How dare you, sir

Steven Poole muses on

a possible tension in what passes for my “thought”: evincing on the one hand a kind of Anglo-empiricism, I nonetheless have a soft spot for the works of such writers as Derrida, Baudrillard and Zizek, all of whom are anathema to the Anglophone analytic tradition…[P]erhaps the common factor was this: I was not at all sure that I was as clever as any of these men, and so even when I was troubled by seeming opacity or nonsense, I reckoned that I had better tread carefully.

That’s an interesting ‘and so,’ since it leads to something that doesn’t follow from what ‘and so’ seems to claim that it does. It is not necessary to be sure that one is as clever as the writer of something one is reading, in order to think that the something one is reading is either opaque or nonsense and ought not to be. In fact that’s a silly way of looking at the matter. It could make much more sense to view it the opposite way: ‘This writer may well be cleverer than I am, so why did the writer not write this clearly and/or non-nonsensically?’ One could surmise that there is something else in operation, something other than or in addition to cleverness – vanity for example; a desire to impress; pretension; a taste for posturing opacity which is not incompatible with cleverness. One could surmise that the writer had enough cleverness to write in a posturingly opaque way, but not enough to conclude that that’s a narcissistic, preening, and fundamentally anti-intellectual thing to do. One could recall other clever writers and thinkers who do research and also write about it in clear, accessible ways so that a larger public can learn from it, and one can decide that that is much more worth admiring and respecting than is ‘seeming opacity or nonsense’; one can wish that clever writers who go in for seeming opacity or nonsense had applied their cleverness in different ways. One can think a lot of things. ‘I had better tread carefully’ is not the only thing one can think as a consequence of thinking ‘I was not at all sure that I was as clever as any of these men.’ And I would argue that one ought to think other things, partly because the ‘they are clever: I had better tread carefully’ thought is exactly the thought such writers want readers to have, and that coupled with opacity and/or nonsense is an unworthy desire. Readers ought not to submit to the manipulation; readers ought to resist it; readers ought to expect writers to want to address them as clearly as they know how, not as opaquely. Argumentative writers, that is, of course; literary writers can do what they like, and readers are welcome to be impressed if they fancy it; but I take Poole’s three to be all argumentative writers, and I think there is no merit in chosen (as opposed to genuinely unavoidable) opacity in argumentative writing. I think this slavish idea that opacity could be a sign of great cleverness and therefore ought not to be dissed is a mistake.

The mistake leads Poole to say some peculiar things.

Luckily, the opinion journalist Johann Hari does not suffer from such uncertainty, and has taken it upon himself to denounce Slavoj Zizek in an article for the New Statesman, on the occasion of the British release of the documentary film, Zizek!. In doing so, he furnishes a useful example of the word “postmodernist” as it is almost always used nowadays, as a kneejerk insult from reactionary anti-intellectuals…[T]he opinion journalist Johann Hari shows no sign of actually having read any of Zizek’s books…Nonetheless, the opinion journalist Johann Hari finds it within himself to accuse Zizek, in his film performance, of “intellectual suicide”. In another world, it might be considered intellectual suicide to denounce a writer with whose works one has only a hurried and superficial acquaintance.

What can he mean, ‘taken it upon himself to denounce Slavoj Zizek’? Why does he word it that way – as if it were some kind of violation of the holies or lèse majesté? Why shouldn’t Hari ‘take it upon himself’ (much as Poole has taken it upon himself) to ‘denounce’ (meaning criticize) a particular writer? Was he supposed to ask someone’s permission first? Whose? Poole’s? The Archbishop of Canterbury’s? The Department of Homeland Security’s? And then notice the way Poole goes from his assertion that Hari ‘shows no sign of actually having read any of Zizek’s books’ to apparent certainty that Hari ‘has only a hurried and superficial acquaintance’ with Zizek’s works – when in fact he obviously has no idea how much of Zizek Hari has read, or how deeply. Notice also the repetition of ‘denounce’ – which is a sly word, probably meant to leave incautious readers with a vague impression that Hari has ‘denounced’ Zizek to the secret police. And of course notice that ‘reactionary anti-intellectuals’ remark. Inaccurate and bullying, groupthink-enforcing and toadying; it’s unpleasant stuff. For my part, I think it’s Poole’s view of the matter that is really anti-intellectual: by telling people not to question or criticize or resist when they read what strikes them as opaque or nonsensical but instead to think ‘this writer [because opaque or nonsensical] may well be cleverer than I am so I will read respectfully and denounce people who denounce this clever [opaque or nonsensical] writer and call them idiots and reactionary anti-intellectuals,’ Poole makes it that bit harder for people who pay attention to him to read critically and thoughtfully.

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