Monday, November 7, 2011

Word Salad with Oil, Vinegar, and May I Grind Your Pepper?

So, Friday night I began reading Richard Canning's second volume of interviews with gay (male) novelists, Hear Us Out (Columbia, 2003). I love reading interviews with writers, and these promised to be meaty and substantial.

Unfortunately Canning allows himself to chatter away in the introduction, and at one point he writes this (xi-xii):
Too many academics in our field have preferred to write voodoo prose, unaccountably egged on by an ever-dwindling number of colleagues to ever-more-intractable acres of prosaic purple. It’s heartbreaking to read literary prose of the quality, say, of E. M. Forster, and to witness how the worst sort of criticism can turn an honest, receptive, but untutored mind into a sort of “howling machine” of theory-born injunctions, objections, declamations, and obsessions. Enough! Enough, especially, of cries about what a certain author didn’t manage to do. Books are hard to write; harder still to publish! What did they achieve? I'm not ashamed of being unfashionably celebratory in the pages of Hear Us Out.
"Voodoo prose"? My dear. Piling on theoretical jargon isn't the only way to write badly. That first sentence doesn't make a lot of sense. "Prosaic" isn't the adjectival form of "prose": it means"factual, dull, unimaginative, everyday, ordinary" -- whatever "voodoo prose" might be, it wouldn't be that. I do believe Canning inverted the word order of "purple prose" (which isn't what he's objecting to) in hopes of making it less prosaic, but it doesn't work. It's not enough to purge your writing of academic buzzwords; you have to know what you're doing.

I've read a fair amount of academic critical writing over the past couple of decades, and while most of it is not very good, the trouble doesn't lie in jargon or "theory-born injunctions, objections, declamations, and obsessions." What bothers me is that the writers don't know what their jargon means -- many of them don't even know what it means to beg a question, and that's hardly cutting edge Derridean terminology -- and don't understand the theories they're trying to use. As I think I've complained before, when a critic displays a tin ear for English style, his or her authority as a critic sags, if it doesn't totally collapse. Personally, I think I'd enjoy reading some "voodoo prose," but unfortunately Canning doesn't name any names.

I also don't remember having read much academic criticism which was "full of cries about what a certain author didn't manage to do." If anything, the trouble is the reverse -- this or that author is celebrated, say, for having produced bold interventions which deconstruct the Western binary paradigms of gender (or whatever). I don't object to this sort of thing because the author never intended to do any such thing -- the author's intention isn't the final word, even when you know what it was -- but that the critic doesn't know what "deconstruct" means, and is still entangled in the coils of Western binaries. But that's okay, because as Canning suggests, the real purpose of such writing is to add publications to one's c.v., get tenure, and achieve security if not status in one's field. It's not, as is often claimed, to impress one's colleagues, because they don't read it: they're too busy working on their own c.v.'s. It's not intended for the general reader, and the only trouble with that is that, to judge from the occasional attempt I've witnessed, such critics forget how to communicate with the general reader. The "worst sort of criticism" lies elsewhere, though.

But, as Canning would say, Enough! Canning prepped himself well for the interviews, asked intelligent questions, and let his subjects have the limelight. The only real problem with the book is that I now want to read most of their writings, and I already have too many books piled up to read.

One interviewee really got my goat, though. I enjoyed Gary Indiana's journalism in the Village Voice many years ago, and read a couple of his novels when he turned to fiction: Horse Crazy and Gone Tomorrow. I didn't like them all that well, though I recognized that they were well done; I just didn't connect. And I seem to recall that somewhere along the line I parted company with him politically. Maybe it was something like this (Canning, p. 20):
What annoys me about the constant barrage of appeals made to “values” and “morals” is that I don’t see the morality of an overpopulated world, or the morality of taxing individuals like myself to pay for the education of other people’s children. I don’t know why people should be rewarded in any fashion for having too many children. If we have no birth control policy, I become a slave. I have to pay taxes to support other people’s kids – to send them to schools where they don’t learn anything.
The malignant stupidity of this paragraph boggles my mind. At the most basic level, public education isn't a "reward" for the parents: it's not a reward for anybody. In theory, at least, public education is for the benefit of the children. The idea is that kids shouldn't be deprived of an education because, through no fault of their own, they were born to indigent or simply lower-income parents. But even the loinfruit of rich parents -- George W. Bush comes readily to mind -- go to expensive private schools without learning anything.

Beyond that, Indiana should pay taxes for public schools because he himself benefited from public schools. I haven't been able to find much biographical information about him online, so I don't know that he didn't attend private schools through high school, but I do know that in his youth he moved west from New England and attended the University of California at Berkeley for a couple of years. Why should the taxpayers of California be enslaved so that a Yankee faggot could mooch off of them? I happily pay taxes to support public schools because I benefited from them. I also support public libraries, the training schools of socialism, because I continue to benefit from them. I'm not even going to dirty my hands on Indiana's whining about overpopulation and the lack of a "birth-control policy."

A few pages later, Canning remarks (25):
These things might make the aesthete in us recoil. The flowers for Diana outside Kensington palace were beautiful. But the letters! I’ve never read so much bad poetry.

GI: Daniel Harris wrote two brilliant essays – one on the Versace funeral; the other on the Princess Di affair. He took things people had posted on the Internet and analyzed them – the bad spelling, and so on. The sensation of being in a world of complete idiots is staggering.
I know just what you mean, Gary; I know just what you mean. (Daniel Harris wrote a stupid book, The Rise and Fall of Gay Culture, published in 1997. I reviewed it for the local gay newspaper, and I'll post the review when I get a chance.)

