Once you’ve been over-educated in our academic system, it is very hard to be plain spoken. I was just discussing this problem with my sister-in-law Joan as she was getting ready to head to the People’s Climate march. She mentioned that from time to time people have shared some books and articles with her, the meanings of which she just could not grasp. Now, Joan is smarter than you are, so the fault is not hers. She is (among many other wonderful things) an activist. We intellectuals are to blame here, I think. I tried to explain the habits of mind and expression that are inculcated during graduate education (especially in the humanities), and that they are very hard to un-learn.
Further, we — at least I — don’t want to un-learn them completely. I believe that I have learned some things, some real things, in the process of struggling with difficult books and ideas. No doubt, many of the books and ideas I had to deal with were needlessly over-complicated by the vices of academia (one of which is willful desire to be hard to understand, as a mark of “seriousness”). But sometimes, especially when you are working at the boundaries of things, where things are profound but not so clear, it is difficult to put into words what it is that you are seeing, experiencing, discovering. The boundary from prose to poetry gets crossed sometimes before we even know we’ve moved to another country. And trying to speak from that other country, trying to call back over the gulf that opened up between what you used to know and what you can now see, is hard.
I’d like to think that, as I think philosopher John Searle (himself a plain speaker) put it, if you can’t explain it to someone else you don’t understand it yourself. But I wonder sometimes if there is no other way you can get someone to come over to where you are except to have that person walk the whole way that you did. Must there have been a shortcut? Why didn’t you find it?
Wark’s wisdom here refers to the political value of theory. A theory — literally, a way of seeing things — may need to be as complex as the reality it is attempting to see. However, to be politically useful — for that theory to have an impact or to serve as a catalyst — it simply has to be accessible in some way to an appropriate number of political actors. Otherwise, the theory falls stillborn. It could be accessible in the sense of readily comprehensible, or it could be accessible in the sense of serving as a slogan or rallying cry (without its being fully understood). To me, the former is to be preferred, but I admit that the latter might be more immediately effective. I would take Sartre’s existentialism as a good example of the latter, and I suspect examples could be easily multiplied.
But if the theory is simply murk it is useless politically (if not completely).
One effective murk generator is literary allusion. Contemporary continental philosophy (a distinctly American thing, actually) is an infamous offender. If the people you want to reach haven’t read what you’ve read, it serves no purpose to assume that they have with your writing. It does no good to rely heavily on proper names in lieu of full explanations (however much that can be a timesaver with the cognoscenti).
A friend of mine, an august personage in the sphere of continental philosophy, once suggested that the Society of Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy (SPEP) ban the use of proper names at its conferences — at least for a year. There were no takers.
And this friend of mine (I won’t embarrass him by associating his good name with mine) is a fine example of what I am driving at. I have learned a great deal from his books, and he has tried on occasion to write books for a more “popular” (read: non-academic) audience — books that I think are wonderful, really. But when I try to pass them on to others, they get little response. It is very frustrating to me. He has always made it a great point to try to make the difficult European thinkers “speak English,” as he puts it. And that has worked wonders for us graduate students and fellow academics. We owe him a debt. But his own writing — even his “popular” writing — is still too murky with allusion for the “non-academic” (read: the very, very small number of people who have read the same small set of books).
And in times like these, when there is such a demand for philosophy to be “relevant” (and people really ought to be careful what they wish for…), all of us academic writers need to pay heed to MacKenzie Wark.