Like Seizing Sweetmeats from an Infant

Nov 13th, 2003 1:11 am | By

Well this is going to be fun. Thanks to the link at Arts and Letters Daily, we’re getting letters about the ‘Bad Writing’ In Focus – agreeing on the whole, but with some dissenters too. Perhaps it’s dirty pool for me to answer them here…?

Nah. Most people who visit the site never even find Notes and Comment, and besides – the question of the way Bad Writers defend Bad Writing is in fact part of the issue. It’s part of what the article was about, and part of what’s wrong with the whole field. So talking about it is part of our (admittedly self-appointed) brief.

This awful article trots out very familiar objections to “theory” in a way which only provides ammunition for those who think such objections are always merely anti-intellectual.

Hmm. Well, maybe, but it looks to me more as if it’s providing evidence (not that any more is needed at this late date) for those who think Theory is a textbook case of The Potentate’s New Garments.

Benson argues that the questions theory raises are dealt with in other disciplines, without bothering to explore those questions, or even hint at what they might be.

True enough, but that’s because I think everyone knows, at least everyone who’s interested enough to read this site. Why bother to specify? It’s only Postmodernists who think they’ve invented ideas that have been around for at least a century or two.

She makes no effort to enter into any complexities of the debate over who is to judge what is “bad writing,” how, and why (is she by any chance dismissing feminism and Marxism without the need to actually acknowledge their existence, let alone attempt to engage with their critiques? Who knows). Benson also does not actually consider any specific terms/jargon (depending on your view) theory uses, in order to investigate whether they really can be substituted for satisfactorily by the language of “common sense.”

Yes, see, here’s where we get down to it. The ‘complexities of the debate’ – because it is all so very complex and difficult and deep, you know, which is exactly why we can’t discuss it without all this heavy breathing. No, it’s true, I don’t get into the debate over who is to judge, because I don’t see any need to. I think we all are, that’s who. I think the badness is self-evident and I think we’re all perfectly capable of judging it. And as for feminism and Marxism – what have they got to do with anything? Here again the solipsism of Theory comes into play. As if literary theorists had some kind of monopoly on Marxism and/or feminism – or even much to do with them, frankly. More borrowed prestige, is more like it.

And then the bit about common sense. That’s just translation, that’s all that is. I’ve talked about translation here before. I didn’t say one word about ‘common sense,’ it’s not a phrase I use, I think it’s just as silly as the letter-writer does. That’s a false and ridiculous dichotomy – the only two choices are either Theory-jargon, or the ‘language of common sense.’ Pu-leeze. Those two items do not exhaust the possibilities. Nope, this is all just the same old blowing smoke – the writing in question is not bad, it’s difficult, and you don’t understand it, because it’s so technical and profound and professional, and you’re conservative, look at the way you don’t so much as mention Marxism and feminism, and you expect everything to be commonsensical ‘cat sat on the mat’ kind of writing, and who is to judge what is bad writing anyway and how and why, there’s a very complex debate about that which it takes a lot of jargon to discuss properly, and you don’t expect physicists to write common sense language so why do you expect theorists to when theorists’ subjects are every bit as difficult as physicists’ subjects no more so because all physicists have to do is count and measure things.

Oh I don’t know, maybe it is dirty pool, it’s too much like shooting fish in a barrel. But it’s so amusing…

Five Thousand

Nov 11th, 2003 8:08 pm | By

I’ve been re-reading Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families, about the Rwanda genocide and what the US, the UN, Belgium didn’t do to stop it, and what France did to help it along. Or perhaps really I should include the US along with France, since we not only didn’t send troops ourselves, we urged other countries not to send troops either. It’s all, really, exceedingly uncomfortable reading.

And relevant to not one but two subjects we were discussing here yesterday: the inadequacy of blanket pacifism in the face of genocidal tyrannical regimes, and the inadequacy of blanket free-speechism in the face of genocidal regimes or movements that use speech, and in particular mass media like radio, to incite and direct mass murder. But perhaps the matter of blanket pacifism is more immediately relevant. I must say, I felt some of my attitudes to the war in Iraq heaving and shifting in a disconcerting way as I read. If what I’ve been having can even be called attitudes; they’re more like a collection of doubts and qualms. But whatever they are, they’ve done a little shape-shifting since I read for instance the section of Gourevitch’s book that starts on page 150.

The desertion of Rwanda by the UN force was Hutu Power’s greatest diplomatic victory to date, and it can be credited almost single-handedly to the United States. With the memory of the Somalia debacle still very fresh, the White House had just finished drafting a document called Presidential Decision Directive 25, which amounted to a checklist of reasons to avoid American involvement in UN peacekeeping missions…PDD 25 also contained what Washington policymakers call “language” urging that the United States should persuade others not to undertake the missions that it wished to avoid. In fact, the Clinton administration’s ambassador to the UN, Madeleine Albright, opposed leaving even the skeleton crew of two hundred seventy in Rwanda…Her name is rarely associated with Rwanda, but ducking and pressuring others to duck, as the death toll leapt from thousands to tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands, was the absolute low point of her career…

And then on page 152 there’s a bit about his visit to the Holocaust Museum…

I saw a group of museum staffers arriving for work. On their maroon blazers, several wore the lapel buttons…inscribed with the slogans ‘Remember’ and ‘Never Again.’ The museum was just a year old; at its inaugural ceremony, President Clinton had described it as ‘an investment in a secure future against whatever insanity lurks ahead.’ Apparently, all he meant was that the victims of future exterminations could now die knowing that a shrine already existed in Washington where their suffering might be commemorated…

It’s so hard to get it right. One is always fighting the last war. One learns the lessons of Vietnam, and then finds that they don’t work very well in Bosnia or Rwanda. Then one wants to apply what one has learnt from Bosnia and Rwanda, and worries that one will get it wrong again, and end up at My Lai. During the Vietnam War people talked much of Munich and appeasement; at Munich, people were thinking of the first World War and what a mistake that was; in 1914, people were thinking among other things of failures to resist German aggression in the past. And so it goes. But perhaps the most chilling thing Gourevitch writes is this:

…on April 21, 1994, the UNAMIR commander, Major General Dellaire, declared that with just five thousand well-equipped soldiers and a free hand to fight Hutu Power, he could bring the genocide to a rapid halt. No military analyst whom I’ve heard of has ever questioned his judgment, and a great many have confirmed it.

Five thousand…

Blog Check

Nov 11th, 2003 2:01 am | By

And speaking of the Interahamwe and what people listen to on the radio and how easy it is to overlook what’s not right in front of our eyes…There is a discussion going on at Crooked Timber about free speech and speech codes. For some reason I was moved to ask a question that always occurs to me in the context of such discussions, and that doesn’t seem to me to get asked enough. What do free speech absolutists say about situations like Rwanda and the Balkans where government leaders went on the radio to incite people to go out and kill or ‘cleanse’ other ethnic groups, with all too much success? So far, I’m interested to see, I haven’t had a real answer – just a lot of careful ignoring the question plus one person saying that sort of thing only happens in places like Rwanda and the Balkans, which seems 1. like perfect hindsight – well we know it happens there! so that’s safe enough, and 2. a tad naive, if one casts one’s mind back a mere six decades. So I am forced to conclude, at least for the moment, that free speech absolutists simply don’t argue honestly.

