“The Quotation in Question”: Followed by Anticlimactic Admission of Actual Topic


“An epigraph you wish you’d written.”

-By Someone You Are Not


A sweeping generalization. Some grudging refinement. And then there’s the field in which to situate the topic. Leading scholars are mentioned who said these things, several of whom you pretend to know. One or two others you’ve slept with and have to include since they might read this and you don’t want them to think you’re hurt even though they never call let alone send flowers. But other people, too. (A parenthetical compliment phrased as assessment of perspicacity regarding the intellectual merit of an article written by the cutest, regardless of category, never hurt anyone.) In an unconscious act of transference both syntactical and psychoanalytic, a slightly rocky segue ensues, some things your dissertation director told you, which after all these years you realize are actually true. Then some other things you heard were said at the conference keynote—which you would have attended if (a) departmental travel funding had not been eviscerated and you were forced to skip the conference or (b) you attended conference but not keynote, going instead to see your cousin, who lives in the conference city (with whippets! in that tiny apartment!). Brisk assessment of the situation as it currently stands. No mention of whippets. The pinpointing of a lacuna, a contradiction parading as a paradox, or flat-out mistake. An expression of mild horror that this situation could have gone so long unrecognized. Passed among us unremarked. It’s amazing, really. We’re lucky to have gotten out alive. The promise to remedy all that here and now. This is your thesis. State in no uncertain terms not just that you will prove it but how.

But not quite yet. There is work to be done. Groundwork need be laid. The fact that it is startling no one has read the book that not only makes the abovementioned clear but provides the solution—so a diagnosis and a cure are proffered simultaneously. But the latter is to be taken slowly. Don’t rush it. Slowly, slowly. Even more slowly. Christ almighty, you’d think you were being paid by the word for this thing. Or at all. Paid, that is. Well, maybe it will matter when you come up for promotion. Has the correct question been posed? Or was that question rhetorical? Do any of these things matter?

Therefore a reference to a philosopher that has a lateral relation to the topic. If French, en français; mais auf Deutsch, translate it. Lass es doch von jemand anderem uebersetzen. (Or get someone to translate it for you.) The ungrammatical use of “thinking” as a transitive verb is now advisable. A coy set of references designed to suggest you know the material better than the philosopher, and would crush them in a debate but for the fact that they are dead.

The return to the text, diagnostic and curative. Contextual application of details, many of which are relevant, some that you just can’t let go of, and one of which you’ll discover, via a letter written three months later to the editor, is completely untrue. Who knew that anyone in Palmerston North even read this thing? Who lives in Palmerston North? Where is Palmerston North? Is that a rhetorical question? Upon further consideration. No. Enough with the ambiguity already.

The continuation of a point lesser thinkers would have left alone. This (Palmerston North) may explain why they (future-letter-sender/know-it-all) are (is) reading this journal. They[1] probably have a lifetime subscription and have it delivered to their house, not satisfied with getting it online, for free, through the institutional library, like everyone else. Probably this, probably that. But one thing is certain: You are never going to be invited to give a talk at (in?) Palmerston North. The future implications regarding this particular subtopic have yet to be fully assessed. A reference to the French Revolution.

The recent use of a colon[2] for the first time in the course of the body of the piece—rather than the title, where it is numbingly obligatory—occasions a pun. (This is done as an aside. Perhaps a reference to eschatology appears at the end.) One reflects or perhaps refracts a characteristic and yet illuminating detail.  The question of exemplarity is debated; both sides of the issue are entertained. You are not an unreasonable sort. If the detail is anomalous, it is so because it is actually indicative. If the detail is indexical, it is so because the rhetorical ice would be too thin otherwise. In the case of the former, one suggests the possibility of a paradigm shift. In the case of the latter, take your medicine like a good girl. Skate along, little one.

