Flight to safety, flight to liquidity, flight to quality.
September 4, 2013 7:34 PM   Subscribe

Always totalize! This is the majuscule axiom — the maxiom, let us say — for revolution. Revolution is a total thought, a thought of the totality; they are necessarily entangled. Reform, repair, regime change, recuperation: all of these are the politics of the partial, of isolating specific problems as if they admitted of independent solution. Ezra Pound said that the epic is a poem that contains history. What matter that we might amend the last word, a minor amendment at that, a swapping out of inseparable concepts? The epic is the poem that contains totality.

Totality is, after all, historical. The totalizing force we now confront did not turn out to be any great ideology or grand narrative but a very small diacritical mark, a seeming afterthought in the formula M-C-M ́ which compels the expansivity of capital. Moreover, we are in the midst of a crisis that is in some sense total: the end of the U.S. imperium’s “Long Twentieth Century” in a descending double-helix of hegemony unraveling and global economic crisis. The United States is a name which should be understood to designate a mode of capitalism, a regime of value extraction, managed by a nation-state of the same name. In Giovanni Arrighi’s account, it follows the proto- and properly capitalist cycles of accumulation led in turn by the Italian city-states, the United Provinces, and Britain. Like those long centuries, this has reached its limits; it tumbles from crescendo to entropic stasis. We are, as it were, between centuries — and there is no serious question for art or politics other than what stance to take in relation to this.

In the autumn of 2008 — and here we remember Fernand Braudel’s great description of financialization as a “sign of autumn” — in the autumn of 2008, as total crisis burst into panic, investors raced to re-locate their assets in safer havens, cash foremost among them, while creditors called in their debts. This is what constitutes a panic. Capital fled its own speculative catastrophe, grabbing what little it could and down to the ships and away from its cities on fire. But toward what did it fly?
posted by whyareyouatriangle (53 comments total) 14 users marked this as a favorite
 
I am really trying to figure out if that series of non-sequiturs is auto-generated from a corpus of leftist philosophy, or is a parody of it, or is intended to actually make an argument or convey a point. Can someone with more tolerance for this sort of gobbledy-gook give us a tl;dr;?
posted by empath at 8:09 PM on September 4, 2013 [6 favorites]


[Give the post a chance or flag and move on friends.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 8:15 PM on September 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


just because you are too ignorant to understand it, does not entail that the article is "gobbledygook". speaking of non sequiturs.

here we are again.
posted by whyareyouatriangle at 8:24 PM on September 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Can someone with more tolerance for this sort of gobbledy-gook give us a tl;dr;?

Here: "Under late capitalism, it seems like we don't have any aesthetic forms capable of giving a totalizing perspective on our social, economic, and intellectual world the way that epic once did. The financial press's 'Flight to safety, flight to liquidity, flight to quality' is as close to an epic as we've got right now." (The first part is just Lukács via Jameson; the second part is the original bit of Clover's.)

Not the best or most accessible writing in the world, though in fact I found it fairly pretty in places — but I have no idea why this piece would seem like "gobbledy-gook" to anyone who sincerely tried to read it. It's of course perfectly okay for anyone to choose not to make an effort to read it (indeed it seems like a slightly out-of-left-field choice for the MeFi crowd), but the laziness of the first bunch of comments here is pretty remarkable.
posted by RogerB at 8:26 PM on September 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


here we are again.

We don't post science papers here without also including an explanation for why it's interesting, and you shouldn't post whatever this is without some reason for explaining why it's worth the effort to untangle it's pointlessly obfuscated prose to get to whatever point it's trying to make.
posted by empath at 8:38 PM on September 4, 2013 [10 favorites]


indeed it seems like a slightly out-of-left-field choice for the MeFi crowd
Maybe that's why I liked it. Maybe I need a left-field-filter rather than a meta-filter.
posted by b1tr0t at 8:38 PM on September 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


so you want a tl dr on Marx, Jameson, etc? how about you go do the legwork rather than post such trite. or take it to meta. consider adding something substantive to the post rather that disingenuous quips.
posted by whyareyouatriangle at 8:41 PM on September 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


it's not "pointlessly obsfuacated prose". on this point, clover is a rather accomplished poet.
posted by whyareyouatriangle at 8:42 PM on September 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


I made comments that were deleted. They deserved to be. In fact, I was intending to email the mods saying as much if the link checked out. They weren't laziness - they were cynicism and ignorance. I'm a bit embarassed.

