredible level of meaning generation stands as strong evidence in support of Lacan’s theory of discursive subjectivity. According to Lacan, “all determination of the subject, and therefore of thought, depends on discourse” (Lacan, Seminar XVII 152). Within a computer’s simple structure of on and not-on, the human mind has the capacity to produce an infinite number of meanings. In other words, within the realm of computability the impossible reality of a subject determined by discourse exists in a tangible form many interact with every day.

As I have explained above, a computer can only comprehend the ‘on’ half of its structure. This forms an uncanny connection between the not-whole of phallic jouissance and the ‘off’ of a computer, both states are impossible and necessary. From a computer’s perspective, the existence of ‘on’ necessitates the existence of ‘off,’ but the computer has no means of signifying ‘off’ within its limited system of signification. This is to say, as the existence of phallic jouissance necessitates the existence of an impossible feminine jouissance, the existence of ‘on’ necessitates the existence of ‘off.’ A computer has no means of signifying ‘off,’ but ‘off’ must exist for ‘on’ to have meaning.  In the same way the human subject compromises for the disconnection from limitless jouissance with discursive displacement, computer programmers inscribe an infinite number of abstractions and displaced significations upon a computer. However, any questions involving a computers jouissance should not be directed at the computer itself: a computer’s jouissance is merely a reflection of whomever is currently programming it. Simply put, the programmer wants the computer to reveal a digitized manifestation of their desire. Therefore, the very act of writing computer code “constitutes a medium (support) that goes beyond language’s effects” (Lacan, Seminar XX 93). The non-existent gap between the programmer and the computers they program demonstrates the real’s function in the symbolic realm in a tangible way. In the same way all masculine desire is mediated through the phallic function, a computer comes to engender the object a in the form of the programmer’s displaced desires. The only way a programmer can successfully approach the computational real “remains rooted in fantasy” (95). The computer’s not-whole—its underlying lack of meaning—is only comprehensible once it has been subjected to the effects of language. Even a simple device built from a series of tiny electrical switches cannot be understood until it is made subject to the all-encompassing symbolic realm.

Herein lies the ultimate failure of any totalitarian project: even within a binary structure of on/not-on the human mind can generate an infinite number of distinct meanings. So long as any method of generating meaning exists, the human mind will always be free from total external control. The only sure-fire way to restrict human thought is to remove the human capacity for thought altogether. If we have access to an ‘on’ we will always have the limitless capacity to create new meanings. In the words of Orwell’s fanatical O’Brien, “the German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to [Big Brother] in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives… one does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship” (Orwell 479).  Later adding, “power is collective… the individual only has power in so far as he ceases to be an individual… reality is inside the skull” (482; emphasis added). However, the confidence of these statements is undermined when O’Brien goes on to say “obedience is not enough… how can you be sure that [an individual] is obeying your will and not his own?” (485). Here, O’Brien acknowledges the impossibility of a fully realized state of mental oppression; so long as a single being capable of language exists, so long as a single source of meaning exists, Big Brother’s mission cannot succeed. If someone who, like Winston in 1984¸ remains to stand “as the guardian of the human spirit” no form of oppression can successfully restrict the human capacity to creative thought. As my examination of computability has already shown, our minds can construct an infinite number of meanings within the restrictions of a binary system; even our mechanical and electrical creations are subsumed by our limitless capacity to create. Put simply, the human being, so long as one exists, is invulnerable to external oppression of thought. A slave’s body may be oppressed through violence, but a slave’s mind will always dream of freedom. Even multi-generational forms of systemic oppression fail to fully subjugate the minds of its victims—the children of American slaves had never known freedom, but they were no less capable of desiring it; one does not need to experience a thing before imagining it. Moreover, the master’s existence necessitates the slave’s knowledge of freedom, so long as the master exists, the slave must always know freedom. The only way to resolve the possibility of revolt faced by a system of total oppression is to either remove the slave and render everyone a master or remove the master and render everyone a slave. However, both slaveless and masterless systems share a fundamental flaw: without a master there is no slave, and without a slave there is no master. For any system of oppression to remove the possibility of dissent the system must first negate the existence of the slave entirely, or they must give up their position of mastery and become a slave. In other words, the only way to oppress the human capacity for linguistic creativity is to remove the human subject from the equation entirely.

