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Can't do theory
July 9, 2013 4:35 PM   Subscribe

Anytime a somewhat theoretical article that is often based in the humanities turns up on the blue, it is only a matter of very predictable time until the thread fills with derails about how dense, difficult, obtuse, "academic", etc., the prose is.

This thread is an example of such. There are others.

There is little discussion about the article at hand, for most of the comments are ill-informed quips about the perceived difficulty of the article given the reader's supposed inability to understand theory. Perhaps if one does not understand or comprehend the article they ought to look inward at their own lack of theoretical knowledge rather than piling on about the article being dense. These comments reflect more on the reader than the author and such comments are intellectually disingenuous. The philistine banner that many mefites wave around is rather tiresome and constitutes a derail.
posted by whyareyouatriangle to Etiquette/Policy at 4:35 PM (236 comments total) 11 users marked this as a favorite

Perhaps if one does not understand or comprehend the article they ought to look inward at their own lack of theoretical knowledge rather than piling on about the article being dense.

On the contrary, poor writing is common and slapping the "theory" label on something doesn't mean that the topics addressed couldn't be handled with better writing.

One can write about complicated, theoretical topics without writing jargon-filled garbage.
posted by toomuchpete at 4:49 PM on July 9, 2013 [53 favorites]


If someone is posting an article laden with capital-T Theory, they should realize that it will be extremely difficult for people without that particular theoretical background to comprehend the article (assuming the article is of any worth in the first place). To alleviate the issue, the poster could try to provide some background or other basic information so that people that care can at least get have some context. In the end, this is a general interest site, not a comparative lit listserv, and should be approached as such.
posted by Falconetti at 4:55 PM on July 9, 2013 [9 favorites]


On the contrary, poor writing is common and slapping the "theory" label on something doesn't mean that the topics addressed couldn't be handled with better writing.

Of course that is sometimes the case and can apply to many texts.

One can write about complicated, theoretical topics without writing jargon-filled garbage.

However it is often the case that these articles do not contain "jargon-filled garbage", hence my post.

Certainly more nuance is required here rather than one line quips.
posted by whyareyouatriangle at 4:56 PM on July 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


One can write about complicated, theoretical topics without writing jargon-filled garbage.

Great, an example of the problem. See, reflexively showing up to drop a first-post complaint about obscurantism or "jargon-filled garbage" or whatever is threadshitting, pure and simple, and that's equally true whether or not the linked article is poorly written. It's no different from dropping into a thread about a band to say you don't like their music, but somehow, regrettably, it doesn't seem to get automatically deleted with the same frequency. People who don't like or don't understand or didn't really read a link should find another thread, where they're prepared to engage more substantively, instead of feeling compelled to drop little notes to record their contentless, lightweight disapproval.
posted by RogerB at 4:57 PM on July 9, 2013 [30 favorites]


I'm strongly in the camp of people who are predisposed to side with the people saying "i don't get it, as written this is hard to parse/doesn't make any sense/etc" than the(sometimes, a bit smug) camp going "well this is obvtiously just at a level above you then".

It's another case of the oft-correct "if everyone tells you something is wrong across a wide range of people, and you insist it's right, you're probably wrong". And yes it's easy to come up with examples of that being terrible, but do you get what i'm saying in this context?

Even if something is technically a good paper, if the vast majority of the average readers on here can't parse it, who i'd say are some of the more educated well read people on the internet, then it may be "a bit dense" yes.

And maybe in a broader sense not targeting any one specific post, not the best material for an FPP?
posted by emptythought at 4:58 PM on July 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


After giving it some thought I think the post framing just set it up poorly. It describes an essay about "The End of Men, global recession era capitalism, and ironic sexism," and uses a simple pull quote about whether "women are better suited to the new economy because they are easier to exploit." On the surface (not knowing anything about The New Inquiry as a site), what one would expect from this introduction would be something on the order of a Huffington Post essay.

Instead, upon starting to read you bounce from Virginia Woolf to a critique of the anonymous male voice in the New Left as seen in the publications Tiqqun and Semiotext(e). Without knowing what Tiqqun is, the immediate effect is one of disorientation, as this piece seems to be about something completely different than the post indicated. After you wade through some backstory presumably familiar to readers of Tiqqun (their Theory of the Young Girl, etc) you start to spot a few things that sound like what was mentioned in the post. The End of Men and the Mancession Lit mentioned in the post do not appear at all until more than a third of the way through the essay. The cumulative effect on a reader is "What is this? Am I reading the same essay the post was about, or is this a mis-link?"

Perhaps if one does not understand or comprehend the article they ought to look inward at their own lack of theoretical knowledge rather than piling on about the article being dense.

1. One doesn't require theoretical knowledge to understand this post. It's actually not all that theory-based.
2. I have theoretical knowledge, and still am comfortable decrying the sprawling organization of this piece and its framing as a specific polemic.

AT the same time, I modified my initial critique when I realized that, in fact, it was the discrepancy between the FPP language and the lengthy introductory discussion in the essay that were causing people, myself included to initially feel quite confused.

We have a very intelligent readership here. They are capable of understanding the material in this essay. Additional framing, including some identifying information, would have been considerate, since the audience of MetaFilter is not overwhelmingly likely to say "Oh! Tiqqun! About time someone took their knowingly ironic sexism down a peg! Can't wait to read this somewhat convoluted, masquery-involving essay about it."

These comments reflect more on the reader than the author and such comments are intellectually disingenuous. The philistine banner that many mefites wave around is rather tiresome and constitutes a derail.

This is just snobbery. Sorry, but it is. "Philistine banter?" "reflect more on the author?" Oh dear, Professor Kingsfield thinks I'm dumb.

The people to admire most are those few who read it, said "I can understand why it isn't immediately an easy read," and posted some background information. It is those people who are most to be admired on MetaFilter and everywhere, because their interest is true understanding, not grandstanding about their superior theoretical knowledge.
posted by Miko at 5:01 PM on July 9, 2013 [64 favorites]


I agree with this, and its pretty silly how people don't get obvious things.


Deep down inside, the Young-Girl has the personality of a tampon: she exemplifies all of the appropriate indifference, all of the necessary coldness demanded by the conditions of metropolitan life.

I can't even tell what I'm reading. I give up.


Huh? The poster can't understand a simple put down on metropolitian coldness? I've seen this in several other articles - one from the Last Psychatrist and one from a videogame review site.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 5:08 PM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


You don't need to be a subject expert to recognize crappy writing.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 5:08 PM on July 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


There doesn't even appear to be any theory in that article! It seems like its pitched at a register that many MeFites are too old (?) to understand? Or its too glib? I honestly can't find an unclear sentence.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 5:15 PM on July 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


> You don't need to be a subject expert to recognize crappy writing.

No, but you do need to feel reasonably comfortable with a style of discourse more complex than that found in your average mass-media piece, and for the purposes of this discussion "mass media" includes just about everything linked on MeFi. I haven't read the linked article, but I've seen lots and lots of similarly dismissive comments about things that were perfectly well written but not aimed at the "absorb in two minutes and think up an obvious response" crowd. And this "we MeFites are super-smart so if we don't get it right away it must be bad!" idea is ludicrous. Read some of the threads we've had on modern art, John Cage, or just about anything that falls outside the sweet spot for your average MeFite (techie stuff and cat videos). "A five-year-old kid could draw better than that!" is, sadly, an apt summary of many a MeFi response.

Some things are harder to parse and absorb than others; that doesn't make them bad or wrong. In fact, they are sometimes deliberately hard to absorb. Think of it like a time-release capsule.

And from a different angle: even if we postulate that something is badly written, what's the point of coming in and being the twentieth person to say so?
posted by languagehat at 5:22 PM on July 9, 2013 [53 favorites]


And this "we MeFites are super-smart so if we don't get it right away it must be bad!" idea is ludicrous. Read some of the threads we've had on modern art, John Cage, or just about anything that falls outside the sweet spot for your average MeFite (techie stuff and cat videos). "A five-year-old kid could draw better than that!" is, sadly, an apt summary of many a MeFi response.

As somebody who's said some very dumb stuff about art, I agree with this. I spent a few years in a liberal arts college, and I'm not any smarter than anyone else - in fact, I'm dumber than many MeFites. But TNI is aimed at my demographic, and that read as quickly to me as any Buzzfeed piece. OTOH, techie stuff utterly mystifies me... but I don't drop into techie threads and post ill-informed stuff about how its not written for my level.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 5:26 PM on July 9, 2013 [5 favorites]


One can write about complicated, theoretical topics without writing jargon-filled garbage.
Great, an example of the problem. See, reflexively showing up to drop a first-post complaint about obscurantism or "jargon-filled garbage" or whatever is threadshitting, pure and simple, and that's equally true whether or not the linked article is poorly written.


This MetaTalk post puts forth the thesis that a problem with theoretical humanities articles on MetaFilter such as the one linked is that commenters are too ignorant to understand them but instead claim that the article is too dense or obtuse. The response is a direct disagreement with that thesis, stating that sometimes the article really is too dense or obtuse.

Claiming that disagreement with the original thesis constitutes "threadshitting" and should therefore be considered inappropriate seems rather self-serving.
posted by grouse at 5:26 PM on July 9, 2013 [10 favorites]



One can write about complicated, theoretical topics without writing jargon-filled garbage


where was the jargon in this piece?
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 5:26 PM on July 9, 2013


It's not like either writer is an actual professor or seasoned academic--they're both grad students and they write like grad students trying to impress the prof. No serious academic journal would publish this as it's written, and it's too deliberately obtuse to be a decent op-ed. Why are we all supposed to pretend to take it seriously?
posted by Ideefixe at 5:33 PM on July 9, 2013 [16 favorites]


it is often the case that these articles do not contain "jargon-filled garbage", hence my post.

I didn't find the article to be "jargon-filled." It was, nevertheless, poorly written, or at least intended for a different audience.

I realize that the long, discursive introduction which is intended to provide the context for the author's personal life or intellectual background before delving into the actual topic is in vogue these days. However, keep in mind that the MeFi audience generally comes from a different intellectual tradition that finds this kind of writing tedious.
posted by deanc at 5:34 PM on July 9, 2013 [2 favorites]



I realize that the long, discursive introduction which is intended to provide the context for the author's personal life or intellectual background before delving into the actual topic is in vogue these days. However, keep in mind that the MeFi audience generally comes from a different intellectual tradition that finds this kind of writing tedious.


What 'intellectual tradition' is that, and how can you generalize the MeFi audience that way? Some of us grew up on Bangs and Thompson and New Journalists, who are used to that sort of thing.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 5:37 PM on July 9, 2013


Yeah. This tendency is highly annoying.
posted by IvoShandor at 5:38 PM on July 9, 2013


techie stuff utterly mystifies me... but I don't drop into techie threads and post ill-informed stuff about how its not written for my level.

This is a really, really good point. There are countless techie FPPs requiring a knowledge base way higher than "average reader of general interest site" to understand easily (or at all). Many of those FPPs provide absolutely no background explanation to make them more accessible to average general interest readers. When that happens nobody says the post was badly framed, rude, or snobby.

It IS threadshitting rudeness to drop into a thread in the beginning just to say that a piece is badly written or that you can't understand it. How would people like it if I constantly dropped into techie threads to leave top-of-thread, one-line complaints that the linked material was too densely/poorly written for me to understand? I think most people would reply that I should go learn a little about the topic rather than threadshitting.

N-thing that these comments should be deleted way more stringently.

If someone wants to post something substantive that furthers/improves the conversation, like they don't understand a specific term or phrase or idea and they are wondering if anyone else can explain it, that's completely different to me.
posted by cairdeas at 5:40 PM on July 9, 2013 [22 favorites]


If someone posts a difficult piece, gets no/few replies, and complains about it, then that's the time to make suggestions about their framing/adding background material IMO.
posted by cairdeas at 5:42 PM on July 9, 2013


N-thing that these comments should be deleted way more stringently.

This metatalk post feels mostly like a people-talking-about-a-thing situation rather than a call-for-mod-policy thing, so I'm mostly just staying out of the way here, but one thing that needs noting is that we can't do much one way or the other about comments that don't get flagged at all or until hours later. Probably the best way to help make sure some sort of early derail thing gets looked at is:

1. Flag it.
2. Drop us a line if it's complicated or if there's a lot of it.

Beyond that, my usual approach to this stuff from the user side of things is to just jump in with a whatever bit of substantial discussion I can muster to get the discursive ball rolling and make the thread feel less like it's just collecting criticism. Obviously that's a thing where mileage may vary—not every thread I'd be interested to read is something I have something to say about—but a little active getting-feet-wet when you can do so in a constructive way is pretty much always a good thing.
posted by cortex (staff) at 5:45 PM on July 9, 2013


And from a different angle: even if we postulate that something is badly written, what's the point of coming in and being the twentieth person to say so?

Well, what is the point of coming in and being the twentieth person to say how great it is? Or what is the point of coming in and being the twentieth person to say anything at all? The point is coming in and being the first person to speak for yourself. No matter what your opinion is. It's why we have a comments section, no?

As for my opinion (not that anyone asked), I have been waffling a lot. And it's probably more apropriate to discuss style issues here than there, so I will.

I see some of the things people like about it, but those things also annoy me a little, too, because they were obscured by what I disliked about the piece, which was kind of the opposite from what people were complaining about in the thread: I thought there was too much appealing to popular culture and that too many of the anecdotes were written in a breezy, gossipy style that clashed with the more thoughtful sections. That took me out of the argument and made it more difficult for me, personally, to parse as a serious essay. Not because it was hard, but because it was tonally inconsistent in a way that didn't work for me. I only went back and reread it because MeFites who I admire repeatedly defended it (to anecdotally answer my own question above about repeating feedback).
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 5:46 PM on July 9, 2013 [7 favorites]


I agree with comments here and on the FPP that complaints about obscurantism seem to be wrongfully and sort of incharitably directed at the linked article, rather than at that which it's critiquing.

I guess one could, though, ask the question of why engage with such obscurantist commentary at all (or link that engagement on Metafilter), if the result is inevitably merely a laboriously comprehensible rejection of something that few of us would otherwise have even heard of to begin with. OTOH I don't really know how many here are previously familiar with Tiqqun and semiotext(e). I wasn't.
posted by Anything at 5:50 PM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


I really did not understand the bafflement over this article. It's the sort of thing that anyone capable of reading Harpers should be able to get, and the early comments to the contrary were pretty obnoxious.

Instead of talking about feminism, irony and late-stage capitalism (all interesting topics touched upon by the article), we spent the entire time debating whether it was written dull enough for the OW MY BALLS audience to grasp.
posted by klangklangston at 5:50 PM on July 9, 2013 [12 favorites]


IRFH, my 2 cents is that it would have been perfectly appropriate to discuss style issues there and say exactly what you said. The point is that what you said is substantive. It wasn't just "what am i looking at ?? lol."
posted by cairdeas at 5:51 PM on July 9, 2013


Claiming that disagreement with the original thesis constitutes "threadshitting" and should therefore be considered inappropriate seems rather self-serving.

You seem to be imagining a different comment than the one at the top of this thread. It's unreasonable to claim that sniping about "jargon-filled garbage" is equivalent to saying "sometimes the article really is too dense [for a lay reader]" — it's not a reasonable contribution to a discussion about style and audience, but rather an all too typical bit of knee-jerk philistine dismissal (=threadshitting).
posted by RogerB at 5:56 PM on July 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yeah, I think substantive discussion of style issues about the content of a posts links is generally fine in the thread. Probably better there than here going forward, really, if it's not specifically tied to the more meta "how mefi discussions proceed" angle, anyway.
posted by cortex (staff) at 5:57 PM on July 9, 2013


So what you're saying is that half of my comment is more appropriate for MetaTalk and the other half is more appropriate for the Blue, and is therefore tonally inconsistent in a way that doesn't work for MetaFilter?

HA HA HA HA HA HA!
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 6:01 PM on July 9, 2013


p0ned myself!
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 6:01 PM on July 9, 2013


I must admit I am now way more confused about which kinds of comments are permitted on which side of the site than I am by the content of the original article.
posted by grouse at 6:05 PM on July 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


I just want to say one other thing about this.

A few years ago vincele made a really interesting comment about the origins of the phrase "underwater basketweaving." (Which, for anyone who doesn't know, is a joke example in the US of a ridiculous/self-indulgent/pointless college major.)

vincele said:
Somewhat more speculative, I bet "underwater basketweaving" was derisive, likely conservative shorthand for the higher education reform of the 1950s and 1960s. This was a time, after all, when social history and women's history, among many other fields, burst onto the scene, and rattled musty old conventions of diplomatic history.

...

The 1955 quote lends support to my thinking that "underwater basketweaving" was a derisive shorthand for new subjects like women, indigenous peoples, and other subsets of social history that went on to become full-blown disciplines in their own right.


I think that the attitude we've mentioned here comes from the same root - the attitude that dense techie articles are for and by smart and well-informed people and to be taken seriously, and you should bow out or try to learn something if you don't understand them, while dense liberal arts/social science theory articles are for and by poseurs speaking a lot of meaningless gobbledygook, and are rightfully mocked as useless, and if you are a Smart and Logical person and you don't understand it, the problem is obviously with the writing and not your understanding.
posted by cairdeas at 6:06 PM on July 9, 2013 [17 favorites]


I'm DEFINITELY naturally sort of in this mold of UGH FANCY POMO THEORY BARF when I read it in an article, which is why I don't comment in these threads. I appreciate when people (like Frowner, who I have very little in common with theoretically but who is so freakin eloquent that she's easily my favorite poster ever right now) can elucidate intriguing bits of theory that make what seemed like useless jargon actually make a lot of sense. I'm glad I've finally learned to shut up and listen in some extraordinarily rare specialized occasions.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 6:25 PM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


The article didn't strike me as particularly hard to understand (noting that there is a difference between understanding an argument and agreeing with it.) There was certainly a litter of words and references appealing to a very particular and narrow audience, but not to the extent that would make me think "aha, another Alan Sokal hoax."

There just is not anything in the humanities, however Theory-heavy, that excludes readers the way an article that depends on understanding systems of partial differential equations excludes readers. Are we not Men? Have we not Google? (well, duckduckgo)
posted by jfuller at 6:33 PM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


while dense liberal arts/social science theory articles are for and by poseurs speaking a lot of meaningless gobbledygook, and are rightfully mocked as useless, and if you are a Smart and Logical person and you don't understand it, the problem is obviously with the writing and not your understanding.

The thing is, I have an entire career on dense liberal arts/social science theory gobbledygook, and I am able to completely understand why people found this piece tough to orient to and dig into, as I did initially. I think we should strive to reject the identity-based theories as to why someone would or wouldn't like it (I've seen age, which is hilarious given that these are the intellectual grandchildren of the 1960s and the magazine pieces in question were written in the 90s, lack of education which is essentially a class issue, and gender thrown out as the assumptions why this leaves some cold) and seek instead some useful understanding of how the communicative practices on MeFi in general, and in this post in particular,have left some people to feel as though they cannot find an entry point. Ideefixe is right, this is grad student writing, and reads like it; not bad, some useful insights, not great work either. And the post framing, I still think, left a big gap between where most MeFi readers are and where the authors begin.

The difference between that and tech threads is that it's about gender and capitalism - something that on its face is going to interest a whole bunch of people on MetaFilter who do not bring the background the essay assumes. That doesn't mean they're any less interested or worthy of being able to participate in discussion, if they can find a way in.

There are times when it's mere threadshitting. This is not one of those times. When people don't understand, those in the know have an opportunity to educate. Assume intellectual sophistication and create a bridge.
posted by Miko at 6:36 PM on July 9, 2013 [8 favorites]


I've seen techie articles ridiculed by (for want of a better phrase) the liberal arts majors. There's possibly a disconnect between how the different metafilter disciplines see each other, but it goes both ways.

FWIW, the article was nearly understandable by me, but it was nonsense. You're right in that I don't have a full vocabulary for these types of articles, but I know when I'm being bullshitted, and I know when the information being given is shallower than the vocabulary presumes.

This is the bit where you tell me that I can't tell you how little information is in the article without having a better grasp on what is being said.

As with all things, we should have a bit more respect for each other in situations where we maybe don't have respect for the source material. Once again, this goes both ways, and it starts with people not presupposing stupidity. Comments like "Depressing... Idiocracy will only become a documentary if you let it." are trite and ignorantly aggressive. There's no call for that at all.
posted by zoo at 6:42 PM on July 9, 2013 [5 favorites]


Once again, the critique here was not coming (only) from techies. It is not that easy to dismiss it as people who don't get the humanities.

I know when I'm being bullshitted

It is not bullshit; just not all that well done.

we should have a bit more respect for each other in situations where we maybe don't have respect for the source material.

Er....yes?
posted by Miko at 6:44 PM on July 9, 2013


FWIW, the article was nearly understandable by me, but it was nonsense. You're right in that I don't have a full vocabulary for these types of articles, but I know when I'm being bullshitted, and I know when the information being given is shallower than the vocabulary presumes.