I did scan the piece, but without familiarity, I didn't even know it was any sort of theory. Near the end it talked about walls in the Aeneid which I thought was interesting, but to be honest (by which I mean both true of heart AND to be ignorant), without context, this reads like the rantings of someone having a mental break. I am not being figurative or sarcastic or dismissive, at least, I am not meaning to be - without a theoretical literary or philosophical education (and I'm not even sure I'm identifying the right categories of study there!) the opening paragraphs of this piece leave me worried about the mental state of the person writing it. It is difficult to relate each sentence to the one preceding it.

And that is the reason I am embarassed by my comments. I shouldn't be making snarky comments if I think the author is sick. I should have kept my mouth shut and stuck to flagging. Either it was legit and over my head or it was not and would have been deleted.

All that said, maybe, as suggested in the second comment on whyareyouatriangle's MeTa, some background would be helpful? If you have recognized that FPPs on this sort of theory have gone poorly in the past, could you consider framing them differently in the future? On a first reading I didn't even know what I don't know in regards to this post.
posted by maryr at 8:45 PM on September 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


(moving on now as instructed. But I am sorry for being needlessly snarky.)
posted by maryr at 8:46 PM on September 4, 2013


just because you are too ignorant to understand it, does not entail that the article is "gobbledygook".

First, "entail" isn't really the verb you're looking for there. Second, without a bibliography of some sort, it's pretty impossible to sort through the different references made in every paragraph of the piece. Who are the people being mentioned? What did they write? For someone not familiar with whatever field is being discussed here, it's very Inside Baseball, and seems to be calculatedly written to drop as many names as possible. It's like a submission for the Glass Bead Game world championship.

And what is a "descending double-helix"? Why would it be an "ascending double-helix" be different? Is the helix unraveling to replicate itself? It doesn't seem so, so why use that term?

If this development is provisionally a characteristic of late capitalism, or post-Fordism (or any of the several other trade names under which the era has done business, each name emphasizing different characteristics and tonalities), so too is its thought.

Why do you need any of the bit between "late capitalism" and the last sentence clause after the parentheses? It's so incredibly wanky.

Other authors whose works are referenced in the article:
Marx
Virgil
Fredric Jameson
Francis Fukuyama
Ruge
Ezra Pound
Giovanni Arrighi
Fernand Braudel
Fagle (note: translator for Virgil)
Yeats
Hardt and Negri
Lucy Lippard
Jaspar Bernes
Dalla Costa
Alain Badiou
Mallarme
Guy Debord
William Gibson
Carl Schmitt

And it's my fault I can't read along with the article and go "Oh, why yes, he did say that! What a clever reference!"?
posted by LionIndex at 8:52 PM on September 4, 2013 [7 favorites]


This is great.
posted by legospaceman at 8:54 PM on September 4, 2013


Here's a substantive contribution: this is basically wankery with words, or poetry, I don't proclaim to have an objective measure that separates one from the other.
posted by leopard at 9:03 PM on September 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


I think that is a good point, maybe if things are confusing here we could try and sort out the basics of the arguments and pull those apart.

One interesting point that the paper makes is the distinction between the way Marx constructs value and a new way value is constructed:
Negri’s own account shares vectors both with Lippard and with Bernes: the new art both expresses and produces the new value regime. And yet, in keeping with the autonomist wager, his claim is more ambitious: the very ontology of political economy has been remade in art’s image. Given the supposed new regime of immaterial production which has broken free from the mediation of labor power, the new sources of value turn out to be the very potentialities from which art is made: cognition, communication, affect, various modes of “symbol management.” The regimes of art and of labor collapse one into the other. “I have tried to understand the efficaciousness [sic] of immateriality (of cognitive labour) in relation to art. I have identified this transition with the turning point of postmodernity.” At this point he offers a qualification:
This is pretty powerful. Take the information revolution. There is a kind of immateriality in the flourishing of the internet that drives and then becomes this symbolic churn. There isn't any real power in computers (cognitive labor), but nevertheless power accretes around the "immaterial" bits and bytes and the churn becomes more powerful.