Another blogger enjoyed my sample of Robyn Wiegman’s academic prose. So I’m glad I was dedicated enough to do all that typing. Your enjoyment is my goal.

Beware the Shortcut

Nov 10th, 2003 10:26 pm | By

Now by way of a holiday from bad writing, we can have a look at some good writing. David Aaronovitch is pretty reliable that way, and he’s good at that (alas all too easy) parlor game of pointing out the omissions and blind spots in some leftist rhetoric. It’s an honourable job, Orwell made a good thing of it, and certainly somebody has to do it. It’s no good leaving it all to the right, thus giving the impression that no one on the left objects to silly or ill-founded arguments. Such as this from the novelist Philip Kerr in the New Statesman:

I find it almost incomprehensible that someone from a generation who came of age during the Vietnam war, who read the war poets, [who]… listened to Joan Baez and John Lennon, and who must surely once have seen this marvellous film, could march this country into so many military conflicts.

To which Aaronovitch replies:

The military conflicts we have been ‘marched into’ by Mr Blair are Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq. That isn’t because the PM never understood the words of ‘Imagine’, but because it transpired that the Taliban, the hard men of the Baath, the amputating militias of West Africa, the Hutu Interahamwe and the Serb army of Radko Mladic had been brought up on something other than Joan Baez….The Dutch UN forces, who watched while the worst massacre in 50 years on the European continent took place at Srebrenica, were too lightly – not too well – armed. Perhaps, as they watched the coaches being driven off, they were singing ‘Where Have all the Flowers Gone?’. In the end, no Dutch soldiers returned to Holland in body bags, yet the country felt itself disgraced.

Which is not to say that I think there’s no reason at all to be opposed to the war in Iraq, but it is to say that it’s no good pretending it’s a simple matter of rejecting violence and all will be well. That’s it’s not all that useful to say heatedly that there are children in Iraq, as if that makes everything clear and obvious.

And then, even better, Aaronovitch goes on to address the use of pictures and television as anti-war devices. ‘There is an implication in what Professor Lewis said that, if people in Britain were confronted with more disturbing images of war, they might be more reluctant to permit it (a logic, by the way, which no one suggests applying to the aftermath of road crashes).’ But a picture can be of anything, and mean anything. What if people in Britain were confronted with more disturbing images of mass graves in Iraq? Or torture victims? This interests me particularly because I’ve had arguments with people about the same issue from a different angle. When I’ve been arguing that language and print and books and reading are more necessary for and conducive to rational thought than pictures are, and that pictures can’t make an argument whereas language can, I’ve known people to disagree with great vehemence, and adduce the famous picture of the little girl running down the road after a napalm attack in Vietnam. That one picture made more of an argument than millions of words, they informed me. I tried hard to convince them that it didn’t, not by itself, it was only because they knew what it was a picture of that it had such an effect, and that knowledge depended on words. Without the context the picture could have been of many things, and no one would have the faintest idea who had caused the child’s misery or what to do about it.

But what happens if the war that kills the boy is about things the camera does not capture? About carnage that is threatened in the future? Or about executions by the thousand that are carried out far away from foreign reporters, and whose victims, though just as dead, are unseen? Had we been shown live pictures of Saddam’s men at work on their victims, or the delivery of body parts to the relatives of murdered democrats, what effect might that have had upon us?…What might we have demanded to be done in Congo if only it were safe enough for film crews to get pictures back of the horrors there?…I worry about what happens when we believe that what we see is all there actually is, about what you might call TV-solipsism. The undiscovered boys in the Bosnian graves are every bit as dead as the photographed Iraqi boy.

Exactly. Cameras can’t capture everything, and they can’t explain what they do capture. Beware of shortcuts. Advertising slogans, pictures, questions about children – they’re all shortcuts, aimed at the emotions, and they go around all the important questions.

Sites of Resistance

Nov 10th, 2003 7:54 pm | By

I thought we were through with the Bad Writing subject for the moment, but now I’m not so sure. Maybe it’s one of those subjects that one is never through with – not until it goes away, at least.

A kind (and horrified) reader has sent me this delightful example. And the writer is from Norway, too! Wouldn’t you think they would know better? I have this idea (very essentialist of me, really) that Scandinavians in general and particularly Norwegians are sensible people, not the kind of people who are inexplicably impressed by Bad Writing and seized with an uncontrollable need to imitate same. Why do I think that, I wonder. I don’t know – something to do with Roald Amundsen perhaps, and their relative good behavior during World War II, and their general reputation for stolid imperturbability. But then there’s lutefisk – maybe it’s rather like lutefisk. (That’s a pretty Seattleish joke. Seattle is a very Norwegian city, and I have friends who joke about lutefisk and their stolid imperturbable parents and grandparents.) (The friends’ parents and grandparents more than the lutefisks’, but either way, really.)

Enough fooling about; down to business. As my colleague the sociologist said about this article when I forwarded it to him, ‘it would be possible to write sensibly about the way in which conceptions of body normalcy are influenced by social discourse but they just have to write stupidly about it, don’t they!’ Don’t they though.

The body is a discursive reality. It is a site for the production of meaning. One meaning produced is that of deviance, or difference. The means of production are located in the interactions of the human sciences and the ideas of mainstream culture. Science measures and counts, while mainstream culture fears the unknown and longs for stability. Through an exchange relation they establish the discourse of normality and differentiate normal and deviant bodies. In this way, bodies have become a site of political struggle over what is normal and what is not normal.

Science measures and counts? And that’s all? And mainstream culture longs for stability and fears the unknown? All of mainstream culture? Really? Could that be a bit oversimplified? Is that the function of overcomplicated jargon, I often wonder – to disguise the oversimplification of the actual thinking?

In disability studies, two discourses defining the disabled body are identified. The first is founded in modernist thinking and defined by the keyword, normality. The second, founded in postmodernist thinking, is defined by the keyword, difference…With reference to pre-modern perceptions of disability, in the first edition of his book Stiker nominates the anti-psychiatry movements as a promising empirical case that makes a potential contribution to understanding disability through difference. An essential part of Stiker’s book is the normative standpoint he takes in favour of difference. He clearly states the celebration of difference as a road to human life, and that the passion for similarity is a potential for social violence leading to repression and rejection.

Which modernist thinking, exactly? And what kind of difference? Difference from what? All difference? What if we decide to call suicide bombers or people who shoot abortion doctors ‘different’? Is that celebration of difference a road to human life? Come to that, what does ‘a road to human life’ mean anyway? And if we’re going to talk about similarity as leading to repression, where is John Stuart Mill in all this? Do we ignore Mill because he might remind us that in fact suspicion of social pressure and the value of sameness is not a postmodern invention at all? Does postmodernism have an irritating habit of claiming it invented ideas that have in fact been around for centuries or indeed millennia?

