Bad writing

Louis Proyect lnp3 at
Sat Dec 4 15:28:47 MST 1999

The latest (Dec./Jan. 2000) Lingua Franca magazine has a fascinating
article titled "Is Bad Writing Necessary? George Orwell, Thedor Adorno, and
The Politics of Language" by James Miller, "director of liberal studies" at
the Graduate Faculty of the New School, where I received a virtually
useless philosophy MA in 1967. (Well, it did keep me from getting shot.)
Miller is the author of books on "Democracy is in the Streets: The Passion
of Michel Foucault" and "Flowers in the Dustbin: the rise of Rock and
Roll", which certainly sound like exciting reads. Since the article
unfortunately is not on the Lingua Franca website, I have scanned in the
opening paragraphs which give you a sense of Miller's framing of the
problem. Following this, I will present a Marxist perspective on "bad


THESE ARE TRYING TIMES FOR the left in America, which may be one reason why
a bitter debate has erupted among avowedly left-wing academics and
intellectuals over a venerable topic—" Politics and the English Language,"
to borrow the title of George Orwell’s famous 1946 essay. Must one write
clearly, as Orwell argued, or are thinkers who are truly radical and
subversive compelled to write radically and subversively—or even opaquely,
as if through a glass darkly? That is the question.

On one side stand academic luminaries like University of California at
Berkeley rhetorician Judith Butler and University of Pittsburgh English
professor Jonathan Arac, who take their inspiration from critical theorists
like Michel Foucault and Theodor Adorno. Arguing that their work has been
misunderstood by journalists on the left, these radical professors distrust
the demand for "linguistic transparency," charging that it cripples one’s
ability "to think the world more radically."

On the other side are ranged a variety of public intellectuals and
journalists like UCLA historian Russell Jacoby, feminist writer Katha
Pollitt, and NYU physicist Alan Sokal. Intolerant of bewildering jargon,
they cannot see how deliberately difficult prose can possibly help change
the world. As their patron saint, they often nominate George Orwell, the
very image of a man who spoke truth to power and spoke it plainly.

One thing the plain talkers on the left share is relatively greater access
to a wider public. In part, this is because they know how to write with
"linguistic transparency." But as Pollitt has ruefully pointed out, the
proponents of plain talk have also doubtless benefited from the
long-standing anti-intellectualism of the American mass media. Keen to
simplify and wary of sustained argument, those who oversee the media are
generally impatient with abstraction and complexity as well as the
qualifications and nuances that might slow down the majority of readers.
They want facts reported and explanations and arguments conveyed as
painlessly as possible. As a result, writers on the left who can handle
complex topics with terseness, clarity, and brio exercise an apparent
influence on the wider culture out of all proportion to their standing, if
any, in the academy. This situation not only excites the envy of some left
academics; it also fuels their suspicion that plain talk is politically
perfidious—reinforcing, rather than radically challenging, the cultural
status quo. Indeed, last year, the academic organizers of a conference at
the University of California at Santa Cruz made exactly this case, trying
to pin the pejorative label "left conservatism" onto some of their most
widely read critics.

If Orwell perfectly exemplifies the party of clarity, it might be said that
the German philosopher Theodor Adorno has come to represent the party of
opacity. Consider the most recent episode in this internecine Kulturkampf,
which occurred this spring after the editors of Philosophy and Literature
bestowed their annual Bad Writing award on Judith Butler. Stung into
action, Butler defended herself—in an Op-Ed piece of defiant lucidity—in
the columns of The New York Times. And she cited Adorno to do so. But this
was not the end of it. A few months later, when the literary critic Terry
Eagleton complained in the London Review of Books about the labored style
of Gayatri Spivak, the prominent post-colonial theorist, Butler weighed
into defend Spivak and denounce Eagleton. And, once again, Adorno served as
her witness.