another interesting point:
Aesthetics and political economy will henceforth have to be thought together.
The coordination of the political economy along the axis of dream symbols and other human processes of the immaterial points to a radically new system that differs from the post-modern in terms of its internal justificatyions. The old order was steeped in scientific and moral authority (think Robert Macnamara and Atlas V rockets). The systems of control encoded in the new system belies firm definitions. It is the giant correlation machine in the sky. There is mention of the AI in Neuromancer cracking into systems-- The situation today is that the machine coordinates along the axis of human desires and patterns, creating that covalence in terms of political power and economic control, and is extremely fine grained.
posted by kuatto at 9:07 PM on September 4, 2013 [5 favorites]


without context, this reads like the rantings of someone having a mental break.

That was my thought as well, actually. It's like the writings of someone who's just writing to write and seem smart and try to cram everything into an interconnected whole as if it's the answer to everything, and has no real concern about communicating any useful information to an audience. If you're going to make references, great, but at least note where the people you're referring to made the statements you're saying they made. Jameson, Badiou, Marx and Hardt and Negri are the only ones who really get more than a passing mention.
posted by LionIndex at 9:09 PM on September 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


And it's my fault I can't read along with the article[?]

Yes? Yes.

Easier to say that the author is "wanking" and "just writing to seem smart", though, than to think or to learn.
posted by junco at 9:18 PM on September 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


Aesthetics and political economy will henceforth have to be thought together.

I agree, this is the nut of Clover's argument. And just in the interest of at least having a more interesting kind of argument in this thread: I also personally happen to think he's quite wrong about this — vastly overestimating the political power of modernist aesthetics — and likely for suspiciously self-aggrandizing reasons, since it makes doing poetry and/or theory seem more like doing politics. I wish he'd actually argue this more carefully, rather than just taking it on authority (a lot of this article in fact seems to me to veer dangerously close to argument from authority rather than the kind of associative juxtaposition thing that Clover seems to be going for; maybe that's what people are reacting to as name-dropping). But at any rate he's got plenty of good company in holding this position and it's clearly one of the key premises of everything else he's doing in this article.

Why do you need any of the bit between "late capitalism" and the last sentence clause after the parentheses?

Maybe because you're trying to briefly convince your audience of a common point shared by accounts of the postwar era in a wide range of disparate political theories and their vocabularies? You know, like that's part of the central substance of your article's argument or something?

And it's my fault I can't read along with the article

Not at all! But it's certainly your fault that you're here, pointlessly complaining about it, instead of just going elsewhere and reading and discussing something else.
posted by RogerB at 9:19 PM on September 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's philosophy as poetry. It doesn't follow many conventional formal or stylistic choices because that is crucial to the way it works -- following poetic rather than "logical" structures. Maybe that isn't your thing, but to fault it for not doing certain things when that's part of how it works is a bit like blaming a hamster for not being a good hammer. (or hamma sandwich)
posted by Saxon Kane at 9:23 PM on September 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


If we're "between centuries", as this essay says, then with Theory being so utterly a creature of the 20th century, isn't the whole system of thought on which all this stuff is based about to become thoroughly outdated?
posted by topynate at 9:31 PM on September 4, 2013


It's philosophy as poetry. It doesn't follow many conventional formal or stylistic choices because that is crucial to the way it works -- following poetic rather than "logical" structures.

Yes, I agree that it reads more like a free-associative fugue than a coherent argument.
posted by empath at 9:33 PM on September 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's philosophy as poetry.
It isn't just philosophy as poetry. It is also an example of the challenges of conflating the economy with aesthetics.

What happens when the economy is a signed urinal, and you don't buy that as art?

The complaint of wankery is a perfect reaction to this. The essay could have been much shorter and easier to understand. Instead, it was composed in a way that is both complex and potentially beautiful. Some people don't appreciate the beauty because they think they need to understand all the references. Others can see the beauty as well as anyone else, but reject it for whatever valid reason they choose. The same happens with the economy-as-art. Meta.