Now, I must revisit Lacan’s theory of the master’s discourse: the master’s position in the upper-left hand corner—the position of the agent—is no longer as stable as it appears. Who is the master of a computer program? The programmer writing the logic, or the computer’s definition of the limitations the programmer’s logic must obey? Before the programmer can assume his role as agent, he must first learn to extract his own desire from a structure entirely defined by the machine he intends to master. Put another way, a programmer must first contrive some means of making a computer recognize his agency before he can assume his position as agent. As Hegel states in his famous dialectic, any master, be they real ‘beings’ or otherwise, can only become master through the recognition of the slave. So, to answer my initial question, the master in these examples is not a being of the human variety, the master is discourse itself. Instead of theorizing the master’s discourse, the complicated nature of mastery leads to a theory of the master as discourse. This is to say, in many situations it is discourse itself acting as the master, and there exists no being not subject to one of these masters as discourse. Whether Big Brother is a man, woman, puppy dog, or pony is irrelevant to O’Brien. Big Brother’s ‘being’ must be nothing more than a master signifier; if Big Brother was an actual person at some point, any such existence is of no consequence to those now under his sway. In fact, if Big Brother was a real being, this would render him impotent as a master within the master discourse: there is no way a real being could come to hold his ever shifting ideological positions for any length of time. History is filled with examples of the spectacular failure all ‘human masters’ inevitably succumb to. While Hitler, Stalin, and Mussolini may have filled the agent’s position for a time, they all struggled with dissent from within their own ranks. Hitler was so often subject to assassination attempts from within his circle he was unable to trust those who’s very existence maintained his position as master[v]. So long as a ‘being’ fills the role of master, the master is always subject to those he appears to rule. The only thing capable of maintaining the role of master over time is not a being, but a master signifier. Big Brother contains only the meanings he is given, Big Brother means nothing beyond what those subject to his discourse allow. Thus, any human agent elevated to the position of master is inevitably revealed as a mere instrument, a “magnificent Cuckold of history” entirely constructed by those they enslave (Lacan, Seminar XVII 171). The master is not formed through the Hegelian process of forced recognition, but through the very structure of language itself. It is not man who is master of language, but language who is master of man. If one desires true mastery, one must first remove the capacity of language from those one wants to enslave.

In conclusion, the human ability to generate limitless meaning from seemingly meaningless systems indicates a profound power intrinsic to language itself. Our unbounded capacity to form meanings from nothing is the cause of the digital age we all now enjoy. From a binary system of on/off we have created machines with capabilities inconceivable less than a century ago. Moreover, these same creative powers render us immune to any attempt at suppression of thought; even a mind subject to the most brutal acts of physical oppression cannot be deprived of its imagination. A slave’s body can be forced to work, and a torturer can force one to speak, but no one can extract the human capacity to dream. In the linguistic realm of the mind, everyone is free.

Works Cited

Irving, Henry. Chaos and Censorship in the Second World War – History of Government. https://history.blog.gov.uk/2014/09/12/chaos-and-censorship/. Accessed 9 Apr. 2018.

Lacan, Jacques. Seminar XVII – The Other Side of Psychoanalysis. Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, Translated by Russell Grigg, W. W. Norton & Co., 2007.

—. Seminar XX – Encore: On Feminine Sexuality, The Limits of Love and Knowledge. Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, Translated by Bruce Fink, W. W. Norton & Co., 1999.

Mathis-Lilley, Ben. “Golden Statues and Mother Bread: The Bizarre Legacy of Turkmenistan’s Former Dictator.” Slate, Feb. 2014. Slate, http://www.slate.com/blogs/atlas_obscura/2014/02/06/saparmurat_niyazov_former_president_of_turkmenistan_has_left_quite_the_legacy.html.

Orwell, George. 1984. U of Adelaide Library, 2016.


[i] “China banned all mention of Kim Jong Un while he was in Beijing — so people called him ‘fatty on the train’ instead” http://www.businessinsider.com/china-internet-kim-jong-un-fatty-on-the-train-to-avoid-censors-2018-3.

[ii] “List of Programming Languages” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_programming_languages.

[iii] “In a Huge Breakthrough, Google’s AI Beats a Top Player at the Game of Go” https://www.wired.com/2016/01/in-a-huge-breakthrough-googles-ai-beats-a-top-player-at-the-game-of-go/.