"Surely," Butler proclaimed in a letter to the editors, "neither the LRB
nor Eagleton believes that theorists should confine themselves to writing
introductory primers such as those that he has chosen to provide."
Precisely because pathbreaking thinkers like Butler and Spivak are in
pursuit of something bigger and better than a primer— Butler calls it
"critical theory"—they refuse the "truisms which, now filly commodified as
‘radical theory,’ pass as critical thinking." If their prose is sometimes
hard to read, that is because they, unlike Eagleton, are performing true
critical thinking: "Adorno surely had it right," asserts Butler, "when he
wrote—in Minima Moralia—about those who recirculate received opinion: ‘only
what they do not need first to understand, they consider understandable;
only the word coined by commerce, and really alienated, touches them as


1. Miller carries on in the tradition established when the Sokal affair
broke out. Namely, he creates a world of the "left" that is effectively
circumscribed by left-liberalism on one side and Marxish postmodernism on
the other. Very few people at the time understood that Alan Sokal has very
little connection to Marxist thought. Indeed, his defense of science is
based on premises of "the free marketplace of ideas" and give little credit
to Marxist critiques of science as a social institution. In his latest
book, "Fashionable Nonsense," there is not a single reference to Richard
Lewontin or Richard Levins. Furthermore, Sokal has told me that he has
never even read them. Meanwhile, the other side in the debate has only
tangential relations to Marxism. The journal Social Text, in which Sokal's
spoof appeared, was created by self-acknowledged neo-Frankfurters in the
words of Stanley Aronowitz at a debate with Sokal. Whatever else you want
to say about the Frankfurt School, it obviously has little to do with
classical Marxist thought but can certainly be judged on its own merit. I
find Herbert Marcuse a valuable social critic worth reading, like Lewis
Mumford, Wallace Stegner and many others.

2. Adorno, one of the leading Frankfurters, is invoked by Judith Butler in
defense of her right to write bad prose, although she doesn't really call
it as such. It is rather termed "critical theory", which by definition
involves opaque formulations, technical jargon and obscure references.
After Adorno had come to the United States, he found himself totally
alienated by mass culture and the seeming inability of the American people
to entertain difficult ideas. Instead of making a better effort to reach
them, Adorno retreated into solipsistic musings, gathered under the title
"Minima Moralia", a work Butler cites in her self-defense. In a 1956 essay
"Punctuation Marks," Adorno asserts that "lucidity, objectivity, and
concise precision" are merely "ideologies" that have been "invented" by
"editors and then writers" for "their own accomodation."

3. In juxtaposition to the mandarin obscurity of Adorno and Butler, Miller
proposes clear-writing George Orwell as an alternative. Indeed, there is
much that Orwell and Sokal have in common. Both believe in "socialism" but
understood in non-Marxist terms. Sokal is a DSA'er and a solid progressive,
but it would be no slight to him to characterize him as having very little
familiarity or affinity with core Marxist beliefs about the need to
overthrow capitalism and establish a dictatorship of the proletariat.
Orwell, by the same token, was against capitalism but only in the sense
that a Fabian socialist was against it. It offended his moral sensibility
to see working and poor people degraded, but he never thought much about
the programmatic imperatives to abolish the conditions which caused such
misery. As the cold war deepened, Orwell found it convenient to adapt to
capitalist realities and even ratted out CP'ers to the cops. So the choice
in Miller's left is basically one between a cranky Adorno who struck
Nietzschean elitist poses and the sentimentalist Orwell who hated
capitalism, but not enough to become a revolutionist.

4. Miller puts the differences between Orwell and Adorno into a
philosophical context that effectively excludes Marxism. According to
Miller, the Frankfurt School was horrified by the "fetishization" of facts
that they saw in the logical positivism of the Vienna School, the
value-free science of the American university and the "tell it like it is"
school of newspaper journalism. Since Orwell's concern was with presenting
"brute facts" about capitalism and Stalinism, he certainly would seem to
belong to the world they held in disgust. Miller considers both Butler and
the Frankfurt School to be inspired by an alternative tradition that goes
back to Kant, which Hannah Arendt characterizes in the following way:
"truth is not given to nor disclosed to but produced by the human mind."
This is a subjectivist interpretation that while clearly capturing the
spirit of Butler and the Frankfurters has little to do with Marxism.

5. On another level, Orwell seems inappropriate as a foil to Butler or
Adorno's elitism for after all what he demonstrates in his prose and in his
political stance is the kind of high church liberal moralism that Charles
Dickens made famous. A book like "The Road to Wigan's Pier" is filled with
righteous indignation but it is not, nor are any of Orwell's books,
conjoined with a materialist analysis of society and how to change it. The
working class is depicted as a permanent underdog, which seems incapable of
emancipating itself. "1984" is liberal moralism turned into dystopian
despair. Not only is the working class oppressed, it seems to lavish in its
own oppression, kowtowing to Big Brother -- a vision, in many respects, not
all that different than Adorno's.

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 going.

Louis Proyect
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