And then there is the strange combination of appeals to difference and refusal of the repression of normality and sameness, with the disapproval of amputees who insist on having their own opinions about their amputations and ‘devotees’.

Amputee women also contribute to mainstream conceptions of disability and beauty. This is the case both when it comes to those hostile towards devotees and those welcoming the devotees. They typify devotees as oppressive and deviant in desiring the part of their body that to them represents tragedy and loss. The hostile amputees want to be loved for everything else but their stump(s). In this way they contribute to the construction of the disabled body as deviant and ugly. Even the possibility of living alone is brought up as a better alternative than the company of a devotee. They totally reject the male devotee gaze, but in doing this they tend to contribute to the construction of the disabled woman as asexual.

Oh leave them alone! one wants to snap. Why can’t they have their own reactions to their own bodies and situations, without being told what construction they’re contributing to. All this orthodoxy-enforcing, this heresy-sniffing, this frowning over insufficiently ‘postmodern’ attitudes – surely it’s at least as coercive and repressive as the putative passion for stability and normality of ‘modernism’. Read Erving Goffman’s Stigma instead, and let it go at that.

More Than One

Nov 9th, 2003 9:59 pm | By

I posted this report on an address by Amartya Sen a few days ago, because I admire Sen (I well remember the moment I heard over the radio that he’d won the Nobel Prize, and how surprised and delighted I was) and also because he said something I’ve been thinking and muttering about for a long time, including here.

The Emeritus Professor at Harvard tore to shreds, the theory of ‘clash of civilisations’ (championed particularly by Samuel Huntington) and which has gained much currency, describing the classification as “very crude.” According to him, “what is most immediately divisive in this kind of theorising is not the silly idea of the inevitability of a clash, but the equally shallow prior insistense on seeing human beings in terms of one dimension only, regarding them just as members of one civilisation or another (defined mostly in terms of religion), ignoring their other affliations and involvements.”…Sen said to define people just in terms of religion-based classification of civilisations, can itself contribute to political insecurity, since in his view, people are seen as simply belonging to, say, “the Muslim world”, or “the western world”, or “the Hindu World”, or “the Buddhist world”, and so on “To ignore everything other than religion in classifying people is to set people up in potentially belligerent camps”, he warned. Secondly,Sen said it was a mistake to assume that a person’s religion defines him or her reasonably adequately. For example, the history of the Arab World with which an Arab child today can potentially relate is not only the achievements of Islam (important as they are), but also the great secular accomplishments in mathematics, science and history which are part and parcel of Arab history.

Just so. “ignoring their other affliations and involvements” Exactly. As if we only have one. As if we’re all one-dimensional creatures, little pencil-dots, instead of sprawling complicated unboxable things with height and depth and breadth and other dimensions we can’t even name. How bloody boring that is, apart from anything else – even apart from how dangerous, and divisive, and anti-rational it is, it’s just so damn small and limiting and impoverishing. Bernard Williams made the same point about philosophy, especially for instance Kantian and Utilitarian views of ethics: that they ignored far too many aspects of human experience. And that bit of the Colin McGinn review I quoted a couple of days ago also makes a similar point –

But this assigns to women the patriarchal obligation of having children and bringing them up, with this obligation morally trumping any other projects that they might entertain.

What is this impulse to try to limit each other to being just one thing? What is this need to see everything in terms of one category – identity, or parenthood, or religion, or politics? It would be all right if we were ants, but since we’re not, let’s try not to think like ants. (Never mind how I know how ants think – educated guesswork, that’s how.)

We Happy Few

Nov 8th, 2003 8:17 pm | By

There is an interesting remark in this review of Terry Eagleton’s After Theory in the Telegraph. Actually there is more than one. Noel Malcolm points out that ‘Cultural Studies’ is a discipline that has some difficulties and ironies considered from a left-wing point of view:

If you open these books and try reading a page or two, you will probably notice one more thing: most of them are unreadable…These are clever people who have spent years mastering bodies of theory and styles of argument, to the point where they can produce new quantities of the same. But the overwhelming impression they give is that they are writing to impress one another, not to enlighten you or me. You do not have to be intellectually conservative to find this an unsatisfactory state of affairs. Somewhere in the origins of this new academic quasi-discipline there was a democratic impulse…

Just so, and so it is indeed odd that the practitioners write to impress each other rather than enlighten the rest of us. Yes there are vocational reasons for it, but it’s odd all the same.

Clearly, something has gone terribly wrong. Not only have these clever cultural theorists ended up producing stuff which will never emancipate ordinary people, because no ordinary person can read it. They have turned into cultural relativists, and given up on the whole theory of emancipation. They do not believe in a general project of freeing people from the cultural or economic forces that oppress them; they are against general projects or general values tout court. “Progress” was a modernist idea; these people are post-modernists. In such circumstances, it is surprising that the task of attacking post-modernism has been left almost entirely to the intellectual Right…Where are the battalions of the Old Left when you really need them?

That’s the interesting remark I had in mind. Hasn’t he noticed? There are a lot of people on the left (old, new, whatever) who attack postmodernism. The writers of many of the articles on this very site, for example. And this site itself. Our chief reason for existing could be said to be in order to disentangle the left from nonsensical ideas many of which have no reason, even superficial reason, for being considered leftist to begin with. Surely it’s obvious enough by now that Cult Studs is far more of a vocational program for people with ambitions to go into the entertainment industry and make Lotsa Money than it is anything whatsoever to do with leftist politics. So, hell yes, there are leftist and/or at least non-rightist intellectuals who criticise postmodernism, and let’s hope there will be more and more, let’s hope it becomes a Movement.

Other Projects

Nov 7th, 2003 7:44 pm | By

I posted two links in News the other day about the irksomeness of compulsory child-bearing. Is it any wonder that a teasing name gays like to give straights is ‘breeders’?! Anyone would think we were all living in Augustan Rome, where the dear Emperor passed laws that penalized naughty people who refused to get married, much to the disgust of women and men who preferred not to. Is child-bearing likely to die out soon? Is all this social pressure necessary for some dire reason that has escaped my attention? Yes I know Italy has a very low birth rate and that there are worries about pensions and so on, but still, if you look at the planet as a whole, it’s hard to claim that new humans are in short supply.

Rose Shepherd tells a quite surprising story of someone at a dinner party actually upbraiding her and calling her names, not to mention asking the most extraordinary questions, because she had the gall to say that motherhood was not for her.

The funny thing was that this woman was so right-on. I fancy that, if I had announced that I was into cross-dressing, or paganism, or group sex with women, she would have humoured me with polite enquiry. I would not have been subject to the personal, intrusive interrogation, or the criticisms that followed my admission that motherhood was simply not for me. Why had I not had children?…Was there a physical problem?…Was my own childhood so miserable?…Was my relationship too rocky, or too tenuous?…To be a parent, said the woman, was a social obligation. Whereas, to omit to try to have a child is not only against nature, but is ‘spoilt’, when there are women who cannot have a longed-for baby. Did I not want a stake in the future? Immortality through the bloodline? Someone to care for me in old age?

