Political Sentences: Anti-Intellectualism, Obscurantism and Polymorphous Perversity
Version of Record online: 28 JUN 2008
© 2008 Alpha Kappa Delta
Volume 78, Issue 3, pages 423–430, August 2008
How to Cite
Agger, B. (2008), Political Sentences: Anti-Intellectualism, Obscurantism and Polymorphous Perversity. Sociological Inquiry, 78: 423–430. doi: 10.1111/j.1475-682X.2008.00249.x
- Issue online: 9 JUL 2008
- Version of Record online: 28 JUN 2008
Anti-intellectualism, an American failing, ridicules philosophical prose, postmodernism, even technical sociology. The celebration of ordinary language disqualifies extraordinary political projects and efforts. French- and German-inspired wordplay can be readily lampooned by outsiders who don't understand that Derrida was trying to liberate language in order to see and write the world in new ways. Derrida intended his neologisms to be utopian, opening the way for the deconstruction of hierarchies, all of which subordinate the Other—here, discourse that in its open-mindedness and willingness to forgo closure prefigures democracy. Admittedly, his utopias were buried deep beneath the surface of his writings, requiring some serious archaeological inferences. Adorno defended obscurantism as a way to avoid contamination by prevailing positivist discourse and culture. For me, the interesting issue is not whether people use harrowing technical language that, as jargon, takes on a life of its own, although that risk is run by any established language game. It is all too easy for concepts, which become second nature, to do our thinking for us, requiring us to reinvent language.
But style is somewhat beside the point, except inasmuch as one notices that sociology today is largely driven by methodological figurings that drive out reasoned prose. Noticing this leads to my contention that writing cannot be divorced from the world; that is, writing is material. It has impact. Increasingly, in what I call fast capitalism the boundary between texts and the world fades nearly to nothing as what we used to call books (now discourses, frequently electronic) ooze out of their covers and bleed into the world. They command consciousness and action subtly, even subliminally, without being “read” for what they are—arguments for one state of affairs or another. The world becomes a giant billboard—for itself. It appears to have had no author. As I have written, the text is a language game through which power is transacted; it is a world, even—no, especially—as it pretends distance from the world. The sentence is a political act. (“Nearly” may be a key word for avoiding fatalism; after all, writing is a protean act of creation and resistance—an important political first step.)
Part of me, with Russell Jacoby (see his 1987 The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in an Age of Academe), agrees that post–World War II “academization” has taken its toll, especially on the discourse of erstwhile sixties radicals, who now write for hundreds, not hundreds of thousands. I make a version of this argument in my 1990 Decline of Discourse. However, like me, Jacoby is a fan of Adorno, who wrote challenging, even twisted sentences because he thought that the truth is elusive (the “subject” tracking a confusing, self-concealing object world) and because he did not want his language to be co-opted. Another part of me resents what I view as an ordinary-language critique of critical social, political, and cultural theory largely deriving from German and French intellectual sources—not from John Dewey. This ordinary-language critique facilitates what Marcuse in his 1964 One-Dimensional Man termed “one-dimensional” consciousness, a mind-set that can only deal with mere appearances of the world and not with deeper, if sometimes ineffable, structures that represent the congealed labor and intentionality of someone somewhere. Although I worry about the self-inflicted decline of discourse, a critique of discourse's decline can unwittingly play into the hands of anti-intellectualism—which abounds in order to mystify the world and in particular to support the project of neoliberal globalization (a term for what Marx called simply the logic of capital). This anti-intellectualism disparages theory because it secretly fears that theorists will uncover the truth about the big picture—much as Michael Moore has done in his films.
