why ask why?

I'd like to nominate "why" for the title of Most Overused Word. I'd like to propose that, more often than not, questions that begin with it are totally useless, or at least severely overrated. And here's why:

To ask "why?" is always to ask for a more than an explanation. It demands a reason, or an intention - a sentient being or a knowable pattern at the helm of whatever event is being questioned. In science, this is pretty useful.
Why do things stay attached to the Earth?
Because objects with mass have gravity, and the gravity of the Earth... etc. (I obviously don't know anything about science.)
But the point is, knowing about the laws that govern the physical world is valuable. It lets us predict the way those objects will behave in the future. But, in uses of language, where cause and effect become blurry, and intention is often absent, "why" slows us down a lot more than it helps.
Wherefore art thou Romeo? Deny thy father and refuse thy name...
I like this example because it demonstrates the impossible longings that make the play such a tragedy. Asking why someone is named the way they are is as useless as asking them to refuse that name... that which we call a rose is as sweet by any other name, or something like that. Consider the potential answers to Juliet's rhetorical question. They're either inane:
So I turn around when people yell at me.
Because Butch Montague was taken.
Or they reveal the irrational nature of fate and family that cannot be questioned or argued against.
Because of fate.
Because my family is my identity AND my fate.
Asking "why" of a movement of language that has no single human agent is just asking for trouble.

Additionally, "why" questions require that the event in question already be pretty well defined. I'm reminded of the recent blow-up surrounding Larry Summers' comments at Harvard, which my Dad and I have been discussing recently. Summers set out to answer a question:
Why are women underrepresented in the fields of science and engineering?
Just based on the question, we can know for certain that the answer will contain a "because..." and presuppose that women are underrepresented in those fields. Just by asking this "why," we have already determined that women are UNDERrepresented. Meaning, I think, that they are not as represented as they SHOULD be. This authoritative statement reveals all kinds of presuppositions which might lead to interesting questions (according to whom? is this a problem?) that the "why" glosses over and allows to stand in the sentence. In general, rephrasing a question just enough to eliminate "why" will change it drastically and provoke a much more useful interrogation:
Are people's opportunities to excell in science and engineering determined or limited by their gender?
Are hiring practices at top universities biased against women?
What can be done to encourage women to pursue careers in science?
How do women's career and family choices tend to differ from men's?
Is there an inherent difference between men's and women's aptitudes for science?
These are all very different from "why" and "for what reason" and "what is the cause" questions, which by their nature imply an underlying cause (possibly an intention) that causes the already-demonstrated difference in representation. If Summers had answered any one of these, I doubt he would be taking the heat for assumptions made in his initial question.

In contemporary literary studies (and, I suppose a good Derridian would argue, in all the world, which is a text), "why" should be taboo. The movements of language and discourse don't follow the kinds of "because" logic that have to necessarily answer a "why" question. Foucault's studies are unique as histories, for instance, because they don't explain "why" certain concepts came to mean certain things; they show how and through what metaphors and images meanings arose.

We can study HOW an effect is produced, WHAT alternative works might have looked like, WHEN or WITHIN WHAT context a work was made, but if we reject the possibility of knowing an author's intention, then we can never answer WHY.


Anonymous said...

Do the authors desire comments? If so, do they have to live up to any journalistic standards or anything? What are the conventions governing this space?

Scott said...

comments are appreciated and unrestricted!

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