Wednesday, January 6, 2016

The way we speak now: What theory wrought

I never thought I'd be one of those people who inveighs against the jargon of social theory—and it makes me almost embarrassed to realize that I have become one. The company is awkward, reeking of cultural and sometimes political conservatism. And it wasn't supposed to happen to me. In college, I defended the most challengingly polysyllabic tendencies of academic writing doggedly. I devoured all the scariest social and literary theorists I could find and came back for more. Much of my favorite literature is from the acme of the vaulting modernist sentence-paragraph: Proust, Woolf, Toomer, Faulkner. I'm still a staunch defender of the right to "write difficult."

Nor does an allergy to theory-speak fit me ideologically. To the contrary, I think that the knottiest critical, social, and literary theories of the mid- and late-twentieth centuries are worth taking seriously—it still bugs me when people scoff at post-structuralism out of hand—and I think there's a lot to learn from what some still call, with a twinge of xenophobia, "Continental thought." The social activists who employ the language of academic theory extensively in their work today are generally working toward ends with which I agree. Indeed, their work vindicates one of my most insistent hopes and beliefs: that work done in the academy, the world of ideas, and especially the humanities ultimately brings about real effects—that, to quote Isaiah Berlin paraphrasing Heine, "philosophical concepts nurtured in the stillness of a professor's study could destroy a civilization"—or save one.

Words and terms nurtured in the work of academics—historians, literary critics, social theorists—permeate the language of people involved in ground-level sociopolitical work entirely apart from the university (what a lot of people would call "activism"). Many, though certainly not all, have spent time in college, and picked up these words from the wellsprings. They have been demoticized and democratized: "false dichotomy" and "problematic" no longer feel entirely covered in chalk dust; neither does "agency." Others still feel nerdy, but increasing numbers of people know what they mean: "microaggression," "intersectional(ity)," "neocolonial," "discourse," "marginalization." Most importantly, these are the words that have helped impart a sense of control and power to many of the least powerful people in our times, giving to their airy somethings a local habitation and a name. How much the better for being able to point to microaggression or intersectionality because you finally can label it, where previously you could only gesture in frustration at an experience you couldn't pin down?

Most remarkable to me is the theoretical power conferred upon simple words in the past few years—a power which seems to me to trickle from their use in the writings of thinkers, journalists, teachers, and scholars: "Body." "Space." "Privilege." "Trauma." None of these words seemed especially recondite ten years ago. And yet they have been infused with a power and a mystique that comes from being wielded to do a particular kind of conceptual work—the work that I can instantiate in a single sentence, if I want: "Your (white, straight, male) body enjoys the privilege of not being vulnerable to trauma in this space in the way that mine is." These words have been summoned to make ideas more abstract, calling attention to entities at a level of generality that rewrites the terms on which we argue about the world. There is one particular kind of work that ties at least three of these words together, and possibly all four, in a conceptual maneuver that I find as thrilling as I do worrying (I'll elaborate on another occasion)—that there are forms of violence other than egregious physical harm to which some people are susceptible and others are not.

Like I said, my politics are such that I basically agree with the use to which these words are being put. And by any rationale, I should be delighted at anything that bolsters my (admittedly self-interested) belief that conceptual work does real-world things eventually.

So why do I instead find myself going slightly bonkers inside when I encounter these words? In part, it's a sense that they have become clichés. Clichés of recent vintage, to be sure—but still, a sign of thoughts running in tracks worn down over a couple decades, with all that that implies in language. The trouble is that I feel like coming across these words—microaggression, essentialism, the body—deadens the experience and ideas that are being conveyed. Their force feels blunter because the language shows the sign of having run through a well-trafficked channel. It ceases to speak with the force of the biographical and instead takes up residence on the plane of the theoretical. This impulse of mine is unfair, to be sure. Who am I to say that Freud's language, or Judith Butler's, or Bernard Williams's, or Socrates', can't impart insights to someone who needs them?—especially when I've known the electrical charge of doing the same.

But you can feel when a writer comes to a worldview with a sense of novelty—the feverish charge that you get from a system of ideas springing into life in a mind on paper. The most dynamic and celebrated young essayists of our times—Ta-Nehisi Coates, Maggie Nelson, and Zadie Smith spring to mind; I'd also add Alison Bechdel—are always in command of their own voices even when they borrow a technical term from elsewhere, and they are also good explicators along the way. In less skillful hands or heads, there is the risk of ideas ossifying into ideology, or being taking as ideology from the outset—a doctrine to be accepted, not tools to be put to work. What I find unnerving, especially when careful arguments of careful thinkers are boiled down into protest banners and lists of demands, is the dispossession of voice: declining to fit one's own words to concepts, instead using the terms set by someone else. It reminds me of the peasants vacuously spouting Marxist-ish jargon in Monty Python and the Holy Grail (Marxism being to those times what our more fragmentary, identity-centered social theories are to ours, I suppose).

Maybe this is unfair. Part of the point of theoretical work is to give people words with which to do things, words that they don't need to have invented: necessary division of labor between intellect and activity. Not every person with something worthwhile to say about their position in society can be a stylistic genius on top of it. Some people—indeed, some people who are brilliant thinkers in their own right—need to borrow words.

Yet I am annoyed by ham-handed and whole-cloth borrowings from the language of social theory not mainly because of the lack of originality implied, but rather because when the words fall flat—as increasingly they do for me—it represents a failure of the art of rhetoric. I mean rhetoric taken in the most positive sense, I should be clear. I want to see words harnessed within rational argument in a way that simultaneously convinces and moves: reason compresent with pathos. Too many invocations of theory without the philosophical legwork of clear argument, or the artistic grace of convincing me that your experience is yours, immediate and piercing—they start to lose their power. The theory-speak serves as an in-group identifier more than anything else. It's other people, with a similar background and similar beliefs, who will be most convinced by the use of words like "microaggression," "false essentialism," and "privilege" to do the heavy lifting. The best chance of winning over the skeptics, friendly and hostile, and the outright opponents, is with as many of one's own words as possible, conveying with force and vivacity what it's like to be the victim of any of those three things. Otherwise, like the Monty Python peasants, we really do risk preaching to the choir. 

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