Wednesday, March 29, 2006

New at YDN

I get at something that's been bothering me for a while:
Krywanczyk and Johnston, quite clearly, have very few political or even aesthetic sensibilities in common -- at least on the surface. Below the skin, they are far closer ideologically than either would be happy to realize. What unites them is the lazy approach to political writing that is everywhere -- left, right and center. To wit: A writer sits down at her desk, hoping to make a political argument. She has a general sense of what she would like to say, but has not yet thought through her argument with precision. She has two choices: 1) Do the slow, hard work of thinking before committing any words to paper, and the even slower, harder work of precise writing; 2) Skip thinking about her argument, and use her energy instead to cover up foolish and half-baked ideas with a mass of jargon and nonsense phrases, illogic and hand-waving. Across all ideological divisions, the overwhelming majority of political writers choose the second option, because it is easier.

Unfortunately, such laziness is not benign. The language that bad political writing debases is a communal resource, and not every instance of slovenly language is innocent. Orwell had his favorite examples: "Marshal Petain was a true patriot"; "The Soviet Press is the freest in the world"; "The Catholic Church is opposed to persecution"; and we might add another, courtesy of our president, "We do not torture." Sentences such as these have long ceased to express anything resembling their ordinary language meanings, and instead are almost exclusively used to make vague and general declarations of political allegiance.


At 3:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Don't appropriate Orwell's graceful prose as a mask to the fact that your own columns are equally convoluted and ineffective as those you cite.

At 8:28 PM, Anonymous yale said...

I take it that what you mean is that all political writers do, or at least try to, value precision and clarity, as you define them, but that they are often obstructed in their attempts to make good on these aspirations. (The obstructions would seem to be both internal and external: the former exemplified by laziness; and the latter by, say, the pressures of "politicization," in the sense that one's thinking is circumscribed by considerations of allegiance and power.)

This argument, while admirable in its defense and demonstration of the importance of precision and clarity in political writing, I think oversimplifies the problem. You suggest that lack of clarity occurs because individuals fail--but you assume that the source of this failure is and only could be the writer, rather than, say, the reader, or both. But this leaves no room for the difficult work of interpretation; it assumes that readers and listeners themselves don't have a responsibility to work through arguments and to determine whether they may be failing to see or understand something. It places the burden of making sense on the writer or speaker alone, as if clarity were merely a matter of crafting some gloriously transparent object.

This is not to suggest the sort of post-modern cliche you might easily take me to be espousing: that writers have no responsibility to be clear, and that there are no standards by which to judge such clarity. On the contrary, writers do have a responsibility to be clear, and to follow codes of logic. But readers have an undeniable responsibility too: to engage arguments sympathetically, and to reconstruct imaginatively when they cannot find the argument or make sense of a statement--because ascriptions like "jargon" and "nonsense", though often true descriptors, often conceal the fact that there are arguments even when they aren't obvious, and often offer an easy way to end conversations when interpreters are themselves unwilling to think through what others have written.

And I do wonder whether you're too easy on yourself in this way. You seem to think that evaluating the logical clarity of the two passages you examine consitutes a sufficient enough evaluation of their content that you can dismiss them (and, by implication, their authors). But you haven't even tried to flesh out what the authors might be trying to say; and you haven't done the work of trying to show to what extent the substantive claims the authors do, or are trying to, make are good or bad, significant or trivial, persuasive or unpersuasive.

That is, I think, both disrespectful and unfair. It's disrespectful in the sense that you assume these authors unworthy of engagement as equals; you conclude that they're implicated in a culture of laziness and/or political hastiness and therefore should be disciplined. And it's unfair in the sense that you make demands on the writers without acknowledging the content of their work.

At 9:28 PM, Blogger Finnegan said...