Obviously speaking only as one user, I would take absolutely no issue with someone who didn't have "a full vocabulary" on the topic saying that they thought an article was nonsense bullshit, as long as they said why in a substantive way. And now I will shut up for a while.
posted by cairdeas at 6:45 PM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]



FWIW, the article was nearly understandable by me, but it was nonsense. You're right in that I don't have a full vocabulary for these types of articles, but I know when I'm being bullshitted, and I know when the information being given is shallower than the vocabulary presumes.


How was it nonsense? It wasn't the greatest article in the world - again, it was a throwaway blog post. Its a bit less smart than Harpers or New Yorker, a bit smarter than Slate or New York magazine. There was nothing that was hard to understand in it at all unless you're unused to modern Internet discourse.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 6:46 PM on July 9, 2013


dense liberal arts/social science theory articles

It wasn't dense. There was a lot of filler involved. The insulting part was reaching back into 1970s Marxist feminists from Italy to explain the basis of "affective labor" (compared with the similar, briefer introduction of the term in a recent article from The New Republic), and then the fact that the article itself was basically a long discussion of the defunct 90s-era magazine "Tiqqun" (referenced in almost every paragraph), creating the impression that this was just a self-referential discussion of an intellectual debate among past radical thinkers rather than the actual topic promised by the FPP.

it was a throwaway blog post

Compare the sort of blog posts you'll see on more academic/intellectual blogs like Lawyers, Guns, and Money or Crooked Timber, and you'll find a much, much different writing style and one less likely to provoke criticism of poor pseudo-academic writing.

Quite possibly, the essay itself wasn't a bad essay in its own context, but it made for a bad FPP.
posted by deanc at 6:55 PM on July 9, 2013 [9 favorites]


How was it nonsense.

red flags:
Overuse of rhetoric.
Questions which go nowhere. But do they mean nothing?
Analysis of Tiqquin separated from what Tiqquin says.
Use of Parody. (Source material is best when you invent it)
Deepities.

Picking a phrase at random, shit like this:

"In the culture sector, economic precarity constantly reminds employees of their expendability and, therefore, the importance of their investing affect in their workplace."

is nonsense.

"culture sector": Meaningless phrase.
"economic precarity": obfuscation
"constantly reminds employees of their expendability": presumptive; homespun wisdom
"and, therefore, the importance of their investing affect in their workplace": jumping to conclusions & despite seeming to be linked, actually - completely unrelated.

Charlemagne In Sweatpants: You're never going to agree with me on this, because you've already nailed your cloth to the "It's perfectly understandable and not at all bullshit" door, but there's little in there that didn't make me think that this is pretty much random nonsense, and any sense anyone gleans from it is nothing more than Pareidolia.
posted by zoo at 6:59 PM on July 9, 2013 [13 favorites]


jfuller: "The article didn't strike me as particularly hard to understand (noting that there is a difference between understanding an argument and agreeing with it.)"

Exactly the situation I found myself in. None of the terms were particularly hard (and I really suck at po-mo terminology), but each statement was based on a bunch of assumptions that I didn't share, so after a while I lost interest, and never made it to the end of the article.
posted by Bugbread at 6:59 PM on July 9, 2013 [2 favorites]



"In the culture sector, economic precarity constantly reminds employees of their expendability and, therefore, the importance of their investing affect in their workplace."


It means "because the econonomy is fucked, employees are constantly reminded that they need to their job, so they're forced to smile and act the way their employer wants them to". We had an article about that ages ago.

Compare the sort of blog posts you'll see on more academic/intellectual blogs like Lawyers, Guns, and Money or Crooked Timber, and you'll find a much, much different writing style and one less likely to provoke criticism of poor pseudo-academic writing.

These tend to be shorter, and harder to sink your teeth into, which makes them less fun then TNI (and I really want to make an Unknown Armies/TNI/The New Inquisition/The New Inquiry joke/reference that very few people will get).
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 7:01 PM on July 9, 2013 [3 favorites]



Charlemagne In Sweatpants: You're never going to agree with me on this, because you've already nailed your cloth to the "It's perfectly understandable and not at all bullshit" door, but there's little in there that didn't make me think that this is pretty much random nonsense, and any sense anyone gleans from it is nothing more than Pareidolia.


I could gloss every single sentence (and I did that for a videogame blog that I can't remember the name of) but if you don't want to do the work then I'm not going to do it for you.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 7:02 PM on July 9, 2013


I could gloss every single sentence (and I did that for a videogame blog that I can't remember the name of) but if you don't want to do the work then I'm not going to do it for you.

I'm not entirely sure what you mean by "gloss", I'm glad that you're randomly half-referencing shit you've done (And I did that once for a podcast I did some work for) and I don't know what gives you the impression I somehow don't want to do the work.
posted by zoo at 7:09 PM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't think people should look inward or whatever. If you're not interested, go read something else. There's no reason to come into a post and complain that you aren't interested in the article.

To me, it feels like there's a group of people who police Metafilter to try to keep these kinds of articles off the site. Posts have a mysterious tendency to devolve into debates about academic jargon, or the Sokal Hoax.
posted by AlsoMike at 7:11 PM on July 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


Charlemagne in Sweatpants, you seem very much invested in asserting that if people were young and hip, they'd think this is awesome as you seem to. It's great that you understand this piece (though I'm not convinced that you do as much as you think you do, evidenced by your unclear "gloss" on the tampon thing in the original thread), but it's tiring to see you continue to insist that only you can see how it's better than it is, and people can't understand that, basically, because they're an Old who doesn't get the Internet. I think you might lack enough historical perspective on critical theory to understand that; and yes, the "breezy" stuff was written in the 1990s. If this blows your mind, read some original Situationists. In the meantime I wonder if you could skip the ageism and work harder at understanding why people don't like the piece, rather than just browbeating them that it's because they're feeble and aged.

It means "because the econonomy is fucked, employees are constantly reminded that they need to their job, so they're forced to smile and act the way their employer wants them to".

Mostly right, but not just "employees," but employees particularly in fields that don't depend on technical prowess, specialized knowledge (such as medicine) or physical skills - that's why the "culture sector" is so described, and since i work in it, I can attest that it's not a meaningless phrase."

Also, the "affect" bit doesn't just mean you have to smile. The article does bring up a good point about the eroticization or romanticization of work - the "passion for Marketing" discussion. We absolutely should raise an eyebrow about that sort of thing. At the same time, I was wondering if it could ever be seen as somehow inauthentic or capitalist tool-ish to sincerely love your work, but I think that's more of an observation for the thread itself.

I can't see "economic precarity" as obuscation. You might find "economic precariousness" more comfortable to read - it means the same thing.
posted by Miko at 7:15 PM on July 9, 2013 [12 favorites]


If this blows your mind, read some original Situationists.

The original flash mobbers.
I've read their work on pschogeography.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 7:17 PM on July 9, 2013


Love that stuff. Underlies contemporary placemaking.
posted by Miko at 7:22 PM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


AlsoMike: That old chestnut. The "If you're being negative, then you have an ulterier motive and you're silencing." strategem.

Anyway - Thought of a thing y'all can do to work out if it is bullshit or not. Without going back to the article, write out three hypotheses that the article made (You have to write them out and then reread them). You don't have to agree or justify them, you just have write out a couple of headings. Summarise it.

If you can, then I'm probably wrong, and even though I don't believe that you didn't cheat, you know it's not bullshit. If you can't or what your summary contains is too simplistic (your choice - it's subjective to you) then you need to consider that the article is information poor & nothing but sound and fury. You don't have to tell me. It's a quiz just for you.
posted by zoo at 7:23 PM on July 9, 2013


I don't like the framing of this MetaTalk post. Criticizing this article isn't a sign that one is a dumb dumb or know nothing who should stay silent while the smart folks talk. Overly obscure academic and intellectual prose is a real issue and can be a legitimate critique.

I only just read that article and while I wasn't familiar with all the journals and thinkers referenced, I understood the basic ideas and noticed the rhetorical device used with the man-child discussion. I thought it was a poorly written. Lots of name dropping, glib pop culture references, a clunky rhetorical device, and overly complicated prose. I think there are some important issues raised in the essay and it is a shame the authors didn't find a better way to communicate.
posted by Area Man at 7:23 PM on July 9, 2013 [5 favorites]


AlsoMike: That old chestnut. The "If you're being negative, then you have an ulterier motive and you're silencing." strategem.

Nope. I'm pretty negative about the article.
posted by AlsoMike at 7:24 PM on July 9, 2013


I can't see "economic precarity" as obuscation. You might find "economic precariousness" more comfortable to read - it means the same thing.
zing!
posted by zoo at 7:24 PM on July 9, 2013


From TFA:

The majority of what follows consists of a Situationist-ish collage that, in a series of vacillating typefaces and font sizes, presents the Young-Girl as a scapegoat as much as a victim.

Sometimes academic jargon is warranted, sometimes it's not, but until the authors show me how a typeface can have agency enough that it can be indecisive, this writing is just bad.
posted by The Michael The at 7:29 PM on July 9, 2013 [4 favorites]


If you can, then I'm probably wrong,

Zoo...that's really easy to do. You can critique, agree, disagree, think it's not original, think it's badly written, but: this piece really does say something. It says:

1. Some guys at this magazine Tiqqun imagined the human spirit under capitalism as an acquisitive, indfferent Young-Girl character. They used descriptions of that character to critique capitalism's shortcomings - like an archetype who represents abstract values instead of individuality.
2. The people who wrote that article think the writers at Tiqqun are misogynist for using a Young-Girl as the character for that critique.
3. The writers at Tiqqun would say they could not possibly be misogynist because they are so well informed about dominance and oppression that they know that would be an incredibly dumb mistake for them to make, and will use the excuse that they are being ironic and that their critique really has nothing to do with women. But that irony is simply hiding real sexism.
4. The people who wrote the article think that a character we could call the Man-Child is a better signifier of the sufferings of people today under the capitalist empire.
5. The Man-Child is familiar from movies and TV and pop culture and his characteristics are nonparticipation, indecision, and immaturity.
6. Capitalism threatens to render all of us as lazy, apathetic, distant and empty as the Man-Child.
Finally,in summation: It's important to think about whether, when you critique capitalism, you're buying ito some of its own bullshit, like gender ideologies.

If you go back to the thread, a couple of people rendered this a lot better than I.
posted by Miko at 7:30 PM on July 9, 2013 [12 favorites]


""In the culture sector, economic precarity constantly reminds employees of their expendability and, therefore, the importance of their investing affect in their workplace."

is nonsense.
"

No, it's not. If you think it's nonsense, it's because you don't understand it.

"culture sector": Meaningless phrase. "

Actually means non-technical, non-physical labor jobs, especially those with ostensible cultural product, e.g. museums.

"economic precarity": obfuscation"

Actually, adjective phrase that means fiscal insecurity.

"constantly reminds employees of their expendability": presumptive; homespun wisdom"

Your critique is confused — homespun wisdom is supposed to be prosaic, but this phrasing isn't really. It may be presumptive, but given that it's a longstanding view of labor's relationship with capital, it's fair to take it as an axiom for the sake of the article.

"and, therefore, the importance of their investing affect in their workplace": jumping to conclusions & despite seeming to be linked, actually - completely unrelated.

No, it actually follows quite clearly: Because the labor isn't physical or technical, but rather cultural, and is performed in economically insecure conditions, making it seem as if the worker has a "passion" for the job is important.

So, basically, your objections are bullshit and you didn't understand what was written. I'm glad we've gotten that out of the way — hopefully, it will preempt whatever nattering you're planning about the next article you don't understand.
posted by klangklangston at 7:43 PM on July 9, 2013 [19 favorites]


The article this whole thing is about doesn't really seem to go very far with its inquiry (so to speak – I wish it came to some sharper conclusions) but it's not difficult to understand and it's not particularly jargon-laden either. It does, however, by necessity of its subject matter, get into a mode that's outside the house style of nosepicking IT twerps. The general cultural insistence on that sort of keep-it-simple-stupid mode of communication has long been one of the less charming aspects of this site.

Though I don't think deleting comments will help because there isn't a critical mass of people who are interested in engaging with that sort of material, and there's a whole lot of IT guys who need shit to read on the computer.
posted by furiousthought at 7:53 PM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]



The article this whole thing is about doesn't really seem to go very far with its inquiry (so to speak – I wish it came to some sharper conclusions) but it's not difficult to understand and it's not particularly jargon-laden either. It does, however, by necessity of its subject matter, get into a mode that's outside the house style of nosepicking IT twerps. The general cultural insistence on that sort of keep-it-simple-stupid mode of communication has long been one of the less charming aspects of this site.

Though I don't think deleting comments will help because there isn't a critical mass of people who are interested in engaging with that sort of material, and there's a whole lot of IT guys who need shit to read on the computer.


which is strange, since I joined MeFi to get away from Slashdot
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 7:58 PM on July 9, 2013


That's it! I'm going back to Crooked Timber. (Posted from my computer software program desk in the heart of the heart of Silicon Valley.)
posted by Nomyte at 7:58 PM on July 9, 2013


The philistine of my philistine likes the densest stuff. You wouldn't understand, of course, because you don't like dense stuff.
posted by michaelh at 8:02 PM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


furiousthought: "It does, however, by necessity of its subject matter, get into a mode that's outside the house style of nosepicking IT twerps."

As a former nosepicking IT twerp, I resent that. I mean, I agree with your overall thesis, but you're directing your ire at the wrong thing. The problem isn't that people here work in IT, or prefer a keep-it-simple-stupid writing approach. The problem is that IT folks who favor KISS are commenting in that thread. I read part of the article, and I didn't find it engaging or interesting, so I made a comment stating that it was unengaging and boring closed the tab and read something else.
posted by Bugbread at 8:03 PM on July 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


I ended up wondering why so many of us have such strong emotional responses to anything you can label "theory" - so much ressentiment, in particular, if you want a theory word.

Honestly, I bet most of the people who were all "this is so opaque I cannot read it" could have read it just fine if they hadn't been so emotionally undone by the presence of theory-words. I don't think it's a difficult piece, and as a broad generality people who comment here aren't dumb - but I think that certain types of language, certain approaches and certain sites trigger incredibly strong senses of threat and anxiety for a lot of people to the point where they are not able/willing to read on.

I find that really weird and interesting. I would much rather try to sit with folks' anxieties about theory than get into "why can't you just suck it up and read". And I do think it's about anxieties and resentment, just because I've had fifty million of these conversations about every single theory thing you can imagine, ranging from fairly pop stuff like this to Foucault to Deleuze to Marx to...well, suffice it to say that I have participated in this conversation about such a broad range of writers and material that I really feel that it's not anything about the text, it's something about how we feel about reading, knowledge, theorizing. (And I mean I have participated in it from both sides.) But whence comes the anxiety and resentment? Lots of us feel anxious and resentful around complicated theory stuff but we don't feel anxious and resentful around, like, the work of Keynes or a book about programming or Ulysses, even though those are all in their own ways difficult and likely to be partially opaque to us. I routinely trash-talk Zizek, for example, out of all proportion to the amount of Zizek I've actually read and the effect that Zizekian anything has had on my life. Why? It's not just that he's a prat - academia is laden with prats.

I mostly liked the piece in question because I have read very little about the whole Young-Girl thing that wasn't fawning, and very little about Tiqqun that wasn't either droolingly admiring or totally reactionary. I thought that the piece started to unpack some stuff that's a bit hard to get at about the uses of metaphor and different ways of rationalizing them, and that was exciting for me.

I wonder if a factor is that people feel that theory ought to be doing more than it possibly can - like, if someone posts an article on, I dunno, linux or something, I don't feel that article has any obligation to be addressed to the whole world, or indeed to do much more than advance a conversation about linux (I'm making this up, what I know about linux would fit in a teacup with room left over) among people to whom linux is significant. And yet I - and maybe a lot of other people - feel that theory has much bigger obligations in terms of audience and aims, even a fairly small piece in a sort of Bad Subjects-lite website like New Inquiry. Why is that?

Mostly, I just wish that it were easier to avoid the oedipal-death-struggle kind of debate about theory, because that gets kind of exhausting for everyone.
posted by Frowner at 8:11 PM on July 9, 2013 [15 favorites]


the presence of theory-words.

Since I don't think this was a theory problem, but a lack of framing + a discursive and seemingly unrelated introduction problem, I'd be interested to know: what theory words are you thinking were hard for people?

As I said, I really didn't find a lot of theoretical jargon in this piece. I don't think that's what tripped people up. But if you think there were particular words that threw people into a state of anxiety I'd love to know what they were.
posted by Miko at 8:22 PM on July 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


Frowner: "I ended up wondering why so many of us have such strong emotional responses to anything you can label "theory" - so much ressentiment, in particular, if you want a theory word. "

I suspect it's because people have had bad experiences with theory, either A) struggling really hard to understand some piece of theory and failing, or, even worse B) struggling really hard to understand some piece of theory only to realize, once they had decoded it, that they found it incredibly wrong and perhaps even stupidly wrong, and therefore being angry that they had wasted so much time struggling to decode it.
posted by Bugbread at 8:27 PM on July 9, 2013 [7 favorites]


It's not theory, it's lazy show off writing that makes a certain target audience feel clever for thinking they understand it. I imagine most of us who did a humanities degree had a moment when we thought writing like that as REALLY FUCKING CLEVER. It wasn't and isn't. The ideas are fairly banal when expressed simply.
posted by unSane at 8:28 PM on July 9, 2013 [7 favorites]


get into a mode that's outside the house style of nosepicking IT twerps

How would you feel about spending the rest of your non-nosepicking working life staring at a cardboard box with MONITOR sharpied on the front while typing on a broken typewriter?
posted by Dr Dracator at 8:28 PM on July 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


It would depend on how much of my time I was devoting to nosepicking.
posted by maryr at 8:32 PM on July 9, 2013 [4 favorites]


Nosepicking is strictly BYOD, no IT department will help you with that.
posted by Dr Dracator at 8:35 PM on July 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


I think that the attitude we've mentioned here comes from the same root - the attitude that dense techie articles are for and by smart and well-informed people and to be taken seriously, and you should bow out or try to learn something if you don't understand them, while dense liberal arts/social science theory articles are for and by poseurs speaking a lot of meaningless gobbledygook, and are rightfully mocked as useless, and if you are a Smart and Logical person and you don't understand it, the problem is obviously with the writing and not your understanding.

Maybe this is a thing in general. I don't think it was a thing with this piece, because speaking as a warm and fuzzy former English major who spent a fair amount of time blathering about deconstructionism at one point in my life, the article is poorly structured. Not obscure. Some of the references were unfamiliar to me, and I felt, after reading it, that perhaps the piece would have hung together better if they were, because the authors take a lot of the references for granted. But this would not have been problematic if the article were better written. The author does not smoothly transition between ideas, nor clearly indicate their opinion of some of the ideas that they're discussing: One of the most-talked-about concepts in the article, the "Man Child" as embodiment of the contemporary men's declining economic and social status, is first described as vacuous empty conceit and later taken quite seriously, and the transition between these two very different stances is glossed over as if they were not opposed.
posted by Diablevert at 8:39 PM on July 9, 2013 [3 favorites]


I never understood why people hated theory until I had a class with a Maoist who dragged Lacan into everything somehow. Even things like climate conditions in pre-revolutionary France.

When I get the 'Lacanian interpretation of the weather' feeling from something that I'm reading, I close the browser and move on.
posted by winna at 8:39 PM on July 9, 2013 [7 favorites]


"Theory" is, itself, kind of a packed term for some people, I think because in the quote unquote hard sciences, a theory is testable. Whereas the piece in question (for example) is just, like, somebody's opinion, man. Also, what Bugbread said.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 8:40 PM on July 9, 2013 [4 favorites]



get into a mode that's outside the house style of nosepicking IT twerps


I prefer the Shit Reddit Says formulation 'STEMlords' for people who don't see any value outside STEM programs and the 'hard' sciences.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 8:43 PM on July 9, 2013 [9 favorites]


Paragraph 4 was about the only one I thought might raise someone's theory-hackles. But after that, it really stops, and most of the language is absolutely common in analytical rhetoric.

I also don't think it's all that hard to understand why people get anxious and irritable about the language of theory, when it appears. There's no need to search for complicated hypotheses. I think two factors are at play: first, many people really haven't had a chance to be exposed to it in a friendly context, starting from foundations.

And second, we must be honest: a lot of people do use the language of theory to be assholes. Particularly in academic contexts, and particularly among those who have mastered it only partially. It can become a form of intellectual capital used to manipulate and smother people who are not part of the in-group -- and as much as I know that is not the intent of serious and earnest thinkers, certainly even those who embrace critical theory have observed this phenomenon. I mean the contemporary equivalent of this guy.

There's a third category of people for whom critiques of or alternatives to the dominant narrative are truly threatening to their worldview. I don't think that's a big contingent on MetaFilter, though.
posted by Miko at 8:44 PM on July 9, 2013 [9 favorites]


So, basically, your objections are bullshit and you didn't understand what was written. I'm glad we've gotten that out of the way — hopefully, it will preempt whatever nattering you're planning about the next article you don't understand.

Is a shitty thing to say.

Let's just focus down on that word "precarity". It was a new word for me, so I looked it up. Instability, precariousness according to yourself and Miko. I assumed when I looked it up that there was more to it than that. That's the nature of jargon words in more scientific fields. Even if it's not defined, there can be nuances to the definition only available to those in that field. That's why new words have to be invented.