Someone to take a machete to outrageous people at dinner parties? I don’t know, maybe I don’t get out enough, but I find the behavior described quite astonishing. But then the dear old Bishop of Rochester isn’t much better, although even he perhaps draws the line at saying such things to individuals across dinner tables – one can hope, at least.

Three years ago, the Bishop of Rochester voiced society’s prejudice when he dubbed as ‘self-indulgent’ those who chose not to have children. Couples have a duty to have a family, he argued.

Self-indulgent, spoilt – in contrast to all those devoted, self-sacrificing people who have no desire at all to have children but do it anyway out of a sense of duty. Yeah right.

And Zoe Williams makes the important point that this sort of thing is very anti-feminist, though, oddly, few people seem to notice the fact.

There is no room here for analysis or imagination – for women, at least, experience is all. If we are to accept this as truth, then non-mothers exist in a kind of cognitive half-light, and we are inchoate and immature. Since the average age for childbirth is now around 30, this thinking effectively infantilises women below that age and completely rejects the opinions of the permanently childless. So much of the motherhood discourse is dressed up as feminism when, in fact, this does nothing but denigrate women by reducing them to their biological function and excising from all debate those who fail to fulfil it.

Just so. It’s all so backwards. The feminism I know and love is the kind that pointed out, rather loudly and boisterously, some three decades ago that women are allowed to choose whether or not to have children and that not all of them want to and there is nothing wrong with that. But here we are having to re-invent the wheel all over again.

By an interesting coincidence, when I saw those stories, I had just been reading a collection of reviews by Colin McGinn which included one from the New Republic (October 3, 1994) of two books on ‘feminist’ morality. He gets some good mileage out of talking about Hume, Moore and Bernard Williams ‘because they constitute something of an embarrassment for the historical and psychological theory put forward by some feminist philosophers’ since they make similar points despite being, not to put too fine a point on it, men. And then he makes an even better point, which I marked with not one tick but two, meaning not just important but very important.

Actually, it strikes me as somewhat reactionary, from a feminist point of view, to give mothering the central role. If mothering is where real goodness lies, then we are all under an obligation to be mothers, since we should strive to be as good as possible; but since ‘ought’ implies ‘can,’ only women fall under this edict, and so all – and only – women are obliged to be mothers…But this assigns to women the patriarchal obligation of having children and bringing them up, with this obligation morally trumping any other projects that they might entertain.

Exactly so. And how this came to be called or thought of as feminism is an interesting question. Difference feminism has a lot to answer for.

Still Bad

Nov 6th, 2003 5:29 pm | By

The ‘bad writing’ discussion continues. A reader wonders in the Guestbook if ‘bad’ is the best word to use.

OB, very ascerbic, very plain and right on, on the Bad Writing theme. But I think the very the phrase itself needs a housecleaning (or maybe a whole renovation), since “bad” can mean a splay of things: bad-ass, bad-as-evil, bad quality, bad as in WRONG, bad as in naughty … I think YOU mean “bad” as in convoluted, arrogant, obfuscatory, and Wizard-of-Oz academic, no?

Yes. Good point, FK. But I still like the word ‘bad’ for the purpose, and I think the possible other meanings are eliminated by the context. Even the headline on the In Focus makes explicit what kind of bad writing is at issue. And I’m fond of the word ‘bad’ for a number of reasons. The first is its bluntness, simplicity, clarity – how very unlike it is, in fact, the fog-generating unclarity of jargon-mongering. Then there’s its non-euphemistic aspect. I detest the widespread use of the word ‘poor’ as a substitute for bad when people (apparently) don’t want to hurt the feelings of whatever it is they are calling not-good – even if the thing in question is an inanimate object not created by a human. People say things like ‘It’s poor weather for sailing.’ Because – ? Who exactly is going to be offended if we say it’s bad weather for sailing? Poseidon maybe? But that’s a digression – and yet it’s not, not entirely, since language is the subject under discussion. Euphemism tends to obfuscate and should be avoided when possible. (When possible – thus obviously if your best friend asks you ‘How do I look?’ you should not answer, briefly and to the point, ‘Bad.’) Then there’s the fact that ‘bad writing’ means ‘writing that is bad as writing.’ Writing that doesn’t do the job writing ought to do, or any one of the many jobs writing can do. Bad engineering is a bridge that falls down, bad architecture is a house that falls down, bad running is a runner that falls down, and bad writing is writing that makes one long to be illiterate again.

And then there are various resonances – such as Paul Fussell’s amusingly vituperative book Bad, from which I got the phrase (one that he quotes from an old professor of his) ‘Bad, bad, very bad.’ It seems so obvious, and yet people don’t say it enough. I say it all the time. Another resonance is with Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, who filled their correspondence with pointing out how bad a lot of things were. David Lodge once remarked somewhere (sorry I can’t remember where) that the amusingly blunt, direct language of Lucky Jim may have come from the Ordinary Language philosophy that was all the rage at Oxford when Amis and Larkin were there. So perhaps there’s that resonance too, at several removes. And then of course there’s Denis Dutton’s Bad Writing contest, which I think he probably named that for much the same sorts of reasons I adduce here. The writing in question is bad, it’s not poor or weak or unfortunate or regrettable or infelicitous, it’s just plain bad. It doesn’t do what writing ought to do and it does do what writing ought not to do – hence it is bad.

And people go on making the ‘It’s not bad it’s difficult’ defense. The ‘No one expects physics or botany or philosophy to be instantly understandable so why do people expect theory and essays on theories written for theoreticians and theoretical analysis to be instantly understandable?’ defense. Which of course rests on the belief that theory is saying something inherently difficult that can’t be expressed in any other way, but one has only to read the examples I gave (the whole thing will do just as well as the samples) to see that that is simply not the case. No need to take my word for it; by all means read the whole thing. What can I tell you – it’s bad.

And Another

Nov 5th, 2003 6:25 pm | By

Want more? Want more bad writing combined with bad thinking? Right then.

This is from a review by Azfar Hussain of Dis/locating Cultures/Identitites, Traditions, and Third World Feminism by Uma Narayan.

Narayan’s preoccupations with the problematics of the representations of sati in Western feminist discourse indeed remain intimately connected to other representationalist discursive areas, namely dowry-murders in India and domestic violence-murders in the United States — issues that she takes up in the third chapter of her book. Narayan takes a hard, critical look at the ways in which dowry-murders in India are framed, focused, and even formulated in US academic feminist discourse, while pointing up the dangerous problems kept alive by Western culturalist epistemological approaches to Third-World subjects, identities, traditions, and cultures. She argues that while crossing “borders” in the age of globalization, images, narratives, and the entire chain of events pertaining to the Third World lose their national and historical differentia specifica under the homogenizing epistemic logic of some readily available connection-making apparatuses. As Narayan further argues, such apparatuses — informational, ideological, and mediatic as they are — continue to provide visibility to dowry-murders in India and relative invisibility to domestic-violence murders in the US, thereby serving the hegemonic.

