Sunday, December 9, 2012

Words, Words, Words: George Orwell and the Theorists (Part 1 of many)

My Orwell post turned into a 7-page essay when I wasn't looking. So here's part 1: the Prologue.

A young Indiana Jones, played by a young River Phoenix (RIP), once said, “Is everyone lost but me?”

This was ironic, of course. Indiana was the one who was lost. But Indiana Jones, though a narcissist, is often right when lots of people around him are wrong, especially those pesky Nazis. There is a certain kind of person—we can call him a narcissist, or a smarty pants, or a schizophrenic, or a prophet—who often looks around and thinks that nobody sees what he sees.

I am learning a hell of a lot from watching Homeland (just two episodes left in Season 1, so no spoilers, please!). I connect with the show a lot, and with a lot of the characters, partly because of how it uses flashbacks to explain people (which Baldwin did, too—but I’m saving that for my Baldwin post). I'm in a mind-set right now to talk about how my past helps me understand my present. That's what Baldwin knew too, and what Homeland gets right: people are people, and all people, whether they are POWs, or terrorists, or CIA directors, or presidents, or mood-disordered, have baggage.

Hindsight is a blessing and a curse: I can see very clearly the chain of mistakes and misunderstandings that got me to this surprisingly confused place I am in (If you've been reading between the lines, or you know me personally, you know that I am in a confused place. My body and soul are fairly damaged, but I am healing, partly through the soul-searching writing that I do here, in front of lo you dozens of friends and loved ones. (Aside: Blogger stats are kinda crazy scary Foucauldian surveillance kinda stuff. Who is reading in Sweden!? Turn off those cookies!))

Baldwin thought that racism was a failure of interpersonal understanding. The deaths of Trayvon Martin, Emmett Till, and so many other martyrs, then and now, bear him out on that score. But that post is coming up...later.

Dualism--that is our problem. Binary opposition. Black and white. Good guys and bad guys. Enemies and friends. If you're reading this blog, then you probably already know it, just as the makers of Homeland, who seem to have read/watched The Manchurian Candidate 1,000 times, know it: we have been living in a second Cold War since 9/11. Or, put another way, pace Fukuyamathe Cold War never died, it just changed shape.

"Theorists," that motley collection of modern philosopher-kings everyone in humanist academia thinks are really important, but hard to understand, and everyone outside humanist academia thinks are useless, and bad writers, have understood the deadly danger of extremism for a really long time, not least because many of them were persecuted, imprisoned, and killed by various European regimes. So why haven't reason and insight won out, lo these many years since the "rises" and "falls" of totalitarianism, empire, and injustice--in other words, modernity

If you ask me? The problem is the writing. Many of the most brilliant literary and cultural theorists (and why are they called that instead of philosophers?) never wrote clearly enough for a non-expert to understand them. Or else they write with so much baggage, so much required background knowledge, so many freakin' footnotes and hyperlinks, that these writers take a massive effort--years of specialized training and expertise--to understand. My family members are very educated people, but even they can't get through my dissertation, any more than I could read one of their articles. Specialization is the enemy of knowledge, if you ask me. Most people don't have the time, as in SIX FULL-TIME YEARS, just for a start, to begin to understand a body of knowledge where a 10-page article can take multiple slow readings and many more hours of discussion just to get the main idea, as we call it in K-12, pace ACT (and not for the last time). 

(Here's where I thank all of my friends who took LIT300 with me senior year, many of whom are now working artists, and my friend Nick, who is now an academic librarian, and my grad school friends, especially the one I fake-named Jim, for the many reading groups: in pairs, in threes, by the dozen. You all made theory way less scary.)

Judith Butler, who helped us realize that gender is a social construction, argued, in the New York Times, that she is not a "bad writer." Complicated ideas require complicated writing. But it seems like fewer and fewer people--certainly fewer than in the heyday of the Great American magazine intellectuals--are learning how to read complicated writing and long, complex arguments. And we're doing that less and less (see my post "A Defense of English"). 

The Humanities are dying, people! And, honestly, who has the time to even worry about it? My blog posts are way too long-winded for many readers, I'm guessing, and my dissertation is 60,000 effing words of boring, alienating jargon. Spit it out, Barton! they tell me. Even my advisors tell me that. Find the nugget. What's the claim? Give it a good title. (And then give it one-or-several subtitles--when I look at the shelves of bound dissertations in the English department at U of C, it's pretty hilarious to see how short the titles used to be. The title of my dissertation is "Staging Liberation: Race, Representation, and Forms of American Theatre, 1934-1965." And most science dissertations just say what-it-is right there in the title: "A gene therapy approach for the treatment of retinal degeneration," by my cousin, Dr. Brian J. Spencer, for example.) It's a sad fact that nobody reads Ph.D. dissertations. All that knowledge, undiscovered, gathering dust until someone else says it better or just gets noticed. Scientists, at least, have a much better chance of actually building upon their discoveries, instead of just repeating them. The humanities could learn a lot from how other academic fields do the publications thing, imho.