But not according to the two of you. "Economic precarity" ONLY means fiscal insecurity / economic precariousness.

I can understand jargon if it brings something new to the field, but you keep telling me that the phrase "economic precarity" is a search-and-replaced phrase. By your own measures, this is the very essence of obfuscation.

As a side note, I'd like to know if either of you believe that there are other forms of precarity other than economic precarity.
posted by zoo at 8:44 PM on July 9, 2013 [6 favorites]


Psssshhhhhhh if there was value in disciplines other than STEMs they could prove it with factual evidence loud enough to be heard over me plugging my ears and whining "FEEEEEEEEEEEELINNGGGGGGSS" really loud.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 8:46 PM on July 9, 2013 [5 favorites]


""Theory" is, itself, kind of a packed term for some people, I think because in the quote unquote hard sciences, a theory is testable. Whereas the piece in question (for example) is just, like, somebody's opinion, man. Also, what Bugbread said."

I always assumed that it was because for hard sciences there can, ultimately be one correct theory that explains a given thing. In liberal arts, "theory" is a possible explanation. Sort of a "the theory" versus "a theory" situation, and ambiguity can be uncomfortable for some people.
posted by klangklangston at 8:50 PM on July 9, 2013


Part of what's going on there, zoo, is that so much critical theory was originally written in French or Spanish that, in English, rather than using simpler-seeming and near-equivalent English words to describe a concept, writers have a tradition of using Euro-ized and sometimes wholly imported versions of those words which help to indicate we're talking about not general precariousness, like that of driving over a bridge that is rusting apart, but about a specific concept in theory. And some of those concepts come with the baggage of the set of meanings that developed around them since they originated, and you're supposed to grok those as well. This is true about precarity (thanks WP):
It is a term of everyday usage as Precariedad, Precariedade, Précarité, or Precarietà in a number of European countries, where it refers to the widespread condition of temporary, flexible, contingent, casual, intermittent work in postindustrial societies, brought about by the neoliberal labor market reforms that have strengthened the right to manage and the bargaining power of employers since the late 1970s...Around year 2000, the word started being used in its English usage by some global justice movement (sometimes identified with antiglobalization) activists
So, just as in science, the nuance is important. By using that word instead of "precariousness," users are accepting a particular definition of [risk, insecurity, danger] and why it is caused.

Is this an example of jargon? Sure. On the other hand, I don't find it particularly hard ot understand even though it's not a term I use daily - I recognize the root word and it matches its cognates, so by applying context and general training in English reading comprehension, I can make a good estimate of the meaning, and then read the definition for more specificity, if needed, as you did. And when you did read it, you found that it was something you could understand.

Again, I can understand why it's offputting. But this is just an intellectual tradition, just like naming conventions in physical science, and using these words does not indicate that there is no meaning. It communicates meaning ("economic risk") as well as nuance ("caused by exploitation").
posted by Miko at 8:56 PM on July 9, 2013 [16 favorites]


Yeah, definitely, that too, Klang.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 8:57 PM on July 9, 2013


"Is a shitty thing to say. "

Railing against something as "bullshit" because you don't understand it is shitty too.

Let's just focus down on that word "precarity". It was a new word for me, so I looked it up. Instability, precariousness according to yourself and Miko. I assumed when I looked it up that there was more to it than that. That's the nature of jargon words in more scientific fields. Even if it's not defined, there can be nuances to the definition only available to those in that field. That's why new words have to be invented.

But not according to the two of you. "Economic precarity" ONLY means fiscal insecurity / economic precariousness.

I can understand jargon if it brings something new to the field, but you keep telling me that the phrase "economic precarity" is a search-and-replaced phrase. By your own measures, this is the very essence of obfuscation.

As a side note, I'd like to know if either of you believe that there are other forms of precarity other than economic precarity.
"

Fucking wikipedia, chief. Fiscal nsecurity/economic precariousness are both reasonable glosses on a specialized term. If you looked it up, you know this. If you looked it up, then typed out that whole "ONLY" strawman, you just wasted your time on a squib gotcha.

While "precarity" is normally a word of economics and class, I would not doubt the possible existence of other ways to use it — friends with benefits could be described as romantic precarity.
posted by klangklangston at 8:59 PM on July 9, 2013 [4 favorites]


It does, however, by necessity of its subject matter, get into a mode that's outside the house style of nosepicking IT twerps. The general cultural insistence on that sort of keep-it-simple-stupid mode of communication has long been one of the less charming aspects of this site.

There's a sort of bourgeois university-educated "house style" that most of us start learning in high school that prizes clear, functional writing and straightforward sentence structure rather than challenging syntax, word games, more-subtle-reference-than-thou challenges, and explorations of the author's feelings rather than fact and argument. This is the style that appears in major magazines and is employed by professional essayists and academic bloggers who write for a public audience. Even technical and scientific writing prizes this style not because they are "nosepicking IT twerps" but because the subjects are complex and the ideas and evidence supporting the ideas need to be presented clearly.

I think for some essay readers who enjoyed the FPP, "the journey is the reward," and the style is an artwork in and of itself. Ultimately, reading the essay made me feel like I was intruding on someone else's ongoing conversation rather than being presented with an argument. Possibly the prose was endearing and magical to Charlemagne in Sweatpants.
posted by deanc at 8:59 PM on July 9, 2013 [15 favorites]


"Ultimately, reading the essay made me feel like I was intruding on someone else's ongoing conversation rather than being presented with an argument."

Yeah, it's a comment on other theory, written pretty informally. You're right about that, and I can understand that feeling.
posted by klangklangston at 9:01 PM on July 9, 2013


Possibly the prose was endearing and magical to Charlemagne in Sweatpants.

Everything is magical to that dude though, he's been know to wax rhapsodic about dishwashers and/or the music that sounds like them. I kid because I love.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 9:03 PM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


Yeah, he's a believer that the passion required of culture workers by dint of late-stage capitalism is a good thing. ;)
posted by klangklangston at 9:06 PM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


That is a good note on aesthetics/communicative style, deanc.
posted by Miko at 9:06 PM on July 9, 2013


I just said this on twitter but whenever people call it "late stage" capitalism I want to laugh cuz if you don't realize it could get a lot worse and go on a lot longer you are being wantonly optimistic.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 9:11 PM on July 9, 2013 [5 favorites]



There's a sort of bourgeois university-educated "house style" that most of us start learning in high school that prizes clear, functional writing and straightforward sentence structure rather than challenging syntax, word games, more-subtle-reference-than-thou challenges, and explorations of the author's feelings rather than fact and argument. This is the style that appears in major magazines and is employed by professional essayists and academic bloggers who write for a public audience. Even technical and scientific writing prizes this style not because they are "nosepicking IT twerps" but because the subjects are complex and the ideas and evidence supporting the ideas need to be presented clearly.


This style sounds horribly boring, and I'm not sure why I'd want to read it unless its conveying important information that I need to do to do my job or save my life.

"challenging syntax, word games, more-subtle-reference-than-thou challenges, and explorations of the author's feelings rather than fact and argument" is part of what I read things for, and it annoys me that anything that uses that style often gets instantly dismissed (see: Tim Rogers).
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 9:13 PM on July 9, 2013


Great, an example of the problem.

Here's another for you, from a peer reviewed journal no less.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 9:17 PM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


I have a friend like that. He likes reading "difficult books," experimental fiction and the like, and can't understand why other people don't always enjoy them. I think he is not good at realizing that people read, and communicate in general, for different purposes, even at different times. Minds are different, and not all tastes revel in untangling flights of language or unclear points of view.

Much of what I do at my job involves rendering complicated, arcane art-historical jargon and ideation into language that a person walking in off the street, lacking a PhD in art history, can understand. I do this in part as a political act. Specialized knowledge and language creatings a barrier to understanding and communication, a hurdle I don't believe a public cultural organization should be erecting. There are times to take a different tack, to use a poetic or emotive or performative or oblique strategy, but for the most part, when writing the base information to be understood clearly by the broadest audience, in a kind of institution already targeted for critique for its historical exclusion of all about the white upper and upper-middle class, we do embrace what deanc calls "house style" because we want to strip away barriers to communication.

If you're not looking to be embraced by a broad audience, it is fine to do something different, but I think that ideally requires being honest that you are not currently interested in communicating with the broad audience. That's an act of exclusion; it sometimes makes sense, and of course the arts do it all the time, but it is exclusive nonetheless.

I don't think that clear, straightforward writing has to necessarily be boring, though. There are many people who write that way, and do so compellingly and beautifully.
posted by Miko at 9:25 PM on July 9, 2013 [14 favorites]


I think the thing about academically-inflected cultural criticism is that it is an ongoing conversation -- that's the whole point. And terms that read as nonsensical jargon are often just shorthand that people who are engaged in this conversation use to indicate where, idea-wise, they're coming from. Someone who uses the word "precarity"(rather than "precariousness") is referencing a particular conversation about how a certain subset of contemporary workers experience their situation. It's easier to use a single word that nods to these ongoing conversations than it is rehash complicated arguments each time you want to make a point. This may be alienating, and it may make for confusing reading to those who are coming to these discussions for the first time...but it's not "bullshit."
posted by neroli at 9:26 PM on July 9, 2013 [4 favorites]



If you're not looking to be embraced by a broad audience, it is fine to do something different, but I think that ideally requires being honest that you are not currently interested in communicating with the broad audience. That's an act of exclusion; it sometimes makes sense, and of course the arts do it all the time, but it is exclusive nonetheless.


But that also assumes that technical, 'straightforward' language makes more sense than emotive, slipperly language... when maybe a looser, more vernacular, more slipperly style could appeal to more people.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 9:29 PM on July 9, 2013


"Ultimately, reading the essay made me feel like I was intruding on someone else's ongoing conversation rather than being presented with an argument."

Yeah, it's a comment on other theory, written pretty informally. You're right about that, and I can understand that feeling.


Gaaaaaaaaaaaah.

Sorry. I will begin again, and in a calmer frame of mind.

I think the framing of a) the post on metafilter and b) the article itself are flawed. In that, I think if I were asked to cut the article down to its essence, the description would be something close to Klangs: An informal commentary on an minor issue in literary theory.

The framing of the post was: a "consider[ation of] The End of Men, global recession era capitalism, and ironic sexism".

The article itself discusses these things, yes, but it uses them to buttress a critique of Tiqqan, not at central themes of exploration in themselves.

I think a lot of readers were intrigued to read an essay on "The End of Men, global recession era capitalism, and ironic sexism," and were not so much down for "and that's why the manifesto of a defunct group of French anarchists is wrong, kids!"

However, not only does the framing of the MeFi post set you up for confusion as to what the hell the article's about, the article itself is so discursive and loosely jointed --- badly written, in my opinion --- that you have to read a considerable way into it to figure out that the main object of discussion is really the particular ideas of these anarchists and why they're wrong rather than ""The End of Men, global recession era capitalism, and ironic sexism." There's even a faux nut graf in there --- paragraph three, section two --- that suggests that the authors have now, after a lengthy preamble, finally hooked into the meat and begun chewing. But after asking rhetorically, "are women better suited to the new economy because they are easier to exploit?" and dipping into a little 1970s Marxist feminism, it's back to both unloading barrels on our old pals Tiqqan and how wrongitty wrong wrong wrong they are.

Perhaps, indeed, I am simply too bourgie for words and can't stand to learn nothing that don't come in five paragraph essay form, bookended by thesis statements. Maybe my brain fell out sometime post-graduation without me noticing; I thought I still liked Anne Dillard, but who knows. But I feel like if the thing is being presented as an essay about The End of Men, global recession era capitalism, and ironic sexism then it fails to live up to the billing. And I don't think wanting an essay to have a point means I've cauterized my right brain.
posted by Diablevert at 9:33 PM on July 9, 2013 [22 favorites]


t that also assumes that technical, 'straightforward' language makes more sense than emotive, slipperly language... when maybe a looser, more vernacular, more slipperly style could appeal to more people.

Sometimes, sure. But it's not a contest between two choices. All rhetorical and artistic approaches are open to all writers. But you have to match intent to style and format in all communication, or it will be ineffective.

Poetry, storytelling, lyrics/music, and theater all communicate in a non-declarative style, but they can be effective nonetheless. They can also fail miserably if the aesthetics are off or the intent and style don't match. And, finally, even these choices exclude those who are not willing to accept the aesthetic.

I don't think that straightforward writing can't also be "vernacular."

In the end I think that mastery of style is also important. The article does not show mastery of a "slippery" style, an academic style, a poetic style. The word I keep using is chaotic. The tranistions are choppy and the organization ad hoc. This is not a problem in another genre, but is at odds with its intent to communicate an argument, which it definitely has.

On preview - nailed it, Diablevert.
posted by Miko at 9:36 PM on July 9, 2013


If you're not looking to be embraced by a broad audience, it is fine to do something different, but I think that ideally requires being honest that you are not currently interested in communicating with the broad audience. That's an act of exclusion; it sometimes makes sense, and of course the arts do it all the time, but it is exclusive nonetheless.

A model that divides the world into "the broad audience" and exclusive niche people is very problematic. It tends to normalize things you like and marginalize things you don't like. It also makes it harder to notice that there are dozens of "broad audiences" who all like different things and don't like each other: people who watch romcoms, people who watch blockbuster action movies, people who read steamy bodice-rippers, people who read tie-in fantasy novels, people who read novels about runaway juries, people who don't like fiction, people who don't read at all, etc.
posted by Nomyte at 9:42 PM on July 9, 2013 [2 favorites]


Notice I did not say "THE" broad audience, as you did. That sort of renders the rest of your comment unnecessary, because I agree with it.

I also don't have a problem with exclusivity used intentionally and honestly - such as in a professional journal, for instance. Or on MetaFilter where we have our own formats such as FPPs. And so on. For me it is a matter of intent (who are you trying to reach?) and ethics (is it all right to exclude those you're choosing to exclude in this context?).
posted by Miko at 9:43 PM on July 9, 2013


Charlemagne In Sweatpants: "(see: Tim Rogers)"

You have now implanted in my mind the nightmare image of Tim Rogers switching from writing about video games to writing about critical theory. I'm not going to be able to sleep with the lights off for days.
posted by Bugbread at 9:47 PM on July 9, 2013


The article didn't strike me as academic in tone.

Lots of name dropping, glib pop culture references, a clunky rhetorical device, and overly complicated prose.

This nails it. These are the ways of pseudo-intellectual wankery. It actually wasn't that bad of a read but there was certainly more than a whiff...

Oh, and precarity certainly is jargon. It is only ever used in specific contexts where it carries strong connotations.
posted by stp123 at 10:17 PM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


Notice I did not say "THE" broad audience, as you did. That sort of renders the rest of your comment unnecessary, because I agree with it.

The novels of Jane Austen have a big following of young, non-academic female readers. The novels of Jane Austen are a morass of outdated terms, antiquarian style, and impenetrable references. What the hell is a "rout cake." I am uncertain what this means for the concept of "a broad audience."
posted by Nomyte at 10:23 PM on July 9, 2013


"challenging syntax, word games, more-subtle-reference-than-thou challenges, and explorations of the author's feelings rather than fact and argument" is part of what I read things for, and it annoys me that anything that uses that style often gets instantly dismissed (see: Tim Rogers).

I especially like "And Vandalism".
posted by bongo_x at 10:23 PM on July 9, 2013


I don't really have a problem with the "labeling" behavior in threads about specialized topics. The majority is not "trained" or "educated" (formally or informally) to be in-the-know on these kinds of discourse; it really is a kind of privilege. While I feel that such comments reflect on lay-people's misperceptions about a body of work, those same comments affect me by "keeping things real", e.g., they are a guard and reminder of the dangers of ivory-tower thinking. If an article like this one has piqued my interest, I simply try to write down the best and most honest response, with the intention that it will help me better process and remember its good parts. And partly the hope is that good comments will set a tone and atmosphere for any given thread.
posted by polymodus at 10:26 PM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm philistinian as the day is long, but think I don't think the article was that impenetrable. A bit of a slog for what I felt wasn't much payoff, but that's me. Upon preview, I think Diablevert's pretty right on when it comes to the complaints; my take was: 'I expected an exploration/discussion of a social issue, but ended up catching half of a bunfight'. I don't doubt there was a certain amount of kneejerking to the style and tone - which came over to me as self-consciously academic and could understandably turn people off - but you'll get kneejerky comments on pretty much any topic (Sport, Theory, Kanye West - man, I am tired of people and their My Kanye Opinions, Let Me Show You Them).

Actually, I thought there were a lot of good comments in this FPP that provided contextual links and further interpretation, so just focusing on those grotty groundlings and their raspberries - which were actually a very small portion of the comments, and refuted by many participants, to boot - is sort of a bunk move. Not saying it's wrong to object to threadclutter and potential derail-bait, but I think this MeTa's more of a 'Hey, that's MY bull getting gored' reaction. Even educated people's knees can jerk.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 10:50 PM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]


I don't know whether I understood that article or not, but I thought it was very much worth reading.

I came away thinking that "ironic misogyny" properly performed is meant to be formally irresolvable in that it's impossible to tell whether it's a mask for real misogyny or a relentless mockery of misogyny, and forces the reader to entertain reactions appropriate to each mutually exclusive possibility simultaneously.

I find your writing style marvelously fluid and engaging, Frowner, though I think you could stand to become a little less self-effacing.
posted by jamjam at 12:02 AM on July 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


Perhaps if one does not understand or comprehend the article they ought to look inward at their own lack of theoretical knowledge rather than piling on about the article being dense.

Gosh, understanding and comprehending? I could manage one but to do both would be too tiring.
posted by atrazine at 1:44 AM on July 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


it annoys me that anything that uses that style often gets instantly dismissed (see: Tim Rogers).

Tim Rogers actually writes fairly simple and easy to read prose. What people don't like about him, I think, is his lack of concision.
posted by empath at 4:26 AM on July 10, 2013


Fucking wikipedia, chief.

Never the most popular of the SuperFriends.
posted by running order squabble fest at 4:32 AM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


This style sounds horribly boring

... and yet it is the style of articles and essays for which you will find millions of people declaring, "this is the most fascinating thing I read this week/month!" It is not any more boring than the fact that most American writing uses the English language as its common means of communication. An essay can be engaging and stimulating without being self-consciously jumbled prose sent jumping through hoops. It's one thing when you're reading "challenging fiction" because you find the language and writing engaging (if that's your thing). It's quite another when it is an essay that promised to be about an engaging topic grappling with the role of gender and labor in the modern economy.

That is a good note on aesthetics/communicative style, deanc.

It was a realization that I came to on MeFi, actually. Inspired by an almost-incoherent comment in the Blue, I wondered, "what the heck was that and why is he writing that way?" which forced me to confront myself with, "wait a sec--- why am I writing this way?"

I am not pointing all of this out as some kind of guilt-ridden, self-effacing exercise of discussing my limited cultural perspective. It's actually the opposite: this is the "house style" of modern life. We still accept a wide range within that house style (a lot of long form essays linked to in FPPs would fall under "creative nonfiction"). But nonetheless, if I pick up a copy of Harper's or The New York Review of Books, read a blog post by Ta-Nehisi Coates or Paul Campos, or an article in an IEEE journal, I pretty much know what I'm going to get: clear, tightly written prose (in English) and accessible syntax and language, reflective of someone who has had a lot of disciplined practice in composition.

So I don't think that the MeFi readers denigrated the link because they are philistines. It was because the link was not as promised and instead a kind of lazy meandering reconsideration of a late-20th century 'zine I am not familiar with yet dripping with its own self importance as though we, too, are concerned about Tiqqun and impressed by the author's references and $10 words. (for the record, I liked the word "precarity", but it drew attention to itself because it is not idiomatic given the well-worn subject matter. This isn't the first essay on the position of labor in a difficult economy. They all have used a different phrasing. That's why "precarity" stuck out like a sore thumb).
posted by deanc at 4:58 AM on July 10, 2013 [8 favorites]


This seems as good a place as any to recommend my favorite writing book, Clear and Simple as the Truth: Writing Classic Prose, by Francis-Noël Thomas and Mark Turner.
posted by Ice Cream Socialist at 5:22 AM on July 10, 2013 [5 favorites]


I agree with the over all premise of this complaint, but completely disagree on the example used. That was not a well-written article. I did find that "I don't know what even lol" type comments annyoing, but the ones with more thought out criticism were fine.
posted by spaltavian at 6:00 AM on July 10, 2013


well of course, well thought out criticism is almost always fine on MeFi.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 7:36 AM on July 10, 2013


This article was not a good example, because it was just a mediocre blog post. It wasn't awful. It wasn't great, either. Quality-wise, I'm not sure what distinguishes it from a thousand other blog posts by grad students. I didn't find it to be unclear, but I didn't find it to be well-written or all that interesting, either. The poor framing of the post, as well as the article's own poor structure, set it up for failure. We were promised an interesting essay on larger issues about work and gender, and the article itself hinted that these insights were to unfold, but instead we received a backwards-looking, inside-looking, meta-ironic diddling on the extent of Tiqqun's misogyny.

...

As for what this MeTa is about, I'm split down the middle. Glib dismissal of theoryspeak is unhelpful. However, so is the glib dismissal of the idea that a theory piece can actually be poorly conceived and/or poorly executed. Sturgeon's Law applies just as much to theory as it does to anything else.

