Stephen King Revisited

Nov 24th, 2003 11:46 pm | By

Update – I commented a few days ago on Stephen King’s strange remarks at the National Book Awards. They’re having a very lively discussion of the same subject at Crooked Timber today.

Amazing Mess

Nov 24th, 2003 11:34 pm | By

Serendipity is always fun. I tend to experience a lot of it, because my bookshelves are so peculiarly organized, and also double-shelved, so that it’s easy to forget what’s behind the front row – I’m always rummaging around looking for one book and ending up with five or six others that I’d been thinking of looking for, wondering where I’d put, wishing I had in my hand. And everything is like that. I’m not very tidy. There are forgotten magazines, forgotten notes, forgotten drafts of essays and articles, forgotten all sorts of things. Nothing that will decay – I’m careful about that – no oozy apples or slimy pears turning up after months of wondering what that smell is. But things that don’t rot tend to get buried under drifts of more of their kind until I go looking for them. So yesterday I decided I wanted to find an old article I’d printed out – so I went through a tall stack of them that has been sitting in a corner for a couple of years now. It’s all right, it’s out of the way there, it doesn’t hurt anything. I didn’t find the one I was looking for, but I did find several others I wasn’t, but was very glad to find. One is the William Kerrigan article from Lingua Franca that I’ve mentioned a couple of times lately. Now I can tell you the title and date, in case you want to read it. November 1998, “The Case for Bardolatry: Harold Bloom Rescues Shakespeare from the Critics.” I wish I could link to it but I can’t, it’s not online. But I can quote from it, and discuss it a bit.

One bit I want to quote from gave me quite a start – I suddenly felt like a spirit summoned from the vasty deep.

Should some avatar of Ambrose Bierce ever write a Devil’s Dictionary for the modern profession of literary studies, which has indeed asked for such a scourge by generating theories about its own professionalism, one might well find the following entry: ‘Professional, noun. One who has never been struck by genius.’

I felt like jumping up and down and waving, or sending up a flare, or something. We’re here, we’re here! The avatar, its hour come round at last, is here, writing that very Dictionary. The part that’s on the site is only a fraction, you know. There’s going to be a lot more…

Only we’ll do better than that, I’m unkind enough to say. The problem with that definition is that it’s not particularly funny, and then he seems to miss the obvious joke about being struck. I don’t think we walk into obvious traps like that, thank you very much! We’re good avatars.

And then there’s the one I’ve been quoting lately:

I am told that a noted New Historicist begins her graduate Shakespeare classes by telling the students: “Do not fetishize the language.” They might have to do some fetishizing of this language in order to figure out what “fetishize” means. Used in different senses by Marx and Freud, the word “fetish” has a titanic frisson for contemporary theorists. Simply to employ it appears to induce rapture…In any case, I suspect that the word “fetishize” in “Do not fetishize the language” must be theory-speak for “value” or “get excited about.” What students are to get excited about, I guess, is the defiant act of not getting excited and using magic words like “fetishize,” to congratulate themselves on their lack of taste and sensibility. One has to wonder if a critical school programmatically excluding literary greatness can possibly have a happy prognosis.

See why I like the article? And one more bit.

Today’s critics seize any opportunity to affirm their moral superiority to the literature they study…[W]e see politicized catastrophe being deliberately imported into the realm of literature with the aim of making any other intellectual or imaginative invitation found in that space seem by comparison indulgent and elitist – a potential diversion from the grim, yet doubtless complex, business of gender and nationality.

So. Thus we learn it is good to bury things under other things, so that you can have the pleasure of finding them again. It once, was lost, but now, it’s found. Etc.

Crowded Barrel

Nov 22nd, 2003 11:58 pm | By

Oh dear, oh dear, I really shouldn’t. But I’m going to. Pester another fish in another barrel. Because it’s quite interesting how lame their arguments are, how beside the point or redundant or both. Either they accuse me of not talking about that which I never said I was talking about, or they say something I already said.

I have to say I found the ‘Bad Writing’ article extremely dissapointing. Like, unfortunately, too much criticism of theory it was utterly, utterly trivial. I mean, was this what the ‘theory wars’ were all about, that some people dislike Judith Butler’s use of subordinate clauses?

