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Balancing the Problem of Accessibility with the Importance of Revolutionary "jargon"

As someone trained as an academic, a persistent difficulty that hampers my writing is the ability to make whatever it is I'm writing about accessible to the lay audience who lacks the same training.  Other academics and former academics [note: I am a "quasi-academic" because I don't have a permanent academic job, and have been rather slip-shod in pursuing an academic career!] are quite familiar with all the theoretical jargon that we've been trained to understand; they will also hopefully be aware (because they remember their first days in academia) of  how alienating some of the more jargon-heavy texts can be––theory rendered opaque by a language possibly overburdened with semantic clutter.  Indeed, I still remember the first time I encountered Heidegger in a second year philosophy course and had to write an essay on a chapter of Being and Time because the crazy professor thought second year philosophy students should be able to read most of Being and Time in a month––I think I broke down in tears and I still don't know how I pulled off a B+ in that essay considering that I didn't know what the hell I was reading at the time!  And then I had a Hegel course the next year…

Eventually, when you're inundated with this jargon all the time, it affects your writing.  Some concepts are intriguing, no matter how obtuse they might seem, and once you grasp them you want to use them.  Your language changes because you're being trained by all the stuff you're reading and being forced to write about so that when you do write for pleasure about issues that concern you, you can't help dipping into the well of obtuse jargon.

In any case, over the years I've had less and less patience with theorists and philosophers whose work is rendered opaque by an over-reliance on jargon and/or grammatical obscurantism.  This is not to say that I don't like big words, or a large vocabulary (I mean, didn't you see how I used obscurantism in the last sentence?  I like using that word when I can) but that I have less and less patience for writing that is needlessly opaque because, well, this is just how academic books are written.  Nor is this to say that I don't think some of these overly opaque authors are worthless––indeed, there are some theorists who are extremely guilty of this jargon crime whose work I wish was more accessible to the lay-reader because I think the ideas are important––just that the form is worthless and, let's face it, often lazy.

Look, I'm not talking about books on pure mathematical theorem or quantum theory for super physicists.  This stuff does have a level of complexity that is somewhat unavoidable.  What really bugs me is radical theory that is supposed to be in the service of the oppressed and/or exploited and yet is largely inaccessible to the oppressed and/or exploited.  Yes, literacy might cause accessible barriers to any text, and yes I think complexity is important, but there is difficult and then there is difficult.  There is Marx, who talked about difficult things but whose most "difficult" books––if studied seriously by literate workers––could be understood without a Masters degree.  Then there are the Lacans and the Homi Bhabhas who seem to be under the impression that the more opaque you make a text the more important it becomes… And in some ways they're right!  People are still studying them and proclaiming their genius even if Lacan is little more than a second-order Freud and Bhabha is a liberal hack pretending to be a radical––but it takes hours of work to realize that this is the case and one wonders why they didn't just come out and say it to begin with.

Nor do I have much patience for people who claim they're writing in a difficult manner so as to break up "bourgeois" thought patterns (this was, I believe, Adorno's excuse for unleashing his god awful opaqueness upon the world).  News-flash: only the bourgeois and petty-bourgeois are going to read your difficult books anyway, so what sort of patterns are you breaking up?  All you're doing is making it more impossible for the exploited and oppressed classes to read your work––so congratulations on achieving the opposite of what you believed you were achieving.

In fact, I think it takes a certain level of writing skill to make complex ideas about society accessible to the people in society that need these ideas the most.  An over-reliance on impenetrable jargon is often a sign of a lazy writer, someone who cannot communicate their ideas except to other academics and maybe, even then, they don't know what the fuck they're talking about.  As I tell my first year students: if you can't explain what philosopher x is saying in your own words and without x's jargon then you probably don't understand them.

Unfortunately, so many academics, enamoured with unnecessarily impenetrable texts, think that it is their duty to write like Heidegger or Hegel or etc.  Really, unless you're Heidegger or Hegel, if you're writing like them you're an idiot who probably doesn't have any idea of how to communicate with your own thoughts or a broader audience.  (And maybe Heidegger and Hegel should have figured out how to be better communicators as well, but that's besides the point because they're dead.)  And even worse, if you claim you're some kind of radical, especially some kind of marxist, and make radical theory more opaque than Marx than you're an obscurantist you needs to spend a couple days outside of academia talking to the average joe about the end of capitalism before publishing your oh-so-brilliant papers about the same topic that the gravediggers of capitalism will never be able to read and/or understand.

