This won't be very long, or good, but it's an attempt to say something rather than nothing in the face of a nagging sense, which is seemingly not exclusively mine, that much of what is happening around the Labour Party at the moment grinds one down to infuriated silence. In fact, what I want to talk about here are the strategies for producing that inability to speak, that incapacitation.
Perhaps, though, 'strategy' is to some extent a misnomer. It's even possible that 'part' of the 'strategy' is to draw attempts to name it as such, attempts which can then be dismissed as egregious conspiracy theorising. The Corbynistas dreaming up conspiracies behind their laptops; the hard left caught in the ecstasy of their paranoia; the Trots twitching about the CIA. Prefabbed tropes perhaps, and we can recognise them as such when they're framed as starkly as this, but there's a form of truth there - the expectation of some kind of simple, yet obscure, causality which would produce a tidy explanation is naive in several ways. Ideology wants nothing less than for you to go looking for the individuals pulling the strings.
Instead, the dispersal of causality, or even its disintegration, characterises our particular phase of late modernity. Think of Adam Curtis' metaparanoiac discussion of Vladislav Surkov's 'non-linear warfare', which 'import(s) ideas from conceptual art into politics'. Now, whether you think Curtis is an inspired, if unconventional, cultural and political thinker, or a better-paid version of the worst stoner you ever met at university - and the truth is probably a mixture of 'both' and 'somewhere in between' - this notion of non-linearity, of a politics-by-other-means-by-other-means which disarms its opponents through depriving them of reliable concepts with which to respond, seems useful to me. (I think here also of Sianne Ngai's brilliant writing on modern conceptual art's deployment of minor affects - stupidity, envy, irritation - to frustrate our capacity to respond aesthetically or experience interpretative catharsis. What Ngai identifies as the 'stuplime' in Stein, Beckett and various points since is perhaps the foremost political affect of the 2010s.)
Now, there's obviously some distance between Putin's deck of techniques - stretching the concept of plausible deniability into psychedelic territory, creating situations (i.e. the murder of Alexander Litvinenko) which make diplomatic response more or less impossible - and those possessed by the chancers who make up the PLP rebellion and who fill the column inches in the nominally 'left' media. Nevertheless, we're often talking about people who have bathed in the reflected glow of Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson - or, indeed, actually are Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson - and it seems reasonable to assume that they've realised that because traditional spin no longer really washes, because everyone thinks everything is spin anyway, a new and more complex PR is required. Now, the aim is seemingly not to lie successfully, but to lie with such monumental transparency and such flamboyant non-conviction that the reality of those you oppose starts to unravel. Why, one wonders, hearing yet another political columnist insist that Jeremy Corbyn's diet, and his followers' alleged diets, renders him and them unsuitable for government, would anybody think this is true?
These are rhetorics not of deceit but of cumulative irritation. Twitter gives us Corbyn supporters as 'Momentum millionaires' (I personally feel lucky just to be able to pay twenty five quid to vote in the leadership election), a constant denial that Corbyn's supporters live anywhere but Islington or Brighton (fair cop there in this case, but clearly ridiculous more generally), the soft anti-Corbyn concern-trolling of the 'unelectable' sort, pantomimic outrage at John McDonnell swearing, various celebrities talking over our heads, albeit very and arguably unnecessarily visibly, about how the 'hard left' are 'out of touch with real working-class people'. Take those for a small-plate version of what's going on. For the main course, you could look at the systematic efforts to construct an image of Corbyn's support as misogynistic or anti-semitic, or - most did-they-really-do-that of all - the erasure of the political specifics of the horrible, horrible murder of Jo Cox in an incredibly spurious show of being frightened by 'Momentum thugs'.