But ‘Bad Writing’ isn’t criticism of theory, it is what it says it is: a criticism of Bad Writing. Bad Writing in ‘theory’, yes, but still, the subject is bad writing, not theory. And subordinate clauses are not the problem.

Some theory is hard to read (though no harder to read than some analytic philosophy, – Gender Trouble is not appreciably harder to read than Word and Object, although the two books are difficult in different ways).

Yes. That’s my point – that ‘difficult in different ways’ bit. That covers a lot of territory, doesn’t it! I haven’t read Gender Trouble, but the theory I have read is difficult in a pointless, empty, arbitrary way, and that’s what I complain of. Writing that is difficult because the subject is inherently difficult is another matter, but that’s not the kind of writing I was talking about.

If postmodernists are wrong, critique their arguments…The best critiques of postmodernism do just that; witness the gulf separating the ‘Bad writing’ article on this site from the excellent article by Martha Naussbaum which it linked to, which engaged with the actual substance of Judith Butler’s views, rather than raising a fuss about her style.

We do critique the arguments of postmodernists, of course, in other articles. And of course the article by Nussbaum is excellent, that’s why I linked to it. But it’s certainly not accurate to say or imply that Nussbaum doesn’t ‘raise a fuss’ about Butler’s style. She does just that, here for instance:

It is difficult to come to grips with Butler’s ideas, because it is difficult to figure out what they are. Butler is a very smart person…Her written style, however, is ponderous and obscure…Thus one is led to the conclusion that the allusiveness of the writing cannot be explained in the usual way, by positing an audience of specialists eager to debate the details of an esoteric academic position. The writing is simply too thin to satisfy any such audience. It is also obvious that Butler’s work is not directed at a non-academic audience eager to grapple with actual injustices. Such an audience would simply be baffled by the thick soup of Butler’s prose, by its air of in-group knowingness, by its extremely high ratio of names to explanations.

That first sentence says it all, really. But then the other sentences go on to say quite a lot too. How can we help concluding that theory-lovers admire Butler not despite the ponderous obscure style but because of it? Especially since we have yet to encounter any who can say coherently what it is they admire about her?

Is sniggering at examples of ‘bad writing’, apparently as a substitute for providing genuine argument, really the best the self-desribed defenders of the Elightenment can come up with?

Of course it’s not. It’s the subject of one of many, many articles on this site. I disagree with the writer that Bad Writing is trivial or completely non-substantive, however, especially bad writing of the kind in question. I think it promotes bad thinking, obscures bad thinking, drives people out of the humanities, and gives the humanities a bad name, just for four things. I do think it matters. That doesn’t mean I think that’s the only thing wrong with Postmodernism, but then I never said I did. I begin to wonder if another problem with bad writing is that people who like it become incapable of reading carefully. Judging by the defenders on this site at least one would have to suspect that it does.

An Agenda

Nov 22nd, 2003 12:02 am | By

A few days ago we received an email from a new and enthusiastic fan of B&W, telling us we would be even more wonderful than we already are if we linked to Keith Burgess-Jackson at TechCentralStation. Err, thought I. I don’t much like TCS, though I have seen an occasional interesting article there, and I think finally linked to one. I did a N&C about this at some point – about the quandary of seeing an interesting and/or relevant article at a site which is so free markety-rightwing that I really hate to link to it even if I quite like a particular piece. It is a quandary. On the one hand if the article is good then the article is good. On the other hand, their agenda is not my agenda, and do I want to help them push theirs – no, not much. But then it’s our mission to try to disentangle truth claims from ideology. So I sighed and went to TCS to have a look at Burgess-Jackson.

Fortunately there was no quandary, I didn’t like his stuff at all. There may be some that’s good but what I saw was just snide and commonplace. So I answered our fan to that effect, and forgot about it. Until two days later, when I read this item at Crooked Timber. TCS is apparently not as forthright about its agenda and the funding behind it as it might be. There’s been a lot of discussion about whether that matters or not, whether readers can just judge the articles on their merits or not, whether we can all spot an agenda and be on our guard against it or not. Personally I don’t think it’s all that easy – I don’t think we can notice everything, and I’m pretty sure we can’t fact-check everything. At any rate, I’m glad I didn’t like Burgess-Jackson and didn’t bother to link to him. But the quandary will come up again, and again and again.

