Wednesday, August 24, 2011


Like the swish of the conductor's baton right before the downbeat, or the rumble of bass filling the movie theater just before you are thrown into cinematic battle --- or is it the chewy little amuse-bouche before the meal that makes you say: what the hell is this? I think I might like it? Is it intriguing? Will it go well with the rest of the meal ... or will the meal at least wipe this taste from my mouth?

I am talking, of course, about epigraphs and their function.

Still working on my introduction, and having come up with, if not a title, at least some semi-related keywords that I can plop down at the front of my essay and hope it would come up in a search engine, I turned my attention to the space where the first line needs to go ---- you know, the one that needs to be gripping and brilliant and completely captivate the readers with delight and suspense ---- and I thought to myself, maybe I need an epigraph here first. At least if I take the time to choose someone else's words and arrange them here I would be able to postpone coming up with my own. Or perhaps they set the scene, like the rows of trumpeters who play fanfares and announce the approach of the Douglas Fairbanks-esque hero in all those old-timey movies. With my luck, however, the more apt description is the beginning of Duck Soup when they have all that fancy fanfaring and Groucho Marx comes out and farts on them. On the other hand, I would kinda love an article that did that.

But I digress.

I have looked around here and there and haven't really seen anything in my theory or scholarship or my primary text that jumps out at me and goes yes! This would be a great epigraph! Some of my grad school papers and one article have epigraphs, so maybe it's just that some articles need epigraphs and others don't want them, kinda like how some outfits really need a hat and others just don't.

But then I thought, well, what are epigraphs for, anyway? Maybe I have some sort of function that an epigraph would fulfill for me that I am not aware of!

So I went and googled the point of the epigraph, because clearly I need to digress!

I found this interesting little piece in the New York Times about the current trend of obsessive epigraph-using (epigraphocity?) in contemporary poetry --- yes, it is an old article and I am sorry I am so behind the times on my procrastination and sharing of random interesting things --- and I found all the rationales the author mentions for using lots of epigraphs to be plausible. But then, none of them seem really apt for an academic article. Unless you think we're all trying to show how we've read Marx and Wittgenstein and want to be TS Eliot? (I can't really see Eliot coming out into the ballroom and singing Oh Freedonia and farting and grabbing some lady's bum ---- oh wait, I have successfully created that mental image. That made my day.)

And the real reason I wanted to link to the article was this cool little graphic:

Look, a zipper made of citations! Yes, I think quotes from other people are about all that's holding my essay together right now! Probably not as cute as this little picture though, aww.

So: epigraphs! What functions do they (or should they) serve in scholarly articles? What is the best metaphor you can think of for what an epigraph does? And is it just me, or is "anarchic comedy film" the best description ever for what is happening with all my arguments in this article and why I can't finish it? I think right now it feels more like a performance of "Who's on First" with a few "nyuk"s and an eyeball poke thrown in.


Dr. Crazy said...

I usually have epigraphs that guide me in drafting and then they are excised in editing. This is not to say that I think epigraphs are bad - I like them in a lot of the books/articles I read. But usually for me, if I've got an epigraph it means I care about it less than the things that I actually discuss. And it usually is only important in *my* head and not important to understanding the article.

The way that I think epigraphs work most frequently in academic articles, though? I think that the epigraph is the "inside joke" or the way that people signal "so this is who I am, this is the club I'm in." I think that's probably why I don't use them: I sort of hate signaling what club I'm in before people read the freaking thing. I want people to read the thing and to figure it out, and not to have some quote from a Billy Bragg song to tell them that I'm a Marxist at the outset (an article I teach does this exact thing).

So, yes, I do think that some articles might just resist being pigeonholed with an epigraph or epigraphs. Or at least all of mine do.

Dr. Koshary said...

I tend to agree with Dr. Crazy. Epigraphs can be awesome when used judiciously, but it turns into another stupid academic-writing tic too easily. As soon as you get it in your head that you need them, you start reaching for things that should be left alone, and your work ends up looking either pretentious or too on-the-nose or both. You'll do a better job of communicating your brilliance by expressing good ideas in clear, elegant prose.

Come to think of it, epigraphs even bug me in fiction. Ever notice Umberto Eco's obsession with them? I wanna slap him with a 2x4 every time he begins a chapter with a paragraph in some other language and/or script. It's just annoyingly over the top.