On Plain Speech and Academic Language

Often on forum discussions of political language in contemporary academia we see the same tired examples trotted out to attack contemporary academic writing.  The most common bogeymen are Alan Sokal, who will no doubt be the subject of a sometime future post, and George Orwell, specifically his views on language as put forth in the essay, “Politics and the English Language”.  I want to first address the essay on a few points, and then focus on the way it seems to be used in contemporary amateur discourse.

The main attack of the essay is an argument on the perils of circuitous and imprecise language.  To be direct, this is all kinds of bullshit.  First of all, Orwell attacks phrasing that is indirect.  He seems to fail to understand the value of the way the first half of this sentence is constructed; no doubt he would prefer to simply ‘miss’ the value, and therein throw off the whole structure of pragmatic equivocating that makes English, for me, a fun language.  Language is not just the transmission of information, it is a form of social interaction.  Awkward subordinate clauses and circumlocutions are the body language of what could otherwise be a straightforward message, and straightforward direct language is as exciting as a social interaction with no physical cues.  There’s a reason contemporary textbooks on biology and physics tend to lull one to sleep much faster than Daniel Dennett or Michio Kaku.

At another point he attacks this language for its euphemistic approach to issues like the Stalinist mass-murder, but to be frank this is also a ridiculous critique.    Orwell says,

Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, “I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so.”

But of course he is attacking a straw man here: the English professor in question most likely does not simply believe in achieving ‘good results’–by cutting off the argument there Orwell makes the person sound petty and insincere, which he then goes on to accuse the person of being.  Wow, you proved that a character you created exhibited the traits you gave him, amazing,bravo,etc.  While I wouldn’t defend the Stalinist murders, I acknowledge that there is an argument to be made in their defense, and it doesn’t derive from the issue of good results so much as the fact that, for a Stalinist, those results constitute the eventual achievement of a Utopian society.  This becomes a “the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few”–at least for one who genuinely believes in the potential of Stalinism to achieve Utopia, which I think few now do.  What Orwell has done is to obfuscate by directness: by stating the thing simply, he strips it of the context that gives it meaning.  Also, he makes the assumption that the reader is too stupid to figure out that the phrase “a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition” is a cover for killing, which may have been true at the time of writing (I wasn’t there, couldn’t say) but definitely doesn’t apply to a contemporary society that is used to drawing truth from complex situations–complexities that characterize the world we live in.

Complexities that characterize the world we live in dictate language.  That is what is at stake here.  After his listing of six rules, Orwell says “I have not here been considering the literary use of language, but merely language as an instrument for expressing and not for concealing or preventing thought.”  That’s great and all but it’s also impossible.  Once again, I acknowledge that the 1946 timestamp on this document puts it a good twenty years before Derrida and his friends started making trouble, but they were hardly the first to observe how the ambiguities of language and life interrupt the art of “expressing and not … concealing” in communication.  As I mentioned in the above example, a short, quick expression can be just as obfuscatory as a long circuitous one.  But the long circuitous one makes the reader aware that they are being confronted with complex ambiguities, whereas the short direct speech does not–it puts the reader at ease, and thus can be more misleading simply by implying the existence of non-misleading speech.  Again I will draw on one of my favorite pieces of writing, Melville’s “Benito Cereno”.  The language is full of that ‘not un-‘ construction that Orwell mocks, as well as other complex and circuitous phrasing, precisely because of its ability to create a fog over meaning, to show the fog that is always present.  The denouement is presented as a plain legal document which should be robbed of such confusion, but which is not because its context is already polluted by confusion.  The actual story of “Benito Cereno” does not lie in the text, it lies outside of the text, only implied by it.  (Likewise with Moby-Dick and a number of Melville’s other works–he was one of the great predecessors of postmodernity, and surpassed most of its own writers in expressing its ideas.)  By contrast one can think of the ‘plain speech’ of Ronald Reagan or John McCain.  The discourse of the GOP has largely been defined in recent years by a return to plain speech, a move away from ‘elitist’ college language, and it is precisely this plain speech which is misleading.  Reagan at one point, upon hearing about isoprene monomers naturally produced by plants which contribute to troposphere ozone immediately jumped to the conclusion and statement that trees pollute more than people.  There are ways this could be seen as true, but those simplistic ways are completely false to the nature of reality, a reality which is more complex than can be portrayed in plain speech.

So we return to the old forum debates over contemporary academia.  People in academia toss around terms like ‘reification’, ‘post-structuralist’, ‘jouissance‘, ‘biopower’, and ‘ideological state apparatus’.  First of all, these don’t even precisely violate Orwell’s rules, since in many cases there is no better word to replace them.  The people who often attack this language as degrading the practice of English fail to realize that this is a specialized vocabulary, a jargon of philosophy of literature the same way that ‘RNA-transcriptase’ is a much easier term to describe a certain protein than a name in ‘plain speech’.  The reason this bothers people is because a lot of people don’t think literature needs a jargon–it comes back to that old hard science/soft science/liberal arts hierarchy that believes that something like studying literature is below the need of a specialized speech.  But more importantly, a specialized speech is important with political philosophy because it confuses the reader.  It stops the reader, disrupts the flow of thought while reading, and therefore confronts the reader with his or her own lack of knowledge about what is being said.  It thereby forces the reader to examine the work critically.  I would argue that those who get frustrated at the language have made a key error: they’re examining the presentation of the ideas critically but without making any effort towards reconciliation.  They stand on their shore of meaning and mock what they see happening without the effort to complete the bridge.  Granted, not all bridges need to be completed, and one must show discretion in where one is willing to put mental effort.  But if no attempt is made to understand the text on its own terms, then meaning really has been lost, and obfuscation is complete.  The worst English writing is not complex and confusing, it is the English writing that the reader can glide over without ever going outside their own perspective.

As a final case study, let’s look at a sentence that, according to ever-reliable wikipedia, Judith Butler won a ‘bad writing’ award for:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

Of course, this could be rendered into plain speech.

When people stopped thinking about capital as doing the same thing everywhere and started paying attention to how it did similar things in different ways at different times and places it made us think about how time is important in how things are being done and meant that people agreed less with the philosopher (Althusser) who said things all happen in about the same way and instead were able to think about how the place-and-time-dependent things-happening-ness means we can thing about all things happening as being made of little things always happening.

Yes, it’s a crude mockery, but no more so than that often held out against academic language, and I think it demonstrates the point I’m trying to make: words mean things that you don’t know.  They always do, unless you just wrote those words, and even then they still usually do.  We need to always approach language critically.  But tied into that approach is the way that words can direct our thinking to certain thought patterns.  What’s missing here is how a word like ‘hegemony’ conjures up for the right reader a whole lineage of Gramsci and Situationist perspective on capital, how ‘totality’ resurrects Lukacs and the discussions of the Frankfurt school–in a way, any specialized sentence can be unpacked like a line of Milton.  That is what ‘plain speech’ advocates are promoting: a true death of culture, a homogenized world where language would mean the same thing to everyone, as if that were even possible.  It is, indeed, the dream of a certain type of America, and even a certain type of England–but that dream belongs to the past, with all the corpses it was built on.  If we want a language of the future that will help us avoid mass graves we need a language that makes us constantly uncomfortable, constantly aware of the ambiguities and frustrations of existence, that will avoid the soothing lie of plain speech.


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