Brownie Points?

Nov 21st, 2003 9:08 pm | By

It just never goes out of style, does it, berating people for liking things that not everyone likes. We just cannot get enough of that kind of thing. Witness Stephen King at the National Book Awards on Wednesday, as reported by the Guardian.

King called on the publishing industry to pay more attention to writers such as himself, accusing the literati of a “blind spot” when it came to popular fiction. “What do you think,” he asked, “you get social academic brownie points for deliberately staying out of touch with your own culture?” He accused many in publishing of making it “a point of pride” never to have read anything by mega-selling authors such as John Grisham, Tom Clancy and Mary Higgins Clark…

Pay more attention is it. More attention than what? What does he want? Jillions of dollars aren’t enough, he wants yet more attention? Well of course that could be just the Guardian’s paraphrase, so I shouldn’t pick on the word. (Only it’s so hard not to think of Willy Loman and ‘Attention must be paid!’) But what does he mean ‘blind spot’? He gets published, does he not? What does he want? Awards? People who don’t want to read him to read him? That’s a rather strange demand, isn’t it? And also a rather greedy one? Not content with being widely read, he wants to be universally read? Does that follow with all popular entertainment? Once a movie passes a certain point in sales, it becomes mandatory for the entire population to see it? Or does the rule only apply to intellectuals – maybe that’s it. Or should I say to nerds. That must be it – sometime while I wasn’t looking, a law was passed that all nerds have to read every book that sells more than 2 million copies and attend every movie that surpasses the box office take of E.T.

Yes but seriously. King’s not a bad guy. But he really shouldn’t say this kind of thing – he shouldn’t feed the anti-intellectual beast. It’s far too fat already. The matter is quite simple: some people don’t want to read Grisham, Clancy and Clark for a very compelling reason: they’re terrible writers. They may or may not be good story-tellers, but they are dismal writers. I’ve sampled all three, so I can say that with confidence. People who don’t like that kind of thing aren’t pretending not to like it in order to ‘get social academic brownie points’ – we really don’t like it. I’m terribly sorry but there are many many aspects of ‘my own culture’ that I do indeed want to stay out of touch with. Not to get brownies points, not as a point of pride; just because they make me feel sick or stupid or both, and because life is short and time is limited and I have better things to do. That is not a crime, it’s not even an attack on democracy, and people like King really shouldn’t talk as if it is.

And speaking of bogus populism, Matthew Yglesias has a pretty funny one at The American Prospect, from David Frost’s interview with Bush.

THE PRESIDENT: I’m looking forward to — it’s a huge honor to be invited by Her Majesty to stay in Buckingham Palace. It’s hard to imagine me even considering staying in Buckingham Palace when I was living in Midland, Texas. It’s just one of those things. And Buckingham Palace has got a tremendous mystique to it, and so Laura and I are really looking forward to coming.

Aw shucks, isn’t that sweet, li’l ole small-town backwoods barefoot boy makes good. Kinda like Abe Lincoln, ain’t it. Why doesn’t he embarrass himself with that stuff…


Nov 20th, 2003 7:42 pm | By

I have something I want to comment about, but I keep musing on a different subject, instead. On what a disgusting world it’s turning into, and what an unimaginably disgusting world it would be if the bombers got their way. We thought things were bad before! What with the US propping up repressive blood-thirsty regimes all over the planet as long as they were hostile to the Soviet Union (as Bush acknowledged in London today), and what with the two super-powers piling up ever more and more nukes. But that all looks like a nice cozy tea-party compared to what’s shaping up now, doesn’t it. There is just nothing quite like the combination of nuclear weapons and people who would like to run the whole world according to Sharia. It’s enough to make you want to go out and stock up on little cyanide capsules.