On the other hand, however… there is the fact that some "jargon" is extremely important when it comes to concrete organizing in the concrete world and the history of revolution.  This is why I am loathe to abandon the terminology of the international communist movement or accept that it is somehow "alienating", as people who ascribe to a far more alienating jargon of post-modern and post-colonial obfuscation seem to think they have the right to claim.  Yes, it is especially hilarious when someone whose operating principles come from Foucault and Spivak complain that "outdated communist jargon" is alienating when large revolutionary mass movements still draw on this language and could care less about the weirder and far more academicky language of the Foucaults and Spivaks of the world.

The reason I think it is important to defend the terminology of the communist tradition, no matter how opaque it might at first seem to the lay-person, is that it lacks opaqueness when it comes to the concrete history of revolutionary movements.  Much of this language emerged because of revolutionary moments and social investigation, is embedded in the very momentum of history, and so is worth saving rather than simply rewriting.  Besides, let's be clear: despite the supposed "alienating" dimension of this revolutionary jargon, much of it has never found its way into academia––in fact, if your thesis only relied on jargon like "opportunism", "dogmato-revisionism", "subjectivism", "economism", "voluntarism" (not to mention "proletariat" and "bourgeoisie", "capitalism", and all the other terms that explain reality) you might be told to rewrite immediately.  This is because this is a jargon that emerged in class struggle––specifically ideological class struggle––and not in some academic context where a doctoral student is writing about the oppressed while ignoring the unfolding struggles of the oppressed.  Oh I'm sure they have problems with all the movements they're ignoring, but they might also be subjectivists because they think their personal impressions are more important than concrete social investigations…

In any case, I think it's important to both hold on to the history of revolutionary language that emerged through actual struggle while fighting back the obscurantism encouraged by academic leftism.  Not that academic leftism is necessarily a bad thing (though I have often critiqued it due to my troubled position within its ranks), but that it needs to communicate with concrete realities and do its best to be accessible or its worthless.  Again: if you're talking about supporting the struggles of the oppressed but the oppressed can't understand you (unless they are university students and thus not as oppressed/exploited as the vast majority of the world) then you're doing something wrong.  Nor will they understand you, or adopt your jargon, because it hasn't emerged from their experience to reflect their struggles as the jargon of the revolutionary communist tradition has.  Sorry, that's just a fact.

Thus we have to encourage accessibility while discouraging anti-intellectual stupidity that thinks we should abandon all complex ideas, get rid of the old jargon of the left, and dumb everything down because "the working class is stupid"––that's just patronizing and idiotic.  The trick is to figure out how to write in an accessible manner that still communicates to complex ideas: it's not easy, and I'm definitely not an expert, but we should all at least try to escape academic obfuscation (which is so easy for trained academics to fall into, and I'm extremely guilty of this) and do the hard work to make our work eminently readable.  Otherwise, what the fuck are we doing when we talk about Marx and revolution?  If only the petty-bourgeois class is capable of reading us then we have failed.


  1. This is a well-written post as always, but I think the more important issue here is the one you touched upon in these lines,

    "Thus we have to encourage accessibility while discouraging anti-intellectual stupidity that thinks we should abandon all complex ideas, get rid of the old jargon of the left, and dumb everything down because "the working class is stupid"––that's just patronizing and idiotic."

    While much ink has been spent pointing out the inaccessibility of radical literature to the actually oppressed (and rightfully so), the attention paid to (and hence, criticism of) the kind of patronizing bullshit you mentioned remains low, even in 2012 where left has put a lot of focus on "re-conceiving and regrouping".

    In fact "anti-intellectual" is a very mild way of putting it considering that the phrase connotes something not entirely negative to a quite a lot of people. It is very easy for people to lose their patience with academics for some of the same reasons that you highlighted. Such people who end up criticizing "intellectuals" (while meaning to criticize the intellectual establishment) are quite intelligent and might be intellectuals themselves.