Thereby serving the hegemonic, you see. Perhaps if Hussain had said what he says more clearly, he would have been too embarrassed to say it – which is one use of jargon: it makes it easier to say absurd things. But then one has to wonder why people want to say absurd things. Why do Hussain and Narayan want to argue that Western feminists should not ‘frame, focus and formulate’ dowry-murders in such a way that they are made more visible? Why do they want to summon all this portentous suspicion about the whole thing? Isn’t there enough real oppression and racism and colonialism in the world, without going to all this trouble to translate moral or humanitarian attention into something that ‘serves the hegemonic’?

Just a bit more, by way of edification and entertainment.

Such a self-critical interrogation begins to complicate the very question of identity itself in ways in which the continuing “colonialist” process of constructing “Third-World” identity and also even the practice of conjuring the ghost of authenticity haunting that very identity (as exemplified in various brands of counterproductive, essentialist identity-politics these days) are all brought into productive crises. For Narayan, indeed, the question of identity continues to constitute a predominant concern throughout the book. And her insistence on historicizing and contextualizing identity and difference within the deeply specific national contexts — instead of just celebrating or, worse, fetishizing them — seems right on the mark. According to her, the fetishization of difference and identity only renders them vulnerable to ongoing hegemonic appropriations in the metropolis.

Oh, those ongoing hegemonic appropriations in the metropolis. Don’t you just hate that? You know, you can’t get a cab, and the restaurants are all booked, and everything is so expensive, and then on top of all that – ongoing hegemonic appropriations! It’s unbearable!

So It’s a Sample You Want?

Nov 5th, 2003 5:03 pm | By

A reader of ours seems to think I haven’t actually read any bad writing. He’s wrong about that. He tells me to quote some that’s recently published. Very well. Mind you, I wouldn’t do it just to please him, but I’ve been meaning to anyway, when I got around to it, so I’ll get around to it now.

This is from a book published this very year, 2003. It is called, elegantly, The Futures of American Studies, and is edited by Donald E. Pease and Robyn Wiegman. Here is a sample – highly representative, I assure you – from the Introduction:

Like most founding gestures, this one gave monumental status to an origin retrospectively invoked, thereby giving the past authority over the present in a management strategy that seemed aimed to contextualize, if not override, the present threat of rupture and incoherence. In so doing, Wise sought to repair the conceptual ground of a field whose fissuring into multiple programs and subfields at once reflected and gave expression to the aspirations of social movements that had exceeded the ‘founding’ field’s epistemological grasp. The canonical objects of analysis, protocols of reading them, and the interpretive narratives that had secured Wise’s field identity were brought into the ambit of the crisis he diagnosed. In the wake of this encounter, Wise strained to invent a paradigmatic drama that would enable him to feel at home in any of the possible trajectories of the emergent field.

Stop, that’s enough! I want to go on, each sentence is more delicious than the last, so I keep typing, but there is such a thing as copyright, after all. So there you are. I must say, breathes there a soul so dead that that passage doesn’t inspire it with uncontrollable mirth? And it’s all like that. The intro is 38 pages long and it’s all full of that dark suspicion, that insistently paranoid rhetoric, that fatuously portentous jargonization of nothing very much, that wishful mention of ‘social movements’ as if this kind of thing were sort of the academic version of the Flint sit-down strike.

This bit is from the article by Robyn Wiegman, ‘Whiteness Studies and the Paradox’:

I am interested in Forrest Gump as the specific instance and the popular imaginary as the general context for thinking about the academic emergence of an antiracist knowledge project designed to interrogate and historicize whiteness: whiteness studies…If social construction has been used to de-essentialize the racially minoritized subject – to wrestle subjectivity from its oversaturation, indeed reduction to embodiment – then whiteness studies evinces the anxiety of embodiment on the other side of racial power hierarchies, an anxiety that is in itself the consequence of counterhegemonic race discourses that have put pressure not just on what but on how the white body means.

Again – it’s all like that. Page after page of it, treading water, going nowhere. Straining after profundity until the veins stand out on its poor hot forehead, and achieving only polysyllabicality. And then thinking there’s something radical about the whole thing! And there’s something so cringe-making about the sheep-like adoption of Lacanian terminology for no apparent reason, and something so risible about the conjunction of Forrest Gump with a project to historicize something. But there – perhaps I’m just dense, and this sort of thing is terrifically profound.

Group Think

Nov 4th, 2003 9:42 pm | By

The Ruddick essay I discussed in the last N&C was published, as I mentioned, in November 2001, but it was revived and discussed again on several blogs last July. This comment or brief essay by Timothy Burke is particularly interesting.

It’s noticeable what a lot of words there are in both pieces that have to do with social pressure, conformity and group-think. From Ruddick’s article: accusations; how inhibiting these tensions can become; the necessity of adhering to the critical norms of the moment; dominant thinking; rules that I thought were very limiting; disgrace; I was still afraid I’d be attacked; this fear of attack can be utterly compelling; a caution bordering on ventriloquism; disciplinary taboos on certain words and ideals; the threat of ostracism by the group; subtle regulations for speech and thought that are pervasive. From Burke’s essay: the game being played is theoretical one-upmanship; the tyranny of theory; it somehow became shameful to say that I had been drawn to African history simply because it seemed interesting.

Why is that, one wonders. Of course, naturally, there is always some of that in any field, and academic fields are no exception. There are norms and standards and conventions, there is a right way to do things and a wrong way, there is pressure from colleagues to do things the right way – and a good thing too. It’s no good pretending pure anarchy would be preferable. It’s a fine and desirable and necessary thing that scientists should teach and shame each other not to fake their evidence, not to ignore disconfirming data, not to cherry-pick only the studies that support their hypotheses. Same with historians, sociologists, inquirers and researchers of all sorts. It’s fine that philosophers point out logical errors, and chastise confusion of rhetoric with argument. But when necessary demands for rigour and good evidence devolve into heresy-hunting and orthodoxy-enforcing, that’s another matter.

And of course literary ‘theory’ is exactly the sort of discipline where heresy-hunting will flourish – because what else is there? One can present quotations, of course, and say ‘There – you’ve misinterpreted that.’ But it’s always open to people to say simply ‘No I haven’t,’ and that’s that. Especially in a field where deconstruction has dismantled binary oppositions and postmodernism has revealed the futility of Grand Narratives, where Foucault has shown that everything is a power-play and Derrida has undermined phallogocentrism. So all is opinion, and you can’t tell me I’ve misunderstood or misinterpreted or got my facts wrong, but I can tell you that your approach is positivist or Eurocentric or bourgeois or Orientalist and at any rate conservative, and you will feel shamed and guilty and I will not.

So a boring repetitive parochial uniformity is imposed, and some people get out and others censor themselves, and students shrug and sign up for business administration or law instead, and it all seems very unfortunate.

Professional Deformation

Nov 2nd, 2003 1:27 am | By

There is a fascinating article about the discontents of professionalization here. It was written shortly after September 11, but what it says is still of interest. I don’t agree with absolutely all of it, but what of that; I do with most.