On the one hand, it is very annoying when people trundle into theory threads, just to poop out, "MY WORD, HOW TERRIBLE." It can derail an otherwise interesting discussion into just another rehashing of whether or not all theory is poop.

If you think an article is poop, then that's more than fair, but please at least be specific (or at least unusually funny) in your approach. To make a very broad point, theory has not just its own jargon, but also its own set of stylistic quirks, all of which can be very befuddling to many readers. It can be especially befuddling when this writing features some surface attributes of more traditional writing, which can create the impression that a piece of writing ought to be more clear or more standalone that it actually was ever intended to be.

On the other hand, it is also annoying when people directly engage the poop-claimers through repetitious, condescending, and sometimes just plain irrelevant boilerplate about how theory has developed its own vocabulary and so on and so forth. When someone says "this writing is bad" or "this writing is opaque," that is always not code for, "this writing contains jargon and that's too hard for me."

There are many other habits idiosyncratic to theoryspeak which can be confusing, from structural oddities, irony, metatextual references, and wordplay, to the general tendency to cite claims and define concepts far less frequently than one would in many other disciplines. There are often perfectly good reasons for these habits. Such writing may be designed to inspire certain ways of thinking. The intended reader may already be presumed to have a background in the relevant topic and jargon, to the extent where endless definitions would just slow everything down. There may also be more mundane explanations, centering around tradition and inertia. Give yourself some practice and an open mind, and you'll see that most theory really does make sense.

BUT.

In weaker examples of theory, these habits can grow tumid and awful. Too many writers mistake their heroes' difficulty for their heroes' qualities, as if difficulty itself was why those thinkers are studied. This makes about as much sense as becoming a drunk, thereby concluding that you're halfway to being as great a poet as Dylan Thomas.

Structural oddities can explode into disorganized, poorly supported thoughts, let alone bad writing. Ironic and metatextual references can turn into humorlessly unlubricated masturbation. Wordplay can turn into substance-free titterings which we are expected, with diminishing credibility, to take seriously. Especially egregious offenders will often commit one of my least favorite writing habits of all time, which is to continually make uncited, unproven, unargued assertions and to let theory spin off from that - not in the manner of a thought experiment, a hypothetical, a counterfactual, or simply some relevant a priori principles, but rather in the manner of someone extolling the virtues of Timecube.

The worst is not so much the bad writing, so much as the writing which could have been better if someone had been encouraged to write differently. When we claim that all theory is written exactly how it should be, and when we encourage traditional theoryspeak for its own sake, it prevents people from finding more effective ways to express themselves, whether it's through a more "old-fashioned" method of writing, or through a synthesis of the two styles, or through something else entirely, such as Cyclonopedia.

...

Anyway, I don't think this post was anywhere near that bad. But, just as people should have an open mind about approaching theory, people should also refrain from reflexively defending all theoryspeak. That general defense can be a poisoned chalice.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:56 AM on July 10, 2013 [5 favorites]


Whatever one thinks of the 'theory of the man-child' article, this meta has been illuminating. My thanks especially to Miko and others who pointed out the origins of "precarity" in particular movements and its precursors in other languages, because that brought into focus for me an intellectual itch that previously had been too diffuse to know where to scratch.

This specialized vocabulary that has raised hackles: what to call it? Bafflegab? No, too dismissive. Jargon? No, too nonspecific, there are so many different kinds--some of which are self-evidently useful and indeed unavoidable. Academic? No, same objection. (There is certainly a nigh-universal academic journal house style, but its marker and besetting sin is use of the passive voice, not anything to do with specialized vocabulary.)

What I am glad, now, to be able to see is that "insecurity" and "precariousness" do not do the same meaning-work as "precarity" because they do not have the specialized history and derivation that "precarity" does. They convey only their dictionary definitions, and lack the very important (in the circumstances) quality of being a shoutout/subtweet/dogwhistle to just those readers with the background to hear and respond. And it is only those readers who are concerned with what Alvy nicely called the bunfight, the niche-audience controversy (were the Tiqqun writers reallyo-trulyo sexist?) for which, in the fpp article, subjects like Late Capitalism and the exploitation of women are sideshows. The dogwhistle qualities are what answer the question "who is this essay for?"

I don't yet have any name for this feature of specialized vocabularies, their usefulness as tribal markers quite apart from any other need they may fulfil. But, having seen the beast itself and photographed it and core-sampled it, can the Latin binomial be far behind?


> if I pick up a copy of Harper's or The New York Review of Books, read a blog post by Ta-Nehisi Coates
> or Paul Campos, or an article in an IEEE journal, I pretty much know what I'm going to get: clear, tightly
> written prose (in English) and accessible syntax and language, reflective of someone who has had a lot of
> disciplined practice in composition.

Are the New Inquiry article and others like it translatable? Is it even possible to re-edit them into Chicago Manual of Style mainstream prose using only "insecurity" or "precariousness" and like instances of words found in the OED while preserving the articles' meaning? I think it is not. The thing I can't name but did describe is a critical--maybe the critical--part of the untranslated original's content, and it would be entirely lost in translation.
posted by jfuller at 8:09 AM on July 10, 2013


This thread is an example of such. There are others.

You're right, you know. And this thread is an example of the problem with saying, "Here's an example." People like having something concrete to discuss, so the conversation becomes about your example.

One solution is to not provide any examples. Describe the problem as carefully as you can using explicit, concrete terms. If you were provoked by a particular FPP, then wait a few days to obscure the connection; otherwise people will quickly jump to, "Were you talking about this thread from today?" and, well, see above. Another solution is to provide an unwieldy number of examples, like twenty or thirty, and hope that obscures people's ability to analyze and compare.

People like to deconstruct MetaTalk posts. All the more so when the post reads like a callout with condescending or antagonistic characterizations like "being dense," "intellectually disingenuous," "philistine banner." These terms may or may not be accurate, but in the context of MetaTalk you have to know they come across as a challenge. That's not a great setup for a discussion.
posted by cribcage at 8:16 AM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Well it would be hard to translate the New Inquiry article in French, because it would lose a lot of its unidiomacity. The tampon quote would also be very hard to render, since the original didn't necessarily reference the feminine hygiene product.

If you were to translate it into NYRBese, you'd probably want to go back to the original, and make references to the early seasons of Daria instead of Tiqqun.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 8:19 AM on July 10, 2013


The tampon quote would also be very hard to render, since the original didn't necessarily reference the feminine hygiene product.

Yes.
posted by Wolof at 8:21 AM on July 10, 2013


I share the general frustration motivating this post.

It should be noted that glib dismissals that some scholarly subject is bullshit come from all directions and toward a great variety of targets; those defending a topic today are often mocking another topic tomorrow. It's been my experience that most scholarly subjects are more interesting, meaningful, and reasonable than the critics would have you believe — criticism is almost always secondhand caricature. If you take the trouble to learn about something, this sort of glib mockery is usually revealed to be what it is.

Also, for what it's worth — and it's probably worth something, as I cannot possibly be the only person this is true for — the use of the word "pseudo-intellectual" has become for me a shibboleth for people whose judgment I ought not trust.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 8:25 AM on July 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


I have a hard time reading the tampon passage without thinking that it is, indeed, referencing the hygiene product. Buffers and plugs are not absorbant. Nothing about the passage suggests that the Young-Girl is anything like a stamp, either. Stamps are created in order to reproduce that which has already been carved on them: that for me carries a very different implication than the idea that the Young-Girl is a passive, uncritical absorber of the codes of capitalism. Perhaps Tiqqun was using the word tampon for the multiple meanings it has in French - a passive, uncritical absorber of capitalist codes might as well have been designed in order to perform the function of repeating these codes - but that doesn't really work without the heavily gendered associations of the hygiene product already being in play.
posted by Sticherbeast at 8:41 AM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


As I said, I really didn't find a lot of theoretical jargon in this piece. I don't think that's what tripped people up. But if you think there were particular words that threw people into a state of anxiety I'd love to know what they were.

Some preliminary responses based on my experience with people as they talk about theory. I think that often folks' response to theory-talk is unconsciously hostile rather than consciously so.

1. For some people, just talking about "male voice" or "Virginia Woolf pointed out in A Room of One’s Own that, for most of history, if a piece of writing was signed “Anonymous,” its author was usually a woman" sets them off - even people who don't think of themselves as anti-feminist. A history of some form of misogyny that is not written by them seems threatening, just as white folks who are comfortable calling out racism themselves sometimes get anxious or hostile when it's POC doing the calling, even if the call is not directed at them.

2. Talking about Tiqqun signals that this is a somewhat specialized article aimed at a particular readership, and that sets some people off.

3. "Semiotext(e)"; "theory of bloom" and Tiqqun's general lyric/theoretical language, as "rethinking the offensive for our side is a matter of making the battlefield manifest".

I could go on, but as I write I realize that it isn't the use of specialized theory terms (like I can never keep 'ontological' and 'deontological' straight, and I've lost count of the times I've looked up 'aleatory') but rather the whole set of phrases that signal "this is about an academic subject and leans on some specialized knowledge".

I recognize that theory language can be used by assholes to be assholes, but I also remember how when I was younger I assumed that specialized language was aimed at me, that it was about showing off and keeping me out. I remember that when I encountered clumsy specialized language it provoked in me a particular anger, like "how dare these people who think they are soooooooo special fail to write perfectly?" Now that I have a firmer sense of self, I realize that none of it was about me, and I also wonder if part of my upset back then was really "why aren't you paying attention to me, my discourse, my needs???"

When I was in high school and we first encountered even the most rudimentary forms of literary analysis, people flipped the fuck out. How dare someone assert that a text had any meaning that was not readily apparent right there on the surface? Why would an author do anything except construct a plot based on stringing together a sequence of events? Obviously that was either bullshit or the author being some kind of poncey intellectual snob. Even I, a poncey intellectual snob if there ever was one - and someone whose dad-the-English-PhD had been all about reading for underlying meaning ever since I was small - felt threatened and angry that there was a whole literary practice that I was unfamiliar with and that there could be complex or hidden meanings.

Again in college, one of my favorite professors had a whole class of seniors turn on her (and this at a private liberal arts college!) because she walked them through some fairly simple stuff about Moby Dick. Seriously, people were fucking enraged that she was asserting that Melville had anything to say about the condition of being American, or that the diverse nature of the crew meant anything. The class was never the same after that, and she was really, really upset. She got hate email from students about that.

And of course, when I encountered Capital-T-theory, I felt really threatened by it myself, and had a lot of conversations with friends about how Foucault was just so elitist, and if he had all this stuff to say about political issues in France why didn't he just say them clearly and plainly? It was incomprehensible to me that Foucault had actually been a major public intellectual in France, widely read and frequently interviewed, because I could not get my head around the idea of a public whose basic intellectual competencies were different from my own.

When I did become more comfortable with theory and spent some time with comp lit grad students, I encountered something different but also troubling - the desperate need to trash or destroy something that one disagreed with or felt was poorly written. There was no such thing as a generous reading, no "it was a bit clumsy, but I was interested in [X]" - only trashing. And really emotional trashing, too, and a lot of vitriol for what was usually something written by someone not that different from oneself - another grad student, some assistant professor starting out, etc. My sense was that while grad students could use theory to be assholes, they were using theory to be assholes because of some particular need/anxiety around theory itself.

It's stuff like this that leads me to feel that something is going on in this type of thread, something more than just "this is difficult" or "I don't enjoy this kind of writing" or even "this line of reasoning is actively harmful".

When I'm feeling truculent, I think that "what's going on" is ressentiment - fear and frustration generating a critical system in order to insulate people from the source of the fear and frustration. Or it's basically contempt for academics - everyone knows that academic stuff is just idle, useless ivory-tower nonsense that anyone could actually do, so how come it actually looks difficult? Or that it's uncontrolled and unexamined rage and fear about exclusion or loss of control - like people who flip about about psychoanalysis because it scares them to imagine that any aspect of their subjectivity could be opaque to themselves yet visible to others and thus maybe out of their control - it's scary and resentment-provoking to feel that maybe this text contains more than you can know, or that its content is accessible to others but not to you.

I mean, I'm not saying that all theory is useful, or all academic writing is good, or that we should all read things that don't interest us because it "builds character" - I'm saying that "theory" (even in its very, very simple forms, like HS literary analysis) triggers many people's rage, frustration and fear, and that this is both bizarre and something that sometimes people might find productive grounds for self-reflection.
posted by Frowner at 8:46 AM on July 10, 2013 [28 favorites]


I'm skeptical of theoryspeak for the following three reasons: (1) difficult language and jargon can sometimes used to hide flaws in reasoning (I've seen that in other contexts) and I think that sometimes happens with theory; (2) it is unfortunate that the good ideas and concepts from theory are not more accessible to broader publics; and, (3) jargon and specialized modes of communicating are sometimes used to exclude others and create an in-crowd.

I don't believe that skepticism about theoryspeak is a sign that I am a cretin who should avoid participating in certain metafilter threads. Nor do I think I need to engage in self-reflection to figure out how I could possibly be so damaged a person as to question the vocabulary and literary style used by theorists.
posted by Area Man at 9:08 AM on July 10, 2013 [7 favorites]


For me, and I'm pretty sure for most people, what was off-putting about this link was that it was a critique of an article in what I think can safely be called an obscure French journal that very few of us were familiar with. This made the entire article confusing, not because of confusing writing, but because we weren't actually familiar with the specific subject matter.

For that reason, I don't think it was the best metafilter post.

However, the bulk of what the authors had to say had much broader application than that specific Tiqqun article, which made their article tempting and exciting and resonant to me, and I think to some others, despite the confusing parts.

In conclusion, The New Inquiry is great!
posted by latkes at 9:10 AM on July 10, 2013


"It's stuff like this that leads me to feel that something is going on in this type of thread, something more than just 'this is difficult' or 'I don't enjoy this kind of writing' or even 'this line of reasoning is actively harmful'."

I really like your comment and I think that you're onto something with your penultimate paragraph. But, also, I think part of the hostility is what you were talking about was your assumption when you were young about specialized language.

A larger conflict here on MeFi and elsewhere is a cultural divide in temperament or sensibilities between those who are inclined to perceive most speech as performative and about displays of social identity, and those who are not so inclined. If your assumption when you read something is that the writer is trying to be a certain sort of person, to make a certain kind of impression, then all sorts of in-group and out-groups reactions are triggered. Which often ends up involving hostility and conflict. I'm not saying that there's not aspects of performance and social identity involved in public speech, because of course there is; but some people weight those things much more heavily than other people do.

Also, these reactions and arguments make a lot of sense from the perspective of cultural capital. The rule of thumb is that in any given context of accumulation of cultural capital, the stuff "below" us is not very valuable and is vulgar, while the stuff "above" us is also not very valuable but some people foolishly believe that it is because they've been conned into thinking so. Or they pretend to think so for social status. So, the people in the cultural class above us belittle the value of our accumulated cultural capital and their display of their accumulation is taken as a criticism of our lack, so we are defensive, and we respond by attempting to devalue it as being illusory. The hostility is evoked class insecurity.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 9:11 AM on July 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


When I'm feeling truculent, I think that "what's going on" is ressentiment - fear and frustration generating a critical system in order to insulate people from the source of the fear and frustration. Or it's basically contempt for academics - everyone knows that academic stuff is just idle, useless ivory-tower nonsense that anyone could actually do, so how come it actually looks difficult?

Or it is the reaction from those of us whose focus of our intellectual lives has been writing, re-reading, editing, re-writing, agonizing over whether this sentence is clear enough, getting repeatedly taken to task by our teachers and mentors and editors for lacking clarity, etc. It's more about a clash of value systems. I feel that my value system is the superior one, or at least the value system of "public discourse," and work claiming to be a contribution to the public discourse is going to be criticized on those terms.
posted by deanc at 9:19 AM on July 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


Stitcherbeast: The rubber-stamp may not be the best image. The Young-Girl is like the rubber cylinder in an offset press; like the roller, she absorbs and she diffuses, not really caring about whatever the ink represents. She's also like a person who acts as a buffer, like managers sometimes act between workers and management. In a drivetrain, she'd be the driving axle, not the engine or the wheels.

With that interpretation of "tampon", the rest of the sentence makes sense, and the clause fits with the context. If you take "tampon" specifically as an object that absorbs menstrual blood and is then thrown away, the comparison doesn't work, as people in the original thread have pointed out.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 9:45 AM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


I favorited this comment by Frowner, but that's not enough; I feel obliged to say explicitly that it's a far better expression of my thoughts on the subject than I would have been able to put together. Anti-intellectualism (which is not the same as thoughtful objection to badly expressed ideas) pisses me off too much. Speaking of which:

> It's not theory, it's lazy show off writing that makes a certain target audience feel clever for thinking they understand it. I imagine most of us who did a humanities degree had a moment when we thought writing like that as REALLY FUCKING CLEVER. It wasn't and isn't. The ideas are fairly banal when expressed simply.

...is exactly the kind of thing I had in mind when summarized a certain class of comments as "A five-year-old kid could draw better than that!" And while I'm on the subject, the frequently expressed worship of "clarity" and "simplicity" is tiresome and in almost all cases a cover for inability to deal with complexity. James Joyce and William Faulkner did not write the way they did because they were too lazy to write more clearly and simply. And while I admire the hell out of Orwell as a keen-eyed observer of hypocrisy, his ideas on language were childish and I'm sick of seeing them held up as a model. Not that anyone's done so here, but I can feel his ghost hovering over the discussion. (And no, I'm no pushover for theory and jargon; I mock Zizek with enthusiasm.)

tl;dr: vote #1 quidnunc kid!
posted by languagehat at 10:11 AM on July 10, 2013 [6 favorites]


Whether it's a tampon on a secretary's desk or a blanchet in a printing press, absorbency is not the principal attribute I would ascribe to either of those objects, especially if I had any intention whatsoever of a reader only determining that I meant a rubber stamp and not the hygiene product. Again, I have a hard time believing that anyone could write that sentence - let alone read it - and not think of the hygiene product, especially considering the context of the Young-Girl metaphor itself. The sentence is bizarre, and not in a good way, unless it's meant with a double meaning - why would we suddenly be talking about stamps, and with such furtive language? Even if it had been unintentional, the multiple meanings are nonetheless inescapable in French.

That tampons are eventually thrown away does not concern me. They are principally known for their absorbency and association with women. Besides, stamps still have teleological and purposive aspects which seem out of place in the quote.

My vote goes to multiple meanings, including but not limited to what English-speakers would call a tampon.
posted by Sticherbeast at 10:12 AM on July 10, 2013


Interesting that the essay spent a paragraph defining "affective labor" (not uncommon when discussing this subject matter) and it's origin but did not explain the use of "precarity" as a term of art within the field of discussion or explain how "tampon" was being used in the original French.

The reason this kind of writing is derided as "wankery" is precisely because it is not being used as a tool to communicate and the author is not grappling with "is this the write phrase? Is this sentence clear? Do these ideas connect well?" and is instead writing for his own self pleasure at how clever he is and his delightfully constructed complex syntax and the references he's dropping.
posted by deanc at 10:24 AM on July 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


> and is instead writing for his own self pleasure

You do not know this. The fact that they were not writing for you does not mean they were writing purely for their own "self pleasure." Why are people so eager to assume the worst?
posted by languagehat at 10:28 AM on July 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


You know what, I am the biggest goddamn critic of jargon you'll ever find in somebody whose hobby is seeing how quickly he can improv-write entire essays. But for me, the problem with jargon is that it so often arrives without context, making the person using it sound like they're in this XKCD parody of Penny Arcade: "You know what? If you don't know X then don't even bother reading this essay. We don't need your kind here."

But this FPP essay does a pretty damned good job of explaining the context around all the weird things it shoots out. Why does Virginia Woolf's quote about women writing anonymously matter? Why, because "more and more unsigned publications coming from the left are written in what sounds like a male voice." What is Tiqqun? It's a "French journal of radical philosophy".

Sometimes its writing style is a bit too unnecessarily citation-y, like when it talks about "[e]choing the work of Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze"; other times, its writing style is a bit too dense for my liking, lovely and informative but attempting to cram just a BIT too much information into a FEW too little words when a simpler rhythm would be just as lovely. I can see why people dislike it: this is not brilliantly written, though it's not especially awful either. But it also has a sense of humor about itself: sometimes it's clearly using jargon as a laugh, like when it tells us that "Tiqqun claims it has lady members and seems eager to reassure us that it does not hate us."

I think that in this case, as Miko said, the problem isn't the linked essay, it's the FPP itself. Here's something where I'd like more context within the post: "Here's the thing this essay is about, and here's some background about this Tiqqun controversy, and here's the argument it's making, which might even be like THIS article that's easier to read but kind of about the same thing!" Often these slightly more challenging pieces of writing benefit from a bit of a ramp-up to get us primed for whatever it is we're about to read, because yeah, this isn't a community dedicated to one particular subject area or another.