[iv] “Watson Proving Better Than Doctors at Diagnosing Cancer” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_programming_languages.

[v] The purpose of the Gestapo was to police the members of the Nazi party itself, with a focus on members of the party elite. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/20_July_plot

Locating the Master – A Study of A Passage to India and 1984


This paper requires both an introduction and disclaimer: I will be approaching the subject of colonialism from an angle some may find offensive. My purpose is not to minimize the profound social harms inflicted upon those subject to colonial oppression, nor is my intent to provide any form of justification for said harms. Rather, this paper will examine the subject of colonialism through a strict, narrow focus on the bidirectional discursive affects of fascist and colonial projects through a close reading of George Orwell’s 1984 and E.M. Forster’s A Passage to India. My intent is to demonstrate how the manifestations of power extant in repressed peoples and individuals complicates a simplistic master/slave binary interpretation of these novels. Rather than contributing to the overwhelmingly large body of works focused on the effects of power on the oppressed, this paper examines the effects of power on the oppressor. Specifically, I will demonstrate how, in the complexities of any given social construct, power relationships are primarily discursive relationships. Moreover, to quote Lacan, the master’s desire to extract knowledge (or labour) from the slave, “isn’t self evident… it wasn’t the master who invented that all on his own. Someone must have imposed it upon him” (Lacan 107; emphasis added). Furthermore, while the master “has deprived the slave of the disposal of his body… he has left him his jouissance” (107). This imposition upon the master to extract the slave’s knowledge, in tandem with the impossibility of removing the slave’s jouissance is found in both 1984 and A Passage to India.

The purpose of this paper is twofold: first, I will demonstrate the impossibility of a fully realized state of oppression in any extant social construct; and second, I will explore how—through the impossibility of any totalitarian project—the slave is never entirely subject to the master’s desire (or decree.) In fact, in the register of Hegelian dialectics, the master—as an extant individual being—is always-already subject to the master’s discourse. This is not a simple restatement of the Hegelian aphorism “self-consciousness exists in and for itself when, and by the fact that, it so exists for another; that is, it exists only in being acknowledged” (Hegel 111). Instead, I will demonstrate the master—in both 1984 and A Passage to India—is only the master insofar as they are always-already subject to preforming their prescribed role within the master’s discourse. Put simply, the master is subject to a role prescribed by their position within a discursive construct they cannot escape, and the slave exerts a profound level of control over the mode, function, and realization of this discourse.

Ignoring Oppression – Winston, Mr. Turton, and Michel Foucault

“If power were never anything but repressive, if it never did anything but to say no, do you really think one would be brought to obey it?” (Foucault 119).

This quote highlights several problems faced by postcolonial critical analysis. If all power dynamics exist in clearly demarcated master/slave relationships and simple binary oppositions then why was the colonial project so successful? How did the 20th ce fascist phenomenon take hold of huge swaths of Europe? In other words, are the goals of fascism and colonialism entirely founded upon the Other’s complete subjugation and total compliance achieved through force? The fundamental problem faced by all forms of oppression is not centered around oppression itself; it is far too difficult to force people to do something through persistent threats of violence. For one thing, a system where the control of productive forces depends solely on violence is terribly inefficient: per Lacan, “getting people to work is even more tiring, if one really has to do it, than working oneself” (Lacan 174). This problem is clearly demonstrated by the paradoxical existence of the proles in 1984; their existence leads Winston to state, on more than one occasion, that “if there is hope… it lies in the proles” (Orwell 94)[i]. Moreover, the proles do not exist in ideological opposition to Big Brother, “as the party slogan put it: ‘proles and animals are free’” (94). In the eyes of the totalizing, often brutal party, the proles are not seen as a subversive or oppositional force, their existence is not simply ignored, they are integral to the function of society at large; “so long as they continued to work and breed, their other activities were without importance” (94). The party’s only concern is the product of prole labour. Ideological differences are easily ignored in the face of expediency. As demonstrated by the existence of the proles, even within a fictional system of total subjugation the aims of the oppressor can never be achieved through violence alone: the omnipotent gaze of Big Brother is often forced to ‘turn a blind eye’ upon elements indicative of its own negation.

