Thursday, July 7, 2016

Language Without Apertures

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.

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