Bad writing

Gary MacLennan g.maclennan at
Sun Dec 5 20:03:56 MST 1999

As always, Lou provokes me into thought.  My favorite philosopher is Roy
Bhaskar.  Indeed I consider myself to be intellectually enormously indebted
to him.  Yet Bhaskar is not an easy read.  The Bhaskar list periodically
erupts with complaints about his prose style.

Mandarin would appear to be an apt description at one level.  But Bhaskar
is a libertarian socialist and deeply committed to spreading the
word.  However he has written that he wants to avoid the trap of trying to
use old words to express new thoughts. For example he has coined the phrase
'ontological monovalence'. He uses this to describe the tradition
established by Parmenides which has it that only the positive is real. Now
other philosophical traditions, such as Buddhism, have a concept of reality
consisting of nothingness as well as being.  Heidegger too wrote about
nothingness being a positive.  And of course there were many mystics who
define God as Nothing. But it is only Bhaskar who has attempted to evolve a
contemporary theory of absence into a new dialectic, and to do this he has
really had to signal the novelty of his thoughts by using novel language.

Somewhere Raymond Williams wrote that the pull towards ordinary language
could become the pull towards ordinary thought. I have always remembered
that in any debates on style.

For my sins I am  reading Heidegger at present and he is also extremely
difficult.  Again, like Bhaskar, he insists on inventing words and phrases
to express the new thoughts that he is expressing.  So what I am saying
here is that we need to be a little careful about the ideal of the macho
plain speaking folks that Orwell projected in his Politics and the English
language.  There must be a space for original thinking which will
inevitably be difficult.  Then there will also be a space for the popularizer.

Now having mounted I hope something of a case for the defence, I would like
to say that I have long believed that Postmodernism has come to us in the
style it has because of a number of factors.  Firstly it is suffers from
the "translation effect".  A lot of academics here in Australia tried very
hard to learn to write English which read like it had been translated from
French or German.  They succeeded all too well. Secondly the 'audience
effect' is also crucial.  Most of the postmodern stuff is aimed for a small
elite audience. However unlike with Bhaskar there is no hope that it will
be spread further so there has been little attempt to render more
accessible the work of people like Judith Butler. And last but not least
there is the 'charlatan effect'.  Many post modernists hide the fact that
they have nothing to say with prose that is full of sound and fury and
signifies nothing.



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