In our era of laptop capitalism, in which one can transact business and have sex online, anytime/anywhere, discourse matters like never before because it is “matter.” Discourse is a form of life, a nucleic society through which power is transacted. This is one of the basic insights of post-1923 critical theory (after Lukacs published History and Class Consciousness in order to explain why capitalism outlived Marx's mid-nineteenth century expectation of its demise). His answer was, in a word, reification—a discursive outcome of portraying (and thus enticing the enactment of) a static, unalterable world, beginning to take us beyond, without renouncing, Marx's original perspective on false consciousness. These are the phases of critical theory: Marx said that false consciousness was produced by capitalism in order to divert workers from the revolutionary deed; Lukacs suggested that early twentieth century capitalism protects itself by “reifying,” freezing, social relationships, which now appear nature-like, unalterable. The Frankfurt School beginning in the 1940s argued that reification has been deepened into domination, a circumstance in which people abandon all hope of utopia and accept mere appearances not only as inevitable but as deeply desirable—false needs (supplementing false consciousness). And, finally, a “fast,” post-Fordist capitalism in which people inhabit what Kellner in his 1995 book with the same title calls “media culture,” in which texts and discourses are not only reproductive but productive, producing capital and promoting social control via the screens through which we now acquire our sense of the world. These are not smooth evolutionary shifts but “moments” of a process of capitalist globalization and psychic internal colonialism that take further what Marx originally portrayed as the self-contradictory logic of capital. This is the perspective from which I approach the issue of sociological writing about (and within) the social.
The problem with positivism is that it pretends that language can represent the world. This denies two things. Language is already in the world and can't see itself clearly or resolve all of its problems (for Derrida, aporias). Also, the world is molten; it is in process. A dialectical sentence recognizes that the world “is” a certain way, but has the capacity to be different, to be changed. The problem with positivist representation is that it freezes the world. It does so because it wants to chill the molten patterns into fate, ever the purpose of ideology. This sort of writing is what I call secret writing—math, quantitative method, deceptively simple sentences (the kind prized by many outside of theory).
There are three kinds of political sentences:
- 1The overtly ideological kind, which Marx and Engels viewed as purveyors of “false consciousness.” The world is flat; people go to heaven after they die; capitalist markets solve all problems; Eve descended from Adam's rib. These sentences are still in play: Iraq harbors weapons of mass destruction.
- 2The secretly ideological positivist kind, which conceal ideology beneath seeming description. Parsons says that men and women universally seek to have families that are structured according to the sexual division of labor. Weber, Durkheim, and Parsons: all societies have structured inequality. Many of these sentences are deauthorized, replacing prose with figure in order to imply pure representation, a rhetorical ruse of positivism. These sentences pretend purely to describe, as if description was not always already freighted with metaphysical and political commitments.
- 3The dialectical kind, described below. These sentences at once describe, criticize, and offer a glimpse of utopia, seizing on the world's inadequacies to project a better world, but not in a science-fiction way—realistically, arising from the ashes of the old. They capture the indeterminacy of history, tracing present to past but auguring a qualitatively different future, given a good analysis, a plan and sufficient will.
What type of writing should we do? For me, the most progressive sentences—those that heat up the world they describe, bending it into new shapes (by raising consciousness in that old phrase)—have these features:
- • Dialectical sentences define their terms, anticipating that readers will stumble when faced with technical language. But, as Derrida would have suggested, they also recognize that definitions are “undecidable,” that is, they must themselves be defined within language, an endless process. Dictionaries and glossaries cannot solve intellectual problems.
- • Dialectical sentences exhume their deep assumptions, purposely surfacing them so that their underlying political teleology will be made clear. This is of course anathema to positivists, who pretend to be copying the world onto the page—hence the dominance of figural gestures in the journals, implying that the world is being presented, indeed frozen, representationally. I have tracked the decline of prose as a central feature of positivism which now proceeds less as doctrine (for methodologists don't view themselves as metaphysicians, even though they are) than as discourse, the language game of positivism, which I am contesting.
- • Dialectical sentences engage in a process of—I'm searching for a term that will irritate those who lampoon theory for its lack of smooth, banal representationality—self-perspectivization. By this term I am referring to the way in which the dialectical sentence would acknowledge its own existence in a discursive world in which there are lots of other options, other assumptions about the nature of social being. In other words, the political sentence, participating in Habermas’ ideal speech situation, would relish discussion and debate, driving toward consensus to be achieved on the basis of the power of the strongest argument—ever the ideal of participatory democracy.
- • Above all, dialectical sentences emerge from a commitment to the eleventh thesis: the point of intellectual work is not only to understand the world but to change it. This is a necessary but insufficient condition. It is a boundary that many American sociologists will not cross. One would think that consideration of the eleventh thesis would dominate many sociology “research methods” courses, but I doubt that it does.
