[A note to the reader: “screed” seems an accurate descriptor for this essay after my having written it. But a screed is not necessarily incorrect, just impolite. Since this is a personal blog, I make no apologies. Nor do I give specific examples.]
[Another note to the reader: I wrote this essay several weeks ago and have sat on it for a while because I don’t quite know how I feel about it after getting it all out. I still think I make good points here, but the essay is a bit repetitive. I’m posting it anyway because I haven’t posted in a while. Maybe I’ll come back to it later. -jk ]
Writing as a philosopher, “theorist,” “thinker,” etc. does not give one license to write like a jackass. I find myself increasingly irritated and impatient with “thinkers” who write from on top of the mountain of “theory,” where all the smart (read: “good,” “informed,” etc.) people live. These writers take the tonal equivalent of people from New York City or San Francisco who assume that others know all about the geography and administrative subdivisions of their city. No, I have no idea where “Queens” is, nor do I know what, if anything, being from there means. “The Bay Area” is another one. Which Bay? The Chesapeake?
Don’t worry: I’m not pulling a JD Vance and trying to pivot from college-educated cosmopolitan to straight-talkin’ yokel, although Vance’s cynicism in his own recent politically-motivated pivot is so astounding as to almost be impressive. I don’t have a problem with dense, abstruse, technical language. (Someone claiming to be “telling it like it is” can be guaranteed a skeptical eyebrow-raise from me. Thanks, Derrida.) In fact, I don’t even really have a problem with the claim that some ideas are so complex or counterintuitive or whatever that the text explicating them needs to be difficult. While I would argue that many conceptual difficulties can be more or less cleared up by trying to explain one’s ideas to a bright middle schooler, in principle I don’t have a problem with some texts simply being difficult. Anyone who has read and enjoyed one of Stephen King’s novels featuring Maine accents so thick you can hardly understand them has encountered an analogous phenomenon to some “difficult” theory. Readers of pulpy sci-fi or multiple plot-line “high fantasy” are in a similar boat.
So, what’s my problem, then? My problem is “theorists” or, even better, “thinkers” (ughhh) that don’t write difficult prose, but rather knowing prose, prose that will be read and appreciated (only) by those whose noses are attuned to the subtle aroma of rare discursive ambergris. And not only will this prose be read and appreciated, but part of the frisson of its appreciation is the disavowed knowledge that other people aren’t getting it because they aren’t as well-read as me and that I am, therefore, in some vague sense superior to them.
“Difficulty” is not the issue, nor is technical language or expecting a reader to do their share of interpretive work. The issue is the sly wink, the little nod of recognition that the reader and writer are, already, in the same club. Even more fundamentally, the members of that club refuse any attempt at trying to open membership to others not already a part of it. It’s “not their job to educate you.” (Yes, in fact, it is.) These writers make little attempt to explain their positions and give context to help bring their readers more fully into their discursive complex. They don’t seem to either be struggling to present the material or have struggled to think about it. When it comes to those not “in the know” – even before reading the book! – they simply shake their heads or shrug. Hélas, they say. What’re you gonna do?
In sombunal cases, “knowing” writing bears a resemblance to a bad habit I often see among highly-educated liberals: using “ignorant” as a slur rather than as a neutral descriptor. For these well-intended people, others who are not like them (i.e. anti-racist, anti-sexist, “woke,” cosmopolitan, desiring of adherence to politeness and “sensitivity”) are not like them, ostensibly, because they are ignorant. They don’t know enough. If they only went to grad school or read a damn book, they’d see the truth, just like the “right-thinking” liberals! While I share many of the positions these liberals espouse, at least the social ones if not their milquetoast economic stuff, I part ways with them over their refusal to admit the creeping condemnation that rides along like an invasive species with their noting that others don’t know fact X.