Alternately: It seems that Umberto Eco wasn't the only one interested in following in Robert Anton Wilson's footsteps.
posted by b1tr0t at 9:37 PM on September 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


Not at all! But it's certainly your fault that you're here, pointlessly complaining about it, instead of just going elsewhere and reading and discussing something else.

Ah, you missed the part where accusations of ignorance were made. If the article's not for me , at least not without a couple days of preparatory reading beforehand, that's fine, and I can accept that. To say that lacking that reading or knowledge is a personal failing, especially without pointing out how to obtain it, is pretty jerky.
posted by LionIndex at 9:39 PM on September 4, 2013


This article has actually taught me something, namely the correct stress for the word "allegory". The phrase "to tarry with alLEgory" sounded so phenomenally bad that I checked online. It's "ALlegory". Much better.
posted by topynate at 9:43 PM on September 4, 2013


Ah, you missed the part where accusations of ignorance were made. If the article's not for me , at least not without a couple days of preparatory reading beforehand, that's fine, and I can accept that. To say that lacking that reading or knowledge is a personal failing, especially without pointing out how to obtain it, is pretty jerky.

Lacking knowledge isn't a personal failing. Loudly insisting that the author is either mentally ill or an obfuscatory charlatan because you can't be bothered to engage with the writing meaningfully is.
posted by junco at 9:44 PM on September 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


It doesn't follow many conventional formal or stylistic choices because that is crucial to the way it works -- following poetic rather than "logical" structures.

In addition to following poetic structures, this writing blatantly subscribes to a "great intellectual" model of human thought, in which human understanding is advanced by brilliant men who develop challenging theories. Mere mortals then have the choice of either struggling to learn and understand these theories, or they can ignorantly dismiss works of staggering genius that are beyond their ken.

A competing perspective on the nature of philosophy might suggest that all human beings are philosophers of sorts, that we all subscribe to various philosophies whether we know it or not, and that while professional scholars are hard-working intelligent people who have engaged deeply with particular subjects, it is not actually necessary to require people to spend 10 years reading specific authors in order to have a discussion about politics, history, and art.

If we consider the OP's link to be a work of art, then I think it's fair game to say that you think it's ugly. And if we consider the OP's link to be an argument, then I think it's fair game to say that you think it's convoluted and confusing. And if we consider the OP's link to be both a work of art and an argument, then I think it's fair game to say that you think it's ugly and convoluted and confusing. This ultimate statement of mine is a consequence of principles rooted in the work of Aristotle but independently derived by Mozi and Panini; this remarkable convergence of human thought across great expanses of time and space affirms the universal appeal of abstract mathematical formalism, which in turn is reminiscent of the triumph of the universalism found in early Christianity.
posted by leopard at 9:56 PM on September 4, 2013 [12 favorites]


I read some of this, and stopped. Why? Because iti reminds me so much of the "critical theory" style of writing that is filled with a language that only those who have been initiated in that language can truly understand. It's probably worth reading all the way through, and I will tackle it later.

On my cursory view, this essay seems to offer up some good points, but one really has to want to WORK to follow the labyrinthian (not necessarily a bad thing) prose.

Phrases like "the end of the U.S. imperium’s “Long Twentieth Century” in a descending double-helix of hegemony unraveling and global economic crisis. The United States is a name which should be understood to designate a mode of capitalism, a regime of value extraction, managed by a nation-state of the same name." are not hard to understand, if read a bit more slowly than the print on the behind of a Crackerjacks box. One can be rewarded by reading something like this because it *forces* you to pay attention to the prose.

That said, the thing that always gets me about the "critical theory" style of prose is how rapidly those who pen their essays in that style tend to invent new terminology. It's really a fantastic example of a Wittgensteinian "language game", where you have to know the rules to play, understand, and appreciate.

The other thing is that once one becomes accustomed to this style of prose - which really is a kind of peculiarly pedantic way to express ideas - one begins to be able to see fairly soon which essays (written in this style) are garbage.

