Ink and Privilege
July 30, 2008
Some time ago, I wrote:
The more sceptical among us might suspect that the unintelligible nature of much postmodern ‘analysis’ is a convenient contrivance, if only because it’s difficult to determine exactly how wrong an unintelligible analysis is.
With that in mind, a reader, Todd Lemmon, has steered my attention to this post by Rick Hills on obscurantism and being “anti-intellectual”:
I am most certainly an anti-intellectual… Being anti-intellectual is not the same as being anti-intellect. My beef is with a particular social class - the “intelligentsia” - and not with the practice of using one’s intellect to reflect on experience. In my experience, intellectuals (as a class) are ideologically intolerant, easily offended by ordinary humour, and pretentious in their prejudices, which they disguise as universal truths. Moreover, I find a direct relationship between the academic obscurity of self-consciously “intellectual” writer’s prose and the willingness of that writer to justify the unjustifiable.
It takes the convoluted abstractions of a Carl Schmitt or a Heidegger to offer apologetics for Hitler; a Sartre, to temporize about Stalin; a Foucault, to defend Khomeini. In this respect, I stand with George Orwell who spent the 1930s and 1940s denouncing the obscurity of intellectuals’ prose as a cloak for tyranny (and, incidentally, who was also accused of being an anti-intellectual). Intellectuals spray polysyllables like squid ink, to evade the democratic decencies of conversation. I’d like not to be one of their number.
I am aware of, but never have been persuaded by, various efforts to justify the deliberate obscurity of intellectuals. Pierre Bourdieu, for instance, offered a defence of academic obscurity in the introduction to his book, Distinction. Alas, it was too obscure for me to understand. Instead, I tended to think that the rest of Bourdieu’s book provided a better account of the social function of academic obscurity: Obscurity is what Bourdieu dubs “cultural capital”. It is akin to knowing to wear white shoes only before Labour Day or which jazz CDs to play at a Upper West Side academic party - a sort of union card that one can flash for admission to a privileged class.
Judith Butler offered a defence of her obscurity in the New York Times, in which she argued that obscure prose was necessary to get outside of the oppression built into ordinary language. But she gave no examples of instances in which her prose served such a function, and I remain sceptical. Her standard argument that gender bias is built into language can, I think, be communicated effectively without the name-dropping and byzantine insider jokes that are (again, my view or prejudice) the hallmarks of Butler’s style. I tend to think that simple questions simply asked a la Socrates can unveil much more incoherence and oppression in ordinary social conventions that any numbers of references to “hegemonic discourses” and the rest.
For more on Judith Butler, see here and the comments following this.
Related: Derrida imparts his wisdom. And, of course, the extraordinary Professor Caroline Guertin.