Sigh. I don't know, old fogies and change-agents have this way of exaggerating when they say that the newest generation is dumber than the generation before. We progress, we regress. But I am worried, to say the least, about how oversimple and how reactionary the conversations have gotten, how attached we've become to quick fixes and simple solutions to complex problems.

Many of the great Marxist and post-Marxist thinkers thought it was the job of intellectuals to explain, to clarify, to help everyone else understand. "Everyone else" goes by many names, but they are always the group without power: "the proletariat" to Marx, "the folk"* to Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, W.E.B. DuBois, and many other black intellectuals, "the subaltern" to Gramsci and the postcolonialists, "the people"* to Kenneth Burke and a buncha other folks, "the rest" to Jacques Ranciere (for which he credits Plato...I think). But the intellectuals have always struggled, way more than the artists, to figure out how to expose the machinery to ordinary people going about their everyday lives. How can we "wake them up," how can we "sweep aside the curtain" (Baum) or "lift the veil" (DuBois)?

And the intellectuals also feel really anxious (and, yes, paranoid) about it, because intellectuals are usually people with power, not people without it, so it feels paternalistic. Ralph Ellison noted in Invisible Man that the statue of Booker T. Washington at Tuskegee called "Lifting the Veil" often looked, to him, like The Founder was pushing the veil down, pulling the wool over the young man's eyes. Ideology can't be escaped. Without something to believe in, we are lost. That's why, when Derrida started what became known as "The Structuralist Controversy" and then "The Turn to Theory," which took hold at Yale (in the belly of the beast!), he sounded a little bit terrified, and a lot playful. Derrida's is that kind of joking where everyone is terrified: if you take away the center, all you have is emptiness.** Deconstruction is not a productive, optimistic form of analysis. Derrida knew this, and so he tried to make light, while keeping it serious. He loved a good pun as much as the next guy (Who is the next guy? Depends on whom you ask--but here's a hint: it's another theorist with another double-entendre). But Derrida is an incredibly challenging read. His name is synonymous with "hard to understand." And he liked being hard to understand. If one thing is clear, it's that someone who could invent a word like "ontic-ontology" did not care how much work it would take for him to be understood. Clarity, to many theorists, means oversimplification, and oversimplification is always dangerous, often deadly.

Puns, and figures of speech in general, are a good way to capture complicated ideas in fewer words. And in our field, we have lots of them, often in English, French, and German cognates: differance, presence, signifyin(g), misprision, interpellation, alienation/estrangement/defamiliarization, discipline/punishment/police/vigilance/surveillance, immanence, performativity, representation, the well-wrought urn, Critical Inquiry, the title of the U of C-sponsored English journal. We have a lot of jargon. We like misspelling words, adding hyphens and parentheses to make the puns and dualisms clearer. The End(s) of American Studies. (Con)testing blahdey blah. (Re)presentations, the title of another important poststructuralist English journal. I was tempted to use "Liber(aliz)ation" in the title of the diss, but I refrained, hoping it would be understood. 

All this is to say, English is fun! Playing with words is fun. Because theorists, and literary critics, and poets, and that crazy guy who wore black all the time, and the famous guy who invented that guy, whose name is theonly author's name mentioned in the Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts, knew what all those humanism-destroying, STEM-loving, vocational-and-professional-school-remaking (de)formers*** don't get: Words matter. Stories matter.

Orwell knew that. So more on that tomorrow.

*One reason that these two terms in particular--the folk and the people--make many academics squirmy is that they were used by the biggest bad guy: Hitler. Nazism started out as a political party called National Socialism, and Volkswagens started being built....Populism can go bad really easily, and not just in Germany: also in Cambodia. Also in the rest of Southeast Asia. Also in the USSR. Also in China.....Also in the U.S. (See What's the Matter with Kansas?, etc, etc, etc)

**Teachers rarely credit each other, because teachers are able to share ideas without wanting or needing to cite each other. (My students often accuse me of plagiarism when they see another teacher's name on one of my handouts, though.) When I taught Deconstruction, I always used the Stevens poem, and Paul Fry was the teacher who showed me that first. His lectures for LIT300 (which is now ENG300--how times change!--were a model for me in how to make theory clearer to people, so thank you, Professor Fry.

*** This is sort of a silly pun, if you ask me. Reform can be bad. Change can be bad. The problem is that everyone right now thinks that change must be good. But "progressive" and "conservative" or "left" and "right" don't even begin to get at the problem. The problem is "common sense," which is another word for ideology, or what Gramsci called hegemony. Gramsci equated common sense with hegemony from a prison cell in the '30s. But Gramsci's Prison Notebooks weren't published until the '50s, and they weren't translated into English until the '70s, right about when Derrida and DeMan and all those guys were stirring up all that shit at Yale. Cause and effect relationships are a funny thing to try to tease out, pace the ACT. But that's why I love writing history. Because it's fun.