Just the day before, RWA1 linked on Facebook to this article on Occupy Wall Street by the pundit Thomas Sowell. Sowell is apparently a serious economist and social scientist, but this article is punditry, and even that is probably too generous. It's a "You kids get off my lawn!" rant, where the voices in Sowell's head substitute for the most cursory research. RWA1 called it "some home truths about 'occupations'", but I guess that amounts to the same thing.
In various cities across the country, mobs of mostly young, mostly incoherent, often noisy and sometimes violent demonstrators are making themselves a major nuisance.
Meanwhile, many in the media are practically gushing over these "protesters," and giving them the free publicity they crave for themselves and their cause -- whatever that is, beyond venting their emotions on television.Members of the mobs apparently believe that other people, who are working while they are out trashing the streets, should be forced to subsidize their college education -- and apparently the President of the United States thinks so too.

But if these loud mouths' inability to put together a coherent line of thought is any indication of their education, the taxpayers should demand their money back for having that money wasted on them for years in the public schools.

Sloppy words and sloppy thinking often go together, both in the mobs and in the media that are covering them. It is common, for example, to hear in the media how some "protesters" were arrested. But anyone who reads this column regularly knows that I protest against all sorts of things -- and don't get arrested.

The difference is that I don't block traffic, join mobs sleeping overnight in parks or urinate in the street. If the media cannot distinguish between protesting and disturbing the peace, then their education may also have wasted a lot of taxpayers' money.
If Sowell's inability to put together a coherent line of thought is any indication of his education, he should demand his money back from the institutions of higher learning that he attended (Harvard, Columbia, University of Chicago). On second thought, though, why should he? Incoherence and misrepresentation of fact obviously haven't hurt his career any. For example, from what I can tell, the Occupy camps aren't "trashing the streets"; they clean up after themselves. I know that the local camp does. Sowell (and others who've been repeating this talking point) is simply writing on autopilot, spewing "dirty hippies, dirty dirty hippies!"

For another, the "media" have not been "practically gushing" over OWS, unless it's bile they've been gushing. Even the supposedly "liberal" media have been overtly hostile to the movement, though their mood softened somewhat after some notable incidents of unprovoked police violence. Most of the time a false equivalence continues to be the norm in coverage, as in "protesters clashed with police" when police attacked the protesters. The numerous cases of police violence, revealingly, go unnoticed and unmentioned in Sowell's litany.

The fact that protesters have been arrested doesn't, unfortunately, mean that they were doing anything wrong, or even broke the law; it's not clear just what Sowell is griping about there. His stance of deliberate obtuseness goes beyond even the corporate media's "But why won't you tell us what your demands are?" "The difference is that I don't block traffic, join mobs sleeping overnight in parks or urinate in the street." That's probably not the only difference; part of it is certainly that Sowell picks only the safest targets to protest, and does so from his typewriter, not in the streets. Which is his right, but there is nothing disreputable about going to the streets either. And I doubt that he reacted the same way to the arrests of dissenters in the Soviet Union, say.  (I know RWA1 didn't.)

As for "members of the mobs apparently believe that other people, who are working while they are out trashing the streets, should be forced to subsidize their college education," this would be a lie if it weren't so amazingly clueless. Among other things, the movement complains that they went into major debt in order to get college educations that they were told would gain them good jobs; those jobs turned out not to be available. True, they could go to work for MacDonald's or Starbucks (except that neither chain has enough jobs to accommodate them all), but then why go to college in the first place? More important, college educations in the United States are already largely publicly subsidized, at state universities and community colleges; the trouble is that the public subsidy has been diminished steadily over the past forty or so years. Among the reasons for this was right-wing displeasure at the support that social justice movements found in the universities; one reason for moving subsidies from grants to student loans was to ensure that college graduates would be too busy trying to pay off their debts to make trouble for their elders and betters. The business community has always wanted public education to train docile, reliable workers, not educated citizens. (RWA1, unlike Sowell, is the product of a state university; I presume he had no objection to having his education subsidized by the taxpayer, only to anyone else having that privilege. While I am grateful to him for pointing me to the work of frothers like Sowell, I sometimes wonder if he reads the pieces he recommends.)

One thing I keep noticing in right-wing criticism of OWS is a subtext (not usually explicit) that there is no right of free public assembly. (They usually seem unaware that in New York City, public space has progressively been privatized: Zuccotti Park, for example, is now privately owned; The Reverend Billy Project recounts an attempt to keep the city from privatizing another NYC park that had traditionally been a haven for political assembly and speech.) Anyone, except fringe Republicans subsidized by right-wing money and covered by right-wing media, who gathers in public to criticize their government is a dirty mob, and probably not even American. (I get the impression that, despite their protests that they only object to "illegal" immigrants, the anti-immigrant movement considers all immigrants illegal.)

"Dirty" and "foreign" are the basic vocabulary of reaction, not based in real traits of the targets but in the psyche of the nativist. As I mentioned earlier, Sowell's contumely comes not from personal observation of the Occupiers, or even from a critical reading of media reports: it's recycled from anti-hippie hysteria of the Sixties, which in turn borrowed from much older anti-black and anti-Jewish propaganda. I was going to say that the Right (also, unfortunately, much of the Left) exhibits a fundamental hatred of humanity, but that's not quite it: it's more an attempt to split off outsiders, Others, as dirty animalistic subhumans, while huddling on an ever-dwindling and beleaguered island of True Humanity. The core symbolism of the zombie movie, come to think of it.