We see this same intentional blindness in A Passage to India, though its manifestation is less obvious. After the incident in the Marabar caves, Mr. Turton attempts to “dominate without formality” the British civilians awaiting news of Ms. Quested’s condition (Forster 162). But, “the dread of having to call in the troops was vivid to [Mr. Turton]; soldiers put one thing straight, but leave a dozen things crooked, and they love to humiliate the civilian administration” (162). Here, Turton is more concerned with the appearance of inadequacy than the threat of an uprising; he chooses to ignore the real threat he faces in support of, what Žižek calls, “the struggle of hegemony” (Žižek, Fragile 49). Mr. Turton’s desire to “flog every Indian he saw” is promptly overruled by the need to maintain the population as a compliant, productive body; the ‘struggle of hegemony’ depends on Indian productivity, not strict compliance to Turton’s individual notion of colonial dominance (Forster 162). Turton is more willing to risk harm to his fellow Brits than put at risk the desired outcome of the colonial project at large. Ultimately demonstrating that, in both 1984 and A Passage to India, the illusion of control is more important than any impractical realities with the potential to undermine said illusion. The loss of the illusion is the only ‘real’ problem of serious concern to both O’Brien and Turton; both know that if the truth behind the illusion is revealed “the master subsequently appears only as the instrument, the magnificent Cuckold of history” (Lacan 171). In other words, the problem faced by any given fascist project is never the resistance of those it tries to subjugate, but how to best conceal those it ignores.

The Thomas Theorem, Symbolic Authority, and Master Signifiers

“If men define situations as real, they are real in their consequences.”

(Thomas and Thomas 571–752)

The supremacy of the illusion is integral to O’Brien’s fascism and Mr. Turton’s colonialism. Further, both constitute perfect examples of Lacanian master signifiers—in O’Brian’s case Big Brother, and in Turton’s Imperial Britain (i.e. The Crown,) in any case the distinction is superficial: both constructs “represent the hole from which a master signifier arises… the quilting points” where the void takes on the semblance of meaning (Lacan 189). While, from a psychoanalytic standpoint, it is easy to relegate the foundations of fascism and colonialism to the realm of philosophical constructs, one must never fall into this trap.

The need to secure and maintain an illusion is central to all manifest forms and expressions of power. However, as stated by the Thomas theorem quoted above, one can never let the ‘realities’ (or lack thereof) of a situation overshadow the social consequences of those who experience it—an illusion of power does nothing to diminish the effects of power on those within its sphere of influence. Instead, one must examine power “where it installs itself and produces its real effects” (Foucault 97). Following Foucault’s suggestion and focusing on the ‘real effects’ of power in 1984 and A Passage to India produces interesting—though not altogether unexpected—results. In both novels, power focuses most of its ‘real effects’ on the supposedly dominant group.

This principle is exemplified best in A Passage to India during the power-struggle over the seating arrangements at Aziz’s trial. Initially, after the Major demands “better arrangements” for Adela, it seems as though the Brits are to enjoy a position of authority on the platform overlooking the trial. Immediately upon taking their seats, the Major acknowledges the authority this change of seating represents, calling the change “thoroughly desirable… for several reasons” (Forster 194). However, the vaunted platform which initially “confers authority” to Brits and Indians alike, is attacked moments later as “only one foot high” when Mr. Das requests the British remove themselves from it (196). Here we see the dualism intrinsic to symbolic authority. According to Žižek, “symbolic authority is… grounded in voluntary blindness, it involves a kind of will-not-to-know, the attitude of je n’en veux rein savoir” (Žižek, Incontinence 96). In other words, for the Brits to maintain their sense of authority, they must ignore the obvious reality bearing down upon them. They must ignore the fact that an Indian, Mr. Das, has the authority to force the supposedly dominant party of Brits to descend “from [the platform’s] rash eminence” (Forster 196). Rather than accepting the truth, they must pretend as though the platform itself lacks the element of authority they had, until being asked to remove themselves from it, attributed to it; ignoring the reason they wanted to sit on the platform in the first place.

