Bad writing

Doyle Saylor djsaylor at
Sun Dec 5 15:35:25 MST 1999

Title: Re: Bad writing

Greetings Comrades,
 I enjoyed Louis¹ posting on bad writing.  I thought though I had a different
set of concerns from Louis.  So I wanted to give some of my views here.
 First some history, the primary reason I am a high school drop out is that I
couldn¹t pass an English course.  I have some kind of brain disconnect, anyway I
can¹t grasp the elements of writing in an ordinary High School curriculum.  Often
when I write it is a very slow laborious process that after I have worked on for
days is un-intelligible to someone else.  This process forced me into a social
class in this society.  More than anything.
 I really appreciate the work of someone like Stephen Jay Gould.  He is a
science popularizer.  I bring Gould up simply because he exemplifies the best
known example to me of someone who writes well and accessibly for the public in
a subject matter notorious for being hard for the public to read.  Putting this
in the context of Louis¹ remarks on bad writing,
Louis Proyect
6. Marxism operates on a completely different set of assumptions. As such, it is
markedly different on the basis of prose as well. As opposed to the Frankfurter
obsession with the subject or Orwell's do-gooder concern with the down and out,
Marxism takes as its subject war, civil war, social revolution,
counter-revolution and economic crisis. The challenge for Marxism is not how to
write clearly, but how to understand difficult dynamic processes. If ideas are
characterized by clarity, the prose will pretty much take care of itself. For
example, the latest Monthly Review has a reply by Robert Brenner to David
McNally and John Bellamy Foster, revolving around their objections to his
analysis of the world economy in the by-now famous NLR article. It would be
difficult, if not impossible, to read a paragraph or two from either of these 3
thinkers and identify them on the basis of style. What they are about is making
sense of a highly complex topic, which requires an extensive background in
recent economic history and Marxist theory. What you are left with are different
interpretations about where the world is going, of no small concern to the
world's population I might add. This is highly distinct from the obsessions of
people like Judith Butler, who are more concerned with where their career is
I agree with this point.  Complex ideas can be forcefully made in much plainer
language and the subject matter the origin of the concerns is important.  The
challenge is k,eep the eye on the prize.  However,  I would add that certain
kinds of brain work can not get done in ordinary language.  For example,
mathematics, the calculus represents a formidable barrier for someone to learn.
 It is inaccessible to the larger public.  One can¹t be sure then that complex
language is entirely the problem with trying to express complex ideas.
Taken a bit further, European writing, the alphabetical system has a
considerable history.  Yet it does not do or operate in the same manner as
Chinese character writing.  In many cases for someone who can learn Character
writing, there appears to be the ability to easily read the writings of
thousands of years ago (or so I understand from reading about comparisons of
world writing systems).   Whereas, for alphabetical writings systems, shifts in
speech sounds with time, going along with shifts in words themselves to make
writings un-intelligible after a few centuries.
Writing then as a labor process must be mastered to put such thoughts to the
public in our alpha-betical culture.  That is a formidable process also.  So I
am moving away from Louis¹ point as I continue.  Mass public literacy is a
product of capitalism during the last two hundred years.  Mass media created the
sense of what we mean by clear and accessible prose.  Yet this phenomenon is
miss leading.  Something written for the masses is forced to avoid what makes
ordinary speech so powerful which is ordinary people using it to get their daily
bread.  Speech acts when looked at closely are full of problems of understanding
by comparison to writing systems (to good writing in public forums), but are
readily practical for the use we put to it.  Instead the intelligibility of
speech depends upon a shared common language we can exchange.  Styles of speech
like that of popular writing that is easily intelligible are the results of
production processes that are not able to work for ordinary needs of human
social communication.  
Going back to Louis¹ use of the word, mandarin,
3. In juxtaposition to the mandarin obscurity of Adorno and Butler, Miller
proposes clear-writing George Orwell as an alternative.
Mandarin merely means here I think Academic hotshot.  But to use some remarks by
Richard Lewontin, "Human Diversity", Scientific American Library, original
copyright 1982 Scientific American Books, 1995 Scientific American Library to
further create a context,
Lewontin, page 2
Š"It is obvious that our ability to perceive individual variation is partly
determined by our social conditioning.  After all, perception is a subjective
phenomenon.  Perhaps less obvious is the fact that objective variation among
people is also socially conditioned.  Western society, especially since the
English, French, and American revolutions of the seventeenth and eighteenth
centuries, has placed a great emphasis on individuality and the importance of
the unique personality of each human being.  Western society places great value
on the freedom of people to sell their labor power in a competitive market and
to rise or fall in the social hierarchy according to properties of intellect,
drive, will, and skill that are supposed to reside in each person.
 This was not always so, nor is it universally true today.  European feudal
society was much more collective and more organic in its structure than modern
capitalistic society.  For the most part, one¹s place in feudal society was
preordained and stable.  That place was determined not by one¹s personal
qualities but by customary relations among people playing customary
roles-peasants, artisans, clerics and landowners.  There was little social
mobility; throughout their lives, people played stereotyped social roles
determined by their social class.  The emphasis on individuality that seems such
an unquestioned part of our social reality was absentŠ  Even today many
societies 9the Navajo, for example) disapprove of individualistic or
idiosyncratic behavior.  For them, a nonheirarchical collective social
organization is the model.  In contrast, modern Western society is characterized
by the ideology of individuality.."
Writing systems can lead us to believe that special skills are what set us
apart.  The possible origin of alpha-bets in Semitic separation from Eqyptian
influence is a good example of how writing that has to be mastered on a
community wide scale can create illusionary (Fetishized literacy) special
intellectual prowess.  In turn if we compare writing to making movies which is a
capitalist product of much higher productive capacity than is possible for
writing systems, a typical movie is more accessible on a world wide scale than
is writing.
This summarizes my immediate reaction about bad writing.  Concerning Judith
Butler, I do not think her technically difficult to grasp ideas are important,
rather her ideas are scant and irrelevent to the class nature of fighting
capitalism just as Louis points out above.  That has been said before about
Butler that she is not really saying much of anything.  But I think a discussion
of what is going to be read by the masses must face issues of productive
capacity for what we use.  Where Stephen Jay Gould writes well, his subject
matter is still rarified and hard to obtain for the world population.  Popular
media spread through mass communication is not I think about mastering writing
systems in particular proficiency as Richard Lewontin indicates on a broader
scale about individualism, but in the building up of tools that address the
community nature of human social life.  That is why I use movies as a departure
point with bad writing which indicates my concern with the labor process, for my
wanting increases in production, and for realism shaped by the needs of the
masses.  Butler is an anti-realist.
Doyle Saylor

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