Briefly: I did not claim anything about the respect due to Krywanczyk and Johnston; that's your (need I say unjustified) inference. I chose those passages because they were illustrative of a common problem in political writing. And, sorry you weren't able to see this, I did address the content of those passages. I think I have a pretty clear idea of what Johnston is saying, which is why I was actually able to argue against his substantive position. As for Krywanczyk, it's true, I do have some very general idea of what he's getting at based on context clues and some background with the ideology he draws upon, but the point I was making is that the sentences I quoted from him, phrased as they are, are literally meaningless. That's certainly not my problem.

At 10:08 PM, Blogger jeremy said...

"It is the obligation of those of us with the ability to do so to inform our activism with critical examination and to infuse our debate with a sober sense of material realities beyond us but not unaffected by us"

Shorter LK:

Those of us who can should pursue our activism and argument with a critical eye and a sober sense of contextual conditions which our actions and words can affect.

Or something like that. I'm not claiming that my re-wording is "good writing" or that LK's original wording is good writing. Probably the best thing is to break it up into two sentences. It's a rather banal point, especially the first part, but I don't think it's "literally meaningless," Finn. I agree that people should write better, and that confusing rhetoric often attempts to obfuscate weak or undeveloped arguments. But these folks don't strike me as "the enemy."

I think both your quoted authors, and myself for that matter, would benefit from some expository prose classes or at least a helpful editor or critical friend. If they think that their writing is "good," they should correct that assumption, and realize that their arguments will be more persuasive with more attentive prose. But I do think they have arguments. Orwell is a great writer and critic, but language is not the end-all and be-all of the socius, what is right, and our responsibilities to others.

At 10:13 PM, Blogger Finnegan said...

No, quite right, the sentence about the obligations of activists is poorly worded but not meaningless. I was referring to this:

"'The construction of a clear distinction between activism and debate only perpetuates the illusions that the incitement of dialogue cannot be a quintessentially activist technique or that activist endeavors are by definition not self-critical.' Two sentences later, he denounces 'an essentialist feminist movement that attempts to promote women's rights without challenging stereotypes of women that restrict them to their bodies.'"

At 10:14 PM, Blogger Finnegan said...

And then, "If the notion that self-criticism cannot be quintessentially activist is an illusion to be dispelled, what follows is that activism can be quintessentially self-critical -- and that, presumably, is the good sort of activism. Hence, good activism is quintessentially self-critical. But good feminism is anti-essentialist. What then, is the good sort of feminist activism? Quintessentialist but anti-essentialist?"

At 11:59 PM, Blogger jeremy said...

quite right. my apologies.

At 12:21 AM, Anonymous yale said...

You did, however, claim something about the "ideologies" of the two writers: that they are united by "lazy approach to political writing." And you even dramatize the process by which the lazy thinker goes about his business--a caricature we can only assume applies to the two writers.

If you're obtuse, you'll claim that what you're saying has no bearing on respect for the two writers. But I think that's unsustainable. You're not simply making a claim about the validity of statements they've made or beliefs they hold. You're making a claim about them--about the way they do something (namely, think and write). And that's disrespectful; it's a personal criticism made in public, and it seeks to elevate your own way of doing something.

You're not saying These two statements make no sense to me and I want to understand and clarify them in order to make headway on a question or problem they introduce. You're saying something roughly analogous to These statements are stupid and they're evidence of a stupid culture.

It's really astonishing that you'd call out two fellow students by name in this way. It's pretty jerky. I mean, would you tell Loren to his face that his writing is ugly? It's absurd. Would a professor even say such a thing?

At 12:56 AM, Blogger Finnegan said...

Ok first of all, shenanigans. Anonymous flaming is fucking reprehensible. I allow it to happen because of my own views on free speech, but I'm not going to be called "jerky" and "disrespectful" for writing a critical column under my real byline (not to mention, with my photo posted) by somebody who calls himself "yale."

Second, I claimed that lazy writing is the product of a lazy approach to writing. I believe I showed at some length why Johnston's and Krywanczyk's writing was lazy; it is clearly so because if they had bothered simply to do the conceptual analysis that I did for them, they would have seen that something is quite wrong with the propositions they advance. In Johnston's case, his conditional simply does not hold on minimal reflection. In Krywanczyk's, on fairly minimal reflection, the sentences I've been referring to are senseless. It's not that they don't make sense to me; they don't make sense. I'm sorry, yale, they don't. What follows from them is both an affirmation and a denial of essentialism.