Readers in a variety of fields may identify with the experience of a soon-to-be Ph.D. in English, someone who has always worked hard and played by the rules intellectually, who told me that since the terrorist attacks, she’s derived less comfort than she expected from working on her dissertation. She also confessed that she can’t blame the people who look at our discipline from the outside and say, “If you’re not getting at anything that sustains people, what’s the point?”

That’s the main bit I don’t agree with. Sustaining people isn’t the only thing scholarship does, and there is plenty of point in doing non-sustaining (I take sustaining to mean consoling, helping to bear up) things – epistemology for example, or scientific or historical research. The truths that researchers find may well not be in the least sustaining or consoling, but there can be many other sorts of reasons why they’re still worth finding out.

I was in great conflict about continuing to observe certain intellectual rules that were a part of the dominant thinking — rules that I thought were very limiting but that I couldn’t challenge without courting disgrace. Specifically, I felt I had to hide or smuggle in my convictions about what sustains people — my faith, for example, in some quality of shared humanity that makes literary experience meaningful…I was writing about Joyce’s insights into the touching human need to bury, burn, or otherwise take care of the bodies of the dead — an impulse that is universal, however differently loss and the communal response to it are experienced across cultures. I drew support for the notion that this is a universal phenomenon from the field of historical anthropology, which explores what is common and what changes across cultures and eras. Yet I was still afraid I’d be attacked for “essentializing” — for supposing that there are shared features that constitute the essence of being human. For some reason, this fear of attack can be utterly compelling, particularly if your intellectual position can be dismissed on moral or quasi-moral grounds because it has something in common with ideas widely held on the political right.

Indeed it can, and that fear and its compelling quality is the evil demon. That’s the very demon B&W was set up to exorcise. The fear is an understandable one – I experience it or a close relative of it all the time, as I’ve mentioned here before, for instance when I find an interesting article on a site belonging to the Cato Institute or similar. One does not want to assist people who have an agenda that one does not share – that’s simple enough. The Cato Institute’s chief agenda (as far as I can tell) is that of promoting the idea that the market and profit ought to be the final arbiter of everything, and that’s an agenda I dislike intensely. But if an article there makes an important point or has useful new facts to consider – then which political commitment is happy to hear it should be irrelevant. Indeed one could argue that that’s a useful thing – discovering facts or ideas one can agree with in a political stance that is the opposite of one’s own could get all of us into the habit of considering ideas on their merits rather than according to the company they keep, hence could make all of us far more reluctant to be blindly loyal to bad stupid counter-productive harmful or unjust ideas, or untrue or badly-founded facts.

In Disciplined Minds, the physicist Jeff Schmidt claims that professional training in physics, and by extension many other fields, has something in common with brainwashing, and that survival is a bit like deprogramming. The impediment to deprogramming in any environment is the threat of ostracism by the group…Many professions (conceivably all professions) bind initiates to themselves by inducing a subtle spiritual depletion — what the legal theorist Duncan Kennedy, in his 1983 manifesto Legal Education and the Reproduction of Hierarchy, called the “sneaking depression of the pre-professional.” In a superb book called Nuclear Rites, the anthropologist Hugh Gusterson describes how weapons scientists are subjected to training that involves rules of secrecy that have a debilitating effect on reasoning and moral judgment…Systematic demoralization seems to be a hidden feature of many kinds of professional training, though each field develops its own mechanisms for producing this change. The theoretical models that have dominated English and the related disciplines in the last two decades are especially effective tools (along with the institutional factors that have always existed) for creating demoralization.

Physicists, lawyers, weapons scientists, ‘theorists,’ all receiving training that empties them of qualities that they probably need. It’s a fascinating and fairly alarming idea.

Science, History and the Hindutva Brigade

Nov 1st, 2003 8:15 pm | By

Yesterday a reader and fan of B&W’s emailed me to express her admiration of Meera Nanda’s new article, and her work in general. She also alerted me to another example of scholarship under attack by the Hindutva brigade. I’m extremely glad she did: I was entirely unaware of the campaign against the historian Romila Thapar. Read about it here and here. This whole subject is immensely depressing and dispiritng – it always is dispiriting to see humans determinedly marching backwards, and patting themselves on the back for doing it.

While 72-year-old Thapar’s appointment was greeted with applause by serious students of history, little did anyone realise that acolytes of the Hindutva brand of politics, primarily those in the Indian diaspora, would unleash a vitriolic campaign against her built on name-calling and the disparaging of her professional qualifications…Thapar’s academic work is controversial with the Hindutva lobby because it is grounded in professional methods of historical investigation, rather than in the pet historical theories of Hindu extremists relying on extrapolation from Sanskrit texts…Thapar’s documentation of early Indian life is at odds with the Hindutva preference, grounded in a regressive Hindu orthodoxy, of seeing India as a purely Hindu civilisation, the political implications of which for contemporary India being obvious.

Nanda also talks about extrapolation from Sanskrit texts, in her case in science, so the connections are obvious, as are the implications for scholarship, independent thought of all kinds, knowledge, truth, public education, democracy. Never mind research or evidence, just consult The Book, be it the Bible or the Koran or Sanskrit texts. Books are excellent things, but infallible books, no.

With the Bharatiya Janata Party’s (BJP) assumption of power at the centre in 1998 and its ongoing attempts to remake the educational curriculum in its own chauvinistic image gaining momentum, intellectuals and academic positions at odds with the Sangh Parivar’s view of history have come under attack under various pretexts. The BJP has pursued a concerted effort to malign and delegitimise scholars and intellectuals at odds with its view of India’s past.

Well, if B&W can do anything at all to throw a monkey-wrench into that effort, that alone will justify our existence.

Perhaps the most pernicious aspect of the new intolerance is the official sanction it receives through ministers and leaders of academic institutions which have been unscrupulously and ruthlessly saffronised, including universities, councils of historical and social science research, and the National Council for Educational Training and Research. Soon after the BJP took over the Indian Council of Historical Research, it banned volumes in the Towards Freedom project edited by distinguished historians Sumit Sarkar and K N Panikkar. NCERT has revised social science textbooks in a blatantly communal manner.

It’s all really very alarming (all the more so of course given the weapons the BJP has at its disposal). Rewriting history, down the memory hole, banning volumes of a history project – it all makes playful attitudes toward truth and universalism seem about as fun and useful as playing with gelignite.

Dratted Ciabatta-Munchers

Oct 30th, 2003 8:33 pm | By

Here is another installment in the on-going story of religious people demanding immunity from criticism for religion and religious people. This one is more irritating than most because so full of heavy-handed sneering (I like my sneering to be done with a light touch, thank you). Chattering classes, bien pensants, choking on their ciabatta – alliterative but crude. And then there’s the ever-popular rhetorical move of deciding what people’s motives are.

Why is baiting Christians a sport among the so-called bien pensants? Because the bien pensants most enjoy and benefit from the status quo, and sense, in the Christian, a subversive element who seeks to destroy their lifestyle.