There's probably plenty to be added here but all I really want to suggest is that this strikes me as a very wilful performance of stupidity which is expedient politically in the same way that Boris Johnson's (sorry) 'buffoonery' used to be. It riles, but also implicitly suggests that it is unanswerable, producing a feeling either of complete demotivation (what's the point in saying anything back to this?) or inchoate fury. We're caught in the trap of not knowing who believes what they say, of being unclear just how much this is an attempt to grind gears, and it's consequently difficult to frame a useful and coherent response. Regardless, this is a sophisticated act of reality management which (probably) lacks obvious evil geniuses: there is something weirdly organic about the growth of this form of verbal attrition.
Thursday, July 7, 2016
This article appeared in Times Higher Education today. It’s whipped up some dust on Twitter already, and rightly so, but I feel almost thankful for its existence in as much as its glibnesses - many of which, to use the week’s fashionable term, were probably not executed in bad faith – serve as an incentive to try and pull together a couple of nagging thoughts about widespread attitudes to so-called ‘pretentiousness’, the conception of academia in the public imagination, and the increasing purchase anti-critique holds within the Humanities. Ultimately, I think, these strands resolve as a problem of authenticity or, more precisely, the question of what kinds of intellectual work can be authentic or relevant.
Undoubtedly, the main problem with the article is one that some non-academic readers might not immediately detect, namely its repeated deployment of tropes from (amongst others) postcolonial and feminist critique to index pretentiousness and ‘unintelligible’ academic writing. One only need browse Private Eye’s miserable, petty, drunk-at-lunchtime-alone-off-Frith-Street Pseuds’ Corner to figure out that the figure of the ‘Pseud’ is a politically loaded one. In that case, the 'Pseud' uses an intellectualised, put-on language which doesn’t conform to a certain, institutionally approved model of intelligence (i.e. being able to quote Tacitus and Pope in quick succession, then being hailed by the two other public schoolboys at the bar as a 'genius’). Here, the spite seems to be directed more forcefully towards radical critique, but it’s certainly working to similar standards of establishment he’s-a-clever-chappishness.
What bothers me specifically, I think, is how the resistance to critique has for so long passed itself off as a form of non-duped perspicacity in British intellectual culture. I suppose my academic background would lead me to home in on Larkin and Kingsley Amis, amongst others of their era, as being particularly guilty of staging their own pig-headedness as clarity, and The Movement’s self-satisfied antimodernist plainspeak was certainly what gave Orwell’s horrible ‘Politicsand the English Language’ an aesthetic of sorts. Since the immediate postwar, one might expect this know-what-you-like-and-like-what-you-know attitude to have ebbed as cultural trends typically do, but it never really has. Blame the dynastic nature of British hard-bollocked reality, perhaps, with Martin Amis replacing Kingsley and bringing the likes of Hitchens and Craig Raine along for the ride, and with Don Paterson and some other Faber poets following in turn. Regardless, we’ve continually been sold the lie by a cultural elite that thinking critically is somehow elitist and worthy of reproach.
No doubt the hegemony of docile intellect is over-determined. I’m not claiming that the Big Establishment is sitting chuckling behind decades of writing, criticism and culture, wearing Amises K and M, and their strange acolytes, as glove puppets. The legacy of practical criticism plays a part, as does the ongoing need of Oxford’s English Department to have a USP when you can study up-to-the-minute takes on theory at Sussex or UCL. Perhaps the complex causes of this attitude are what make it so deep-rooted, distributing the work of institutionalising a particular, non-critical way of ‘being intellectual’ across multiple, semi-autonomous actors.