John Gray refers to the nasty mess in passing in a review of Bernard-Henri Lévy’s book about the killing of Daniel Pearl. Just in passing – because everyone knows about it, and what can we do anyway.

Lévy is hardly the first to suggest links between Pakistani intelligence and radical Islam: there is evidence the ISI played a pivotal role in establishing the Taliban in Afghanistan. Pakistan could become the world’s first nuclear-equipped failed state. It presents a greater danger than North Korea, and incomparably more than Saddam’s Iraq.

Yes. Such an exciting prospect – that coup in Pakistan that seems to be just waiting to happen, and then there we are, Muslim fundamentalists with nukes. Oh goody.

Well, while I still can, I think I’ll just enunciate a little rhapsody to the good fortune of being a woman here in this place now at this time instead of at another time or place. To what women who live in the secular West get to have that women who live in Muslim theocracies don’t get to have. Like independence, and ownership of our own selves as opposed to being owned by a man, and autonomy, and the ability to leave the house whenever we want to without having to ask permission or put on a large stifling tent. The ability to leave the house at all. The ability to work, the ability to say no to an offer of marriage – the ability to live our own lives however we damn well please. Period. What a new thing that is for women, how lucky we are to have it, how few women around the globe have it even now, and how…unspeakable it would be to lose it. As it was for the urban women of Afghanistan, for example.

I’m a maniac about independence, myself. It’s perhaps almost my first value; it’s at any rate right at the top of the list. I prefer autonomy to safety, security, to almost anything. Always have. Maybe it’s something to do with growing up in the country – I used to spend all the time I could outdoors wandering the fields and woods, delighting in the fact that no one, not even my mother, knew exactly where I was. So the idea of being under permanent lifelong house-arrest the way women are in Muslim theocracies makes my skin crawl more than almost anything I can think of. And I doubt I’m the only one. For what that’s worth, which is pretty much nothing. That’s the point of all this bombing. ‘We don’t care what you want, we’re going to tell you what you can have.’

Bloody Hell

Nov 20th, 2003 4:21 pm | By

Oh, hell. I despair sometimes, I really do. As who doesn’t. Who in hell doesn’t. What a world, what a world, as the Wicked Witch said. Istanbul, of all places. Well of course. It’s secular. It’s near Europe, and has dealings with the nasty place, and allows women to drive cars and think of themselves as human beings. So let’s just bomb the bejesus out of it.

And kill the British Consul-General, and a lot of people in the street near the bank. A fitting follow-up to killing those pesky Jews at the synagogue the other day. And more tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow – all in the name of a world more like Taliban-world. The worst possible nightmare for people like us, for people who read this kind of thing. A world run by violence-loving, blood-soaked, Koran-thumping, backward-looking, women-hating men. Now there’s a cause to march for. Ah, hell.

Two Cheers for Nerds

Nov 18th, 2003 9:54 pm | By

Isn’t it nice, the way we’re always so anxious not to let each other get above ourselves? The way we’re so terrifically concerned to make sure no one gets any big ideas? The way we’re so very very careful to make sure that everyone understands that our first duty is always to be normal, to be regular, to be like everyone else – so that if we must do something as eccentric and peculiar and self-indulgent as developing some intellectual curiosity and thirst for knowledge and inclination to think about things – well, all right, maybe we can be forgiven for that, as long as we can show that we’re not nerds about it, and that we realize how boring all that stuff is really.

I was musing on this subject earlier this morning, because I was thinking about the significance of the fact that in an hour of listening to the radio yesterday I managed to hear two examples of Major Media assumptions that most things other than popular culture are boring – and then when I got on the computer, the first thing I saw was example three. There’s something strange about this…

The two yesterday. The first was in a bit of dialogue from the new movie ‘Shattered Glass’ on Fresh Air. It sounds like quite an interesting movie – centering on events at the New Republic, of all things. Not a big newspaper, not a tabloid, not a shiny popular magazine, but the New Republic! Not your normal Hollywood fare. And as Terri Gross pointed out, no car chases, no guns, no romance; just pure journalism. So that’s good! That’s excellent. It’s very encouraging that once every ten years or so the adults among us are allowed to see a movie that’s not all explosions and flames and collisions of one kind or another. Very, very good. But even there…The movie is about Stephen Glass, a reporter who made up his stories, and the bit of dialogue is from an editorial meeting at which he pitches a story about the boxer Evander Holyfield and biting. Then Charles Lane has to pitch his story, and he begins by saying, sheepishly, ‘That’s a hard act to follow.’ Long pause. ‘That’s a very hard act to follow.’ Sheepish laugher. ‘My story is about Haiti…’