Consequently, the maintenance of the colonial position of authority entirely prevents the Brits from exercising said authority to any meaningful effect. In a strange twist of reason, their continued authority depends on its denial. As a result, it becomes apparent that colonial authority must be maintained through a social agreement allowing both parties (colonials and colonized) to systematically deny the lack of authority upon which said authority derives its source. In the words of Žižek, “whenever we have a symbolic structure it is structured around a certain void, it implies the foreclosure of a certain key signifier”(Žižek, Sublime 78). As shown above, the key signifier foreclosed upon is revealed during Aziz’s trial: the concept of British superiority itself, upon inspection, is little more than an unpaid lease on property the Brits had never owned.

Intransitive Particularity

Although the underlying truth of colonial oppression is structured around a fundamental lack of authority, I cannot ignore a serious objection arising from this claim: if symbolic authority depends on a social agreement, how did said symbolic authority come to exist in the first place? This is to say, how did the Brits or Party Members come to inhabit a position of authority at all? Here we find a profound connection between Badiou’s ‘event’ and the psychoanalytic concept of the master signifier. In Philosophy of the Present, authored by both Badiou and Žižek, Badiou lays out his eight theses of the event. In his exploration of thesis one[ii] Badiou notes, “by ‘thought,’ I mean the subject is constituted through the totality of established knowledge. Or, as Lacan puts it, the subject insofar as it makes a hole in knowledge” (Žižek and Badiou 26). This is important to keep in mind when, in thesis three, Badiou states “every universal originates in an event, and the event is intransitive to the particularity of the situation” (31; emphasis added). It is in these two theses where the void structuring symbolic authority takes on almost sublime dimensions.

I will begin my exploration of Badiou’s ‘intransitive event’ with the scene from 1984 where Winston attempts to remember Big Brother’s rise to power: “the Party claimed, of course, to have liberated the proles from bondage… [but] the thing you invariably came back to was the impossibility of knowing what life before the revolution had really been like” (Orwell 129, 132). Winston is aware of a time before Ingsoc, but when he struggles “to think his way backward to the dim period of his childhood…. [he remembers] huge events which had quite probably not happened” (60; emphasis added). Here, we see the failure intrinsic to Big Brother’s fascist project. The party claims to ‘have liberated the proles,’ and in some ways this is true. The party has clearly failed to fully indoctrinate them into their system, and through this failure a type of ‘liberation’ occurs. However, the existence of the proles and the discourse Big Brother uses to describe them indicates something much more profound. There must have been an event that lead to the rise of Big Brother’s regime, yet no one remembers it— “Winston could not even remember at what date the Party itself had come into existence” (68). This gap (or void) between the present state of power, and the origin of power serves as the primary impetus of Winston’s downfall. It is Winston’s pursuit of Big Brother’s origins that leads him to enter the prole bar and ask the “old man… you must have seen great changes since you were young?” Only to discover the proles have no interest in the topic—the old man only wishing Winston “the very best of ‘ealth” when questioned about “the war” supposed as the initial source of Big Brother’s power (162). Consequently, Big Brother’s rise to power is an intransitive event no longer required in the ongoing maintenance of their fascist system; the event has no connection to the present reality of Party members and proles alike. The proles, as Badiou states above, are subjects “only insofar as [they] make a hole in knowledge” (Žižek and Badiou 26). In effect, the proles represent the radical impossibility of Big Brother’s genesis within the ideological construct they maintain. Big Brother’s genesis, entirely forgotten, can have no role in its current state of being.

A Passage to India does not deal directly in the events responsible for the genesis of colonial rule. Nevertheless, there exist several clues of such an events intransitive nature. Near the novel’s end, Mr. Fielding remarks: “we all build upon sand… in the old eighteenth century, when cruelty and injustice raged, an invisible power repaired their ravages. Everything echoes now; there’s no stopping the echo” (Forster 244; emphasis added). Here Fielding tacitly acknowledges the ‘event’ (qua power) which lead to colonial rule, but the ‘echo’ he mentions can be read in a number of ways. On one hand, Fielding could be lamenting the loss of martial authority—like Turton’s longing “for the good old days when an English man could satisfy his own honour and no questions asked later” (162). On the other hand, the phrase “there’s no stopping the echo,” in the context of Fielding’s overall character, indicates the echo originates from an Indian source (244). In other words, Fielding appears to imply the imminent failure of British colonial rule. Turton, in a roundabout way, also acknowledges this failure: lamenting Aziz’s right to a fair trial as “the old weary business of compromise and moderation” (162). As a result, the relationship between the proles of 1984 and the colonial subjects of A Passage to India becomes clear. In both cases, the power of the dominant group—through the very nature of subjugation—loses its dependence on the ‘event’ responsible for the establishment of their power. In other words, the Party’s current position of power has nothing to do with the event of its genesis; just as the colonial’s current rule has nothing to do with the violent conflict upon which it stands. In summary, the brutal and violent events leading to the lived experience of proles and party members are unrelated to the ongoing maintenance of Big Brother’s domain; just as colonial rule can no longer depend on violence if its desired goal is to be achieved.