At 11:09 AM, Anonymous yale _student_ said...

The move from a formal analysis of a statement (whatever its validity) to a qualitative evaluation of a person's strength as a writer and thinker is unwarranted. It's not just that these statements are meaningless, you say (on it's own, that's a reasonable criticism); you also say that they have their source in this murky culture of sloth. What's problematic here is the fact that you can't imagine these statements to be just errors or flaws in otherwise interesting work (by students who are your equals); you have to take it further and position them as specimens of a disgusting "approach" to thinking and writing that apparently many people (at Yale too, I presume?) practice.

Is this not an indictment of culture, made at the expense of two individuals? And is your indictment of culture not meant to show that your own practices are superior? Is your article not driven by a sense that you get whatever it is that's proper to civilized political discourse?

That's what's "jerky;" that particular move. I'm not making a generalized statement about your capacities or personality or practices--only what you said. It's jerky because it seeks to elevate your own set of practices over others'. In private, I'm sure most people have such thoughts; but in public, it's shameful. Of course, if you don't have a fundamental sense of the basic of equality of individuals as conversation partners--if you think you have nothing to learn from others who aren't The Greats, or if you think that many of your fellow students need your guidance--then this may just sound inane.

At 1:42 PM, Blogger Finnegan said...

Right. When calls my statements "jerky" and "disrespectful," he is only making a statement about my statements, and not say, impugning my "fundamental sense of the basic of equality of individuals as conversation partners."

When I say that writing is lazy or sloppy, or make the dastardly move to assuming that lazy and sloppy writing is written lazily or sloppily, I'm demeaning my fellow students. Also, it's impermissible to publicly respond to a publicly written article that is lazy or sloppy by calling it lazy or sloppy.

Spare me.

At 1:48 PM, Blogger Finnegan said...

Morever, yale-student-who-would-never-act-so-shamefully-as-to-attack-a-fellow-yale-student-publicly-except-anonymously-and-with-the-bandwidth-that-student-provides is in no way seeking to elevate his own set of practices over others'.

At 5:13 PM, Blogger Rich said...

I'm with Finnegan and against anonymous flamers. If you have so much to say and feel so strongly about it, shouldn't you be proud of who you are?

At 2:21 AM, Anonymous ariel said...


Finnegan pointed to two very poorly worded passages as examples of bad writing and said that bad writing stems from a deficient approach to writing. All you have said, essentially, is "show some respect." Why is the default assumption that these people are Finn's peers or good thinkers at all? Why should anybody show them respect?

I admit I am ignorant of the overall body of work of these people, but I do not see within your comments any proof that Finn is wrong. Instead, you find his comments offensive and patronizing. This might simply reflect your discomfort with the fact of the matter and not any meaningful criticism of Finn. You say "How dare you call out TWO FELLOW STUDENTS?!?" The obvious response to this is that a person can be a student at Yale while still being an atrocious writer.

As for your nonsense about the obligation of the reader, you seem to be saying that we should cut these writers some slack for being bad because we should be able to charitably interpret their claims and make some sense out of nonsense. Why is the reader obligated to compensate for a given writer's deficiencies? Wouldn't discourse be better served if all arguments were presented clearly so that people could evaluate the actual claims at stake rather than engage with a mushy, ill-defined position or philosophy? You concede that writers have an obligation to be clear but for some reason claim that when they are derelict in their reponsibilities that they should be given some slack. I think they should be criticized and held to a higher standard, not forgiven for their incompetence.

P.S. Do not bother smarmily commenting on any sytlistic problems with this post as I am somewhat drunk right now and have not gone through the editing process that we would expect me to if I were actually publishing this post in a newspaper.

At 7:33 PM, Blogger KINGSPAWN said...

good use of smarmily, ariel. you dirty jew you.


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