Anyway....
posted by Vibrissae at 10:07 PM on September 4, 2013 [2 favorites]


"the end of the U.S. imperium’s “Long Twentieth Century” in a descending double-helix of hegemony unraveling and global economic crisis. The United States is a name which should be understood to designate a mode of capitalism, a regime of value extraction, managed by a nation-state of the same name."

My closest translation of this is, "The United States is a capitalist country in decline."
posted by drjimmy11 at 10:10 PM on September 4, 2013 [1 favorite]


I am competent to assess the inhibiting of clarity.
posted by ivan ivanych samovar at 10:16 PM on September 4, 2013 [4 favorites]


your unconscious participation in the disruption of the architecture which separates mind into distinct entities proceeds with a direction and ambition all its own
posted by philip-random at 11:09 PM on September 4, 2013


The problem with this kind of writing is that the only people who are likely to read it to the end are those who already agree with it. So near-zero social effect.

Contrast David Graeber's Debt, which is heavily documented but overall written in a language that anyone can read (and agree or disagree with).
posted by homerica at 11:28 PM on September 4, 2013 [3 favorites]


It's philosophy as poetry.

That probably would have been a good thing to call out somewhere in the post, because on casual inspection it's not at all apparent. I initially assumed it was either Markov generator output or making-fun-of-the-insane. I'm glad it's not the latter, at least.

There is a point where a specialized enough jargon ought to be considered another language entirely, and there shouldn't be any more expectation of comprehension on the part of an average nonspecialist reader of English than there would be if the text were written in German. (This has always been my understanding of one of Wittgenstein's simpler points regarding Sprachspiel; there are no hard lines between languages but only different rules. Although when you change enough of the rules it becomes conventional to refer to it as a different language.)

Where you draw that line is an interesting question both philosophically and practically.
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:17 AM on September 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


I think a bigger issue is that we are deeply immersed in a jargon-laden discourse ourselves, and so have trouble parsing more general writing about related systems of ideas: we have a world of nuanced and contradictory networks of terms for specifics, but have a hard time when thinking about or even naming generalities. For example, a jargony phrase like "building your own brand" is instantly comprehensible to bunches of people right here on MeFi, even if they find the idea silly. However, that phrase presupposes an understanding of a system of discourses about the relation between labor and capital, the personal and the public, identity and consumption, and so on. It is an extremely difficult idea to explain in other words. Moreover, this kind of talk was probably incomprehensible gibberish to most people 50 years ago and may again become incomprehensible gibberish 50 years from now. Scholars need a way to talk about these ideas in terms that are more general than those that we laypeople have in use right now, which really are specific to right now and carry a ton of complicated, unwanted baggage. Behind most of the "obfuscatory" terms in the essay is a particular instance. But it doesn't really make sense to talk in terms of separate instances when the author is concerned with general processes.
posted by Nomyte at 12:52 AM on September 5, 2013


Behind most of the "obfuscatory" terms in the essay is a particular instance. But it doesn't really make sense to talk in terms of separate instances when the author is concerned with general processes.

Okay, defend the use of 'majuscule axiom'.
posted by empath at 12:57 AM on September 5, 2013


Okay, defend the use of 'majuscule axiom'.

Until you can tear and burn the bible to escape the EVIL ONE, it will be impossible for your educated stupid brain to know that 4 different corner harmonic 24 hour Days rotate simultaneously within a single 4 quadrant rotation of a squared equator and cubed Earth.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 1:47 AM on September 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Okay, defend the use of 'majuscule axiom'.

I know less than nothing about literary or critical theory, but I'd look at this expression in the same way that I look at Will Self's essays, which prompt me to reach for the dictionary half a dozen times per paragraph: many people take pleasure in learning new words or seeing a concept expressed in a way that prioritises poetic effect or an unusual use of language over (immediate) clarity.

The fact that most people cannot immediately and effortlessly understand this essay does not make it a fundamentally unclear piece of writing.
posted by inire at 1:56 AM on September 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


Ah rats, I'm late to the argument again. I was just getting my popcorn ready, and here it is all done-an'-dusted with just the janitors sweeping up a few mangled footnotes. Sigh.
posted by aesop at 3:07 AM on September 5, 2013


I read fast, a book a day fast, and this sometimes leads me to superficial readings and a lack of thought about what I read.