For the “knowing” writer, there are certain home truths (even when that writer is denying the existence of capital-T “Truth”). These truths are not up for question because in most cases they are not even made explicit. And, more importantly, one should demonstrate a certain affect about these unacknowledged truths. Those in the know are the “good” people, predestined by God in a latter-day literary Calvinism to paradise, while those unfortunate not count themselves among the elect have no hope to escape Hell. The reader not in the know, for the “knowing” writer, is a benighted rube and will, hélas, just have to stay that way, I guess. What’re you gonna do?
In many cases “knowing prose” isn’t marked by anything direct or explicit in the text. Rather, the “knowing” haunts it. There’s something in the tone, or the little parenthetical jabs, or the diction. To put it simply, “knowing” prose gives off a “vibe.” Talking about things in terms of “vibes” strikes me as a phenomenon worth considering. Complain all you want that this is an imprecise Zoomer re-appropriation of hippie slang, it still seems quite useful to me. “I just get a bad vibe.” You feel it in some peripheral part of your perception, like the little nudge you get to grab an umbrella before you leave for work, just in case. I wouldn’t argue that one can live on vibes alone – you need an argument, too – but vibes nonetheless serve as a useful starting point. And attention to the “vibe” of a text is precisely what leads me to frustration with such “knowing” writers. They have no sense of the nasty “vibe” they give off.
My internal Freudian speaks: “yes, but could your frustration not really be a projection of your own habits and tendencies onto a text?” Of course it could, and it probably is to some degree. I live in the same world as these “thinkers,” or at least in an adjacent zip code. I am definitely guilty of looking down my nose at others, and of doing so because they aren’t in the know. And yet. Two further points come to mind:
- Does projecting onto a text necessarily disconfirm the observations in that projection? That is, does the possibility of my irritation stemming from projection mean, by itself, that I am therefore wrong in my observations? Could it not be that my observations are both born of projection and accurate, at least in some cases?
- Does the fact that I have no doubt both looked down my nose at others and projected my own bad habits onto a text mean that I must do these things, or that I will always do these things? One would think that people might grow and change – otherwise no one raised in a racist society could become anti-racist. Despite the hemorrhaging of church membership and attendance, the Anglosphere sure seems to still pump out a fair number of Calvinists.
The “knowing” writer commits what is for me a cardinal sin in exposition: discounting entire groups of readers from the get-go as a way of further defining their own sense of worth and sufficiency, and of doing so at the expense of everyone not in the club.
I want to make something perfectly clear: I do not intend to argue that malignant, willful ignorance does not exist, or that non-college-educated people have some kind of “authenticity” which the college-educated have lost. I likewise do not want to argue that ignorance of particular facts makes one see more clearly. Learning about biology or ecology, for example, will (often) change one’s mind about how things are, hopefully in good ways. Rather, I want to point out that what I’ve called “knowing” prose does both the writer and the reader a disservice by alienating them both even further than they already were from others they assume not to be “in the know,” and does so without any basis in facts on the ground. They aren’t alienated from readers who will react antagonistically to their writing, or people who have no interest in it, but intelligent, sympathetic readers who are simply not (yet) playing the same “language game” as that of the “knowing” writer. Writers should write for a specific audience. But to structure that audience on the basis of a prelapsarian predestination to benightedness and the hellfire of “ignorance” hurts the writer in the end, and not least because it shrinks their potential market share.
Consider: let’s say you know something. Something important and useful. You want to write about it. Writers, as far as I know, want to write to explain their ideas to others, to engage with others and convince them of something or show them something they hadn’t seen before. The “knowing” writer does all this, at least to some degree. However, the “knowing” writer is not, deep down, actually upset that others don’t know or care about what they know and care about. If everyone read their book, gave the ideas some thought, and then adopted them, the “knowing” writer would no longer be special! To actually communicate their ideas and write to others effectively, the “knowing” writer must give up that extra little spurt of dopamine they get every time a benighted rube gives them a blank stare or asks a too-basic question. And in this day and age, who will willingly give up free dopamine?