Hm. So a boxer who bites is fascinating, and Haiti is boring. Hmmm. Really? Is that really true? And is it true even in the editorial offices of TNR? No, as a matter of fact, it’s not, because it turns out that particular scene didn’t happen, it’s a screenplay fabrication, and Tanner didn’t think the Haiti story was boring at all. Not surprisingly. But then how dreary that the movie has to pretend that it is.

And the other item in the hour was from ‘On the Media,’ an NPR show I hardly ever listen to because it’s so relentlessly cute and would-be funny – but I did hear a few minutes, which included a listener writing to rebuke one of the show’s hosts for calling C-Span ‘a yawn’. Well, granted, some of what’s on C-Span is not what you’d call lively, but it a lot of it is important all the same. And much of it is highly interesting, and even if it isn’t, is it helpful for influential voices such as those on National Public Radio to tell us that it isn’t? Remarks like that aren’t just a description, they’re also a prediction, a self-fulfilling prophecy, a meme – in short, an instruction. ‘This stuff is boring and if you don’t think so you’re boring too.’ ‘This stuff is boring because it’s about the gummint and tedious crap like that, not about good old cop shows which are so much more interesting.’

And today, browsing for news, I promptly find an article in the New York Times about John McWhorter.

Mr. McWhorter, an intense, confident and — perhaps not surprisingly — loquacious man, is not a curmudgeon or a fuddy-duddy. Nor, for that matter, a nerd, despite a résumé that bristles with intellectual precociousness. Self-taught in 12 languages — including Russian, Swedish, Swahili, Arabic and Hebrew, which he initially took up as a Philadelphia preschooler when he was 4 — he is a respected expert in Creole languages. (In his spare time, he is compiling the first written grammar of Saramaccan, a Creole language spoken by descendants of former slaves in Suriname.) A college graduate at 19 and a tenured professor at 33, he has published seven previous books…But none of these exploits, he is at pains to show, should be taken to mean that he is not hip. His conversation is peppered with knowing allusions to pop culture — Britney Spears, Tori Amos, television sitcoms, rap and Broadway.

Well, who said they should be taken to mean he is not hip? Why would we think he’s a nerd, and why does intellectual precocity (not precociousness) imply nerd-dom? And why should we care anyway? Why do we need people not to be nerds or unhip? And what do those words mean anyway? Do they really mean people who don’t know how to talk or walk across a room, or do they just mean people with intellectual interests? Why is it not possible in a mainstream mass market publication to mention people with some kind of knowledge (other than that taught in law school or business school at least) without apologizing? And what does all this constant nagging repetition of the idea that intellect is suspect or risible or both do to us? Does it train us to believe that we’d better not develop any ourselves lest we wind up in some sort of zoo, in the Nerd cage, having peanuts and battered volumes of Heidegger thrown at us?

Oh never mind, I’m bored, I think I’ll go shoot some pool.

Not OK Corral

Nov 16th, 2003 11:27 pm | By

This is an interesting item on Kenan Malik’s site. An email from Nirjay Mahindru, administrator of Tara Arts theatre, commenting on and agreeing with Malik’s tv documentary Disunited Kingdom, and talking about the way the focus on diversity and ethnicity forces minority groups to talk about certain subjects only or else shut up.

Artistically, this type of vetting, for fundamentally that’s what it is, consistently holds the British Asian artistic community back and ensures that cutting edge challenging theatre is somehow viewed as the exclusive monopoly of whites…Thus, I am expected to write basic derivates of ‘Bollywood’, or plays that deal with ‘the family’. What I can’t write about (as no venue will produce it) are plays that could be about anyone, but just happen to have British Asians in the leading roles, with no saris, somosas and silly songs. What I certainly CANNOT write about, are issues that may interest me but have no ‘ethnic component’. Thus, for example, if I wanted to write a play, say, on a passion of mine, the moon landings, that would be totally unacceptable from the likes of I. Putting it bluntly, artistically, I am a Paki, I should ‘know my place’ and write about the world of being ‘a Paki’.