Drive-by thread-shittings are never fun, but as somebody who does it every so often I understand the impulse. It kind of sucks to see people excitedly discussing a subject that seems like it ought to be something you enjoy, only to find that you're completely alienated from the discussion at hand. And it's hard, weirdly so, to put yourself in that vulnerable position of asking somebody else to explain to you what's going on, without trying to defend yourself a bit by reminding other people that this whole subject is beneath you anyway. It takes practice. Plenty of grown people who are quite intelligent have difficulty doing this, including some high-profile MeFites who've got issues with particular kinds of discussions. I definitely do. So it sucks, but when it happens I try not to take it as an attack on the subject at hand: I interpret it as a somewhat-muddled request to know more.

(And sometimes explaining too much in-thread would be a derail, at which point I think it's sometimes best to say "hold your horses, let's talk about this via MeMail." I know people have written me when I was being a dick about things, and it was very kind/useful of them to do so.)
posted by Rory Marinich at 10:28 AM on July 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


I will say, though, that it's a fucking shame how few intellectuals teach themselves how to write clearly. I know some very intelligent, friendly folk who are incapable of writing prose without making me want to smack them. I had some professors like that too. Writing is easy! Just imagine somebody you're friends with as you're writing and then think about how you'd talk to them so that they keep being your friend.
posted by Rory Marinich at 10:30 AM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Writing is magic, Rory. If you don't use the right incantations, people will be able to tell you're not a real wizard.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 10:35 AM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


I was one of the people who wrote a comment about finding the article difficult to parse. I sat down and tried to read it carefully, looking up words I didn't understand and looking up concepts on Wikipedia. And I still could not understand what the article was really about, so I made a comment about it. I apologize and also don't have any expectation that information be spoon-fed to me.

To be honest, it was one of many times as a new member here that I've felt really ignorant. Maybe that's why I keep coming back here. I'm (mostly) college educated but am constantly amazed at how much theory/criticism/thinking/whatever there is on topics I hadn't even considered. There have been so many times where a comment or a post has TONS of favorites and I have no idea what the reference or context is, and I find myself on Wikipedia, learning a new thing. So thanks, Metafilter, for being a place where I can learn new things, but I will be more careful about how I comment on things here.
posted by averageamateur at 10:38 AM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Stitcherbeast: I may have to go for an argument from authority here: French is my first language. The French word tampon has multiple meanings. In this case, my, er, performative reading is that "hygienic tampon" is not the one the Tiqqun was going for.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 10:40 AM on July 10, 2013


I should have said: How will the spirits know if you're a wizard?
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 10:42 AM on July 10, 2013


The right incantations are almost always: "I find this unnecessarily difficult to comprehend, which is especially frustrating because of how wrong it is in every way."

You could post that in every single thread and get at least twenty favorites a pop. Even in the threads about kittens and adorable young children.
posted by Rory Marinich at 10:42 AM on July 10, 2013


while I'm on the subject, the frequently expressed worship of "clarity" and "simplicity" is tiresome and in almost all cases a cover for inability to deal with complexity.

Can the defenders of theory please stop accusing anyone who disagrees with them of being a simpleton? It certainly doesn't help refute the oft-repeated accusations that theory is really all about exclusion and snobbery.
posted by Area Man at 10:43 AM on July 10, 2013 [14 favorites]


the frequently expressed worship of "clarity" and "simplicity" is tiresome and in almost all cases a cover for inability to deal with complexity

You couldn't be more wrong about this.
posted by deanc at 10:47 AM on July 10, 2013 [7 favorites]


The right incantations are almost always: "I find this unnecessarily difficult to comprehend, which is especially frustrating because of how wrong it is in every way."

You could post that in every single thread and get at least twenty favorites a pop. Even in the threads about kittens and adorable young children.


Now I know what I'm posting in the next kitten thread.
posted by It's Raining Florence Henderson at 10:49 AM on July 10, 2013


My favorite art style is Socialist Realism. It is the clearest and most sensible. Other art styles are obscurantist and elitist, and therefore decadent and lazy.
posted by Nomyte at 11:15 AM on July 10, 2013 [6 favorites]


Monday, I am unclear as to how the fact that tampon does, indeed, have multiple meanings could possibly count as evidence that it could not be written or read with the multiple meanings encompassed by the word, including (but not necessarily limited to) what English-speakers would call a tampon.
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:25 AM on July 10, 2013


The more challenging a piece of writing it, the more difficult it is to say something interesting about it, even if you understand it. People still like to contribute and there's nothing stopping them. Saying something sucks is always available and can get a lot of favorites if it's done with panache. This used to frustrate me about Metafilter but I changed my attitude.

Think about how we talk about comment sections in most of the internet...it's generally agreed that you'd be crazy to read them, right? But that doesn't mean you skip the article altogether. The best solution is to follow the links to articles on Metafilter and skip the Metafilter comments if the article is sufficiently challenging.
posted by Kwine at 11:52 AM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


The fact that translating a word that has many meanings (a broad semantic field) by one that has one very specific meaning (a narrow semantic field) is fraught with difficulty, especially if the original is (possibly) intentionally vague.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 12:03 PM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


My favorite art style is Socialist Realism. It is the clearest and most sensible. Other art styles are obscurantist and elitist, and therefore decadent and lazy.

How serious are you exactly in posting snark of this sort? That's a poor analogy -- I don't think I'm speaking only for myself if I note that one usually has quite different simplicity and clarity requirements for art vs argument.
posted by Anything at 1:02 PM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


I didn't ask any questions about or comment on this FPP for fear that I would be outed as some sort of anti-intellectual rube for not really Getting It -- sorry, Getting-It -- and I'm really glad, because now I know that's exactly what would have happened! I can't tell you how great it is to spend your life being painfully insecure about your lack of formal education and then read a spate of haughty rants like this coming from a community whose opinions and collective wisdom you've long held in high esteem.

In any case, I hope it feels nice to be able to look down your nose at folks like us, and accuse us of being innately unable to parse complex language just because we dared to admit we didn't readily understand an article in The New Inquiry, because reading this nonsense makes me feel like trash (though I'd hazard a guess that it's meant to). Wikipedia, last refuge of the scoundrel: "The magazine has been deemed to be elitist by some, but not others." Indeed.

If the FPP would have said started out with something like, "Tiqqun, a French journal of radical philosophy, theorizes..." I would not have clicked on it because, as many MeFites have just reminded me, it is not my place.
I'm a ravenous, lifelong reader with a fairly ridiculous vocabulary, and I absolutely love the elegant deployment of five- and ten-dollar words, but I found this essay to be pretty maddeningly obfuscatory even after I recognized the fact that I mostly agreed with the basic premises. Sometimes the fact that I didn't have the opportunity to go to college gives me a pang of "oh, you could've been a contender," but a lot of the responses to this MeTa remind me that I continue to fail to rise above the station I was assigned at birth: contemptible lumpenproletariat.

Tack me onto the list of people who will be thinking a lot more carefully before daring to wave my philistine banner in front of my intellectual betters. Yikes!
posted by divined by radio at 1:32 PM on July 10, 2013 [8 favorites]


Random side note: the Semiotext(e) web site appears to be hacked by Turkish at the moment.
posted by Anything at 2:03 PM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


these reactions and arguments make a lot of sense from the perspective of cultural capital....the hostility is evoked class insecurity.

This is absolutely true, and what I was trying to get at in this hasty comment. For those who have grown to understand and enjoy reading densely referential theoretical texts, it's worth thinking about why you have such a comfort level with them - what forms of privilege contributed to your having access to that experience and the knowledge and background and confidence to involve yourself with them. It's a form of capital and so it is indeed subject to comparison-based class ressentiment.

I shouldn't have used the word "assholes" as it probably made the rest of my comment invisible.
posted by Miko at 2:26 PM on July 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


coming from a community whose opinions and collective wisdom you've long held in high esteem.

Don't. The more I read FPPs on subjects I have an independant, significant base of knowledge on, the less I like the comments here.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 2:31 PM on July 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


This is absolutely true, and what I was trying to get at in this hasty comment. For those who have grown to understand and enjoy reading densely referential theoretical texts, it's worth thinking about why you have such a comfort level with them - what forms of privilege contributed to your having access to that experience and the knowledge and background and confidence to involve yourself with them. It's a form of capital and so it is indeed subject to comparison-based class ressentiment.

True, but one crucial step away from putting certain kinds of intellectual engagement outside the grasp of the working class. My extended family is as working class as they come. I will probably never buy a yacht, but I can certainly enjoy the treasures of human intellectual achievement. Not for free. I can read, I didn't grow up malnourished, I'm not disabled, I had a good public school education. But a lot more people can join the intellectual elite than the yacht-owning elite.
posted by Nomyte at 2:44 PM on July 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


You misunderstand me. There are more kinds of classes than economic class. There is a lot of correlation between higher economic classes and greater access to the educational experiences that render things like critical theory or advanced sciences more easily understandable, but there are still lots of educated working-class people. There is no truth to the idea that people in lower economic classes lack intellectual sophistication, and they can become educated and even self-educate. Still, having access to that education and the ability to pursue it creates knowledge and social networks that are still forms of capital. Educated people are in the class of educated people, no matter how they received that education. So my question to people who don't understand why others don't understand or are hostile to the intellectual achievement of understanding theoretical texts is: What forms of privilege contributed to your ability to enjoy these treasures of human intellectual achievement? How would your orientation to this content have differed had you not enjoyed those forms of privilege?
posted by Miko at 2:50 PM on July 10, 2013


I don't see what actionable answers that question leads to, except either saying "those poor underprivileged dears, let's take this deep intellectual conversation somewhere where it won't upset them" or just carrying on as normal while expecting and ignoring a constant outpouring of angry, confused agitation. Especially here on Metafilter, where many people do have those subtle privileges you're talking about, and Metafilter is what is under discussion here. No one is taking Lacan to the slums of Bucharest.
posted by Nomyte at 2:57 PM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


This is absolutely true, and what I was trying to get at in this hasty comment. For those who have grown to understand and enjoy reading densely referential theoretical texts, it's worth thinking about why you have such a comfort level with them - what forms of privilege contributed to your having access to that experience and the knowledge and background and confidence to involve yourself with them. It's a form of capital and so it is indeed subject to comparison-based class ressentiment.

But most of the time when I see this argument, it either turns into "therefore you should never say anything in complex ways because it is Inaccessible To The Proletariat" or it simply invisibilizes any working class intellectuals. I mean, my dad the English PhD comes from a farming and factory work background and spent his career basically as a retail manager.

I'm also uneasy with this line of reasoning because it suggests that those of us who are at home with texts and come from a middle class background have an uncomplicatedly privileged "natural" relationship with them. As I've said elsewhere, I'm a glib (and, truth be told, somewhat facile) reader of texts, and on a simple level I read fast and I've read a lot of random crap. Learning to access theory was an incredible mental struggle for me and has actually been part of a "become a happier, less anxious, less self-hating and more therapized person" process. Theory for me was a site where I experienced misogyny, class bias (because I am after all the child of a retail manager and the grandchild of farmers) and incredibly painful and literally triggering stuff that brought me back to horrible, painful childhood events. Dealing with theory and the accompanying ressentiment, anxiety and self-hate was a big factor in a kind of nervous breakdown I had in my late twenties, a really horrible thing that basically took me out of action except for my call center gig for about eighteen months. (And no, I am not and never have been a grad student.) When I'm talking about wanting to read difficult stuff and talking about quieting ressentiment, I am talking about stuff that I have had to struggle very hard to do.

It's difficult to have an approach that is complex enough, subtle enough and sincere enough to deal fairly and well with people who are excluded by class, health status, etc from feeling at home with complicated texts and not suggest that working class intellectuals don't exist, or that all other readers are some kind of prep school graduated, ultra-well-adjusted neurosurgeon's children attending an Ivy and taking a semester at the Sorbonne or whatever.

One thing I think we can do is to try to be attuned to those surges of ressentiment and panic that are often generated by these kinds of discussions and that tend to lead to side-taking rather than a careful attention to the realities of all our situations. I do say this as someone who is prone to surges of ressentiment, not as someone telling others that they should learn from my gracious example.
posted by Frowner at 3:03 PM on July 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


I add that the biggest thing I had to do in order to be able to figure out and pursue my own intellectual interests was to stop the narrative I had about myself as someone who was a priori unwelcome, excluded, incapable and useless in a world where others were at home. This was not an easy process, but I really, really regret the time I spent filled with churning anger and the conviction that if I were only more privileged in various ways I would enjoy a free, natural and unproblematic relation to difficult writing.
posted by Frowner at 3:07 PM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


look down your nose at folks like us, and accuse us of being innately unable to parse complex language just because we dared to admit we didn't readily understand an article in The New Inquiry

I really don't see that in the post or comments here. It is about comments that dismiss the article because of perceived over-complexity / jargon etc., not simply about comments that, for example ask for clarification or honestly misunderstand the text.

On a different aspect, languagehat and the man of twists and turns are absolutely correct that the idea that Metafilter is a place where depth of analysis is valued is far from the truth. Metafilter does a few topics well, but there are many areas where the level of discussion is frankly indistinguishable from middlebrow blog comments, a decent newspaper comments section etc. This MeTa is a welcome exception, thanks to all who contributed.
posted by Busy Old Fool at 3:09 PM on July 10, 2013


One thing that may have helped me get into "difficult" theory may have been that I didn't have to read them in what sometimes passes for translation in the anglosphere.

But you can also see them in the Dewey Decimal System: it just books in the 8-naughts, plus some 100s, 300s 400s and 700s. It may also help to entertain the thought that the cynics may be right, and that the world is not intelligible. It's possible that there is nothing to understand, at all, and that nothing makes sense. So these hard-to-read books are the result of people struggling against that possibility.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 3:20 PM on July 10, 2013


I don't see what actionable answers that question leads to, except either saying "those poor underprivileged dears, let's take this deep intellectual conversation somewhere where it won't upset them" or just carrying on as normal while expecting and ignoring a constant outpouring of angry, confused agitation.

But most of the time when I see this argument, it either turns into "therefore you should never say anything in complex ways because it is Inaccessible To The Proletariat" or it simply invisibilizes any working class intellectuals.


It is kind of interesting to me that you are both setting up a dichotomy in which there is no possibility of reacting by providing the resources or background that can enable someone to continue the discussion. Of supporting their interest in inquiry which is manifest even in the fact that they are compelled to comment. Or at least of understanding better your own positionality when it comes to this stuff. Frowner, you did a good job of doing some explication on the assumption that people who are intellectually capable could understand the material, so I know that in practice, at least, you're aware that this is possible.

I really don't see how my raising this point renders working-class intellectuals invisible. Given my own background, that would be a ridiculous thing for me to do. It seems to me that it's absolutely essential to share stories like "there was a time this was difficult for me, and I worked at it using the resources I had around me to understand it better." This approach, for those interested, is learnable. We had a situation here where people interested in content about women under capitalism and ironix sexism were not accessing that content because the approach was foreign. And it is possible to use these moments as opportunities to share the context and tools to help people better engage in the discussion.

If we intend to avoid "side-taking" we can surely do that.
posted by Miko at 3:23 PM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm also uneasy with this line of reasoning because it suggests that those of us who are at home with texts and come from a middle class background have an uncomplicatedly privileged "natural" relationship with them.

Also, I said this nowhere. It should be no harm to acknowledge the tools, peers, resources, and so on that enable the acquisition of knowledge, even despite adversity, and even if they are just public library cards.

Especially if they are just public library cards.
posted by Miko at 3:28 PM on July 10, 2013


Of supporting their interest in inquiry which is manifest even in the fact that they are compelled to comment.

This far exceeds my capacity for generous interpretation. Sorry.
posted by Nomyte at 3:39 PM on July 10, 2013


If people are emotionally driven to comment, don't you think the topic must be of some interest in and of itself? People who don't care really don't care. People who are hostile care. They are not indifferent. They are engaged.
posted by Miko at 3:45 PM on July 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


In my experience, these are usually point-scoring opportunities, a chance to demonstrate how sensible one is by denouncing something "obviously" and "inherently" stupid.
posted by Nomyte at 3:49 PM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


Didn't those who commented read or try to read the article?
posted by Area Man at 3:51 PM on July 10, 2013


In my experience, these are usually point-scoring opportunities

With whom would they be scoring points, among so many people who did read it and thought it had something to say? Doesn't that tend to result more in drawing negative attention than "points?"
posted by Miko at 3:58 PM on July 10, 2013


"Tack me onto the list of people who will be thinking a lot more carefully before daring to wave my philistine banner in front of my intellectual betters. Yikes!"

You know, I'm really sorry you feel like that.

I grew up poor, with parents who both went to school late — a lot of my familiarity with these theory terms likely has to do with my mom taking me along to art history evening classes because we couldn't afford a sitter. Outside of a couple of guys who went into the Navy, my brother and I are the only ones on our block to graduate from college, and my dad went back to school at the same time I did in order to wrap up his undergrad degree. I know that I'm lucky to have parents that supported me getting a degree, even if they did a lot of the, "You know, not everyone has to go to college," stuff (I was a pretty mediocre high school achiever). I also understand a lot of the insecurity about higher education — I went back to school late, and went to a third-tier state school instead of the huge, name-brand state university in my home town, not least because I was insecure about my ability to actually get in and thrive. I work every day with a bunch of people on social justice issues, and the majority of them don't have college degrees, but they're able to understand pretty complex issues of privilege and gender theory. Would they get "precarity" or "ressentiment" off the bat? I don't know.

I don't think that any of the linked article is inherently incomprehensible, or beyond anyone here's natural abilities or anything. I think that with a dictionary and some curiosity, you can work out what the article is about and respond to it.

More than that, I don't think that sincere questions about the essay would expose you as a philistine — they'd mark you as someone interested in engaging with the text and the conversation.

That's what irked me so much about some of the reflexive dismissals — they were not just stupid, but willfully stupid. They didn't just not want to engage with the text, but they discounted the possibility of engaging with it and ridiculed the exercise. I don't watch NASCAR, but I don't make fun of people who do — I'm sure there's a lot more to the sport than just driving in circles, just as there's more to marathons than running 26 miles. I try not to begrudge the complexity and depth of topics I'm not familiar with, and I'm annoyed when other people do, especially out of anti-intellectualism.

I recognize that on MeFi, I'm rarely the smartest person in any given conversation. I have a broad yeoman understanding of a lot of things, but specialists trump me left and right. And while I might be jealous of those who got to go to grad school, I can recognize that insecurity and jealousy for what they are, rather than thinking it's someone else trying to make me feel dumb. If I don't understand something, I try to find out, not throw up my hands and complain about the machinations of my "intellectual betters."

Again, I understand a lot of where you're coming from, but I think it's a largely unfair characterization of this conversation, and the original one, and I think it does you a serious disservice by implying that you're too naturally dumb to understand an essay that's not all that challenging or obscure. I wish it had a more coherent conclusion, so it would be more worth understanding, but it is what it is.

(As an anecdote: I often doodle when I'm bored, including portraits of people around me. I'm not even good, but I have a basic understanding of shape and how to draw — I know what good would look like. I get a lot of undeserved praise, and one of the things that always bugs me is when people say, "Oh, I just can't draw." Pretty much anyone can draw. The secret to drawing is to do it often regardless of results, and to do it with an eye to improving. But people never want to hear that these ballpoint doodles are something they could be doing with a couple month's worth of effort — they'd rather believe that my lopsided, wonk-eyed portraits come from some divine gift or something.

It's the same with theory — it's not hard to get good enough to be conversant. It's hard to master, but the number of people who dismiss it without even trying annoy me.)
posted by klangklangston at 4:14 PM on July 10, 2013 [5 favorites]


"If people are emotionally driven to comment, don't you think the topic must be of some interest in and of itself? People who don't care really don't care. People who are hostile care. They are not indifferent. They are engaged."

Meh. The amount of work it takes to threadshit is negligible, and given the number of comments we've seen on multiple topics where the person didn't even bother to read the FPP, I'm dubious of the sort of All Publicity is Good Publicity ethos you're advancing. I think you can totally have insufficient care to engage meaningfully with the text but still care enough comment to that effect.
posted by klangklangston at 4:20 PM on July 10, 2013



I am not pointing all of this out as some kind of guilt-ridden, self-effacing exercise of discussing my limited cultural perspective. It's actually the opposite: this is the "house style" of modern life.


No, its the house style for your segment of modern life. What I read and write does tend toward the meandering and discursive and constantly referential, which seems to be the 'house style' of the Internet.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 4:28 PM on July 10, 2013



In my experience, these are usually point-scoring opportunities, a chance to demonstrate how sensible one is by denouncing something "obviously" and "inherently" stupid.


Excatly.
MeFites like to think of ourselves as smart. If we don't get something, or if its written not for us, or if its sending us up, then obviously the problem isn't that we're not smart enough - its that the text is making fun of us, or is written for the wrong people. And this pisses me off, because I like MeFi because its members are smart, and snarking on something for being inaccessible or 'pretentious' (the worst dismissal) is beneath the site.

If you can't get something, either move on or accept its not for you. And honestly, clarity is BORING. Especially in the humanities, WHAT you say is just as important as HOW you say it. I'd rather have a thousand Greil Marcuses than one person who describes music in terms of notes.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 4:32 PM on July 10, 2013


But people never want to hear that these ballpoint doodles are something they could be doing with a couple month's worth of effort — they'd rather believe that my lopsided, wonk-eyed portraits come from some divine gift or something...
It's the same with theory — it's not hard to get good enough to be conversant. It's hard to master, but the number of people who dismiss it without even trying annoy me.


