The Example: The Implications of Exemplification

Sam Gill
I have been thinking about the implications of providing an example in service to academic writing, although I suppose it is relevant to other kinds of writing. An example shows or illustrates something by being a typical or model example of it. The focus of my attention is the “something,” the “it,” that must exist alongside the example. This “something” must exist and be known apart from its exemplification. So initially the example requires two separate things. But then there is the relationship between them, this is the “illustrate, typical, model” part of the relationship. “To illustrate” suggests that the something is not, on its own or in its own terms, adequate for us to be able to “see” it. “See” is the common sensory metaphor we use to indicate understanding. So we know this something, but we can’t really picture it, see it, or fully understand it on its own terms, so we then need an example of it to make this possible. “To be typical” implies that there may be a number of incidents of this “something” and that among these incidents some are more typical than others. “To model” suggests an iconic relationship between the “something” and the “example” paired with it. This suggests that they “look” alike yet the “something” is somehow not as accessible to our comprehension, for some reason, as is an exemplary model of it. Our ruminations on “example” now have us up to three parts: the something being exemplified, the example itself, and the relationship that is drawn between the two.
If we press on a bit, there is an implication that the “something” is more abstract, theoretical, propositional, general, formal, heady (thus not a thing at all) than is the “example” which carries attributes more concrete, specific, sensual, specific, and bodied than is the “something.” Each then needs the other to have some claim to meaning and value and understanding.
The magic is the relationship drawn between these two, that is, the movement, the vitality, the relationality, the processuality, the dynamics that interconnect the “something” with the “example.” Exemplification is the creation of a narrative of coherence that allows the oscillatory journey back and forth between “something” and “example” to look and feel like meaning and understanding and value. The proposed importance of the “something” is supported by the persuasiveness of the story we call exemplification providing concreteness, application, sensory grounding, and so forth. It seems fitting to call “exemplification” story because of the necessity of demonstrating coherence, the logical or aesthetic fit and significance of the connection of “example” to the “something” it exemplifies. “Examples” are never adequate on their own; indeed, on their own they can’t even be examples. They become examples only when they become characters in a story. Who makes up this story? Well, the writer/researcher who discovers, invents, or concocts the story, the narrative of coherence. Exemplification is not proof, an altogether much more systematic and rigorous process. No, exemplification is fiction, persuasion, satisfaction. The greatest and most impactful of our writers are those who can manipulate, translate, interpret, examples to create amazing fictive narratives that reveal the potential of the something through fictive narratives of exemplification. These narratives do not simply show that the example fits the something to be exemplified, but that the relationship between the something and the example is provocative, suggestive, rich in potential for further interconnection. These are artfully constructed narratives of suggested potential coherence. This potential too is a transcendence of exemplification by energizing subsequent applications/exemplifications of the something.
Exemplification is also necessarily transcendence; the stuff of the example, mundane and unremarkable on its own, transcends itself in becoming example, in meaning more than is apparent by being an example of something of a different order, the theoretical, the ideal, the abstract.
Exemplification also necessarily initiates the oscillatory playful process of comparison, the movement between the something exemplified and the stuff that is being presented as its example. Here the story of coherence becomes something of a conversation between something and its example. Exemplification seems to be build on the principal that the relationship between something and its example should be a case of likeness in some respect, that is coherence. The two are the same in some respects and the articulation of the samenesses in the story is the articulation of the definitive meaning and value being sought and communicated. There is then a reversibility between something and its example, yet it is an incomplete or lopsided reversibility for there is the implication that any something will have many possible examples and that an exemplification is a momentary limitation of this something to but a single instantiation. Other instantiations, it would seem, would be somewhat a lesser fit, not so coherent, not such a good story, as others since exemplification implies selecting the very best instantiation. Thus there is this odd thing about exemplification that suggests that the something is important in being broadly valued to many things more concrete, yet for most of them there is a sloppy fit, a fit whose narrative would suggest only a weak or awkward coherence.
Exemplification is rarely thought of as having a heuristic value, that is, a method of actually modifying or constructing the something, yet, it would seem, given that exemplification implies that much of the stuff in its concrete real of applicability are not so clear and coherent a fit as the exemplum. Seems that exemplification should be reflexive in initiating shifts and corrections and adjustments in the something. We’d need to invent another word that would capture the sense of playful oscillation between something and example. There is an interesting comparison of exemplification and metaphor: Metaphor is understanding something in terms of something else which it is not, while exemplification is understanding something in terms of something else which it is. Metaphor seems to me to be the richer since metaphor requires the distinctively human ability to hold two things as the same, as equal, while knowing that they are not at all the same, as equal. Example, on the other hand, as most commonly understood, is to understand something in terms of an instance of itself. Inspired by metaphor, example would improve its power by giving equal attention to the incompleteness of its reversibility.

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