I like the way that poetry, and this type of dense and reference and image laden essay force me to really slow down and unpick what I read.

It's the slow food of writing - and good for the same reasons.
posted by Gilgongo at 3:11 AM on September 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


I can understand it fine. And I still find it to be wankery as bad prose.

Dude is supposedly an actual poet. What he isn't, very clearly, is any sort of social scientist.
posted by spitbull at 3:16 AM on September 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


The fact that most people cannot immediately and effortlessly understand this essay does not make it a fundamentally unclear piece of writing.

My field of work is (applied) academic statistics. One of the biggest mistakes that younger people in my field make when writing a talk or paper is to think they have to impress everyone with slides or pages full of equations. This can get especially bad in talks, because you have a limited space and time in which to present your information.

Almost every person in the audience *could* understand the young researcher's talk, if it were presented with deference to the audience. But they often choose not to, and instead fill their slides with equations. Eventually (well, most of the time), they learn that even when you have field-leading figures in the audience, the best way to get your ideas across is to simply write/speak clearly, since your audience has a limited attentional capacity.

In an essay, if you choose a word or phrase that your audience that is extremely uncommon when you could have reworded it in a clearer way, then you've forced most people to look away from your essay to look up the word or phrase. That, in turn, causes your arguments to get lost, because (human!) readers only have a limited capacity to pay attention. If that doesn't concern you, then you 1) haven't thought about it enough, 2) your essay is only meant to be engaged at an aesthetic level, or 3) you have nothing to say.
posted by Philosopher Dirtbike at 3:18 AM on September 5, 2013 [3 favorites]


What disturbs me at the moment is a feeling I get that the political Right are mainly operating in the physical world, while the political Left mainly operate in the world of words and ideas.

The Right think "Let's make it harder for dirty sluts to get abortions". So they pass some laws making it harder to run abortion clinics. A law is an idea, but it's enforced by physical policemen in the physical world and ends up with physical chains on the physical doors of those physical clinics.

The Right think "lazy poor people shouldn't be able to live easy lives on benefits". So they cut welfare assistance and food stamps. Those are ideas, but they end up with a physical person wandering through a physical supermarket and unable to physically walk away with a physical bag of rice.

The Left on the other hand seem mostly concerned with words and ideas. Someone says something offensive on Twitter, and there's a storm of outrage, and that person issues an apology, and it's a great victory. Or attention is drawn to abusive language and maybe that language becomes less prevalent in future.

There's a feeling that through Culture or the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis these language and idea changes are somehow going to shape society differently. OK, maybe through weakening rape culture there will be fewer physical rapes in future.

But then I see things like this:
Revolution is a total thought, a thought of the totality; they are necessarily entangled. Reform, repair, regime change, recuperation: all of these are the politics of the partial, of isolating specific problems as if they admitted of independent solution.
This makes me think that for some on the Left, the realm of words and ideas has become an end in itself, not a way of changing the physical world. The real revolution is "total thought". Merely "isolating specific problems" is seen a pointless distraction from the realm of thought.

But suppose "isolating specific problems" is how progress is actually made in the real world. The American Revolution, which was a real revolution, isolated certain problems, such "white men do not have the vote", and found an independent solution for those specific problems. Later on, other specific problems, like "women do not have the vote", "black people do not have the vote", were solved independently.

If so, maybe the focus on words and ideas and "total thought" isn't actually part of a future revolution. Maybe it's just a retreat into a cosy world of ideas where the battles are more easily winnable. Meanwhile in the physical world, every specific problem goes the way the linguistically-naive, Theory-incapable political right want it to.
posted by TheophileEscargot at 3:21 AM on September 5, 2013 [5 favorites]


I know less than nothing about literary or critical theory, but I'd look at this expression in the same way that I look at Will Self's essays, which prompt me to reach for the dictionary half a dozen times per paragraph: many people take pleasure in learning new words or seeing a concept expressed in a way that prioritises poetic effect or an unusual use of language over (immediate) clarity.

