The Politics of Clarity

The academic left, both in its Marxist and Poststructuralist forms, has a reputation for writing unclearly. I don’t think this reputation is undeserved. I also don’t find anything especially praiseworthy about a lack of clarity- I don’t think it enriches thought or strengthens political movements, nor do I think it is capable of showing truths clearer writing can’t.

The two problems of unclear political writing are that:
1. Its audience is diminished.
2. It insulates itself both against criticism and use.

Why then is it so prevalent among leftist academics? Awful as it is to admit, academics that have leftist politics, and talk about political questions in their work often seem to be less clear in their writing than more centrist authors and ‘apolitical’ authors.

There has been much excellent work on the dangers and prevalence of impenetrable prose (and speech) among leftists, for example this superb essay. Rather than providing further documentation of the problem, or moral exhortation against it, I’m interested in enquiring why leftist prose, especially by academics, is so clotted.

Explanations spring up easily, from the right wing view that leftism is wooly headed by nature, to the historical reality that most leftist thought can trace a lineage to that most turgid and pompous of philosophers, Hegel.

My preferred explanation traces the problem to the lives of academics. We all too often forget that academics are employees. Their bread and rent money does not simply apparate to them as they scrabble at dusty tomes. They are paid by universities. If they are leftist academics then the institutions they work for- controlled by private or state capital- are ultimately hostile to their ideas.

Despite this hostility, universities wish to possess leftist intellectuals. It backs their claim to be intellectually open, thus it helps them fulfill their role in bourgeois ideology. Even if the university did not desire to have leftists on its payroll, struggles by students and staff mean the complete repression of the academic left is impossible.

So an uneasy deal must be reached. Academics may say what they like, but soft power is employed to prevent them from saying it too clearly. They must also confine themselves to analysis and interpretation of the world, they may only contribute marginally or indirectly to changing it.

The deal is analogous to many other ceasefires capitalism makes with its opposition. Similar, but on a vastly larger scale, consider the union official. Help me out through creating labour discipline says the boss to the union official and I’ll help you out with higher wages. In other words, let me use your struggle as part of my enterprise, and things will work out better for the both of us. Union struggles thus become a series of play battles which actually increase the productivity of the firm. What would have been spontaneous and unmanaged struggle becomes another part of the capital’s circuit. Raise the citation rate of the university, increase our brand in intellectual diversity and don’t offend sensibilities by being too open about these things and I’ll give you a job talking about how much you hate capitalism says the vice-chancellor. Our resistance becomes a nice fly wheel in the turnings and whirrings of academic capital once the sharper edges are blunted.

In my philosophy department common room there is a shelf of old copies of Thesis Eleven, covering numberless topics. I am fortunate to be able to read it, most of my friends, even my politically minded friends, cannot. The title of the journal refers to the eleventh thesis on Ferebuach, in Theses on Ferebauch by Marx. Often given in English as:

Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world, the point however is to change it.

I won’t drag you along by listing the ironies here.

Lest I be misinterpreted, let me be clear on what I’m not saying. I’m not calling for a moralistic struggle against difficult writing. None of us are blameless and, mea culpa, I’ve written obscurely because I want to look smart or because I can’t be bothered writing more clearly. If something is written on a difficult subject, it can never be wholly easy.

I’m not proposing the end of jargon, because jargon often serves a purpose. It’s not just the self-indulgent creature it’s slandered as. Without jargon, writing on many topics would be overly long and patronizing. Nor do I think we should shrink down our working vocabulary as small as possible- rare words are a joy of reading. I do not thinking that thumping the table with a copy of Orwell’s rules for writers is the solution either. It is true that clear writing should not be verbose, but Orwell’s Spartan style is not the only route to clarity.

I also don’t think we should ignore the way in which demands for clarity can be used as a nasty rhetorical trick (I’ve been the victim of this myself). Leftists will demand of each other explanations of the simplest terms in rival traditions and scoff at each others prolixity, but freely use their own preferred jargon. Sometimes writing is difficult because it has to be, and even if something should be better written, this is no excuse for dismissing it.

The solution isn’t theorizing about clarity. We all know how to write and speak clearly. We can all balance it against other concerns- such as being poetic, intriguing and not too lengthy. Some of us may be more skilled in clarity. Some may have fallen out of practice. But we are all at capable of it. The problem is political and practical, not intellectual.

In the academy, clarity among the left can only come from a political choice to struggle and face disapproval- not merely write obscurely for an obscure audience. We must dishonor the comfortable agreement that leaves us unmolested, but requires we write in chic code. A strange kind of workplace struggle, but a workplace struggle nonetheless.


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