Tag Archives: Philosophy

The Failure of Dystopian Vision

One of the things one is stricken by when reading so-called dystopian fiction is the eerie plausibility of it all.  From Huxley’s cultural void to Orwell’s cultural beartrap to Gibson’s technological vulgar Darwinism to Golding’s Hobbesian children, and so on, etc, the bite is always intended in the idea of just how similar this all is to the everyday world, how near at hand it seems to be (indeed, it is already present in the metastasizing long apocalypse of global capitalism).  But this is precisely how dystopian fiction reveals its antithetical nature to the Utopia.  The Utopia is always a plan, a vision, the impossible dream of order.  The Utopia is always an awful place for real beings, to the point where we reach the absurdity of Gilman’s Herland and its project of obliterating the kindness of dogs.  Need we even speak of Plato, More, Sade?  We can list endlessly the flaws of Utopian vision, not in terms of formal structure but in terms of its incompatibility with lived experience; a slight familiarity with Poe should be enough to dispel our enthusiasm on reading Marcuse.  And so lived experience finds its expression in the dystopia; the dystopia is a world that shows the stresses of subjectivity in the grime of cyberspace, the mandatory cleanliness of meatspace, the absurdity that only something as shitty as the endless tedium of an office job could keep the subjects of the Wachowskis’ Matrix satisfied.  The Utopian vision that always disrupts the dystopia (although almost always crushed by the narrative) is already impossible, otherwise we would be reading a different book.

And yet this only gives us half the picture: what is forever absent is the Dystopian vision, and the corresponding utopia of everyday life.  Even the Dystopian vision of Christian Hell is insufficient, or else we would not always feel the need to be affirming that we are already in hell.  Somehow Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights always seems to present a hell that, for all its chimeric absurdism, feels more comfortably familiar than the smooth, happy bodies of paradise, so much so that one must wonder if all along one was asking the wrong question.  The right question escapes me, but perhaps it is enough to point out the dilemma–that utopian reality seems infinitely distant as long as Dystopian vision is still unalienable.

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Reading ∈ Meaning ∩ Understanding ∩ Nonengagement

I’d like to quickly elaborate on my terminology. Reading is the act in which a text is put into interaction with a mind—which is to say, a body of symbolic discourse is run through the symbolic discourse of the mind (mind here is used in an explicitly materialist sense, as an emergent property of the brain). As it is put into the mind, it takes its place in that symbolic setting, as such both being shaped by and shaping its surroundings. We can think of meaning and understanding as two poles of this process. The immigrant text, if it is to be interacted with at all (the alternative being to simply look over the text without “taking anything in” as the phrase goes, although of course you are, on an unconscious level, absorbing these symbolic patterns), must either assimilate or create a new space within the pre-existing symbolic structure. I use the term “finding meaning” or “looking for meaning” to refer to the process where a text is approached in a hostile manner, and as such is generally forced to assimilate. An apropos example would be Chomsky’s reading of Lacan, in which he cannot find content because his reading consists of looking for meaning. Lacan’s text, as a resistant text, is not available for this kind of reading. On the other hand, Chomsky reads and writes in a manner heavily available for meaning. This isn’t to denigrate that method of writing—it’s the one I’m employing right now—but it’s to point out that it is one pole of writing and it has serious limitations. The primary limitation is that it caters to the pre-existing structures of the reader’s mind. There is a second pole to the process of reading (which can be thought of as a three-pronged graph with meaning, understanding, and nonengagement or ‘skimming’ each as the opposite of the other two). Understanding is the effort to bring oneself into the text. It is in many ways difficult with texts that offer themselves up for reading, but almost necessary for any engagement (and we can think here of the marital and military readings of that word) with a text that resists reading. We speak in the language of resistance and struggle, but that is only applicable insomuch as we are trying to draw meaning from the text. When we are trying to understand the text, we are open before it as a history textbook is before a middle-schooler. We engage with the text, allowing its terminology and structure to take residence within our own mind.

reading diagram

Obviously these three processes are never excluded (so in our three-pronged graph we can think of the graphline, which represents a value of 0 to the two opposite terms, as asymptotically unapproachable) in that we can never completely ignore a text while reading it, in that we can never derive total meaning without a slight change of our own understanding (and a slight unawareness/skimming), in that we can never imbibe a text without altering it (and a slight unawareness/skimming). Nonetheless, conceptualizing them in this manner helps us to see the modes we perform while reading, and think about how we want to approach and critique a text. Current educational structures privilege reading for meaning, which has led to the notion of reading for understanding as being unnecessary, and the resistant text as being somehow morally at fault. This in turn has led to recriminations and attacks of reading for meaning as simplistic and vulgar. What often dominates, then, is a lack of reading, in which a text is passed over for a few snippets from which can be drawn meaning and for a few ideas which can create understanding. This should also not be denigrated; nonengagement is a form of engagement (absence) with the text, one characterized by the conservation of one’s own mind. In the end, we should simply think about how a text wants us to engage—what primary mode of speaking does it employ? Is it worth this response from us? Or shall we read it against this—for example, I am currently engaged in a project of trying to understand the MPAA’s guidelines for ratings, which were clearly designed for nonengagement/meaning practices. To read Lacan for meaning as Chomsky does is to read against Lacan, which would be an acceptable mode of engagement if only it were acknowledged as such. To read against meaning is to engage with poetic writing, but also it reminds us that the first encounter with mathematics is always poetic, as a Taylor Series is at first a veiled metaphor. I find that for my own endeavors, which are generally poetic, reading for understanding is necessary, but it takes a great deal of time and effort, which are serious considerations. Whichever way, all three are necessary.

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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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