Tone and Suggestion

Vikram Chandra’s Geek Sublime: The Beauty of Code, The Code of Beauty has brought me back to thinking about poetics: the notion that what the language formally means is only part of the message carried by a linguistic utterance. Indeed, a great deal goes on in what is suggested rather than what is explictly said.

In particular, I’ve been reflecting on something that tends to be called “the tone argument” online. Generally it looks like this: Person A speaks, and Person B criticises their tone instead of responding to the content of what Person A said. (“Your ideas would get more purchase if you were calmer/gentler/more professional.”)

I think there are some situations where this is an appropriate response, e.g. if you sought a critique of something and you got a scathing reply. But there are other situations where criticising the tone derails communication. If you cry out that something is hurting you, it does not help if someone criticises your tone while ignoring your pain.

With a critique, it’s because the point is to help a person improve something they’ve made. (As I see it, if you think the thing is so awful that no amount of work can save it, there’s no point in offering a critique.) The message needs to be: I’m bringing up these flaws because, if you address them, it will strengthen your work. A supportive tone can get this across, but a harsh tone might change it to: These flaws make your work worthless, and there is nothing you can do to fix them – which is not helpful.

On the other hand, when someone lashes out against an experience of social injustice (for instance), part of what they’re saying is this thing makes me angry. They need you to understand that feelings of being threatened, disrespected, made insecure, and all the other awful things that are tied up in anger have been provoked – and that the thing causing these feelings is a problem that needs to be addressed. To tell them to divest the anger from the statement is to ignore that their anger is important. It says, My desire not to feel provoked as I’m reading holds more weight than the suffering you are facing.

In both cases, the tone is part of the message. Communication breaks down when this is not understood.

The Many Faces of a Muhandis

I always understood the Arabic word هندسة (handasa) to mean ‘geometry’, because I first came across it in an Al-Biruni text where he more or less defines it as such:

Al-Biruni defines al-handasaAl-handasah: Geometry is the science of dimensions and their relations to each other and the knowledge of the properties of the forms and figures found in solids. By it the science of numbers is transferred from the particular to the universal, and astronomy removed from conjecture and opinion to a basis of truth. (trans. R. Ramsay Wright)

Now while Wright renders handasa as “geometry” – and Al-Biruni’s definition certainly matches up with how we define the English word – if you look up handasa in an Arabic-English dictionary, it is rendered as “engineering”. And if you look up the Arabic for “geometry”, you get علم الهندسة (ilm al-handasa, “the science/knowledge of handasa“).)

What inspired this little investigation was a recent reminder that the Arabic word for engineer is مهندس (muhandis)/ fem. مهندسة (muhandisa), which is an agentive form based on the same root as handasa (teaching : teacher :: handasa : muhandis). Which implies that one could also render muhandis as “geometrician” – a master of geometrical knowledge rather than one who puts that knowledge into practice. (According to Merriam-Webster, the word “geometrician” – along with synonyms “geometer” and “geometrist” – actually exist in English, and the first two were in use in the 15th century.)

The fact remains that while fluency in geometry remains necessary for most (non-computer) engineering, English has kept the mathematical knowledge conceptually separate from the ability to apply it. Etymologically, “geometry” is about measuring the world while “engineering” is about ingenious uses of knowledge. Even then, “engineering” only covers certain uses. Artists are not considered engineers – even if their work makes considerable and/or inventive use of geometry (or any other kind of mathematics) – unless they have, in addition to their artwork, demonstrated a use of mathematics for non-aesthetic functions. (We don’t consider Da Vinci an engineer for his innovations in rendering light and perspective in painting, but for his schematics of flying machines and tank prototypes.)

This goes to show that engineering is not the only application implied by geometry. Which brings me to wonder: if geometry is “the science of handasa” – the “theory behind it” or the “knowledge that informs it” – then what, exactly, is handasa? I think it is (or at least was) more than what is encompassed by the modern English definition of “engineering”. Especially when you consider that Islamic art is so heavily centred on geometry. Perhaps it has something to do with why aesthetics were given considerable weight in the design of Islamicate astrolabes, well past the point that is necessary for carrying out the calculation functions.

I don’t have enough sensitivity to the language to speak for modern Arabic thought, and in any case I’m certain that recent developments (advances in science and technology, Western cultural influences, etc) have had an effect on how people think of these concepts and use these words. But there are implications that, historically, engineering and art (or at least some things that we would call “art” but not consider “engineering”) were indeed considered different shades of the same idea. I’m not sure how far into the Islamicate world this extended, but I think a case for it could be made in Persia (where Al-Biruni was from, even though he wrote in Arabic).

Persian literature abounds with examples. Consider this description by 12th century Nizami) in his Khosrow and Shirin:
[…] the painter recalled one Farhad, a youth of great skill and cleverness, who had studied with Shapur in China, under the same drawing master [as himself]. Now Farhad had mastered the works of Euclid on geometry and the treatise of Ptolemy on the stars, but his accomplishments in engineering and sculpture were even greater. So deftly did he carve as to make even the most obdurate stone sing with joy as he chipped it with his chisel.