The Slave’s Role in the Master’s Discourse

“It is odd to observe that a doctrine such as Marx’s whose articulation onto the function of the struggle, the class struggle, which instituted has not prevented it from giving birth to what for the moment is, indeed, the same problem that confronts us all, namely the persistence of a master’s discourse” (Lacan 31; emphasis added).

The persistence of the master’s discourse is something often overlooked when analyzing power relationships. It is easy to ignore the effects of power on those in positions of power in favour of the less controversial ‘power is bad’ form of critique. However, Lacanian psychoanalysis does not shy away from this sort of critical study; as shown in the quote above, Lacan makes two highly important observations on this subject:

  • Power qua the master’s discourse is universal.
  • Power

The universality of the master’s discourse and its effects on those in the position of the slave in 1984 and A Passage to India are abundantly apparent, but—to keep with my stated purpose—this is not where I will direct my focus. Rather, I ask another, somewhat uncomfortable question: what is the slave’s role in the master’s discourse? Following from the universality of the master’s discourse, can we assume there exists individuals not subject to it? In other words, is there a subject not always-already subject to the master’s discourse?

As I have already demonstrated, many of the expressions of power in established forms of subjugation are, in fact, a denial of power. I have shown this in Mr. Turton’s denial of power and Big Brother’s voluntary ignorance qua the proles. However, I have yet to explore the slave’s role in these effects. In A Passage to India, is it not the actions of the subjugated directing the ideology to which they are, supposedly, subject? When Heaslop refuses Aziz bail, is it not because he is powerless to take a more drastic approach? The confrontation between the Brits and Indians is much more complex than a simple master/slave binary. Heaslop attempts to satisfy the master by taking the only action permitted within the colonial master’s discourse. Thus, Heaslop (the magistrate of Chandapore) is somehow limited by the discourse supposed to bestow his status as master. Here, we see the slave’s role in the master’s discourse. To return to Lacan, “the master’s desire is the Other’s desire, since it’s the desire that the slave anticipates” (Lacan 38). In other words, what the master wants is what the Other has, but the master’s desire—in a strange fusion of Hegelian and Lacanian logic—is derived, not from the master’s self, but from ‘the desire that the Other anticipates.’ Simply, what the master wants is for the slave to tell him what he wants.

However, as with many things, the interpretation is not this simple. Heaslop’s conundrum is double edged: he derives his desire from the Other’s anticipation, but he must also contend with another master. Specifically, Heaslop (and every other master) must always-already contend with the master’s discourse. In Heaslop’s case, the master’s discourse is what controls every aspect of his life: from where he eats, to who he associates with, even how he exacts justice. Heaslop, as the magistrate of Chandapore, is not the representative of the master’s discourse, he is its subject. When Mr. Das is appointed judge of Aziz’s trial it is because the master’s discourse (in this case the law) demands it. Heaslop is powerless before a master’s discourse he does not define. The hegemonic goal of the master’s discourse is not violent subjugation, but productivity; and Heaslop is as much a slave to this as the Indian Other. In fact, the Indian Other (the slave) is the only subject with any control at all over the particularities manifest in the master’s discourse. To explore this further, is it not the fear of the loss of Indian productivity that bestows the need for Aziz’s trial? Is it not the fear Indians will stop working that stops Turton from flogging “every native he saw?” (Forster 162). With these questions in mind how can anyone claim the relation between the colonial subject and the colonized Other is a simple omni-directional binary construct? Considering this, the master’s discourse is no longer a means for one group to impose its will over another, but a complex system of interactions both master and slave must ultimately answer to. The dynamics of power do not proceed through subjugation and violence alone. If Heaslop is the master, his mastery is impenetrable bounded by the will of the slave—it is the slave who defines the meaning of the master’s discourse.