Err – no. I for one don’t ‘bait’ Christians, but I do criticise religion and religious arguments, and perhaps to Odone that is indeed ‘baiting’. But either way, I don’t do it because I sense in the Christian a ‘subversive element’ – not in the sense in which she means, the sense she elaborates in the article. No, I do it partly because of this very matter of demanding special treatment, and partly because religious people have a bad habit of overlooking the fact that their religions make truth claims about the world that don’t happen to be well-founded or based on evidence. So in that sense, yes, Christians are subversive: they subvert the value of reason and evidence. But that’s not what Odone means.

We believe in authority. In an era that prizes individual freedom, Christians believe in a supreme being who dictates our words and deeds. To modern ears, the concept sounds outrageously autocratic. From when to die to when to give birth, from whom to have sex with, to how to spend their money, the chatteratis believe they should enjoy unlimited freedom. But for the Christian, freedom is not an end in itself.

The concept sounds more than outrageously autocratic – it sounds factually mistaken. Who is this supreme being and how do you know what it has dictated respecting our words and deeds? As far as I know, the only source of this knowledge is a book that was written over a period of a thousand years or so, two thousand years ago. With all due respect, I don’t consider that a very good piece of evidence, and I’m not the only one. That’s why I don’t think religion should be immune from criticism, not because it might force me to give my ciabatta away to the poor or stop being a moral relativist.

Odone does have one point, that Muslims (she says ‘and Jews’, but that’s not entirely true these days) have greater immunity from criticism (or ‘baiting’) than Christians do. I’ll grant her that. But I think the solution is to say that all religions have it wrong, not to say that they all have it right.

The Turning Point

Oct 29th, 2003 12:30 am | By

I’m a sucker for situations like the one Colin McGinn describes in this article in Prospect. People from what he calls ‘an academically disinclined background’ who get their minds awakened as adolescents, and develop and keep intellectual interests of some sort. I always find that setup tremendously moving.

There is for instance a beautiful bit in the movie ‘Gods and Monsters’ in which the director James Whale, played stunningly by Ian McKellen, ponders his own mysterious emergence from a grimly unaesthetic background. Where did he get all that imagination and love of beauty, he wonders, in McKellen’s beautiful reedy voice. ‘How did I get that way, where did it come from?’ He’s not denigrating his parents, merely wondering at his own oddity, and lucky escape.

The novelist Russell Banks was once in Seattle for a week as the feature of a library programme centered on one of his novels. He spent an afternoon at each of several branches of the library, talking to readers in a more protracted and informal way than the usual book tour. I went to one at which he talked about how he started to be a writer – and the fact that he came from a book-unaware, no (he corrected himself), a downright book-unfriendly household. So he didn’t discover books at all until quite late, until he was about twenty I think. But when he did – they were like water in the desert. I loved the passion with which he described the experience. And it made him a writer, and a similar one made McGinn a philosopher. One gets the same sort of story from reading of Lincoln’s self-education, and Frederick Douglass’ learning to read. The point is not at all about ‘success’ or rising in the world or making piles of money, it’s about quite another thing. One of my favourite plots.

Put That Book Down and Join the Group

Oct 26th, 2003 6:47 pm | By

This is a hilarious bit of reading. (Which I would have missed, despite entrenched habit of perusing the Guardian, but for Norm Geras’ always-interesting site, where you can vote for your own favourite novels, to the tune of three.) Lashings of sarcasm and mockery in Catherine Bennett’s look at Jane Root, BBC2, and the Big Read.

To ignore books is easy. So is burning them. You just need a match. But to make independent reading sound dull and great books look stupid, to transform literature into a vehicle for celebrities, polls, lists, voting opportunities and confected rivalries, to get books confidently debated by experts who have never read them, to set up a competition between Winnie the Pooh and War and Peace: that takes a kind of genius.

Oh go on – tell us what you really think!

The whole, quite fabulously patronising presumption of Root’s “campaign to get the country reading” is that reading is such a painfully lonely and arduous business that we need generous dollops of celebrity, hype and audience participation to force the medicine down. Or as Root describes her mission: “It’s an attempt to turn reading, which can be a very private experience, into something which can be enjoyed together.” The ramblings of people who actually enjoy this private experience might be as off-putting to the general viewer as the confessions of some sordid onanist. Better a jolly book group, you gather, than a pathetic, solitary exercise in self-flagellation.

Solitary reading is it! You wanna go blind?

Now stop that, that’s quite enough. Sorry, sorry. There is a serious point lurking behind the mockery, of course. It is infuriating that people insist on erasing the boundary between popularization and dumbing down. It is perfectly possible to popularize science, philosophy, history, literature, without making them idiotic; people do it all the time. Look at the success of Carl Sagan’s ‘Cosmos’ for instance, and James Burke’s ‘Connections’. Both fun, entertaining, accessible, often funny, without being downright stupid. The stupidification is not necessary, so it would be nice if people like BBC and PBS producers would stop doing it.


Oct 23rd, 2003 6:55 pm | By

A few more thoughts on ‘difficulty’ and bad writing. The result of reading another introduction, this one to the anthology Critical Terms for Literary Study. Thomas McLaughlin has some interestingly symptomatic things to say.

So the very project of theory is unsettling. It brings assumptions into question…And…it does so in what is often a forbidding and arcane style. Many readers are frightened off by the difficulty of theory, which they can then dismiss as an effort to cover up in an artifically difficult style the fact that it has nothing to say…Of course theory is difficult – sometimes for compelling reasons, sometimes because of offensive self-indulgence – but simply assuming that it is all empty rhetoric ultimately keeps you from confronting the real questions that theory raises.

There’s a lot of interesting maneuvering going on in that passage. I could write a theory-laden exegesis on it, if I were that way inclined, but instead I’ll just make a comment or two in the demotic.

Note first of all the sly insinuation, that is so often resorted to in these cases. The ‘project’ of ‘theory’ is unsettling. Geddit? We’re scared, we’re threatened, we think theory is going to stick its hand up our skirt. And then it appears again – readers are ‘frightened off.’ No we’re not. We’re repelled. There is a difference. ‘Theory’ is about as frightening as a soggy doughnut. But the unsettling/threatened/frightened bit is a time-honoured defensive strategy, of course, especially since Freud put it to such good use. If it works it makes the theory-skeptics feel vaguely guilty or foolish or caught out (uh oh, am I a weakling? am I too timid and pathetic for this scary stuff?), and even if it doesn’t, it makes the theory-partisans feel all sorts of terrific things: macho, brave, rebellious, progressive, daring, cutting edge, innovative, able to confront things that other people turn away from.

And then of course there’s the nonsense about ‘assuming’ it is all empty rhetoric, and the even sillier nonsense about keeping oneself from confronting the real questions that theory raises. That assumes – assumes – that literary ‘theory’ is the only discipline that does confront those real questions. Has McLaughlin never heard of an adjacent department that goes by the name of ‘philosophy’? People there occasionally turn their attention to questions of how language works too, as a matter of fact, and even though they’re not immune to jargon themselves, they generally do a considerably better job of it than literary ‘theorists’ do. To say the least.

