16 February, 2002

( 12:25 PM )
Hey, Si blogged from Sri Lanka! Messages will be short, in deference to access problems, but it’s great to see that he remembered that his mom and dad will be peering through their electronic porthole to see how he’s doing on the opposite side of the globe.


( 12:25 PM )
Today’s to-blog list: Steve Himmer’s scintillating expansion of the literary-style and politics thread, and Rob Tow’s (by way of Brenda Laurel, by way of Dave Rogers, by way of DW) claim that “narratives are the constitutions of new worlds,” in a perpetuation of what Mike Golby eloquently called “the dull-as-ditchwater magnum opus that dissects the notion of voice and identity and authenticity and felicity and every other kind of crack-brained, in-the-world attribute we drag behind us like a bag of bones and bring to this space of infinite freedom.”


Steve Himmer takes up the lovely example of Jacques Lacan‘s notoriously, deliberately opaque prose, and wonders whether the impenetrability (“Impenetrability! That’s what I say!“) reflects Lacan’s “authentic” voice of inexhaustible complexity, or whether the same feature marks Lacan’s voice as “deliberately inauthentic.” Lacan isn’t the only difficult writer one could name; Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has gotten some hostile press for her prose, and Judith Butler and Homi Bhabha have recently taken slings and arrows for their writing. Let me say this about that.
(1) You can write badly from anywhere on the political spectrum.
(2) Difficult writing is usually worse than clear writing, but not necessarily.
(3) Sometimes difficult writing reflects the genuine torsion that accompanies unfamiliar theories’ transition into discourse.
(4) Jargon — one of the oft-cited vices of difficult prose — may represent a local dialect of like-minded thinkers who find communication easier when they allude to shared notions rather than spelling them out every time.
Thus, when someone gets her or his knickers in a twist about Homi Bhabha’s confusing or “meaningless” sentences, our complainer may have a plausible critique or may just be out of this particular loop. I don’t understand 80% of what Unix geeks say even when they’re ordering pizza, but that doesn’t make their speech “meaningless.” I don’t understand a lot of what U.S. elected officials say, even in populist plain speech, because they’re using familiar words to disguise the actual import of what they’re saying. I don’t understand what some of my students write, because they use imprecisely words that don’t mean what they think they mean.
Someone like Lacan constructs frustrating periods exactly because he’s trying to put listeners and readers through a process of association, identification, confusion, interpretation, giving up, and understanding, and not-understanding, and changing one’s way of thinking. Shall we call such a style “bad” or “unfair” or “illegitimate”? Why bother invoking a standard of goodness, decency, or legitimacy in order to decry bad style when one can lend focus to the matter by saying, “If there is anything to what he writes, I do not have the time to go through the process of understanding it” or “The only people I know who commend this work are faddish, self-important provocateurs who annoy me in every other way, so I’m not going to bother even giving it a chance”? (By the way, I’m only a lite reader of Lacan, not by any means a disciple, but a respectful observer.)
But Steve isn’t just asking whether Lacan’s voice is authentic (in the way these terms have developed in our blogtied convesation, and I continue to use the term “authentic” only under protest); he wonders about the politics and ethics of writing that way at all. (I, in turn, wonder about the ethics of writing a blog filled with scripts that shoot the page up to the top on innocent mouseovers–I’m getting dizzy. Solution? Read the page in source code. Update: Steve graciously edited his page’s javascripts, so that they no longer play havoc with mouseovers under Mac MSIE 5–on behalf of others so equipped, thank you Steve.) Steve quotes Andrew Ross, who said

that the world is too interconnected today to allow people to create these arcane knowledge objects that must be rationalised and interpreted by an elite few thinkers, only to eventually trickle their influence out over the larger populace. That seems counterproductive to a fault. These days, building an academic reputation on smoke, mirrors, and pulling levers behind a curtain is much easier to see as what it really is–making a vocation out of crafting confusion. It might have been an adaptive trait at some point, but no longer. Too many people can and do pay attention. Too many people can spot a charlatan for a charlatan, and especially now, we can see that the Emperor is wearing no clothes because there are JPEGs of him all over the Internet.


Well, yes and no. If I’m right about point 3 above, then Andrew’s ethical imperative risks deamnding that no new idea be represented in the world until it’s consumable by–whom?”a larger populace”? As I repetitively demand, who determines when an idea is digestible enough to be allowed? Populist rhetoric about “building an academic reputation on smoke, mirrors, and pulling levers behind a curtain” has often served as a ploy for anti-intellectuals to stave off intellectual interrogation of politics that can’t withstand exposure to the light. Granted that Andrew would not enlist in such a cause, how are we readers to distinguish his impassioned plea for literary transparency from a manipulative demand that no one think harder than me (‘cos I might feel less intelligent than someone else, and everyone knows that can’t be the case)?
Having said all that, I confess once again to an intensity of feeling about clear, precise writing that probably indicates some childhood trauma (and I was indeed brought up by a father who’s an English Lit and Composition professor and a mother who, among other vocations, taught high school English). In the ideological battle over prose style between Orwell and Adorno, I sympathize with both parties, but try to write more like Orwell. Few writers have attained a control over their writing that will allow them thoughtfully to choose to compose dense, challenging sentences over against lucid, simple prose. Most students resist refining their compositional style with an energy they ordinarily reserve for more intensely pleasurable pursuits. They have, after all, been composing oral prose successfully all their lives, and see no urgency to breaking out of long-established habits. And my students have the misfortune of attending a seminary where their professor of New Testament and Early Church History harbors a restless yearning for students to extend their understanding of how composition works (and doesn’t work), how readers and listeners perceive (and misperceive) prose, and what we all can do to compose more carefully (myself included, front of the line).


Now, as to narrative.
I am a vigorous advocate of thinking more richly in narrative categories. My grad schools were both associated with “narrative theology”; I practice a mode of biblical interpretation heavily influenced by my family background in critical study of the English novel. The sort of postmodern critical thinking and practice that I encourage draws some of its inspiration from what Jean-François Lyotard called “narrative knowledge.” My copious work of literary composition derives such vigor as it attains by way of attention to narrative as one model for sustaining a reader’s interest and sympathy. I sleep in pj’s with a big “N” on them. “Go, narrative, go!”
Rob Tow’s pithy formula entices my assent, and (even more) DW’s aphorism that “We are writing ourselves into existence on the Web. Together.” (you may just have rendered yourself immortal with those words, David–seems like everyone’s quoting them) delights me. Still, my interest in the difference of broadband hypermedia communications obliges me to apply the brakes gently when I approach encomia of narrative that appeal tremendously to my literary instincts. As I insisted a while ago, one of the giddying precipices that we’re approaching involves not just the capacity for ordinary metics to “publish” their literary compositions for a mass audience — we the people are already streaming our favorite recordings over the Web, are exposing our appearances to the Web, and may soon be streaming video of our choosing, for free, in a very different media world. Some of that stuff will narrate–but a lot won’t, and you-all who are speaking so eloquently and convincingly in praise of narrative today ought not limit your imaginations to the medium of words or the mode of narrative. It’s going to get exciting around here, and I’m hoping you can help me anticipate some of that excitement.
Onto my to-blog list for the future: “content,” and refining some of what we’ve been talking about regarding voice and authenticity on a summary page.

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