Sometimes that’s true, but often it may be because they’re not really interested. Some people really mean "I don’t really care about learning to draw, it’s not that interesting or worth the effort" or "I can’t believe you took the time to learn that" when they say "I can’t draw" they’re just trying to be more polite and less dismissive than they really feel.

I have never heard the word "theory" used as it has been in this conversation. I’m still not even sure what is being referenced.
posted by bongo_x at 4:50 PM on July 10, 2013


I really don't see how my raising this point renders working-class intellectuals invisible. Given my own background, that would be a ridiculous thing for me to do. It seems to me that it's absolutely essential to share stories like "there was a time this was difficult for me, and I worked at it using the resources I had around me to understand it better." This approach, for those interested, is learnable. We had a situation here where people interested in content about women under capitalism and ironix sexism were not accessing that content because the approach was foreign. And it is possible to use these moments as opportunities to share the context and tools to help people better engage in the discussion.

I tend to read arguments that hinge on remembering one's privilege as not being about providing resources or explanations, or about the ability to learn, but about establishing firm, fixed and simple political identities for everyone in the conversation so that the morality of a course of action can be determined (usually through shaming). But this is probably just an artifact of tumblr.

My take on the conversation that occurred around the OP was not "this is difficult, I wish I had some resources" or even "I guess I must be pretty stupid if I don't get this thing"; it was much more "this thing is difficult, which means it's obscure and elitist, which means it's bad or badly written or both". Folks weren't arguing for tools with which to tackle something they found complex; they were demanding that the complex thing be discredited so that they did not have to try or even feel guilty for not wanting to try.

In my own experience both as reader and as anxious resenter, responding to "this is elitist and obscure and I don't like it" with "here are some tools to tackle it with so that you can understand it" is an interesting tactic, but does not bear fruit in the short term unless you have grading powers.

Privilege discourse seems to me really useful for talking about populations but extremely flattening when talking about individuals. I feel like it can render working class (or otherwise non-UMC-white-dude) intellectuals invisible, because it suggests that there are two classes of people - people who have a "natural" and easy relationship to "difficult" material because of their privileges and people who are incapable of accessing it because they are deprived. That is, the people who are invisible are people who have done work to be able to access texts - people who began as unable to access texts (as people deprived in some way) but ended as able to access texts. And just on a personal level, I feel like it obscures the emotional and intellectual work that I did just to be able to go from a neurotic mess to someone who could figure out how to learn.

I do think that providing tools and narrative about learning is powerful, but that requires some shared ideas about the value, possibilities and efforts required for learning. One thing I have noticed in both myself and others is this resentful anxiety about the effort required to learn, an anxiety that keeps us from buckling down and starting. I had to push myself through that. My natural state is pretty much resentful anxiety, and teaching myself to set that aside was really hard. But until I had done that, no amount of "here are tools" or "this isn't written on purpose to exclude you" did any good, and lots of people beat their heads against that particular rock trying to get me to be less stubborn and inward-turning.
posted by Frowner at 5:01 PM on July 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


i think it takes MORE privilege to follow the 'clear' writing that deanc talks about, since that's actually unnatural compared to a looser discourse
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 5:02 PM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


What I read and write does tend toward the meandering and discursive and constantly referential, which seems to be the 'house style' of the Internet.

I am so sorry for you, if that's true. How limiting that must be!*

I find it strange that you can say that clarity is boring. So you don't appreciate it when writers express themselves clearly? Your claim that in the humanities what you say is as important as how you say it does not in any way negate the need for clarity, either. Clarity and eloquence are not mutually exclusive.

I think maybe you are mistaking obfuscation for eloquence. A written work can certainly reference other works, draw comparisons, engage in thoughtful reverie, etc. while nonetheless sticking to the point. It is, however, considered desirable to at least have a point. One that you can back up effectively, even.

I have a degree in, of all things, English Literature and Composition. I could talk out of my ass all day long if I wanted to. I've got the vocabulary for it, believe me. I know that Academia often requires you to lay on the rhetorical bullshit. If you can drown your arguments in specious rhetoric and obscure references, you can easily "gloss" over the fact that your argument is actually pretty weak, your bona fides perhaps equally so, and your grasp of real world complexity virtually non-existent. None of that is important; you have kissed the Blarney stone. You have shown that you can regurgitate the pet theories your professors have taught you. You have demonstrated your familiarity with Tiqqun and Semiotext. Congratulations! You graduate.

That kind of writing may be eloquent, but it is designed to obfuscate. It's also self-indulgent. That's what we're talking about in this thread, those of us who feel the piece in question is, well, not so hot. The piece is more about showcasing the author's educational background than proving the theories the author seeks to put forward. Writers like this one could really benefit from having to write for a living, and running their work through an editor or two.

You write for yourself, yes, of course, but you write to your audience as well. Meandering prose is fine if the writer convinces readers the destination is worth the journey. It seems like, in this case, many readers feel like the writer failed in that respect, at least on Mefi. That's okay. It doesn't make them better than you and it does not make them less informed or less educated than you, either.

It's great that you like to read meandering posts on the internet, really. Bloggers want to have their voices heard, too (and I say this as someone who has blogged as well). But not every blog post (or theoretical paper or reddit meme or whatever) is good just because it's linked to on the internet, either.

*Now do you see how annoying this pretentious "I like this and if you don't it's because I'm better?" stance is? Because seriously, that's just what it feels like when you go off on your own rants.
posted by misha at 5:46 PM on July 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


That kind of writing may be eloquent, but it is designed to obfuscate. It's also self-indulgent. That's what we're talking about in this thread, those of us who feel the piece in question is, well, not so hot. The piece is more about showcasing the author's educational background than proving the theories the author seeks to put forward. Writers like this one could really benefit from having to write for a living, and running their work through an editor or two.

I also hate when 'self-indulgent' is used as an insult on this site and others. What's wrong with indulging yourself if readers end up enjoying it? Joyce was as self-indulgent as its possible to get and he's a genius.


I find it strange that you can say that clarity is boring. So you don't appreciate it when writers express themselves clearly? Your claim that in the humanities what you say is as important as how you say it does not in any way negate the need for clarity, either. Clarity and eloquence are not mutually exclusive.


When you say 'clarity' I assume you mean dry policy papers and well-argued essays.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 5:59 PM on July 10, 2013

deanc: There's a sort of bourgeois university-educated "house style" that most of us start learning in high school that prizes clear, functional writing and straightforward sentence structure rather than challenging syntax, word games, more-subtle-reference-than-thou challenges, and explorations of the author's feelings rather than fact and argument. This is the style that appears in major magazines and is employed by professional essayists and academic bloggers who write for a public audience. Even technical and scientific writing prizes this style not because they are "nosepicking IT twerps" but because the subjects are complex and the ideas and evidence supporting the ideas need to be presented clearly.

[...]

I am not pointing all of this out as some kind of guilt-ridden, self-effacing exercise of discussing my limited cultural perspective. It's actually the opposite: this is the "house style" of modern life.
Charlemagne In Sweatpants: No, its the house style for your segment of modern life. What I read and write does tend toward the meandering and discursive and constantly referential, which seems to be the 'house style' of the Internet.

[...]

i think it takes MORE privilege to follow the 'clear' writing that deanc talks about, since that's actually unnatural compared to a looser discourse

Charlemagne In Sweatpants, this sounds to me like you're being severely disingenuous on both accounts.

I will assert that deanc's 'house style' has a vastly more important role than the style of Theory does to such an overwhelming portion of the literate public, that any argument that doesn't account for this difference in scale will be badly misleading.

I take this and its relatives to be a core fallacy in postmodern thought; how the possibility of significantly different knowledge or understanding or interpretation between some given group of people is extended into an aversion toward the possibility of actual common understanding or agreement among any relevantly large portion of the public on whatever issue is under debate.

My second objection is that writing clearly may be a more unnatural and difficult act than mendering and jargon, but, for the general public, acquinting itself with a new subject, reading clearly written text is definitely easier and more natural. It involves an effort by the writer, in service of the reader.
posted by Anything at 6:08 PM on July 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


I have never heard the word "theory" used as it has been in this conversation. I’m still not even sure what is being referenced.
-bongo_x

Yeah, this discussion is about Theory (I think of it as capital-T Theory, although its adherents/students don't usually capitalize it), which is a prominent approach in certain academic fields, and sort of a field unto itself. It's (roughly) an academic tradition that came out of comparative literature, and has to do with interpreting texts (books, films, etc) but also to do with a certain political alignment and politically-involved way of seeing the world. It includes a lot of background assumptions, jargon, set of questions that seem worth asking, particular intellectual figures who are seen as important, etc.

(Those background assumptions (etc) are complex and usually not stated at the beginning of a theory-based essay, and because the background assumptions are not shared by a lot of people outside the Theory world, outsiders reading even the very best Theory essay are naturally confused.

Add to that the fact that adherents/students of theory generally favor a writing style that is intentionally literary, "playful", makes a lot of indirect allusions to things without stating explicitly what point they intend to make about the things, includes wordplay rather than a clear defining of terms, etc. So the style of it makes it difficult -- and more difficult for an outsider -- to pin down exactly what an essay is saying, and what evidence it's adducing for its claims etc.

All of this makes theory hard for outsiders to read and evaluate, and it would be good if outsiders had some humility about the background they're missing. Like any discipline, there's some worthwhile stuff in there.

But. It can also be the case that there are valid criticisms of theory stuff, both from outside and within. Theory essays have a reputation (at least among the crowds I move in) of being prone to hot air, among other sins, and that is an assessment from people who do know the background. Not saying all theory stuff deserves a blanket condemnation, but saying, there are some well-grounded criticisms, and pro-theory folks shouldn't ignore them.)

Wikipedia pages on literary theory and critical theory are places to start.
posted by LobsterMitten (staff) at 6:53 PM on July 10, 2013 [9 favorites]


I tend to read arguments that hinge on remembering one's privilege as...about establishing firm, fixed and simple political identities for everyone in the conversation so that the morality of a course of action can be determined (usually through shaming)

I don't share that reaction. I think the concept is real, useful, and important in the analysis of social systems.

Folks weren't arguing for tools with which to tackle something they found complex; they were demanding that the complex thing be discredited so that they did not have to try or even feel guilty for not wanting to try.

For at least some people, that was them arguing for tools.

In my own experience both as reader and as anxious resenter, responding to "this is elitist and obscure and I don't like it" with "here are some tools to tackle it with so that you can understand it" is an interesting tactic, but does not bear fruit in the short term unless you have grading powers.

But even in this discussion here on MeFi and in these two threads, people have been spotted saying things like 'that comment was helpful' and 'thanks for explaining that.'

Privilege discourse seems to me really useful for talking about populations but extremely flattening when talking about individuals.

I find it's nearly the opposite. Recognizing our own privileges better enables us to examine the structures in society that aid and/or inhibit progress and to be conscious of our positions relative to others. This is what Foucault was on about in the first place, and it was specific and about the individual and his or her access to relative power.

I feel like it can render working class (or otherwise non-UMC-white-dude) intellectuals invisible, because it suggests that there are two classes of people - people who have a "natural" and easy relationship to "difficult" material because of their privileges and people who are incapable of accessing it because they are deprived.

I think you might have experience with those two things being connected, but they are not always and necessarily connected. You seem to really insist that believing someone has privileges in one area also means they have a "natural and easy" relationship to material, when it's exactly the opposite. The privileges have in fact helped them to overcome the challenges of that material, when they otherwise might not have.

In fact, by acknowledging your privilege in having access to classroom education, interested peers, an environment in which this discourse could become familiar (whether you were enjoying it or not at the time) a PhD father, the Internet, the time and health to focus on a challenging study, etc., you do better to counter the fiction that there is something "natural" in the understanding you have, that it is a gift of grace which those who lack can never hope to attain. In fact, it is a gift of circumstance combined with effort, attainable to anyone who can gain access to the same or similar resources; and the structural conditions creating some of that circumstance are also malleable by the society.

It seems to me that acknowledging privilege points to the very opposite of assertions of natural giftedness; it allows us to render visible the mechanisms by which people can master knowledge, the communities and networks in which it's traded, and the conditions which make its accumulation more possible. I think, in fact, it is the affluent elite who have most often advanced the idea that their own "natural" gifts are responsible for the material abundance in their lives, and that those not so naturally gifted are deserving of their lower economic class status due to their poorer innate intellect. That is why I am a critic of that conceit and am in favor of taking note of all the contributory factors that allow people to master any specialized knowledge, whether it is international finance, systems engineering, woodworking, or critical theory.
posted by Miko at 7:46 PM on July 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


LobsterMitten's on it, but even before it developed as literary/media theory the body of thought that gets the shorthand "theory" really came out of Marxism, and the need for people confronting modernity around the turn of the 20th century to completely re-understand, re-imagine and re-tell what happened in human history, because the ancient narratives were crumbling and old established knowledge was failing to accurately describe reality in a way that made sense. A bunch of distinct thought-streams or schools emerged from that, but a lot of them had in common the idea that paying attention to ideology and identity as historical and social subjects of inquiry was important.

It got a big boost in the 1960s and from there, really transformed the academy so that English literature and the social sciences were never really taught or seen in the same old way after that. Humanities programs at the undergraduate level get into this to greater or lesser degrees (and some high schools get into it too), so it's not as though it's universally or evenly taught everywhere. At the same time, a lot of these ideas have permeated popular culture enough that they have become very familiar, even feeling like long-established knowledge - so a lot of us have a little piece of it, though rarely, really very rarely, do people get a full, thorough, rationalized historiography of critical social or media theory. So unless you get something on that order or build it for yourself, it can be hard to follow because, as LobsterMitten says, a ton of background is assumed. With an essay like this, Square One is not provided.

The writing style traditions have a lot to do with the foment of the 1960s when philosophy, activism, and politicized art were all walking together - compounded, eventually, by postmodern tastes.

In addition to the WikiPedia links L_M gave, Purdue's OWL has a good resource on movements in literary criticism.. Here's shte Internet Encylopedia of Philosophy on Literary Theory. But it is a bigger movement than what is seen in literature, and is connected with critical social theory as well.

I have not revisited this in ages and am enjoying the discussion about it. At the same time, I'm kind of shocked and surprised that there are not better 101-level web resources to find and share, given the fact that everyone struggles to absorb it.
posted by Miko at 8:09 PM on July 10, 2013 [4 favorites]


Marx plus Freud.
posted by Wolof at 8:15 PM on July 10, 2013 [3 favorites]


I acknowledge that there are many useful concepts in this tradition, but boy does it carry a lot of methodological baggage that from an outsider's perspective would beg to be cleaned out. Marx gives you unapologetic, uncharitable ridicule of ideological adversaries, Freud gives you quite a bit of gobbledygook, and postmodernism an universally misapplicable defense and amplification of gobbledygook.

I suspect there's a lot there that'd be well served by reformulation in terms of mainstream Western sociology, psychology etc. but I get the impression that at least a non-negligible portion of the field is quite invested in maintaining a separation.
posted by Anything at 8:36 PM on July 10, 2013 [2 favorites]


Well, a whole lot has happened since Marx and Freud. Those are just important foundations/starting points.

I get the impression that at least a non-negligible portion of the field is quite invested in maintaining a separation.

I think that's true, but it's true also in fields where more traditional forms of knowledge dominate.
posted by Miko at 8:49 PM on July 10, 2013


The more I read FPPs on subjects I have an independant, significant base of knowledge on, the less I like the comments here.

Agreed. I would add that I think it takes a certain temperament to discuss your area of expertise with Internet strangers. I'm not especially good at it, so mostly I don't try.

I recognize that on MeFi, I'm rarely the smartest person in any given conversation.

I felt sad reading Divined by Radio's "feel like trash" comment, but I wasn't going to say what I was thinking until I read this line. DBR: I disagree with you that anybody's comments are deliberately aimed at making you, or anyone else, feel like trash. There are a couple things going on; but one piece is that in most situations where you can ascribe a malicious motive, you'll find you can also ascribe a selfish motive, and the latter will be more accurate. Nobody wants you to feel like trash, but some people do enjoy feeling like the smartest person in the room.

If you keep that in mind, you might find yourself less reactive toward certain users' comments. Once you start looking for it, you'll see it. And when you see it in that light, you won't feel bad about yourself.

Klang, that's a timely and ironic line because you often are the smartest person in any given thread. Klang, IRFH, and Bugbread are just three examples of people who I think do a good job of being the smartest person in the room without seeming to want it or promenading it. Jessamyn too, except she's all showy about that "staff" badge.
posted by cribcage at 9:05 PM on July 10, 2013 [1 favorite]


"postmodernism an universally"

When you argue that postmodernism is universally anything, you lose at postmodernism.

Postmodernism is also why you can get more than a few different descriptions of postmodernism and critical theory's descent from Marxism, and have them be essentially equally valid.
posted by klangklangston at 9:16 PM on July 10, 2013


When you argue that postmodernism is universally anything, you lose at postmodernism.

Sounds like quite an universal statement, but maybe you're being ironic?
posted by Anything at 9:30 PM on July 10, 2013


Postmodernism has forever called "no backsies," as that kind of reply is, itself, postmodern.
posted by klangklangston at 9:47 PM on July 10, 2013


And what does it prove that the reply is postmodern? Is it invalid?
posted by LogicalDash at 10:21 PM on July 10, 2013


And what does it prove that the reply is postmodern? Is it invalid?

Well, to glibly recite half-remembered theorums, this would be because while modernism frequently attempted to create out of whole cloth a new approach to life/art/writing/music which was sufficient to fully comprehend and express the complexities of modern life (futurism/the new criticism/tonalism), post-modernism suggests that's a mug's game, that no "new" form will ever be sufficient to comprehend diddly, because all art continually draws its meaning from its juxtaposition with other art, texts contain within them the seeds of their own contradiction, such that one cannot ever limit them to one meaning; in short it is difficult to say whether anything means anything, is better than anything, though you're welcome to make your own attempt to fashion a meaning, so long as you implicitly accept all of the above by spraying on a smooth semi-gloss coat of irony. It helps if you use scare quotes a lot: "movement" "new" "meaning" "text".*


*Madge, you're soaking in it.**


**see what I did there? Used the very scare quotes I described within the comment itself, then alluded to my own cleverness by referencing a 1970s dish soap commercial? That's post-modernism, baby. The fact that you can't tell whether I'm serious about any of this or not means I'm doing it right.
posted by Diablevert at 4:54 AM on July 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


For those who have grown to understand and enjoy reading densely referential theoretical texts, it's worth thinking about why you have such a comfort level with them - what forms of privilege contributed to your having access to that experience and the knowledge and background and confidence to involve yourself with them. It's a form of capital and so it is indeed subject to comparison-based class ressentiment.

I understand your general point, but there is no conceivable world in which background knowledge of this bunfight regarding The New Inquiry's dispute over terminology used by a now-defunct, short-lived French journal provides you with a significant amount of social capital and social privilege. Many academic discussions are highly specialized and very narrow and have meanings and back-stories relevant only to those in within that narrow field.

When I think of people who have significant amounts of social capital, the number of them who also have or could have a stake in this blog post is very, very low. Sure, knowledge of critical theory and experience having read and understood some seminal works of critical theory or other forms of dense, difficult-to-unpack philosophical works is an aspect of privilege, because that is generally indicative of a well-educated background, but is an affection for and understanding of what was going on in this New Inquiry post a reflection of "privilege"? I don't think so. It means you spent time reading about obscure disputes about Tiqqun rather than spending that time reading about, I don't know, gunk vs. atoms.

What I am glad, now, to be able to see is that "insecurity" and "precariousness" do not do the same meaning-work as "precarity" because they do not have the specialized history and derivation that "precarity" does.

Did the authors of that piece know that "precarity" has a specialized history and derivation separate from "precariousness"? I'm not sure that they do. I think it's likely that the author(s) picked up the term by familiarity with works within their same narrow milieu but were unaware that similar discussions in the mainstream press would have used "insecurity" and "precariousness" and they didn't think to draw any distinction.

The thing is, I think an FPP that involved a link to that blog post could have been created that was better received. With a more properly focused FPP and some background information with some other links, the New Inquiry post itself could have been glossed over with, "ok, the writing was shitty, but I see where it fits in to the overall topic being discussed."
posted by deanc at 4:59 AM on July 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


What I read and write does tend toward the meandering and discursive and constantly referential, which seems to be the 'house style' of the Internet.

A lot of us have referenced blogs-- academic blogs, even! -- that are praised for their clarity and tightness of prose. In fact, these are some of the most popular and widely read online (even if certain recent trends bug the shit out of me). That fact that you associate clarity with "dry policy papers" is kind of sad. I'm pretty sure that the literate public isn't reading dry policy papers all day, and yet they are consuming mass amounts of writing all written with clarity of language and purpose, especially on "serious" topics.

i think it takes MORE privilege to follow the 'clear' writing that deanc talks about, since that's actually unnatural compared to a looser discourse

It might take more privilege to write in that clear style, because writing is a very challenging craft, honed over time, requiring lots of practice,editing, and rewriting. It involves a lot of struggling over phrasing and word choice and pushback from editors and your audience (which also means you have enough privilege to HAVE an editor and an audience). But to follow clear writing? No, quite the opposite when it comes to privilege. That's like saying it takes more privilege to use an intuitive user interface than a hacked-together, poorly-designed user interface.