There isn't a word or phrase in the thing that I didn't understand. The fact that I know what all the words mean made it more confusing to me, not less. What makes this particular essay difficult to read isn't that the words themselves are especially difficult, but that he is using them in ways which don't make sense. It's full of mixed metaphors, logical non-sequiturs and pointlessly florid expressions of simple ideas. He's showing off, not trying to express an idea or convince the reader of anything.
posted by empath at 4:15 AM on September 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


TheophileEscargot, the American Revolution came out of a "total thought" sometimes called the American Enlightenment, no? What would American (or European) history look like if you subtracted the history of revolutionary thoughts and ideas?

One of my favorite stories is that of the Plastic People of the Universe, an experimental rock band from Czechoslovakia—inspired by Zappa and the Velvet Underground—which through a fascinating turn of events came to be pivotal in the formation of the Charter 77 and thereby influential for the whole Velvet Revolution. This isn't an argument for a "total thought," but I think it's a beautiful illustration of the infinitely complex interplay between "culture" and "politics" (two terms of an arbitrary modern duality).

I think it's not really that the Right is especially pragmatic and non-intellectual (look at all those think tanks, PR bureaus, churches, etc). It's more that they, um, well, own everything and have tons of cash. But money itself basically exists in the "realm of words and ideas," as do power and law, as you say. So as Hannah Arendt wrote, thinking itself is dangerous.
posted by mbrock at 4:22 AM on September 5, 2013


Think of essays like this as being like free jazz.

Not a lot of people like free jazz. For sake of argument, let's say that you don't like free jazz, either. It's all just a bunch of noise to you.

Maybe if you listened to more free jazz, you'd get more out of it. Then again, maybe you wouldn't.

You don't need to give it any more or less respect than any other thing that exists. You are not stupid for not "getting" it, but neither are you smart for not "getting" it.

Either way, nobody is going to put a gun to your head and force you to go to a free jazz concert.

So: why stress out about it?

...

On the other hand, I've always liked this quote from Terry Eagleton:
"If the more abstract questions of state, class, mode of production, economic justice, had proved for the moment too hard to crack, one might always shift one’s attention to something more intimate and immediate, more sensuous and particular….The terrors and allures of the signifier, its snares, seductions and subversions: all of this might figure at once as a bracingly novel form of politics, and as a glamorous substitute for baulked political energies, an ersatz iconoclasm in a politically quiescent society. It would be as though all the high drama, all the self-risking and extravagant expenditure which might have belonged to our moral and political life together in more propitious historical conditions, had now been thrust back into the contemplative theatre of reading, where these thwarted impulses could at least be kept warm, and where certain adventurous undoings which were no longer possible in political reality could be vicariously nurtured at the level of discourse."
I don't see Crit Theory as a giant blood-sucking squid stuck on the face of the Left, but it can seem rather privileged and decadent at times. Great work can come out of Crit Theory, too. Like a lot of things in the world, it's complicated, and it has its own ups and downs.

...

I don't understand why people keep fixating on "jargon" when talking about this kind of writing. The "problem" is almost never jargon qua jargon. Jargon is easy, even when you don't know it, because you can always look at an unfamiliar word and say to yourself, "this must mean something." Jargon is, as Donald Rumsfeld would have put it, a "known unknown": you understand what you are missing.

The real "problem" is structure. Essays like this one have a structure alien to most other forms of writing, both on the sentence level and on the macro level. The content is not of the sort where you can have an abstract and and introduction and a conclusion and so on. To the uninitiated, sentences are blurs of references, author names, and terms of art.

As others have described upthread, this essay has a fuguelike, poetic structure. This unfamiliar-to-many structure can become, as Donald Rumsfeld would have put it, that very dangerous "unknown unknown": you can read and read and read, without ever figuring out what it is that you are missing or not understanding. There isn't really a clue within the text itself, signaling to the newbie reader how to read the essay itself. And so, it's easy to be frustrated by it.

Contrast an essay like this to one of Will Self's notoriously vocab-laden essays, which was used as a comparison upthread. I'm a huge Will Self fan, and I'd say that his essays are no harder to read than anything by Christopher Hitchens or H. L. Mencken. Even when you're unfamiliar with some of the words he uses, which is almost inevitable, you still have context clues and a familiar overarching structure to help you along. (Also, worst case scenario, you can almost always look up the words he's using.)