In 1984 the reality of the master’s discourse is less obscure. The Party is aware of their ideological mission’s fundamental impossibility—as I’ve already demonstrated qua the proles. The party’s solution to the intrinsic impossibility of their ideological goal is where the bi-directional nature of the master’s discourse becomes undeniable. During Winston’s imprisonment, when O’Brien is expounding upon the party’s long-term goals, he reveals “in our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement… the sex instinct will be eradicated… our neurologists are at work upon it now” (Orwell 487). The Party does not wish to enforce subjugation through violence, they want to remove the slave’s existence from the discourse altogether. This is tantamount to an admission of defeat. The Party knows it cannot defeat the innumerable masses of individual human subjects they desire to subjugate, and their solution is to remove subjectivity itself from the equation. Without subjectivity we are no longer dealing within the confines of the master’s discourse, as without a subjective slave the master’s discourse is no longer possible. Put simply, O’Brien knows his ideology is impossible in a world filled with subjective Others, and the only realistic solution is not to exert greater control over the population, but rather to negate the Other’s discursive subjectivity altogether. Thus, the problem is solved only when subjectivity is removed from the equation.

In Conclusion – Totalitarian Impossible

The problem of power, an already complex subject, is only compounded when examined through a focus on its real effects. A close examination has demonstrated the impossibility of a fully realized system of oppression in most (if not all) forms of systematic oppression. Furthermore, the power of the slave within the master’s discourse is not negligible; the slave exerts an integral element of control over the manifestation and direction of oppressive structures to which he submits. However, this is not an attempt to justify oppressive systems like fascism and colonialism, but an attempt to show the intrinsic failure to which such systems invariably succumb. Fascism, while possible in the short-term fervor inspired by populist notions or the vitriol of a demagogue, cannot persist over an infinite period. As shown in 1984, the only way such a system can have any success in the long term is to remove the subject from the equation altogether. The same problem exists in the colonialism of A Passage to India: a system of economic subjugation must, in many ways, be a system built around a gap—there is no benefit to economic oppression if one must ensure production solely through the use of violence. And, when the productivity of a system depends on compliance, the system of subjugation, in a paradoxical fashion, becomes ruled by those it subjects. In conclusion, power is fundamentally oppressive, this is certain, but the question of who constitutes the oppressor in such systems of oppression is not entirely clear: there is a lot more to these structures than one can explore through the lens of binary oppositions and omnidirectional power structures. One must never avoid looking at such problems, to paraphrase Lacan, from the other side.

Works Cited

Forster, E. M. A Passage to India. Penguin Random House UK, 2015.

Foucault, Michel. Power / Knowledge. Edited by Colin Gordon, Translated by Colin Gordon et al., Vintage, 1980.

Hegel, G. W. F. Phenomenology of Spirit. Edited by J.N. Findlay, Translated by A.V. Miller, 5th ed., Oxford UP, 1977.

Lacan, Jacques. Seminar XVII – The Other Side of Psychoanalysis. Edited by Jacques-Alain Miller, Translated by Russell Grigg, W. W. Norton & Co., 2007.

Orwell, George. 1984. U of Adelaide Library, 2016.

Thomas, W. I., and D. S. Thomas. The Child in America: Behaviour Problems and Programs. Knopf, 1928.

Žižek, Slavoj. Incontinence of the Void. Cambridge UP, 2017.

—. The Fragile Absolute. Verso, 2008.

—. The Sublime Object of Ideology. Verso, 2008.

Žižek, Slavoj, and Alain Badiou. Philosophy in the Present. Edited by Peter Engelmann, Translated by Peter Thomas and Alberto Toscano, Polity P, 2009.


[i] The page numbering in my Kindle version of the text is different from the paperback page numbers.

[ii] “thought is the proper medium of the universal” (Žižek and Badiou 26).


In the interest of brevity, I avoided a discussion on the implications of new speak as they appear in 1984. This is mostly due to the difficulty of linking the concept into colonialism as portrayed in A Passage to India. The topic of new speak is a paper in its own right from the perspective of this analytical framework. I hope, even with this omission, the paper proved enlightening.30