Any discourse that was out to uncover and question that system had to find a language, a style, that broke from the constraints of common sense and ordinary language. Theory set out to produce texts that could not be processed successfully by the commonsensical assumptions that ordinary language puts into play. There are texts of theory that resist meaning so powerfully – say those of Lacan or Kristeva – that the very process of failing to comprehend the text is part of what it has to offer.

I have a lot to say about that, but this Comment is already long, so I’ll leave the passage for your contemplation for now, and comment later. I do love the last sentence, though. Yes, you could say that.

It Was Just as Bad For Me as it Was For You

Oct 22nd, 2003 7:14 pm | By

I enjoy coincidences. They make me feel like part of the Divine Plan. (That’s a joke, but actually there was a coincidence last week that made me feel tempted to go all New Agey. I resisted, though.) So it amused me a couple of days ago that I started the day reading a new collection of ‘theoretical’ articles (by which you are to understand articles written by people who once would have been called literary critics but who have now moved Up in the world) – articles of a badness, a pretension, a tortuously protracted emptiness, that has to be read to be believed, and then after I’d done that until I couldn’t stand it any more I got on line and found two articles about Bad Writing. Spooky, or what?

One is by the excellent Carlin Romano, reviewing an anthology of essays by, apparently, fans and practitioners of bad writing.

Culler, the well-known Cornell University literary theorist, and Lamb, a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell, waste no time noticing in their introductory essay that the catalyst for recent ill will in this area, the Bad Writing awards bestowed from 1996 to 1999 by the journal Philosophy and Literature, largely targeted practitioners of “‘theory,’ with its odd cachet of both political radicalism and intellectual abstraction.”

Welll…that’s a self-flattering way of putting it. I’m not sure ‘theory’ has all that much cachet beyond the departments where it is practised, or perpetrated. As a matter of fact, radical historians and philosophers of my acquaintance despise the stuff. ‘Theory’ doesn’t have much cachet, odd or otherwise, and most people aren’t entirely convinced of its radicalism. To put it mildly. Abstraction, yes, that everyone will give it. It is abstract. So abstract that most of the time it manages to say nothing at all, or so little that one wonders why anyone would bother to scribble it on a postcard, let alone go on for pages and pages in a journal.

Not a single essayist departs from a seeming party line that what Dutton and his sympathizers call “bad writing” is simply “difficult” writing that intentionally varies from formulations of common sense (a commodity much insulted in these pages from a standard Adorno/Gramsci standpoint) in order to question various kinds of linguistic, philosophical, and political status quos.

No. Not all of it at any rate – and in fact not a lot of it that I’ve ever read, or that anyone I know has ever read. At least – it is difficult in the sense that one feels a strong compulsion to fling the book out the window, and it takes an effort to resist that urge. But difficult in the sense that there is profound meaning that one has to concentrate to understand? No. That’s just more self-flattery. What there is, is an endless tedious process of vocabulary display, in which the writer demonstrates to her colleagues that she knows how to use ‘imaginary’ (as a noun) and ‘geometry’ and ‘discourse’ correctly. But that’s all. That’s not difficult, it’s only too easy, to understand as well as to write. If you don’t believe me, I recommend to you the introduction to the anthology The Futures of American Studies edited by Donald E. Pease and Robyn Wiegman, or the essay by Wiegman therein, ‘Whiteness Studies and the Paradox.’ By another coincidence, those were the bits I read that morning before reading these articles – and Wiegman is mentioned as a bad example by Romano, citing Denis Dutton.

The other article is one by Dutton from 1999 – a locus classicus of the war on Theoryspeak.

No one denies the need for a specialized vocabulary in biochemistry or physics or in technical areas of the humanities like linguistics. But among literature professors who do what they now call “theory” — mostly inept philosophy applied to literature and culture — jargon has become the emperor’s clothing of choice.

That’s what so annoying about it, you see – that pretense that ‘theorists’ are doing philosophy when they’re not, they’re not doing anything like it. Nor are they doing literary criticism. They’re attempting to do a sort of cultural analysis, which is a good thing to do in, er, theory, but in practice they do it so ineptly that one wishes they wouldn’t.

The vatic tone and phony technicality can also serve to elevate a trivial subject. Many English departments these days find it hard to fill classes where students are assigned Milton or Melville, and they are transforming themselves into departments of so-called cultural studies, where the students are offered the analysis of movies, television programs, and popular music. Thus, in a laughably convoluted book on the Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding affair, we read in a typical sentence that “this melodrama parsed the transgressive hybridity of un-narratived representative bodies back into recognizable heterovisual modes.” The pretentiousness of the worst academic writing betrays it as a kind of intellectual kitsch, analogous to bad art that declares itself “profound” or “moving” not by displaying its own intrinsic value but by borrowing these values from elsewhere.

Phony technicality – again, that’s just it. It’s like Nick’s vision of Gatsby in Paris, a fake ‘leaking sawdust from every pore.’

Don’t Like It? Adapt!

Oct 20th, 2003 1:19 am | By

There is a new book out by Frank Furedi, Therapy Culture: Cultivating Vulnerability In An Uncertain Age, which sounds highly interesting in itself and which also resonates with a lot of cultural oddities we talk about here on B and W.

It is the society-wide belief that people cannot cope on their own that leads to the features of therapy culture that we are all too familiar with today: the burgeoning counselling industry, the relentless emphasis on boosting ‘self-esteem’, the expansion of categories such as ‘trauma’ to encompass more and more life events. What gave rise to this downbeat view of human agency, this ‘fatalistic epistemology’ that recasts people as victims?…The decisive reason, Furedi says, is a broader political and cultural shift – in particular, the collapse of the left, and of any project for social change.

That certainly sounds right to me. I just wrote a miniature jeremiad yesterday about the shift from wanting to change and reform X, to simply altering one’s attitude to X – which certainly does have the advantage of saving a lot of trouble and effort and possible hostility from people who don’t feel like allowing us to change X, but which also has the considerable drawback that it doesn’t in fact change X. If something is bad and unjust and harmful and a product of human decisions, the right thing to do is to alter it, not to persuade its victims that they’re all right really.

Having given up on the notion that human beings could change the world, the left focused instead on helping people to survive their circumstances. This shift, Furedi explains, was rapid, complete and – to him at least – unexpected…’In the 1970s, radicals were often scathing of psychology. Feminists, for example, used to protest bitterly against the medicalising of pregnancy and other aspects of women’s lives. The political culture of the time was suspicious of psychological explanations and solutions, and saw them as a way of imposing conformity. ‘Yet now, it is people from the cultural left who are the most insistent about the importance of medicalised explanations and therapeutic interventions’, he continues…In a time when social change is off the agenda, therapy culture unites conservatism and radicalism under an umbrella of survivalism. When it is accepted that there is nothing we can do about the circumstances that we live in, the big challenge of the new century becomes helping individuals merely adapt.

Exactly. The cultural left is a very odd variety of left, it begins to become clear. In many, many ways not even recognizable as a left at all.