These political sentences, strung together, accumulate into treatises and tracts such as the SDS's Port Huron Statement, Feminine Mystique, and Autobiography of Malcolm X. They describe and analyze, but in ways that point toward the dialectical undoing of the present order as people seize on utopian possibilities concealed in the frozen representation of the here and now. Positivists “figure” and thus freeze the given world, portraying its metaphysical sufficiency. They do this precisely because they recognize that the world is insufficient, threatening to unravel as people seize the time and enact their agency.
The overtly ideological sentence disqualifies utopia, accustoming people to their seeming fate. These sentences are modeled on religion, as Marx understood. The subtly ideological positivist sentence, which I call secret writing, by describing, recommends, deftly bringing about the supposed social universals it proclaims by inducing people to enact them—a self-fulfilling prophecy. The dialectical sentence thaws the frozen present into its molten possibilities, treating data as pieces of history. Poverty, bureaucracy, slavery, sexism, pollution are not inevitable accompaniments of unfolding civilization, especially where our sentences portray capitalism as possibly impermanent.
These sentences will be dripping with the past as well as utopia. They will trace the bloody history of sacrifice and portray utopia not as a distant future time but as a dialectical emergence from the past and present. These sentences will deploy constructions that acknowledge the depths of domination and the promise of human agency. The sentences, in their own acknowledged undecidability—a prison house—will augur a political system in which closure is refused as totalitarian. People will revel in the benefits and limitations of perspective without abandoning what Habermas, following Kant and Marx, called the project of modernity. Sentences, democratically, will provoke other sentences, accepting their own inadequacy fully to comprehend the object. They will not bemoan the inadequacies of language but revel in painting word pictures.
As for the complaint that sociological writing is infelicitous, I would respond that that is not the issue. Dialectical sentences hug the shore of a contradictory world in which “enlightenment is mass deception,” as Horkheimer and Adorno termed it in Dialectic of Enlightenment—one of the great word products. Writing that strives merely to be understood sacrifices dialectical depth and vision—the tracings of a new world in the present damaged one. Of course, these are fundamentally opposed projects: positivist sociology (most American sociologies today) positions itself as science, while my political sentences understand the world in order to change it—all the while understanding that understanding is itself transforming in the ways it chooses to express itself, as a text that opens into agency.
For me, sociology is the way in which we talk about utopia, not as a groundless idealism (Marx termed this utopian socialism) but as a project inhering in embodied subjects who have a past. One cannot write an apolitical or prepolitical sentence about race in America without having the legacy of slavery encoded in one's words. I am presently writing a book about the political legacy of the sixties, which was both a decade of death and an expression of agency never before seen in America. The sentences remember, but in remembering they also look forward. There are many parallels between then and now: Nixon/Bush, Vietnam/ Iraq, COINTELPRO/Homeland Security. And yet it is a wonder that there are no mass protests and demonstrations. I'm trying to figure this out.
I realize that I involve myself in a contradiction where I say on the one hand that I want sociology to engage with, and build, a public that is activist, and yet on the other hand I don't care whether our sentences are pretty and pleasing. Of course I do, in a way. Obscurity has no political resonance. The reader must do the work of thinking through conditional constructions and parenthetical clauses—the circuitous optimism of rigorous engagement with the object, which includes the subject understanding it. I am Adornoian enough to recognize that the subject cannot exhaust the object, that words don't capture all of reality, which is fluid and can be moved forward, backward, to the side. It was Adorno who wrote some of the most dialectical sentences ever; he and Horkheimer gave us cultural studies in their analyses of the culture industry. To decode these sentences requires a lot of work on the part of the reader, suggesting a kind of empowering: reading becomes writing, authoring the text anew. There are many Shakespeares, Derridas, Adornos, as many as there are readers. But it is challenging to read his Negative Dialectics as a political treatise, which it intends to be. Adorno feared that his dialectical concepts would be flattened out if they were translated into operational terms, let alone measurable ones. He wanted the reader to work hard to find the political, believing that such a pursuit would yield real nuggets of insight. Theory was the message in a bottle tossed out to sea, bobbing along for years until someone finds and reads it.