Of course, what no venue will produce is a function of a lot of things – what people will buy tickets to see, what producers think people will buy tickets to see, what interests producers and other administrators, and so on. But it is interesting that audiences or producers and administrators or all of those are interested in Asians as Asians but not Asians as just people – interesting and highly unfortunate. (See the N&C on Amartya Sen saying much the same thing, below.) Because Asians, like anyone else, are not just Asians. None of us are just whatever ethnic group we belong to – none of us are just one thing – we’re all a multitude of things, and the more things we are the better for us and the better for the people who know us.

We posted an article on the same subject a few months ago by Jatinder Verma, also of Tara Arts.

But when a corral is created around cultural diversity we are being fed, and we help sustain, difference; rather than be confronted to explore connections. Merely beating the drum of culturally diverse arts – as decibel seeks to do – will only help to marginalise these artists within the confines of ‘identity’. Identity need not be immutable; it can be in dialogue with other identities. It is only then that we can all participate in the quality of the artistic experience.

Maybe it’s time for the obsession with ‘identity’ and ‘diversity’ to run its course. It was only dubiously left-wing or progressive to begin with, and its unprogressive aspects have begun to become very clear in the last few years. Maybe it’s time to start seeing the advantages of universalism again, and let all the ethnics out of their corrals.

No, Not a Coincidence

Nov 15th, 2003 7:16 pm | By

In a way I hesitate to make this criticism, because the writer of this letter also wrote a good one on another issue. But I just feel compelled to make this one comment, because people keep saying the same thing, and it keeps being wrong and point-missing.

The author would do good to actually address the issues of trying to articulate what hasn’t been articulated before rather than simply trashing everyone who tries to write on difficult issues.

The trouble with that is that I’m emphatically not ‘trashing everyone who tries to write on difficult issues,’ and I never said I was. I’m ‘trashing’ or rather criticising bad writing, not writing on difficult issues. It’s simply not the case that all writing on difficult issues is bad – to put it mildly – and nor is it the case that all bad writing is on difficult issues. In fact that’s one of the points I’m making: that one of the reasons bad writing is so harmful is because it uses the badness of the writing to masquerade as writing about difficult issues. That’s a complaint that a great many people made about Hegel, from his own day (Schopenhauer is downright rude on the subject) to the present; that is one thing that bad writing of a certain kind can do.

Another correspondent says something more interesting – finally, a break from the ‘It’s difficult/You’re bashing theory’ defense.

Yes there is a large amount of very poor academic writing. And there are huge mounds of garbage journalism, vast piles of terrible prose fiction, and untold heaps of lousy poetry. Perhaps academics should know better, but so should journalists and authors of all stripes. You’ll pardon me if this seems to be (warning, potential academic term coming up) ideologically driven. Allan Bloom’s prose was often turgid, and such cultural “critics” as Bill Bennett fill their work with cliches and non sequiturs, yet somehow or other they never make the lists in these parlour games. Feminists and post-colonialists, however–well, it’s open season. Must just be a coincidence.

No, it’s not a coincidence. We say explicitly in ‘About B&W’ that our target is FN on the left. Why? Because we’re on the left, that’s why, and think it should be self-critical and self-correcting. I’m emphatically a feminist, for example (as is my colleague), and that’s exactly why I don’t want feminism to be mixed up with either woolly notions about different ways of knowing or with turgid empty ‘theoretical’ droning. What’s so odd about that? Nothing, surely. Wouldn’t it be nice to see more people on the right objecting to, for instance, the bullying manners of Bill O’Reilly, or the anti-intellectualism of Bush? Wouldn’t we respect the right more if there were more of that kind of thing? I know I would. So maybe it follows that others will respect the left more if leftists speak up when they think a given branch of leftism has got things wrong.