With this in mind, this question of intelligibility and academic authenticity posits a ‘better’ language which is, so the story goes, presently crowded out by the impenetrable style of the critical elite. For the purpose of full disclosure, I admit that, in the first year of my PhD, now somehow over a decade ago, I occasionally made noises about the unearned verboseness of academic discourse. It was only when I got a new supervisor, who pointed out to me that my own, non-duped writing was ten times less penetrable and ten times more insufferably stylised than Derrida’s or Lacan’s, that I started to accept that it wasn’t academia that had the problem. As such, I can extend a little generosity of the they-know-not-what-they-do sort. Beyond that, perhaps it’s important to celebrate precisely the things Zachary Foster attempts to hold to account. It’s interesting that Foster’s attempts to enumerate the flaws of critique’s style almost run out of space, as though he can’t quite pin down what this style is. I do believe that there exist certain reifications of critique’s language (my own repeated use of ‘certain’ being but one example), but surely the real usefulness of the idiom is its flexibility, its adaptability, its dialectical dexterity? In fact, surely the maximalism of critique, which seeks constantly to retool and expand language in the interests of conceptual precision – and this is the real function of the style, rather than the need to assert spurious intellectual authority – is itself a form of accessibility? My increased confidence as an academic writer coincided with my realisation that, very often, theory consisted of the admission that thought happened in language, and as such was subservient to it, but that attempts to think necessarily reshaped a constitutively inadequate language. Bottom-of-the-barrel Saussure, perhaps, but an enabling experience in how it pointed to the fact that only an extensively malleable language could be a truly critical one.
To grasp what this means, we have to try and conceive of what the phantom ‘better’ language might look like. It’s interesting, isn’t it, that all these post-Orwellians have even less interest in their hero in prescription, instead focusing on stretching the list of prohibitions. The insinuation seems to be that the language we should be using is self-evident, and does not need to be described: it is merely common sense in its verbal form. ‘Intelligence’, as such, is imagined as non-creative, non-associative, neophobic. It knows about things, and can describe them, but it never bridles in frustration at the lack of a word or larger verbal structure to pinpoint, and critically estrange, that of which we’ve always been aware but to which we’ve failed to pay adequate attention. Where people like Foster suggest that ‘academic’ language is impenetrable, it seems to me that the language which they fantasise about a resurgence of is a genuinely elitist idiom of already-knowing, rather than one of making.
Zadie Smith’s interesting but bad novel On Beauty offers a signal example of the framing of critique’s language in the form of its protagonist Howard Belsey, one of those nefarious poststructuralist shaggers that were a cliché even before Malcolm Bradbury stopped writing about them. Belsey – seemingly named for Catherine Belsey, and perhaps, I sometimes wonder, for Howard Caygill as well – undermines the confidence of his Art History students by turning a class on Rembrandt into a Benjaminesque treatise on the barbarous origins of aesthetic objects, and upsets his wife by sending an email to family friends accounting for 9/11 in Baudrillard’s terms. The novel comes down hard on Belsey’s theoretical inhumanity, while appearing to gesture in the direction of a poorly defined intuition as the most useful form of aesthetic response. Again, critique is framed as impenetrability, only here it’s conceived of as an intellectualising get-out clause in the face of ethical judgement.
The kinds of authentic, intuitive encounters with artworks Smith – whose caricatures of Marxist and poststructuralist thought make her appear less well-read than she is – appears to endorse are also danced around by (relatively) recent moves to write criticism post-critically. These are sometimes useful and interesting (Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick’s essay on ‘Paranoid Reading and Reparative Reading’; Isobel Armstrong’s The Radical Aesthetic) and sometimes very strange indeed (Rita Felski’s repetitive and rushed The Limits of Critique). At their best, they, as Sedgwick’s title suggests, fight for ways or redeeming or repurposing problematic texts; at their worst, they seem to repeat the assertion that critique is some form of elite gag, in both senses of that word.
Some people who read articles like Foster’s are simply having prejudices reconfirmed, and will continue their minatory hover over the Guardian’s message boards to tell us we’re going to Pseuds’ Corner, or In The Sea. However, this kind of discourse also primes students to enter university classrooms in anticipation of a windowless non-conversation which will exclude them until they graduate. I’ve taught theory courses for eight or nine years now, and it’s always appeared to me that the preceding myth of theory is what makes an admittedly complex subject prohibitively difficult. Instead of finding ways to participate in the conversation made possible by critique, a conversation which is accepting of linguistic adventure and misadventure, cowed students hang back in anticipation of the arrival of a ‘plain’ language which will rescue them and gee them on to a First. However, this language is that learned from birth and refined in the debating societies of private schools, a language which really is without apertures.