17 February 2002

Good to see that Doc Searls is a Duke fan. He’s right; this good solid thumping should be the kind of lesson Coach K builds from, and heaven knows Maryland is a tough well-put-together team.

( 7:29 PM )
Steve Himmer reveals the ‘authentic’ him, and thus obliges me to confess that I don’t really disagree with him, I just envy him ’cos he lives in the Greater Boston area, and I live in the midwest. Sigh — the real me, born in Boston, living in exile.

( 7:53 AM )
I’d like to acknowledge Steve Himmer‘s excellent and insightful response on difficult prose and politics, and to wrench the topic back to a topic closer to what a number of us had been discussing for a while (“voice” and”authenticity,” though I do it today without using the latter word). (By the way, that’s snappy stamp art, Steve. I used to work with a mail artist, Larry Rippel, a photographer in Pittsburgh. I know it’s different, but you made me think of him.)

First degree of response: Difficult prose doesn’t mean bad or wrong ideas. Steve makes the fair point that some people may dress up folly in obscure prose in order to seem smarter than they are. Last night I emailed Andrew Ross, who makes a similar point, that I don’t know anyone like that; this morning I must more carefully say that I don’t know many people like that (don’t care to), but that the pool of shared evaluation in the communities I inhabit tends to devalue empty flash. But, my apologies to Andrew, I agree that they are there.

Does that make the sphere of difficult academic prose different from other worlds? Not so far as I can tell. Bluster, posturing, empty claims, reside in the populist media of talk radio and news columnists, in the domain of politics, sports, fashion (okay, I’m faking on that one, I don’t know from fashion, but it sure seems that way), and — herewith I cue the return of the opening theme — marketing. Difficult academic prose seems to generate a different tenor of response, though.

Here I will risk offending, and please count this as an advance apology, by pushing a point that looks painfully pertinent. There may be circumstances in which accusations that someone’s prose is artificially or irresponsibly difficult may just mean the accuser doesn’t understand well enough. Since I sometimes make the charge that texts are too badly written, my suggestion here may fairly be laid at my own doorstep, and I acknowledge that it may apply to me. Permit me some follow-up observations, though. A moderate number (at least) of people who adopt the posture of debunking “those atrocious theoreticians” just flat-out don’t have a clue what they’re talking about. (I’m not alluding to either Steven or Andrew, here or anywhere else in this theme.) It’s a cheap-shot way of ingratiating oneself with a readership who themselves don’t understand and who would prefer to think that the whole enterprise is a fraud. Some who wish they understood theory better are unwilling to put in the patient, laborious thinking that would help them understand. And some put in that hard work, get a pretty good handle on the theory involved, and dispute either the validity of the theory or the necessity of writing it out so obscurely, or both. Let’s not confuse the unwilling with the workers.

Second stage of response: What of Steve’s quite-to-the-point question, “How, then, can we begin to tell the difference; how we can tell if we as readers are out of the loop, or if the writer is hauling the burden of a bag of bones for no reason?” And my hard response is, what makes us think we ought to be able to know in every case? Again, quickly, I add that I don’t always know on first (second, third, fourth) reading whether this or that theorist is getting at something significant; sometimes it turns out they are, sometimes not, sometimes I just can’t tell. Is that a theorist’s fault, or a limitation of my understanding? If we want to know whether Antoinette Theoretician is onto something complicated-and-right-on or just yanking our chains, I can’t see that it’s her responsibility to work it out for us in limpid prose, but rather our responsibility to bite the rhetorical bullet and figure out her stuff for ourselves (and Steve’s narrative of his encounters with, resistance to, assimilation of some of, and frustrations with complicated theories shows this sort of process in action). It’s our responsibility if, of course, we care that much. If we don’t care, it shouldn’t be her fault; presumably she doesn’t want to talk to us anyway. If we do care, then it’s up to us to stretch our imaginations or just give it up.

I cheer for Mike Golby’s generous praise to all the various idea-jammers who have contributed riffs to “this mad trip to the farthest reaches of our anally retentive imaginations.” He understands more than he says, but he makes room for the possibility that he might not understand everything, and that’s part of the celebration.

(By the way, I didn’t think Delaney quite as marginal as all that, especially in the field of queer theory, where his identity and vocation make him a particularly compelling participant in academic discussion. And his exquisite prose shows that one can indeed think complicated thoughts and write clearly about it–but that’s not everyone’s gift, or more of us would be exciting novelists and essayists. Thanks for reminding me about him; he’s fun to read and think along with. And thanks for pointing me toward the Emily Martin essay, too. Is there a bigger legal thrill than snapping synapses with intoxicating thinks like theirs?)

Third stage of response: Clear prose is more to be desired than obscure prose. Nothing I say above or below should justify passing off imprecise, ambiguous, turgid, baffling, vacuous prose as the old standard of wisdom. Indeed, we should prize all the more our scholar-theoretician-teachers who can say what they want in sweet, lucid, invigorating essays. Once again, though, a plausible preference for clarity doesn’t imply that unclarity equals humbug, or that everything written unclearly might, with just a little more effort, without loss of resonance or nuance, have been written clearly.