To take another example about structure, think about how a US Supreme Court opinion must look to someone unfamiliar with both legal writing and the common law. For someone reading an opinion without the appropriate educational background, it might not be obvious at first that appellate judges actually create law, that there is a difference between persuasive and binding precedent, that only the majority/plurality opinion is binding precedent, that terms of art are subject to how they have been interpreted in the past, that you must not make a legal point without providing an appropriate cite, that points made outside of the holding are non-binding dicta, that canons of construction exist and are important, etc. etc. etc. etc.

While some of those issues may involve some jargon, what's really challenging about them is recognizing how those concepts provide distinctive structure to opinions, as well as how we should read opinions. Indeed, almost all the errors we see in legal discussions come from people not understanding these structures.

Bringing it back to essays like these, if you're not already familiar with the structures endemic to Crit Theory writing, you may only see a blur of uncited references and gnarled incoherence, even though there's actually quite a bit more going on. It's okay if you don't have the time get more into it.

That said, and bringing in another Eagleton quote, we must be wary when something "is animated by the critical spirit, and rarely brings it to bear upon its own propositions." Crit Theory writing style is not above criticism.
posted by Sticherbeast at 4:37 AM on September 5, 2013 [12 favorites]


The point is that Communism would work if only it was implemented properly this time, not like it has been in North Korea, China, the USSR, Czechoslovakia, Romania, East Germany, Bulgaria, Hungary, Cambodia, Vietnam, Yugoslavia, and Cuba.

Give it another chance!
posted by Renoroc at 4:48 AM on September 5, 2013


The Enlightenment is a messy example - they were actively opposed to perceived obscurantism.

Think tanks and PR firms are also both highly focussed on mass communication, over pure thought.
posted by Sticherbeast at 5:40 AM on September 5, 2013


In the history of the human race we never totality throw things out, we just shift. Why should this decade be any different?

I always reduce our history (and our capitalistic history) back to movies that portrayed our shifts and gave our young people their marching orders. "Saturday Night Fever" got us numb. "Top Gun" showed us armored up. "Wall Street" saw us selfish.

Have we had a movie on that scale since then? That's a long time thinking the same things over and over. Definition of insanity?
posted by surplus at 6:03 AM on September 5, 2013


Not impossible to follow, but not very elegant. Reminds me a bit of some of Zizek's longer essays, which are crammed full of interesting ideas stacked closely together, but not really focused for a clear overall effect.
posted by ovvl at 6:21 AM on September 5, 2013


Zizek is IMHO typically quite clear. He makes the hither-thither structure work for him - it's clear that you're supposed to just roll along with him, and he often loops back to his points and theses in productive ways. His jokes and pop culture references are also almost always illustrative, too.

He's not the be-all end-all of philosophy, but neither is it an accident that he is so widely read and listened to.
posted by Sticherbeast at 6:39 AM on September 5, 2013


I like Zizek because (and only when) he's fun, not because he's clear. A one page analysis of "300" where the Persians are the Americans and the Spartans are, well, the Persians? I'll take that!
posted by topynate at 8:48 AM on September 5, 2013


Ah, and isn't the "majuscule axiom" thing a lame pun on capitalism? Majuscule is the lettering now commonly known as capital letters.
posted by topynate at 8:55 AM on September 5, 2013


I find the critique about this MF post valid - bad, no effort made, just a dump of text with no explanatory links or reading guides for us laypeople. The essay itself is an interesting language exercise.
posted by Therapeutic Amputations at 9:32 AM on September 5, 2013


I'm amused by the remark upthread that the prose could not be called clunky, since the author is a poet. That's like saying Transformers 2 must be well-made, because Michael Bay is a director.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:42 AM on September 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


God can we just put to rest all these accusations of jargon and obfuscation as read? Those of us who know how to read articles like this know what you think. Gleefully pointing out these generic tendencies is not novel or revelatory to us; it is, in fact, just tiresome.
posted by Catchfire at 12:51 PM on September 5, 2013 [1 favorite]


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