Now yes, I have no doubt in my mind that in the decades to come, people will mine the internet's millions of meandering, self-absorbed, semi-incoherent blog posts and Daily Kos Diaries to find a few that qualify as impressive pieces of "outsider art" that, despite not serving as models of clarity and the "house style" of modern communication, nevertheless have significant merit. But that doesn't protect individual instances of poor writing from critique.
posted by deanc at 5:49 AM on July 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


Marx gives you unapologetic, uncharitable ridicule of ideological adversaries

I can't imagine someone who makes a statement like this actually read much Marx.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 5:54 AM on July 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


It's been a long time but I have read quite enough to conclude the above with some confidence.
posted by Anything at 6:03 AM on July 11, 2013


I understand your general point, but there is no conceivable world in which background knowledge of this bunfight regarding The New Inquiry's dispute over terminology used by a now-defunct, short-lived French journal provides you with a significant amount of social capital and social privilege. Many academic discussions are highly specialized and very narrow and have meanings and back-stories relevant only to those in within that narrow field

I think that's wrong. Whether it's important to you personally or not, people do, in fact, derive cultural capital and social capital from their conversancy with bodies of knowledge. Even here on MeFi, people have made clear they identifywith those who immediately get it, as a point of distinction from others. Also, have a look for it on the TNI Facebook page where a user chuckles at MetaFilter's "heads exploding" because we don't get it. The world in which the authors run rewards them greatly for discussing issues in this way.

Did the authors of that piece know that "precarity" has a specialized history and derivation separate from "precariousness"? I'm not sure that they do.

No one can peer into their hearts, but I'm fairly certain that they do. They are both graduate students whose CVs feature lots of work in this field of thought, and it's a word they are used to encountering and probably have a good functional definition of. If they didn't, it would be strange.

were unaware that similar discussions in the mainstream press would have used "insecurity" and "precariousness" and they didn't think to draw any distinction.

They don't need to draw a distinction, because they're writing for an audience that can also be expected to understand it without elaboration. Also, it's not likely that the mainstream press would assume that everyone understands economic insecurity as a product of capitalist excess (which is contained in the intent of "precarity") - there are readers of the mainstream press who would seriously argue that no, economic insecurity is a product of over-regulation and taxes that are too high, or it's a product of not working hard enough, or it's a product of global political instability.
posted by Miko at 6:31 AM on July 11, 2013


I'm really inclined to agree with Miko. I think most of the griping about out can be attributed to poor framing, we get similar complaints when pretty much any FPP ends up not being what was advertised. I think a lot of the complaints about theory in the original are probably based on the title and subtitle "Further Materials Toward a Theory of the Man-Child: Left theory’s response to the feminization of labor has been to cry for mommy". I can definitely see people who've bad run-ins with this kind of theory before thinking 'yikes, I'm not going to slog through that stuff' and being disappointed that the alleged topic was only mentioned in passing, if they even got that far.

Like a lot other people who've commented here, I also didn't think it was actually very hard to read. It just meanders a lot. Most of the weird word choices were in their quotations from the badly translated Tiqqun article they were critiquing.

I'm disappointed a lot of Mefites, including took this as an opportunity to condemn people who have anything other than a humanities background as idiots, philistines and "nosepicking IT twerps". No one field has a claim to all intelligence, knowledge and understanding. It's asinine when people with science backgrounds do it, and it's asinine when you do it.


It's amusing that authors actually seem to agree agree with a lot of the criticisms of theory people people have made here (about Tiqqun):
Tiqqun uses works of Continental philosophy in the same way that schoolyard bullies use in-jokes: as passwords that grant access to a protected inner circle ... The prestige of the theoretical vocabulary that Tiqqun’s members have mastered bolsters their credibility.

and

Maybe instead of more smarter-than-thou critiques, we need more imagination, more courage. In place of obscurantism, clarity and organization. In place of indecision and irony, a praise song and a program.

They also describe the tradition of theory that Tiqqun was operating in as sexist. From what I've read from that tradition, I'm very much inclined to agree with them on both counts.
posted by nangar at 6:50 AM on July 11, 2013 [6 favorites]


i think it takes MORE privilege to follow the 'clear' writing that deanc talks about, since that's actually unnatural compared to a looser discourse

I really wish that we could inhabit a world in which it's accepted that different kinds of writing do different things and are intended for different people and purposes - and that we could not turn this into "some kind of writing are for the smart people, and other kinds of writing are for the dumb/lazy/self-indulgent people".

Several thoughts: clear* writing is great for a lot of purposes and a lot of audiences. Laying out a policy paper? Why on earth would you drag Lacan into it, or go off on Tiqqun-esque flights of rhetoric? Reaching a general audience, ditto. Writing certain types of memoirs, describing the sinking of the Lusitania, lots of stuff. And who among us hasn't been entranced and delighted by this kind of writing? Orwell's short essay about planting trees, for example - Semiotexte wouldn't have touched it with a ten-foot pole, but I can practically quote it from memory. And writing something in this style to an imaginary general audience is one great way to clarify your thoughts. Isn't that what a lot of us are trying to do in a small way on metafilter?

Second: "Muddled", "difficult" and "theory" are not all the same thing. I think everyone knows that, but there's perpetual slippage between those terms in this type of conversation.

Third: Certain types of thinking and writing are needed to get at certain types of ideas and experiences. I think we all know this - why, after all, did Sylvia Plath need to write as she did? (Hell, just last night I was reading about how Browning's early work was viewed as inappropriate-bordering-on-incomprehensible because he 'muddled up' characters and incidents from different-yet-adjacent points in medieval history...whereas now that's a pretty standard poetic and literary technique.) My sense is that when someone is seeking out new uses of language or coining new phrases or writing with an unconventional structure, they are often trying to do something that existing language conventions do not do, or they are trying not to do something that is virtually built-in to existing language conventions. Or they are trying to access an experience or a way of thinking that it is virtually impossible to express in existing conventions. That doesn't privilege this kind of writing over other kinds of writing; it's just for a different purpose.

Fourth: Different groups need to arrive at similar conclusions via different routes. Again, this is something we all know. If I were a left-leaning Christian, for instance, I might arrive at anti-prison politics though theology. I might write powerfully for a Christian audience about our shared beliefs in an attempt to mobilize people against prisons. As a non-religious anarchist, I arrive at anti-prison politics differently and try to mobilize people using different language. Similarly, someone whose concerns are about language or biopower or whatever - the political language that they use to get to certain points will be about those concerns. That doesn't mean that their language is bad just because it's not my language. It also doesn't mean that one of our rhetorics has to destroy the other. You want to talk about prison abolition as a Christian and a socialist; I want to talk about it as an atheist anarchist. Our political conclusions are going to be somewhat different, but that doesn't mean that you shouldn't talk about prison abolition to your social grouping with your language.

Fifth, sometimes assholes are still assholes: Also, have a look for it on the TNI Facebook page where a user chuckles at MetaFilter's "heads exploding" because we don't get it. The world in which the authors run rewards them greatly for discussing issues in this way. I don't know what to do about that, but I think that turning away from the face-off between "this is too obscure and elitist" and "ignorant proles don't get it" is one way to start.

On a personal level, I see this as very much about fighting the ways we've been socialized into ressentiment, anxiety, self-hate, hierarchical ideas about knowledge, etc precisely so that those things don't stand between us and reading/study/intellectual growth.

*although "clearness" is pretty culturally defined, IMO - what USians are brought up to see as clear, for example, is really different from a traditional Chinese essay structure, to the point where people who grew up with one kind can read the other kind of essay and be totally, totally confused about its point. (How do I know? Teaching English comp to a bunch of really accomplished Chinese university students and hitting this precise snag.)

Also, what is "clear" for even one English-speaking audience is not "clear" for another - the intentionally softened and informal style here, for instance, isn't the same as what you'd expect in a policy editorial. While both might be easy to comprehend, writing your comments like you're writing for Foreign Policy would come across as pretty hostile or arrogant here.
posted by Frowner at 6:51 AM on July 11, 2013 [7 favorites]


I think that turning away from the face-off between "this is too obscure and elitist" and "ignorant proles don't get it" is one way to start.

Thoroughly endorse in general as a personal strategy. I pointed it out as evidence that yes, some people will use the material as in-group shibboleth, and if we hope to communicate with others about the topic, it helps to acknowledge that it's a real thing.
posted by Miko at 7:03 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


I vigorously agree with Miko's and Lobstermittens' comments. They are more informed and eloquent than I could be. I wish I had time to respond more myself.

As for Tiqqun, the key thing about it as it relates to the article's reception here is that Tiqqun just is not that important to anyone outside of a small subset of people. People get frustrated when an article promises insights on broad gauge issues, but then puzzlingly folds in on IMHO a provincial concern. Tiqqun's misogyny, to the extent that is Tiqqun's, is many magnitudes less interesting than the broader issues of capitalism and gender which the article invokes and then loses interest in. I had already been aware of Tiqqun, so my reaction was just of vague annoyance, but perhaps if I had never heard of it, I would be even more frustrated, because then I'd wind up backgrounding myself in an uninteresting topic. I would feel like the article's reference to Tiqqun-as-Tiqqun must have meant something very interesting indeed, but then I would become frustrated when that interesting meaning does not appear.
posted by Sticherbeast at 7:09 AM on July 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


Back in the 80s my English prof the late Stephen Wall showed me a book he'd be sent to review for his journal ESSAYS IN CRITICISM. Its title was 'Does Deconstruction Make Any Difference?'.

"Not to me!" he said with a chuckle, and threw it over his left shoulder.

At the time I was outraged but now I feel the same way.
posted by unSane at 7:12 AM on July 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


They don't need to draw a distinction, because they're writing for an audience that can also be expected to understand it without elaboration.

You would think, yes, but they also go off on a tangent where they discuss the origin and meaning of "affective labor" -- a term which appears in popular writing and is not nearly as obscure as "precarity". Yet they did NOT do the same with "precarity". I recognize that there are two separate authors and both might have a different style , but it is possible that they're not familiar with the idioms of mainstream literature regarding labor in tough economic times and only grapple with the topic within their own narrow milieu. I can't say for sure, but I can definitely look for clues.

As far as whether this provides "social capital" -- social capital needs to be a convertible currency. Someone who knows about this obscure argument about Tiqqun can't really leverage that knowledge and background into anything else other than joshing around with friends on the TNI Facebook page about what dorks metafilter readers are or, at best, a junior faulty position or a paper accepted at an interesting conference of one's peers. But that's not so different than claiming that there is a significant amount of social capital associated with an intimate knowledge of trance sub-genres and knowledge of their own internal disputes.

Or, to put it in simple terms, I think Frowner would be REALLY surprised to discover that she occupies a rarefied position of social privilege and access to usable social capital above that of most other MeFi readers taking issue with the essay. "Check you privilege" is the LAST thing I would think about saying to Frowner or Charlamagne In Sweatpants in this conversation, whatever our disagreements.

That said, Diablevert nailed this two nights ago. Anything I have said since then seems almost extraneous.
posted by deanc at 7:30 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


well deconstruction and Derrida's larger work has been immensley influential in a number of academic research fields. For example, Security Studies has benefited immensely from the work of scholars like Michael C. Williams and the Copenhagen school's securitization framework.

So, yes, deconstruction does make a difference, and has been immensely useful.

And I'm sure your opinion was sustained throughout the years by a careful reading of evolving research trends.
posted by MisantropicPainforest at 7:30 AM on July 11, 2013


Or, to put it in simple terms, I think Frowner would be REALLY surprised to discover that she occupies a rarefied position of social privilege and access to usable social capital above that of most other MeFi readers taking issue with the essay. "Check you privilege" is the LAST thing I would think about saying to Frowner or Charlamagne In Sweatpants in this conversation, whatever our disagreements.

I don't think Miko was saying "check your privilege", though. I think that one of the problems in this conversation is the meaning that "check your privilege" has come to carry. "Check your privilege" is an obnoxious tumblr-ism that is generally used to say "your identity is fixed and simple, you need to take a big step back because you are trampling on all these other people, and [implicitly] I am in a position of superiority over you because I am naming this thing about you". It's a bullying phrase that is used to flatten identity, although it certainly didn't start out that way.

"Be aware of how who you are brought you to where you are and make sure that you treat others as you would wish to be treated and in keeping with your larger political goals" is more what I understood Miko to be saying, although precisely because this other phrase is so powerful and pervasive, it's really difficult to talk about "privilege" without importing some of the other stuff.

Do I have social capital because I can understand a TNI article? Admittedly, we're getting into micro-social-capital here, but probably I do. If I were to be dropped, along with a friend who has no college degree, into a room full of comp lit students, I would have more of a certain kind of social capital than she. (Although if the comp lit students were fascinated by [certain unusual aspects of my friend's life experience or her personal beauty], she could easily have more social capital than me. Which again is why it's really tricky to apply this stuff to individuals even though it's super-useful when talking about populations. And my social capital might also apply thusly: I work around academics; because I can use some academic terms and have some access to a field not theirs, I get (in certain ways) more respect than other support staff who cannot. I am seen as more like them, even if I am still lesser.

Often, I'm reminded of that thing about "sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic" and I find myself thinking that sufficiently sophisticated politics are indistinguishable from living life - that is, it's so important to pay close attention to the particular and local and also to the particular needs of a given situation. Like, when is it vital to pay attention to micro-social-capital and when does it send us into a tailspin of policing and derailment? Hard to tell, since micro-social-capital is so complicated and informs our lives in such subtle ways.
posted by Frowner at 7:49 AM on July 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


You would think, yes, but they also go off on a tangent where they discuss the origin and meaning of "affective labor" -- a term which appears in popular writing and is not nearly as obscure as "precarity"

Yeah, that struck me as funny too. I'm not sure why they would expect their audience to be deep down in the workings of capital without having encountered that idea, but they did seem to think it needed fleshing out. I kind of wonder about the editorial hand there.

social capital needs to be a convertible currency

And it is. You may not value what they can gain with it, but their knowledge - knowledge which allows them to be published in TNI and discussed far and wide on MetaFilter, Gawker, and elsewhere in addition to in the academy, which allows us to know their names and debate this topic - is valuable in many of their contexts. Just as the knowledge of trance subgenres is valuable in its own contexts.

Thanks for the generous read, Frowner; that's entirely what I meant. I realize the word "privilege" has built up a lot of baggage but I don't hang around in many of the forums where it does so I'm not necessarily aware of all the associations folks are bringing to it.

The example is illustrative, not just in the way it shows there are different kinds of social capital but also the mechanisms for coming into it: having a college degree might make it more likely that your friend could participate more fully in the conversation, but it might be possible for her to assemble that skill in other ways. I do think it's much less difficult to do in the focused and structured and guided context of school, most times, and it takes other forms of support and effort to get there without school. At the same time, there are a lot of people with a college degree who have little or no conversancy with this stuff, for various reasons. That's what makes it so specialized and is why the capital is most valuable within micro-communities that need or want to discuss things in this way.
posted by Miko at 7:59 AM on July 11, 2013


"Not to me!" he said with a chuckle, and threw it over his left shoulder.

I was in college from 1989-93 and there was a ton and a half of hostility to deconstruction and other new forms of literary analysis. It was a downright battle within the English department at my school and elsewhere, and was basically one of the earlier fronts in the culture wars. Young Turks vs. Old Guard. That kind of gleeful dismissal was pretty common to see, and students took sides to. The Old Guard tended to think that if they could sufficiently deride and hold strong, that this way of thought would pass like so many other brief fads had passed. They didn't see it for the near-total revolution it represented.

I had both kinds of professors. In many ways I wish I'd had the benefit of going to school even 10 years later, when more of my profs would have been more deeply at ease with the more recent developments in the varieties of literary theory. I would have gotten much more out of some of the texts, as well.

I am remembering now one of my favorite professors, a teacher of 19th-century women authors, was very well-loved but when she came up for tenure did not get it, probably because she was seen as too left-field at the time. The students rose up in protest, which did about as much good as students rising up in protest ever does.
posted by Miko at 8:09 AM on July 11, 2013


> Thanks for the generous read, Frowner; that's entirely what I meant. I realize the word "privilege" has built up a lot of baggage but I don't hang around in many of the forums where it does so I'm not necessarily aware of all the associations folks are bringing to it.

Then perhaps you'll stop throwing it around so freely, unless you want to depend on generous readers like Frowner. Every time you insist that it's important to focus on the privilege involved in being able to read academic writing or whatever, I grimace and feel the air currents from the passing of the wings of the most reductive sort of class/social analysis, which is dismayingly close to the anti-intellectualism of one strain of early Bolshevism ("Down with Pushkin! Burn the museums!"). Why shouldn't Frowner simply be pleased with having achieved the ability to read and discuss interesting things? Why the importance of slathering it in a gooey layer of privilege discourse?
posted by languagehat at 9:24 AM on July 11, 2013 [2 favorites]


I don't think it's fair to press this point against Miko this hard. I didn't respond to her comment because I wanted to think about it for awhile. Bringing privilege into the discussion seemed both interesting and problematic. It's a freighted term but I think that in the context of her comment she intended her usage to fall more in the direction of asking us to think about the cultural capital issues from that side of the equation, from the side of greater accumulation presented to lesser. My comment was primarily addressing it from the other view, from the lesser responding to the greater and responding to it with hostility. I think she was asking us to think about that from the perspective of how we present our discussions of these things.

My initial comment about how many people assume that all public speech is performative was intended to make the point that those people are not always correct and a lot of speech that they interpret as performative and about signaling social affiliation really isn't. But the thing with cultural capital, like with economic capital, is that even if you don't intend to signal identity you really can't avoid doing so. As a practical matter, we should be aware that people will respond instinctively to prose that is heavily laden with signifiers of accumulated cultural capital. That doesn't mean that we in any way should concede to their attempts to devalue it as mere pretentious nonsense. Like many here, I am so very tired of that sort of claim. But, I don't know, maybe we can be cognizant of the fuzzy area where entirely appropriate functional, shared nomenclature fades into exclusionary performances of social identity.

And privilege is involved in the latter because intellectual discourse is inevitably both about the ideas and about the cultures surrounding the discussion of those ideas. You can see this with talented autodidacts, where they are fluent with the ideas but culturally maladroit and that's often wrongly interpreted as inadequacy. Which is to say, technical fluency and cultural fluency, if you will, are not equivalent.
posted by Ivan Fyodorovich at 10:06 AM on July 11, 2013 [1 favorite]


Thanks.

Why the importance of slathering it in a gooey layer of privilege discourse?

I could have used more words but it would have boiled down to essentially the same things; and I'm not as reductive as you fear I might be about economic class at all. In fact, more interested in separating the different individual elements that are too often lumped together in class analysis.

My interest was really in trying to address the conflict that comes up when those in-the-know and those not-in-the-know meet in forums like this one, and to understand a bit better, and be a bit more activist in trying to address, some of the reasons those people's knowledge bases and orientations to the content differ.
posted by Miko at 10:24 AM on July 11, 2013


I'm disappointed a lot of Mefites, including took this as an opportunity to condemn people who have anything other than a humanities background as idiots, philistines and "nosepicking IT twerps". No one field has a claim to all intelligence, knowledge and understanding. It's asinine when people with science backgrounds do it, and it's asinine when you do it.

Certainly... but, that's not ultimately the point. It's not that one way of looking at the world is better than the other. The point is, the main virtue of Metafilter is the catholicity of subject matter it covers, and when we get in the way of that by being small-minded we are hurting the site. If it were the case that snooty theory-headed grad students kept barging in threads like Houseplants of Gor or Gay Spider-Man then it would be that group of people who could use a bit of a punch in the nose and I would be on that side of the argument.

It's like how religion threads used to be treated around here, but to a lesser extent.

I am quite glad there are a lot of people from a non-humanities background around here, and may that continue for a long time, though I don't see that state of affairs being in any danger anytime soon.
posted by furiousthought at 10:46 AM on July 11, 2013


I am quite glad there are a lot of people from a non-humanities background around here,

It is ridiculous that you associate advocacy for writing clarity with people from a non-humanities background. It was an army of humanities professors and editors with a humanities background that beat clarity into me when it came to my writing. The humanities professor Michael Bérubé used to run a well-received blog and has published several popular books because he is known for someone with accessible, high-quality writing. We've mentioned a slew of other academic blogs from humanists known for their high quality writing. This has more to do with whatever preconceptions and problems you have with STEM-people who possibly mocked your academic predilections, and for that I'm sorry, but it has nothing to do with advocating for high-quality, clear writing (and a bias against poor writing).
posted by deanc at 11:09 AM on July 11, 2013 [3 favorites]


deanc, I don't think furiousthought's comment had anything to with the clarity of writing issue at all.
posted by nangar at 3:26 PM on July 11, 2013


This has more to do with whatever preconceptions and problems you have with STEM-people who possibly mocked your academic predilections, and for that I'm sorry, but it has nothing to do with advocating for high-quality, clear writing (and a bias against poor writing).