Here at Seabury where I teach, “it’s more complicated than that” is something of a local meme, a catchphrase that both teases me (because I say it so often in their first-term Early Church History class) and that productively points away from the temptation to reduce complex phenomena to handy slogans or binary alternatives or necessary conclusions. “It’s more complicated than that” also indexes the extent to which any characterization of an intensely intricate world risks falsifying even as it clarifies. (I’d say that it necessarily falsifies even as it clarifies, but I don’t feel like getting into that argument now.)

Fourth stage of response: In a world of hyperlinked thinking, as in the model of journalism that Doc Searls et al. have been sketching, the hypermedia world opens up for critical readers the opportunity to connect (Dave Rogers leaps in to say, “and Empower!”) and encourage one another. Once you have a circle of people who take each other more or less seriously, when one of them dismisses Judith Butler with a snarky aside, another may speak up to defend her. If Steven and Andrew think that Homi Bhabha is a big old fake, and if I think he’s pretty smart, we can talk through the various reasons for these positions with respect and genuine interest in one another. If Steven and Andrew decide that I’m just a poseur, they might then just stop reading the blog; but they notice that Mike Golby and David Weinberger are still in there with me, and they so esteem them that they grudgingly follow the Bhabha discussion a little longer. Maybe they change their minds, or maybe they change my mind, or maybe no one changes her or his mind, but everyone’s better acquainted with why we disagree, and maybe we all emerge from the cumulative process a little more hesitant casually to dismiss an interlocutor whom some of our friends might appreciate.

And as the community of publishers comes to approximate more closely the number of writers, there will be a greater opportunity for good writing to show up bad writing for what it is. If all Antoinette Theoretician has going for her is arcane prose, we can expect that a good, deep, articulate circle of bloggers will give cogent reason to discount her position; and if some in our circle have substantive reasons to attend to her, we benefit from their advice. Here (and I promised myself to say something more directly on this topic) Jacob Shwirtz rightly reminds us that in our discusions of authenticity, voice, blah, blah, blah, we need to take account of trust as well.

Fifth stage of response: At the same time that our hyperlinked coffeehouse conversations grow headier and more serious and effectual, the opportunities for online demagoguery increase spectacularly. Whereas there was only one Rush Limbaugh, there can be thousands of mini-Rushes. Any anti-intellectual appeal to “what everybody knows” or “what anyone can understand,” any critique of “four-eyed academics in ivory towers” or “self-contradictory postmodern theoreticians,” that doesn’t take into account the discomfiting complexities that characterize more and more of our social interactions, generates poison fruit of willful unknowing. Even if someone is right that Antoinette Theoretician doesn’t have anything worthwhile to say, if they make their claim in dismissive, superficial throw-away rebuttals, they engender the dangerous sense that anything one doesn’t already understand isn’t worth stretching to consider. That’s eerily ideological thinking, and I want to part of it.

I don’t take Steven and Andrew to be making that kind of claim. I do fret that some readers might elide the distinction between the way they (on one hand) make their warranted plea for compositional and theoretical clarity and (on the other hand) other, less responsible demands.

Final (for today) stage of response: Voice, trust, and community will be what keep us smart. In other words, the complex personae that we write into being will have characteristic patterns of reasoning and expressing themselves that ring true (or false) to readers. The Cluetrain Four are high on our reading lists partly because they pointed out the importance of voice in hypermedia communication, and because they exemplify that importance in attractive ways. In short, (Jacob), we come to trust them, not with the unidirectional way some of us used to trust Chet Huntley or Walter Cronkite; we can give them a hard time when we think they need it in a way we couldn’t reach Chet or Walter. But that’s part of the trust — their responsiveness to their readers commends them to us as thinkers who stand accountable for what they say in public.

Readers who notice one another hanging out at the same blogs and sites and perhaps sometimes even in the same geographic locations, will develop the shared sense that we make up part of a sympathetic (but not uncritical) conversation with a passel of other online personae. That shared sense extends to the rest of us strands of the web that connects us to David, Rick, Doc, and Christopher, but all the more importantly to one another. We can keep each other honest if we show each other forbearance, if we challenge one another to think as carefully as we can about important matters, if we decline to snipe or backbite when we can more productively. . . oh, might as well snipe and backbite sometimes anyway. No sense in taking all the fun out of it.

But whether we’re concerned about marketing or social work or journalism or writing-as-a-vocation or preaching or whatever, I can’t escape the conviction that we do best when we’re bouncing ideas off one another, challenging one another, encouraging one another, helping one another see possibilities that we hadn’t cottoned to before, writing one another into existence, protecting one another from unforeseen follies. Which, to me, sounds a lot like friendship, albeit in a different mode from Friendship Classic. It’s precious nonetheless; thank you all, very much.

Didn’t talk about “content.” Will someday. Jon (Si’s godfather) emails from Sri Lanka: they’re having a great time, Si’s learning Sinhalese, everyone is getting along very well.

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