This is not even a direct translation, but an abridged adaptation of the original text. I expect the original goes into greater detail, something like these lines of the 14th-century poet Jami (describing a similar character in his Yusuf and Zulaykha):

From his hand’s every finger, a hundred arts and more!
Accomplished in every architect’s rule,
A guide in astronomy’s laws
His figuration made easy the Almagest’s toil
And his doubt might cause Euclid to fear;
If his grip lacked a compass,
He traced his work with two fingers;
When he wished a line’s mark, of a sudden,
From his innermost nature, drew he straight – and without ruled paper!
He might leap as far as the satin-dark arch
And fix corbelations upon Saturn’s own vault!
When his hand took a turn to the chisel,
The very stone turned softer than rawest wet brick;
When he set his mind on to design,
Lovely traces in thousands sprang up there in tendrils

(trans. Michael Barry, from Figural Art in Medieval Islam)

Both of these characters are described primarily as skilled artists and astronomers, with an emphasis on the wondrous beauty of their work – yet within their respective stories, their role is to accomplish feats of engineering: the latter designs a fantastical palace, while Farhad devises a road through a mountain and (pictured below) a plumbing system to supply a palace with milk.
Khosrow inspects Farhad's milk plumbing system(image from Wikipedia)

So what did it really mean to be a muhandis back then? And what does all of this tell us about the significance of and relationships between geometry, art, and engineering in that world?

Writing Q&A

I tend not to write about the fact that I write. Nevertheless, when writer/editor Christina Vasilevski and SFF author Benjanun Sriduangkaew were kind enough to include me in this bloghop that’s been happening across many writers’ blogs, I agreed to answer some questions about my writing process.

What is one thing you’ve learned about writing that you wish you knew when you started?

That it isn’t a completely solitary activity. Yes, there is plenty of sitting alone with the text (or blank page, as it were) – but getting feedback is a crucial part of the game. Partly because you can’t deliver your best writing without it, but more just because writing is a communicative act. It is important to feel like you have an audience – and I mean people who actually want to read what you’re writing. Critique partners/groups are valuable, but it’s not enough if the only people reading your stuff are doing it in the hope you’ll return the favour. Not least because criticism and publisher rejections will be tremendously painful if you aren’t validated in your writing elsewhere. (They may always sting on some level, but it makes a world of difference when you feel that there are (other) people who believe your writing matters.)

What are 3 things you don’t write?

1. Real people as characters in fiction. Representing real people in a way that does them justice carries a burden of responsibility that I just don’t want. Also, I want the control to tailor my characters to the story I want to tell, which I can generally only achieve with my own creations.

2. Stories that happen through the filter of modern people trying to uncover historical or folkloric mysteries (cf. The Call of Cthulhu or The Da Vinci Code). I enjoy doing research but I’m not into writing (or reading) about other people doing it!

3. Sweeping epic narratives. I’m more interested in exploring individuals than groups.

What are 3 things you do write?

1. Humour. Not everything I write is funny, but half the fun of writing for me is the freedom to be random and see what sticks! And I confess I am not above the occasional in-joke, especially across languages. But I’ve also found that some of the most profound things I’ve written have come out unconsciously between the lines of being silly.

2. Stories of people who get something they really want, only to find that the reality of that thing doesn’t match up at all to their expectations. (I don’t consciously seek to write this theme, but I find it comes up a lot.)

3. Unusual combinations. Often, but not always, related to being funny. For instance, my present project is a sort-of-cyberpunk Mughal courtesan novel

If you could go back in time to witness one particular historical event (knowing that your presence wouldn’t alter the timeline), what would you choose?

I’m not so interested in events that make it into history books. But I wouldn’t, say, pass up the chance to watch the original performances of ancient Greek drama.

If you could delete 3 words from the English language, what would they be?

For some reason, modern abbreviations in the vein of “totes” (totally) and “deets” (details) really annoy me. I can’t explain why; I usually enjoy the expressive-play possibilities of new slang, but this one just gets on my nerves!

More seriously, I would strike out the words “harem” and “barbarian”. When you look at the terms closely – at their origins as well as how their present connotations compare to their real-life referents – they turn out to be steeped in some really degrading interpretations of foreign cultures.

What is one piece of writing advice that you think is really overrated? Why?

The vilification of any particular writing feature, be it adverbs or “telling” (vs. “showing”). I grant that it’s more common to see adverbs or “telling” used badly than well – but all the advice out there to avoid them has given rise to a problematic mentality that they are inherently weak things for a writer to do. They aren’t. They weaken writing when used in unskilled ways.

In turn, I’m tagging another writer I know who’s fun, has a great imagination, and employs it with sensitivity. Go check her out:

Amelia Aldred was raised in Indiana and eventually wandered north to Chicago. She works as a researcher by day and writes fiction and creative-nonfiction by night.  Amelia prefers to write with a Uniball Visio black ink pen, but in a pinch she’s taken notes with lipstick and ketchup.