[Marxism] Discourses

Jurriaan Bendien andromeda246 at hetnet.nl
Wed Dec 22 18:31:26 MST 2004

> I tend to hide in the background here but occasionally it's helpful for me 
> to poke my head out for some clarification.  Since the examples you 
> provide of Marxist intervention from the periphery of discourse all appear 
> to be negative (if accurate)
> charicatures, what do you believe is an appropriate and constructive way 
> for Marxists to intervene?  I realize your post was simply outlining 
> objectively the nature of discourse, its dynamic aspects, and your 
> assessment of the shortcomings of
> various Marxist approaches to intervention, but I am genuinely curious 
> what suggestion you would provide.  I realize this strays even further 
> afield from the original discussion, which is why I replied offlist.  Feel 
> free to forward the reply to the
> list if you wish, of course.

Well I shouldn't really have written that, it was a bit catankerous and 
senile and all. Must have been lack of sleep and working too long.

I don't really offer any prescription or model or paradigm for discourses. I 
have might thoughts about it, obviously, but what's my style is not 
necessarily somebody else's.

All I can really say is that at the most basic level the human subconscious, 
which is spontaneously creative, does not really recognize negatives - if 
you give it a message about what not to do, it must construct the meaning of 
"what to do, in order not to do it". Which is to say that the social 
criticism that works best and has the strongest effect is the criticism 
which shows why or how some alternatives are preferable to others.

I guess the other thing is that participating in a certain discourse 
presupposes that you credit other participants with at least something, i.e. 
that you share at least some common assumptions. No real debate is possible 
if the participants have nothing in common, and don't believe they can learn 
anything from each other - in that case, all that happens, is that different 
views are asserted which are totally incompatible or even hostile to each 
other. Another difficulty is if people insist on using a kind of language or 
terminology which others simply do not share.

When Karl Marx penned his big (and really rather turgid) work Das Kapital, 
he did not kinda suck it out of his thumb or make it up purely from his own 
creative thinking, rather he studied for a decade or more what other 
authorities had said on his topic, including the most advanced thinking he 
had access to. And he was constantly referring to their views, and engaging 
with them. In fact, in correspondence he mentioned that very few of his 
concepts were original - he pretended no great claims about originality; and 
as I think S. Prawer notes in his book "Marx and World Literature" (if 
memory serves me), Marx was among the first to use a systematic apparatus of 
footnotes referencing authorities. If Marx was original, it was more through 
his unique synthesis of innumerable ideas of others.

But point is, to make that synthesis in the first place, involved a 
dialogue, mediated by texts perhaps, and that dialogue obviously could not 
occur, if he had not shared some common assumptions, or if he'd thought that 
everything he read was just "rubbish". If everything is thought "rubbish", 
then you tend to isolate yourself thereby.

Particularly in the age of the Internet, people evaluate messages just as 
much on their form as on their content, i.e. a communication becomes just as 
much a "way of relating", as it is the transmission of signals, and 
judgements about form can reach extremely abstract levels. And that is 
something we all have to be mindful of I guess. You can get too obsessed 
with the form of a communication also, of course, at the expense of real 
content. But the most successful communications are typically cast in a form 
to which the receivers are truly receptive. In ordinary parlance, people say 
"he talks in our language".

Unfortunately there is still not a lot of foundational Marxian research on 
"relations of communication", even although these relations play an 
enormously important role in mediating social relations. In one way or 
another, we communicate with everything we are and do. But Marx himself was 
very aware of the power of communication; he wrote once sarcastically that 
the modern press could "in a thrice spread more lies than in the whole 
history of the world hitherto". A newspaper editor, on the other hand, often 
has the problem of "how to tell the truth", because, of course, the same 
story could be told in many different ways, and he must reconcile many 
different criteria in order to issue a story that will capture attention, 
and have no deleterious effects.

A rule of thumb though in this question of making better interventions in 
ongoing discussions is to study the most successful communicators, work out 
how they do what they do so well. Why for example is Noam Chomsky so 
successful? One answer might be, that he studied linguistics, he worked very 
hard at understanding how language and communication work,starting out from 
a position of not knowing much about it at all.

In the Marxian view, behind so-called "genius" is usually a lot of hard 
work - practice makes perfect, as they say; even if you have no special or 
innate talent, if you work at something long enough, the odds are that you 
will achieve a standard significantly above-average.

For example, why was Trotsky able to create an effective Red Army in a 
situation of chaos and social disintegration? Well, at least one reason was, 
that he had been a journalist covering the Balkan Wars in the early years of 
the 20th century, and had keenly observed the goings-on. Those skills did 
not appear out of nowhere, they came about through a lot of learning and 
practical experience. Once you unpack how successful people do what they do, 
a lot of the mystery goes out of talent and genius.

Personally, I did a communication course once (thought I needed to learn 
something new there) and the trainer said, "the meaning of a communication 
is the response that you get; if you don't like the response you get, change 
your way of communicating". This is a pragmatic rule of thumb - of course, 
in reality what you mean and what somebody else means might be two very 
different things. Nevertheless, if you want to communicate, if that is your 
purpose, then you have to orient to the response that you get, and if you 
don't get the response you seek, it's not much use blaming the recipient. 
Blaming the recipient might be emotionally satisfying, but it doesn't 
achieve your original goal, which was to communicate; and it takes at least 
two to communicate - and for that, you have to be able to adjust the 
message, unless you regard throwing a message in a bottle into the sea as a 
communication (it becomes communication really only if somebody reads it).


Walked out this morning, don't believe what I saw
Hundred billion bottles washed up on the shore
Seems I'm not alone at being alone
Hundred billion castaways, looking for a home

- "Message in a Bottle", The Police

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