Segue is thereby achieved. Despite the cloudy forecast, bleakness notwithstanding, and casting care to the metaphorical if not pathetically fallacious winds, hope shines through. On the horizon is “the quotation in question”! And at long last, following several especially subordinate clauses, each meant to build suspense, yet, sneaky little bastards that they are, probably doing precisely the opposite, the correct use of a colon:

This—the antecedent here is the quotation in question, obviously—you really do need to either keep up, or slow down. Fine. Start again. This is in a block quote, untethered at long last from its surrounding quotation marks and romping like a happy lamb in lush fields—themselves comprised (metonymically or is it synecdochally?) of verdant hillsides and heaps, positively heaps, of rampion—of the original text in order to give further context to the use of the quotation in question. The quotation in question is deployed freely—unleashed, to mix metaphors (lamb-wise)—in this arcadia by the unwitting (other, shepherdess-like, a guileless sort, they said) writer whose wares, epitomized by the romping quotation in question, have been touted[3] (the phraseological misapplication of ware-touting will forever remain with you [the critic, who now appears, ostensibly to provide guidance], in a self-serving [literally] inside joke which no one else is going to get; and why should they [with another bracketed critical statement, now framing the point, almost (again) literally, it is worth pointing out, in a way that would have made you famous if it were the 1980s], when you [the critic, again, duh] barely do?). But even as fragments are overused by critics, they are excusable in prose written by other people. If that’s the word for them. Maybe just people. In any case, the main thing is not to end either parenthetically (or on a point needing bracketing [if you (the critic) can help it (bracketing)]). So the block quote containing the quotation in question continues for another sentence. Or two.

Energized by the use of a voice at once your own and not your own, but there is really no substitute, i.e., none, for the buzz attendant upon the transcription of someone else’s words—try it sometime; the writing just flows—you attempt to follow up, to keep up that “lamb-romping.” The mis-employment of non-“quotation”‘s might even crop up, along with another pun. This clearly over-compensatory pun and/or “mis-employment of non-‘quotation'” could appear cavalier, or maybe even as a desperate attempt to keep up the energy level you would have if you had written “the quotation in question” in the first place, but on the other hand a level-headed but nonetheless sprightly spirit of assessment could hover over the “quotation”-laden proceedings subsequent to the block quote containing “the quotation in question.” Either way, Houston we have a problem. It clearly exceeds even as it is heralded by the (recently noticed) shift between present and conditional tenses. Way worse. You didn’t write “the quotation in question.”[4] Neither puckish nor Puck, the pastoral spirit conjured up[5] even with spatial references[6] demanding endnotes,[7] lots of them,[8] coming at you with increasing frequency[9] is shot all to hell. This “spirit of assessment”—quoting your (critical) self doesn’t even help—contains and comprises more criticism. Wolf, sheep; someone get me an axe. Whither “the quotation in question”? It’s like “the quotation in question” never even fucking happened.

Follow up immediately with another block quote from a little later in the [other] text. It’s likely too brief to merit being set qua block quote by house style standards [four lines], but you [the critic] can deal with the [schmuck] editor later.

This does the trick. Closure is within sight. Neither linger nor dither. An objective stance is resumed. A calm spirit of assessment demonstrating critical prowess is advisable. Lucidity is key. To this end a clear restatement of the thesis. Brief rendering of trajectory followed and point made. Some slight basking, just a wee bit. The modest proposal of attendant realignments in the field would not be going too far. If this is indeed the case, are further questions to be entertained? It is likely so.

[1] See above.

[2] See above.

[3] See above.

[4] See above.

[5] See above.

[6] See above.

[7] See above.

[8] See above.

[9] See above.






Jessica Burstein is an associate professor in the Department of English at the University of Washington. Her writing has appeared in The Chronicle of Higher Education—which included her “Sex and the Conference” as one of 23 essays in its 50th Year Anniversary Anthology—and a number of scholarly journals. She is the author of Cold Modernism: Literature, Fashion, Art, and has written the chapter on visual art in The Cambridge Companion to Modernist Culture (2014). She has also, one may gather, edited for quite some time.