    In fact, I would go far enough to say that "dumbing things down" and "abandoning complex ideas" (not just complex terminology) goes beyond being anti-intellectual to being anti-intellect. Instead of presenting thoughts that can be understood by the layman, such a method presents no thinking at all -- and demand that the reader follow the presented line and refrain from thinking about it. In the contempt it shows towards the people, I find it objectively counter-revolutionary, even when the cadre are being exhorted to be "close to the people" or "proletarianize themselves" by working in, for example, a machine shop. What it is boils down to is this-- The working class is dumb, so let's be dumb like them and being dumb is what will save the world. Such an attitude sees the proletariat in the same light as Europeans saw the noble savage and is unimaginably regressive.

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  2. [..continued ..]

    It is not surprising the parties/organizations that pursue such lines of thought were the ones to actively tail the "working class" in the 60s and 70s. In trying to be more like the "working class" and less like the students, they emulated what they thought the working class was like not what the working class was really like. The student left's idea of "proletarianizing themselves" --despite the fact that unionized workers in the first world formed a labor aristocracy that had already made their regressive views known-- involved copying their Hollywood-acquired image of a blue collar worker as a patriarchal, homophobic, anti-intellectual brute and playing the part to such an extent that it became a caricature. That led them to oppose all the struggles worth fighting for-- Women's liberalism, Gay liberation and National Liberation of internal colonies were opposed so as to not "alienate" the white "working class" as if revolution were contingent upon the support of the first world white working class, and not on the support of the majority of humanity. Thus white power ended up being preached in a leftist garb, and preached to people of color. Of course the leaders, nursing sectarian wounds, and believing their own propaganda concentrated on trot-bashing and cleansing themselves of "liberal influences" -- you know -- things like reading, writing and an actual Marxist praxis; rather than producing any coherent self-criticism of their decline. Instead of getting themselves out of the hole, they dug it deeper-- remaining brainless (and clueless) for life. How else can you explain publications such as these?

    They have everything you criticized in those two lines and much more. You know you have abandoned good ideas and got rid of leftist "jargon" of the past when you shirk from even using Marxist terminology in favor of ridiculous language such as "bosses this" and "bosses that". It'd be funny if not for the fact that these people are still fishing for recruits and selling newspapers.

    That being said, I'd actually pay money to see a PLP vs Spartacist League free-for-all fistfight (something I'd never do for their newspapers).

    1. Hey, thanks for the insightful comments. I probably should have added a link to an earlier article I wrote about anti-intellectualism amongst certain left groups––groups which are mostly filled with academics as well!––and how patronizing, as you've said, this is. Mainly, this is the reason I didn't follow through on that statement you found intriguing; I wrote about it over a year ago and the only reason it isn't back-linked is because I was up late taking care of my daughter and writing inbetween the care-taking. I shall correct this oversight soon…

      In any case, you're quite correct that this attitude might be better called "anti-intellect" than "anti-intellectual". And as I joked in the article I will back-link to as soon as I'm finished writing this comment, since a large portion of the masses are illiterate than this attitude could argue that illiteracy is somehow revolutionary.

      Yes, I too would like to see these kinds of fist-fights.

    2. Thanks for linking to that article, it has some very good arguments. The point about Independent Cinema and Hollywood is dead on.

      On a positive note, I think a publication that does achieve balance between accessibility and nuance is Under Lock and Key (essentially the newsletter of MIM-Prisons). It is written by prisoners, for prisoners and yet it incorporates a lot of analysis in it reports of prison conditions. Though I have disagreements with the MIM line, I find ULK a laudable example of bringing revolutionary theory to the masses.

  3. "Average Joe". That's some jargon I can sink my teeth into. Is his last name "Sixpack?" Aren't you essentializing a certain kind of worker? (I kid, I kid)

  4. Interesting - I agree that overusing academic jargon gets in the way of the accessibility of a text. Because everything I think about relates to Selma James (or Federici) right now, this made me think of something I read by James. She talks about purposefully avoiding the "formalized" education of university because she thought that it would ruin her mind. Her work is so smart, while at the same time being incredibly clear and concise, and without losing "revolutionary" language.

    1. Huh, I didn't know that about James. Yes, her work is extremely clear and concise while still being able to tackle complex issues––this is a sign of an uncluttered mind.


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