That the people who write in this “knowing” way often identify or are identified as “radical” thinkers is especially egregious. I won’t deny that I have probably read more books than many people who didn’t go to college, but that just means that I have more work to do in writing for others. (Note even here one of the assumptions that inform “knowing” writing. For all I know, my neighbor who worked as a house painter for decades has read substantially more, and better, than I have.) What good is my erudition and knowledge if I don’t use it to the benefit of others who lack these things, or who have similar levels of erudition but outside of my field or area of interest? Why would I want to have a sense of self so deeply dependent upon there being others than whom I am “better” in some vague sense? Isn’t such superiority the logic of the “white man’s burden?” Of course, the “burden” borne by the white man is a scam – there was/is no intention of making good on any promises to improve the lives of those counted by the white man among the burdensome. Even leaving aside for the moment the question of what the white men think counts as “improvement,” the fact remains that being the one to heroically bear the burden feels much better than working toward solving the problem that led to one’s shouldering the burden in the first place. Having one’s cake and eating it, too. Martyrdom without all the nasty dying bits.
Last week [a month ago] I started (and stopped) reading Günther Anders’ Philosophy of Technology by Babette Babich. I was excited to hear about the book and actually requested that the UNM library buy a copy when it became available. Günther Anders is one of the overlooked thinkers of technology in the 20th century whose works, as far as I know, are still not translated into English. Since I don’t read German yet I was excited to see a philosophical biography and contextualization of Anders’s work that, I hoped, would make his work easier to read once my German is up to snuff. While I’m sure reading the book would help me approach Anders’s works with fewer unnecessary hurdles, I don’t think I’ll finish it. Not because of problems I have with Babich’s project in general, but because of her writing. She writes as someone “in the know,” someone willing to take on the hard work of thinking about the things that “really matter” and that are vital to our time “now more than ever,” and to do so from a position of barely-concealed scorn for anyone not likewise bearing this romantic burden.
Her introduction starts with a meditation on Anders’s habit of working from home (he never held an academic appointment), comparing it to the social changes due to the COVID-19 pandemic with deep-sounding musings on “home-work,” etc. While there’s a version of this idea that makes an interesting point, her way of expressing this meditation positions her as someone “in the know,” someone who understands the “real stakes” of social distancing, wearing a face mask in public, and working from home. As though the difficulties, frustration, and confusion of the pandemic were not by now felt bone-deep by everyone. She writes like an unselfconscious parody of a university professor, with diction that would read as a bit stilted and too-flowery if it weren’t so ridiculous. Even more than Heidegger, whom I would argue is the locus classicus for “knowing” writing, Babich is clearly “in the know,” and wants to make sure you know it too, maybe even more than she wants you to understand Günther Anders’s work. Even Nietzsche had some tact and decency. For all his claims that the readers had not yet come who would be able to read his books, he at least clearly suffered from his writing.
I won’t give examples of her “knowing” writing here because I don’t want to read any more of her book (and, on a personal blog, I don’t have to!) I don’t mean to pick on Babich in particular, her book just had the misfortune of serving as a nucleation point for subterranean grumblings I’ve registered pretty much since starting grad school several years ago. She is definitely not the only “knowing” writer I have encountered.
To conclude my screed, one more differentiation. I do not think the “general reader” exists. And, if they do, they are probably not particularly quick on the uptake. One cannot and should not write for “everyone.” This, in fact, does “everyone” a disservice. Anyone making a good argument will have a specific audience, including detractors and antagonists. If you don’t seem to have any enemies, double check your argument because you didn’t make it well enough. In contrast to the “knowing” writer, the honest writer is aware of their antagonists and takes them seriously if and only if those antagonists return the favor. Those unwilling to take your ideas seriously, even if only to argue against them, don’t deserve your time. But to then take the “knowing” stance and look down on them makes you even less worthy of being taken seriously. The “knowing” stance demonstrates nothing more clearly than one’s own weakness. Iron sharpens iron. To paraphrase Nietzsche, there’s nothing like a good enemy, but to the “knowing” writer is about as desirable as a hole in the head.