Fishy Requisites

Nov 14th, 2003 5:09 pm | By

Oh good, another one. Another nice barrel full of docile, torpid fish.

Why is it that every article bashing “theory” comes from someone who doesn’t know what they are talking about?

Hmm. Why is it that the defenders of ‘theory’ (at least on this site at this time) can’t do better? One, does every article ‘bashing’ (that is to say, criticising) ‘theory’ come from someone who knows nothing of the subject? As a matter of fact, no. I’ve read several articles and indeed books by people who know a lot about it, including some by people who were once keen on ‘theory’ themselves. There is William Kerrigan’s essay in Wild Orchids and Trotsky, for example. And two, why is it that the defenders of ‘theory’ who presumably pride themselves on their awareness of how rhetoric works, on the ways people use language to manipulate each other (I don’t really know what else literary ‘theorists’ would pride themselves on) allow themselves to use such blunt instruments? Like making sweeping statements that are obviously not true, and using the word ‘bashing’ for heaven’s sake, which is such an obvious pejorative that it’s one of the first words we put in the Dictionary. Suggestion for would-be defenders of the brilliance of ‘theory’: be cautious about using the word ‘every’.

There are many theorists who are/were excellent writers — think of Blanchot, for example, or Barthes, or Simone Weil. Just because Lacan wasn’t E.B. White doesn’t mean that what Lacan writes is automatically wrong.

Well no kidding. But who said anything else? The title of the In Focus article is Bad Writing, not Theory. I’m not talking about Lacan or Derrida or Foucault, I’m talkng about their inept imitators. And how did Simone Weil get into the picture? Since when is Simone Weil a ‘theorist’? Do ‘theorists’ get to claim everybody whose work they admire as a fellow ‘theorist’ and then brandish their trophies as evidence that theory is great stuff? If so, just exactly what is ‘theory’ anyway and how does it differ from philosophy? And again, the subject of this particular article is bad writing, not error. It’s perfectly true that a bad writer can still be right (and nor am I suggesting E.B. White as a model, in any case), but if the writing is bad, the rightness will be that much less convincing. And if the writing is deliberately bad, bad for the sake of impressing other fans of bad writing rather than good for the sake of making new fans of good writing and thinking, then my claim is that that’s a bad state of affairs.

Objecting to critical theory on stylistic grounds allows people to dismiss it without actually reading it — and this is the very kernel of ignorance.

Does it? Aren’t people allowed to dismiss it without reading it anyway? They don’t need my permission. And why is it ignorance, indeed the very kernel of ignorance, not to have read critical theory? Is it more ignorant to have given critical theory the go-by for the sake of reading, say, history and sociology and philosophy and economics than it would be to have read critical theory but not history, sociology and the rest? If so, why? And then, there are problems with consequentialist arguments anyway. It’s not necessarily a great idea to claim that one shouldn’t criticise X because that allows people to ‘dismiss’ X – at that rate no one could ever criticise anything, and surely the problems with that idea are obvious enough. And it’s not particularly clear why objecting to critical theory on stylistic grounds would allow people to dismiss it, in any case.

What’s interesting to me is that is we substitute “philosophy” for “theory,” suddenly it’s acceptable to be turgid and dense with respect to your prose. On the unfortunate day when similar articles appear attacking the late Donald Davidson’s brilliant but daunting essays on cognition, we will know the playing field is finally level.

And what’s interesting to me is the way people will keep giving themselves away. There we have it yet again – the attempt to associate ‘theory’ with philosophy or physics or science in general. Let’s try a different thought-experiment – let’s substitute ‘philosophy’ for, say, Scientology, or Objectivism, or Jungian psychology. And thus we see that having a turgid, dense style is no guarantee of having well-founded ideas any more than having a lucid one is a guarantee of having either well-founded or ill-founded ones. Or to put it another way, it’s not particularly acceptable for philosophy to be turgid and dense if it can avoid it, just as it’s not in science writing. And just as guilt by association is not considered a good argument, neither is innocence by association. ‘Theory’ has to defend itself on its own ground; just mentioning Donald Davidson isn’t going to do it.

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.