For this reason, perhaps, Adorno and Horkheimer were on the sidelines during much of the sixties, even supporting the Vietnam War by the end of the decade. I've often wanted to say “Teddie, enough already—write more like Herbie,” who in my opinion better steered a course between a practiced obscurantism designed to avoid co-optation and enlivening prose fashioned like a manifesto. It is up to the reader who wrote the more enduring sentences. (I've nearly memorized many of the stirring epigrams in Adorno's Minima Moralia, Walter Benjamin-like musings that crystallize theoretical insight in the sentence and brief paragraph. Adorno has left his mark on me, even though I think Eros and Civilization is the best book written by a Frankfurter.)
Marcuse wrote more accessible sentences, and unlike Horkheimer and Adorno he was sympathetic to sixties social movements. His sentences were closer to the political as he feared contamination less. In his 1955 Eros he offers an immanent critique of Freud, via early Marx, that results in a tremendously vibrant utopian imagery of “erotized” social life. This book prepares the way for his writings about the sixties “new sensibility” in the 1969 Essay on Liberation, a brilliant engagement with sixties politics and culture. His sentences burst with dialectical energy, plumbing the depths of oppression for the faint but inextinguishable heartbeat of libidinal/political energy. Erikson suggests Twain as a role model; I suggest Marcuse, although, in our fast capitalist media culture, the Frankfurt School needs cross-pollination by various theories of discourse and culture (e.g., postmodernist ones) in order to understand our quickened capitalism in which discourse, including imagery, becomes a mode of production, not only reproduction. I think Marcuse would have agreed, and Adorno too, that neologisms can become valuable vehicles of a “new sensibility” that plays with ideas, concepts and even science as an expression of what in his earlier work on Freud/Marx Marcuse called the play impulse—our attempts to project ourselves into the world, what Sartre called our projects and early Marx termed praxis.
Speaking of Freud, I think the anti-intellectual critique of an abundant, playful Euro intellectuality—of theory, understood in the way that I do and practice it—is borne not only of a certain political intentionality involving the obscuring of deep structures of capital, culture, gender, and race that enmesh us, turning us into what Adorno called objective subjects. It is also borne of Puritanism, a recoiling at extravagant writing that could be seen to be valid and valuable expressions of what Marcuse and Freud call polymorphous perversity. There is a libidinal dimension to the positivist critique of the decline of discourse, which helps explain why people, given to unexamined Puritanism and anti-intellectualism (which may, after all, spring from the same source), hate postmodernism so much. For these people, reading postmodernism is like watching people have sex in public—they secretly wish they could join in, but in order to repress (surplus repress in Marcuse's terms) these urges they want to throw the offenders into jail. Love and hate spring from the same libidinal depth.
At the root of my reading of readings is an attempt to situate writing in the cybersphere of the early twenty-first century. Kids today write furiously, even if they neglect their boring schoolwork—text messages, MySpace postings, e-mails. Sociology cannot afford to ignore the children, who are in the vanguard of a protean literary (but as yet prepolitical) activism. The Internet makes democracy possible, and it also takes commodification to the nth degree. The Internet is a literary vehicle; it converts discourses, including images, into capital and also political power. It is Panopticon, the one-dimensional society. But it can also be the Paris Commune, Port Huron convention, and Freedom Summer. The last word is not yet in on the word, on texts. We must think hard about the ways in which texts, although often sucked into the disciplinary society via the positivist sentence, can shake things up. Activist texts such as those that got us off the sidelines during the 1960s reveal the present to be dripping with historicity, the intermingling of past and present that opens into an indefinite future, a future up for grabs. Literary agency acquires a political dimension as we come to grips with the impact of structures that were constituted long ago, by someone's design. It is risky to “read” structures as texts only if we conduct the reading outside of materialism, which treats discourse as constitutive and productive.
Today the most compelling texts are those that appear to have no author, having oozed into the landscape as pieces of social nature. Reading these dispersed figures (e.g., as Bob Goldman reads advertising) is political work for it offers radically different authorial possibilities—indie cultural production, nonpositivist social science, a return to sixties participatory democracy. Reading culture (including science) politically is all-important at this historical moment when the modes of information, communication, and entertainment become productive in their own right, perhaps inverting the nineteenth-century priority of production over reproduction. These interventions could be called sociologies if we wrest the term “sociology” away from those who pretend that writing about the social is in fact not writing but method.
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- Students for a Democratic Society. 1962. Port Huron Statement of the Students for a Democratic Society. Retrieved May 5, 2008. <http://coursesa.matrix.msu.edu/~hst306/documents/huron.html>.