Yeah, I read and enjoy Berube's writing. Crooked Timber, etc. too. It's not that. It's that the piece in question is not that poorly written, certainly not worse than much of what gets linked around here. The reason it's getting singled out is because it is just a few inches outside of the "house style" we've been talking about. It is not hard theory. If it were, I wouldn't be inclined to defend it – I don't think raw case law or scientific papers are great topics for Metafilter by themselves either, because that sort of thing requires some context. But this doesn't really deviate very much, which is why the reaction is obnoxious.

I do not have a categorical problem with that default accessible-educated-person style you're talking about, by the way. I am writing in it. As far as I'm aware the only person on Metafilter who does not write in that style is Smedleyman. I think we can all agree the site would be poorer if he were driven off for stylistic deviance.

You're doing a slippery rhetorical trick where you are conflating "accessible" and "high-quality" writing and also where you're describing your preferred style in specific terms, stating its dominance, and then assuming it as a given that everything we see must cater to it. This is just dipshit consumerism, really. It's demanding that everything we're presented with come tailored to our customer preferences or to hell with it, and it's a small-minded stance that I'd like to think we're all too smart to adopt.

If the concept of the "long tail" has any meaning at all, and I hope it still does a bit at Metafilter, it means that we have to try to accept things that vary from what we most readily respond to so that something new can show up in our lives without getting heavily processed 100% of the time.

The rest of your comment is just pure shitty projection on your part; go suck your thumb to Terry Pratchett or something for a while perhaps?
posted by furiousthought at 4:16 PM on July 11, 2013


Now yes, I have no doubt in my mind that in the decades to come, people will mine the internet's millions of meandering, self-absorbed, semi-incoherent blog posts and Daily Kos Diaries to find a few that qualify as impressive pieces of "outsider art" that, despite not serving as models of clarity and the "house style" of modern communication, nevertheless have significant merit. But that doesn't protect individual instances of poor writing from critique.

It's not 'poor' writing. Its entertaining writing. It takes more skill to weave a protean, multilayered, multi-allusive sentance than to state the facts in dry Joe Friday tickertape.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 4:22 PM on July 11, 2013


'Clarity' and 'simplicity' in writing are goals of course, but sometimes when you're writing about complex things, well, they are complex things, and as such require a complex vocabulary. Sometimes it is possible to simplify them, as I do when I explain Althusserian Interpellation and Ideological State Apparatus to first year games design students, or why Foucault's Discipline and Punishment is significant. In both those cases the context of the work is important for understanding why it matters - understanding the ways in which power is not simply coercive, but much more complexly intertwined into socio-cultural structures. The idea itself is fairly straight forward. The implications though are somewhat more difficult.

Academia is kind of ridiculous in some ways, but if you don't take into account the context in which certain ideas were formulated you're putting yourself behind the 8 ball. I think this is why a lot of Americans struggle with continental critical theory, they have no context for what these damn French, German, and other philosophers are on about. And that's not a personal failing, it's just a lack of context, or having a different background. For one, particularly for French philosophers, they tread a interesting mix between Academic and Literary fields,

Sometimes ideas also don't translate too effectively into English from other languages. I've yet to decide whether that was the case with Heidegger's Being and Time, or if he was just being intentionally dense. Again, a lot of the basic ideas are somewhat straight forward, it's the implications where things start getting complex.

As is probably clear I'm a humanities person. Yet, when I find myself interested in a non-humanities subject, I take the time to try and learn and understand the vocabulary of that field. It's not that hard in this day and age when Google, and Google Scholar is right there. It is probably easier just to call someone a bad writer though.
posted by Hello, I'm David McGahan at 6:19 PM on July 11, 2013 [4 favorites]


I have a 1990s PhD in a social science field. I've read (and alas written but hey, tenure) more poststructuralist theory than the average bear, and have little time for most of it anymore. But the original linked blog post isn't bad because of its theoretical pretensions, but because its arguments are so dated and facile and trivial and obvious in 2013, where right, or obviously wrong, where superseded.

What I find more interesting is how what used to be radical social constructionist ideas have filtered, in their most obtuse and obviously untenable and wrong forms, into everyday neoliberal first world cosmopolitan common sense. Metafilter doesn't need "theory" for this. We live and breathe it (in the form of torturous identity politics) in thread after thread. You are literally pretty much enjoined from saying "no the world really is as it physically appears in its natural expressions" about anything related to human differences around here. In fact, in MeTa in particular I often feel transported back to the naive constructionist foolishness of the seminar room of my grad school days.

But I digress.
posted by spitbull at 7:21 AM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ivan Fyodorovich :

> My initial comment about how many people assume that all public speech is performative was intended to
> make the point that those people are not always correct and a lot of speech that they interpret as
> performative and about signaling social affiliation really isn't. But the thing with cultural capital,
> like with economic capital, is that even if you don't intend to signal identity you really can't avoid doing so

I do assume--correctly, I'm quite certain--that all public speech is performative and about signaling social affiliation, but I don't for a moment think it's only that, or even that the social affiliation signalling is usually done with intent or awareness. Rather, most instances are like (unconsciously) acquiring a regional accent when you visit a region outside of your own for any length of time and then (again unconsciously) losing it after you return home.

But this tribal-marker aspect of speech (and clothing, and food, and preferences in movies or associates, and anything else about us that appears in public) exists. It can be considered and discussed separately from other aspects, and surely that won't be taken as a claim that it can exist in isolation from other aspects, or that public speech is ever only about establishing identity in cases that aren't "Raise your right hand and state your name."
posted by jfuller at 7:29 AM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's not 'poor' writing. Its entertaining writing. It takes more skill to weave a protean, multilayered, multi-allusive sentance than to state the facts in dry Joe Friday tickertape.

I enjoy protean, multilayered, multi-allusive sentences as much as the next person. I tend to feel that they are better suited to fiction than theory, though; I agree that Joyce was a master at this style of writing (among many others, pretty much all of which are demonstrated in Ulysses alone).
posted by misha at 7:31 PM on July 12, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yet, when I find myself interested in a non-humanities subject, I take the time to try and learn and understand the vocabulary of that field. It's not that hard in this day and age when Google, and Google Scholar is right there. It is probably easier just to call someone a bad writer though.

I'm bemused by this opinion, which seems to be shared by many Mefites in the thread, that what is "difficult"* reading is inherently better writing.

I mean, putting aside for now the smugly superior academic snobbishness that motivated you to pen those words--born, no doubt, from years of dedicated study in the ivy-lined halls of academia you so thoughtfully grace with your presence--putting all that aside, this popular conceit that if a goodly portion of the population is struggling with this paper, it must be the pinnacle of theoretical deconstruction is beyond bizarre to me. That anyone who disagrees must therefore, by your reasoning, clearly be a humanities-hating troglodyte who couldn't tell a properly written scholarly paper from a paper party hat, an imbecile whose brain is so feeble it's a wonder the person can even recognize the letters on a keyboard, let alone type them into comments in this thread is, well! It's fascinating.

I'm also feeling a bit sheepish, I confess. How could I have missed this truism? It never occurred to me before this thread that, if a reader doesn't have to research the subject of any given work on Google Scholar or consult the "recommended reading" section of an humanities graduate student's syllabus and a rhyming dictionary to understand what s/he is reading, that work is mere pablum.

Such dreck, I now see (thanks to your guidance!), exists solely for those poor, ignorant fools who, cowering in fear, shy from the Tree of Knowledge like the mythical vampires of their tiny, superstitious minds flinching from the sight of the cross or the rays of the rising sun at dawn.

Huh. The more you know.

/hamburger

*I would probably prefer "tortuous" but potato, potato.
posted by misha at 9:22 PM on July 12, 2013 [1 favorite]


Seriously, though, I have no right to point fingers. I'm all for education trumping ignorance. I just felt this thread was getting a bit too judgey for its own good.

There's this scene in the movie Broadcast News, a great scene. A group of thuggish bullies gang up on Albert Brook's character--he's only fifteen but wickedly smart and sarcastic as hell --because he just insulted the bullies (and pretty much everyone else) in his valedictorian graduation speech.

The bullies grab him, and start to beat him up, and he lashes back at them with the only weapon he has, his words:

"This will heal -- what I'm going to say to you will scar you forever. Ready? Here it is:
You'll never make more than nineteen thousand dollars a year. Ha ha ha."
posted by misha at 9:25 PM on July 12, 2013


> I'm bemused by this opinion, which seems to be shared by many Mefites in the thread, that what is "difficult"* reading is inherently better writing.

Nobody said that, and it is unpleasantly disingenuous of you to claim "many Mefites" did.

> I just felt this thread was getting a bit too judgey for its own good.

So you decided to add a whole smelly heap of judginess? Brilliant.
posted by languagehat at 7:06 AM on July 13, 2013


Did you miss the /hamburger tag?
posted by misha at 8:34 AM on July 13, 2013


That tag was in reference to the sarcasm in your "How could I have missed this truism? It never occurred to me before this thread that, if a reader doesn't have to research the subject of any given work on Google Scholar or consult the 'recommended reading' section of an humanities graduate student's syllabus and a rhyming dictionary to understand what s/he is reading, that work is mere pablum" (whose sarcasm was quite evident without the tag, trust me). Once again you are being disingenuous.
posted by languagehat at 8:41 AM on July 13, 2013


Foucault was just so elitist, and if he had all this stuff to say about political issues in France why didn't he just say them clearly and plainly?

Foucault On Obscurantism: ‘They Made Me Do It!’
posted by homunculus at 4:04 PM on July 13, 2013 [4 favorites]


I'm sorry, languagehat, I am honestly not following you. What exactly was it that made you so angry, and how am I being disingenuous?
posted by misha at 5:37 PM on July 13, 2013


> I'm bemused by this opinion, which seems to be shared by many Mefites in the thread, that what is "difficult"* reading is inherently better writing.

> Nobody said that, and it is unpleasantly disingenuous of you to claim "many Mefites" did.


Charlemagne In Sweatpants has been hammering away at exactly that point. However, it's a pretty bizarre point of view. Charlemagne repeating it over and over again doesn't make it the view of "many MeFites".
posted by nangar at 2:21 AM on July 14, 2013


I'm sorry, languagehat, I am honestly not following you. What exactly was it that made you so angry, and how am I being disingenuous?

I wouldn't burn any midnight lamp oil waiting for an answer to this one. Read harder.
posted by Wolof at 7:18 AM on July 14, 2013


> What exactly was it that made you so angry, and how am I being disingenuous?

What made me angry was that you came into this thread with guns blazing, accusing the writing in question of being "designed to obfuscate" and "self-indulgent" (and thus implying that anyone who's defending it must be an idiot), you returned to talk about "this opinion, which seems to be shared by many Mefites in the thread, that what is 'difficult'* reading is inherently better writing" (as nangar points out, the only person who said anything remotely like that is Charlemagne In Sweatpants, who is not "many MeFites"), and then continued with a long rant full of tendentious stuff like "the smugly superior academic snobbishness that motivated you to pen those words--born, no doubt, from years of dedicated study in the ivy-lined halls of academia you so thoughtfully grace with your presence" which is apparently supposed to be redeemed by the word "hamburger." The heavy sarcasm would be annoying enough in the service of a good point, but when it's trying to prop up the indefensible idea that "many MeFites" think that clear writing is ipso facto bad writing, well, it pisses me off. But it's hot and my brain is a little poached and I may have misread/misunderstood you, in which case I sincerely apologize. I like a lot of what you have to say in general, so I should probably have given you more benefit of doubt.
posted by languagehat at 7:32 AM on July 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


(FWIW, Misha, in the last few weeks I noticed you doing this open-with-a-punch thing with Genevieve Valentine (in absentia), restless nomad and now here. It seems like maybe you don't enter threads until you are so riled by them that you have to get the anger out at the same time... which is maybe hurting rather than helping.)
posted by running order squabble fest at 7:51 AM on July 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


"If I was as smart as these authors, I would be way smarter than them."
posted by Pyrogenesis at 4:39 PM on July 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


Languagehat, he didn't imply that. You inferred it. He's allowed to have and express those opinions. I share them. If that offends you I guess we will both live.
posted by unSane at 5:14 PM on July 14, 2013 [2 favorites]


This just showed up on my Facebook feed: “No one gets angry at a mathematician or a physicist whom he or she doesn't understand, or at someone who speaks a foreign language, but rather at someone who tampers with your own language.” - Jacques Derrida

I thought of this thread.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 6:36 PM on July 14, 2013


The idea of Derrida comparing himself to a mathematician is deeply funny.
posted by unSane at 7:02 PM on July 14, 2013



The idea of Derrida comparing himself to a mathematician is deeply funny.


Please let the rest of the class in on the joke.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 7:08 PM on July 14, 2013


*Sigh* Obviously, his name is an anagram for 'Add? Rire!'. Deeply funny.
posted by Alvy Ampersand at 7:20 PM on July 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


His usage of language was in opposition to the precision and rigor that mathematical language strives for. See John Searle's criticism of his work. Now apply it to this thread.
posted by stp123 at 8:48 PM on July 14, 2013



His usage of language was in opposition to the precision and rigor that mathematical language strives for. See John Searle's criticism of his work. Now apply it to this thread.


'Precision and rigor' are good for math and hard sciences, but they're dredful or superflouous for everything else. Sometimes the best way to get around a complex idea is in slippery terms.
posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 9:02 PM on July 14, 2013


My first comment was not at all 'guns blazing'. I didn't mean to imply that anyone was an isiot. If I somehow gave that impression, I am sorry. I certainly don't feel that you are one, languagehat.

My sarcastic comment, yes, was heavy-handed, I agree. That was by design. I felt (still feel) that a very patronizing tone had taken over the thread. Anyone who did not like the article was consistently either deemed ignorant or condescended to, "Oh, that's okay, you just don't understand because you are not up on the latest theories in the field of humanities like we are!"

Some examples of this, just a few I picked out just now:

So, basically, your objections are bullshit and you didn't understand what was written. I'm glad we've gotten that out of the way — hopefully, it will preempt whatever nattering you're planning about the next article you don't understand.
...
It does, however, by necessity of its subject matter, get into a mode that's outside the house style of nosepicking IT twerps. The general cultural insistence on that sort of keep-it-simple-stupid mode of communication has long been one of the less charming aspects of this site.
...
Perhaps if one does not understand or comprehend the article they ought to look inward at their own lack of theoretical knowledge rather than piling on about the article being dense
...
There is no truth to the idea that people in lower economic classes lack intellectual sophistication, and they can become educated and even self-educate.

[Wow. That last one took my breath away.]
...
So yes, I then did come in, prepared to get those guns blazing, to call that stuff out.

I was planning to write a lengthy diatribe about superiority complexes and the kind of egotism that could inspire someone to speak of the 'lower classes' like that, and also assume ignorance from all detractors. It's insufferable.

I'm a writer. That's what I do. I have taught about writing as well. I think I know a little bit at least about poor writing.

But then the sheer absurdity of the situation hit me. The Humanities Elders (most of them probably you ger thanme) have spoken! They have decided that it cannot possibly be poorly written, so that's that!

I thought, you know, I can't really argue against these voices.! No one can. They will just shake their heads and say to themselveS, "Ah, well, poor thing, you just didn't understand the writing!". They have built an unassailable fortress of circular logic to protect themselves from even admitting the possibility they might be wrong. That's kind of clever, when you think about it. What a fantastic feeling that must be, to just KNOW you are right all the time!

So I just shrugged my shoulders and went along with the absurdity. I wrote something so obviously over-the-top that (I thought) everyone would just have to laugh at it and realize how full of ourselves we were all being (yes, myself included). Maybe break up the ivory tower lockstep that way instead. I thought it was painfully obvious I intended it to be satirical.

Just in case, though, I put in the good old hamburger tag. And I also commented again, to make it clear I knew I wasn't any better than anyone else and had no right to point fingers, either.

[And Broadcast News was stuck in my head because there's also a line in the movie about being eight all the time and how it isn't a wonderful feeling, actually terrible in fact.]

So I am surprised to be called out, especially given some of the other comments in this thread! You know, nobody admonished klang for the 'bullshit' and 'nattering' comment. Why was mine the one that got the "guns blazing" seal of disapproval?

Running_order_squabble_fest, I am not ignoring you, but I have no clue what you mean by "Genevieve Valentine (in absentia)", I'm afraid. You can Memail if you want to follow up, though.
posted by misha at 9:20 PM on July 14, 2013 [1 favorite]


[Wow. That last one took my breath away.]

Excuse me? What? Why are you dragging me into this? That wasn't a sarcastic statement. You're arguing with a bunch of other people, and decide to sideswipe at me about something unrelated? Going back to 100 comments ago and a discussion that had resolved itself?! What is the matter with you?

the kind of egotism that could inspire someone to speak of the 'lower classes'

Do you believe that there are no economic classes? There are no higher and lower economic classes? We are all completely equal in enjoying all our evenly distributed resources, comrade?

Do you understand that I was speaking in opposition to the idea that class is a predictor of innate ability? And speaking as a person who comes from a lower economic class? I think you missed that bit.

Here's your breath back.

"Hamburger tag," beating everyone else up for not realizing you were intending to be "over the top" or "satirical," blaming others for not getting your oblique communication - it seems you're unable to evaluate how your words appear. Don't be so surprised at the reactions you're engendering. That is what happens when you're unclear.

For someone who says she knows about writing and communucation, you seem to be having trouble both understanding and being understood.

I think you might want to rethink this strategy of trying to write in ironic or satirical tones, because clearly you aren't pulling it off, and then it causes the kind of problem you've got right now.
posted by Miko at 9:31 PM on July 14, 2013 [3 favorites]


misha: Genevieve Valentine.
posted by running order squabble fest at 2:17 AM on July 15, 2013


(That is, the tone made for a derail, and then the follow-up made for _another_ derail. Same thing happened with restless_nomad over the discussion of harassment at cons, and we're in the middle of a derail right now...)
posted by running order squabble fest at 2:51 AM on July 15, 2013


'Precision and rigor' are good for math and hard sciences, but they're dredful or superflouous for everything else. Sometimes the best way to get around a complex idea is in slippery terms.

If you view Derrida as an elaborate piece of performance art (which I do) I agree with you. 'Of Grammatology' can then be seen as a fine piece of work in the tradition of Finnegan's Wake or Tristram Shandy.

However, if you try to stipulate Derrida as serious academic discourse, I don't agree with you. Clarity is a cardinal virtue in writing which attempts to communicate coherent ideas. How can you challenge an (alleged) idea which is expressed so circuitously and ambiguously that you can't even say with certainty what the idea is? Under such a reading a great deal of Derrida etc reduces to banalities, tautologies and deepities.

Which is a shame because Derrida was no fool. I do believe there is important stuff in there.

I've written enough of this stuff in a former life to know what I'm talking about, by the way.
posted by unSane at 4:55 AM on July 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


> I think you might want to rethink this strategy of trying to write in ironic or satirical tones, because clearly you aren't pulling it off, and then it causes the kind of problem you've got right now.

Yup.
posted by languagehat at 5:47 AM on July 15, 2013


John Searle on Foucault and the Obscurantism in French Philosophy.

In addition to containing an audio clip of Searle, the article also has this intresting quotation from Martha Nussbaum of the University of Chicago:

Some precincts of the continental philosophical tradition, though surely not all of them, have an unfortunate tendency to regard the philosopher as a star who fascinates, and frequently by obscurity, rather than as an arguer among equals. When ideas are stated clearly, after all, they may be detached from their author: one can take them away and pursue them on one’s own. When they remain mysterious (indeed, when they are not quite asserted), one remains dependent on the originating authority. The thinker is heeded only for his or her turgid charisma.
posted by Area Man at 7:38 AM on July 15, 2013 [4 favorites]


Gems from AreaMan's Searles' link:

Searle begins by reciting Paul Grice’s four Maxims of Manner: be clear, be brief, be orderly, and avoid obscurity of expression. These are systematically violated in France, Searle says, partly due to the influence of German philosophy. Searle translates Foucault’s admission to him this way: “In France, you gotta have ten percent incomprehensible, otherwise people won’t think it’s deep–they won’t think you’re a profound thinker.”

...Foucault said that Derrida practiced the method of obscurantisme terroriste (terrorism of obscurantism). We were speaking in French. And I said, “What the hell do you mean by that?” And he said, “He writes so obscurely you can’t tell what he’s saying. That’s the obscurantism part. And then when you criticize him, he can always say, ‘You didn’t understand me; you’re an idiot.’ That’s the terrorism part.” And I like that. So I wrote an article about Derrida. I asked Michel if it was OK if I quoted that passage, and he said yes.
posted by misha at 8:53 PM on July 17, 2013 [3 favorites]


I think the distinction between Derrida and Foucault is a good one.
posted by unSane at 5:51 AM on July 18, 2013


Liberman on Language Log: Can Derrida be "even wrong"?
posted by nangar at 6:57 AM on July 18, 2013


Chomsky and Foucault: Was their 1971 debate the worst blind date of all time?
posted by homunculus at 4:32 PM on July 18, 2013


Jacques Derrida’s Life as an Algerian Jew Revealed in Newly Translated Bio: The philosopher’s influential legacy is reshaped by the part of his life story that is often overlooked
posted by homunculus at 12:17 AM on July 19, 2013


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