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GEORGE THE PYGMY AND THEODOR THE OBSCURE
In response to James Miller's question in his excellent article "Is Bad Writing Necessary?" [December/January], I answer, "No." Adorno's ridiculous notion that deliberately obscure writing can protect the intellectual's "inviolable isolation" demonstrates that great minds sometimes make fundamental mistakes. That no one would require scientists like Einstein and Bohr to be intelligible to laypersons does not justify intentional obscurantism in philosophical or literary writing. The subject itself may be difficult, but the prose should therefore be as clear as possible and intelligible to the largest readership that has the background to understand it.
I applaud Terry Eagleton for his criticism of Gayatri Spivak's "labored" style and Philosophy and Literature for its courage in creating the Bad Writing Award. The language of literary criticism, which should set the standard for lucidity and forthrightness, has become the plaything of academics who, wishing only to impress one another, spin simple ideas into layer upon layer of meaningless verbiage. Although I believe that we should discuss and evaluate the ways we look at texts as well as the texts themselves, I am not interested in wading through pages of convoluted prose only to find mere commonplaces, which is what much highly touted literary- theoretical writing amounts to.
Associate Professor of English
As one who has written at some length about both Adorno and Orwell, I enjoyed James Miller's essay, which on the whole provides an intelligent assessment of each writer. But, initially, the juxtaposition of the two figures is almost comically weird. Comparing Adorno with Orwell is like comparing Joyce with Hemingway, or Richard Wagner with John Philip Sousa. Orwell's achievement is not in itself negligible. But it exists on a plane so far removed from Adorno's that, if one insists on setting the two side by side, then Orwell is bound to seem a pygmy next to a giant--whether as regards rigor and depth of mind, or breadth of learning, or (above all) mastery of literary style. Of course, there are few modern thinkers who don't look like pygmies in comparison to Adorno--so it is best to heed Orwell's own critical principle that works (and, by extension, authors) can have merit on vastly different levels. In that way, we can appreciate Orwell's quite real distinction while also recognizing that it is modest indeed when compared with Adorno's.
Associate Professor of English
Louisiana State University
I read James Miller's essay with anticipation and excitement. I was hoping my former teacher could solve a problem of mine.
In a large undergraduate course in political theory that I teach, which also emphasizes writing, I ask my students to read Orwell's "Politics and the English Language." I lecture about the essay too, but always with a bad conscience. I know that good prose isn't always clear and simple. But I can't imagine teaching undergraduates anything other than that good prose is clear and simple, lest I provide aid and comfort to the obfuscators. I still think this is the best policy, and will probably continue to use Orwell's essay, but Miller has helped me understand why Orwell's isn't the last word and why I sometimes feel guilty teaching as if it is.
Still, I think Miller misses a chance to distinguish Adorno from the postmodernists, deconstructionists, and others. Adorno invented his own language. In this regard, he was a poet, creating a new form. One can love it or hate it, but the literary form is itself a creative act, exemplifying in form what the poet is trying to say in content. Adorno's Negative Dialectics is the theory of this form, and Minima Moralia is the poetry.
Judith Butler et al. are not creating a new form. They are writing in a stylized fashion that has been popular among many academics for more than twenty years now. Today, this obscure language is no longer creative. One doubts if any obscure language is creative once it becomes argot, but certainly the language of postmodernism and deconstruction no longer is. By "creative," I mean allowing the author to use form to express what content alone can't convey. Adorno did this, and that is why his obscurity is worth puzzling over. I don't think this can be said for most of those who invoke his name in the service of thinking the world more radically.
This said, since I don't think my undergraduates are quite ready for Minima Moralia, I wish I could figure out what works I might assign that would justify creative obscurity, works that wouldn't encourage my students to try the same. Maybe my worry is really hope in disguise. From my students I'd die for creativity in any form, even obscure.
C. Fred Alford
Professor of Government
University of Maryland, College Park
I would like to commend James Miller for his well-conceived presentation of what is a bona fide problem in American cultural politics. I applaud also his insistent meditation on Adorno's now-famous quote: "only what they do not need first to understand, they consider understandable." The histrionic protests against allegedly nonunderstandable writing in certain academic quarters--regrettably all too fashionable among many colleagues at Princeton--has become an insidious cover for the dismissal of any provocatively thoughtful work. In this respect, hiding one's mediocrity behind the apparently innocent befuddlement of "I don't understand" is tantamount to hiding an impoverished way of thinking behind the use of jargon.
In the humanities, the unacknowledged issue is one not of understanding but of who understands what--it is always an issue of politics, not of knowledge. But Adorno's and Orwell's positions can be held simultaneously: A radical thinker's responsibility is to write in different idioms according to the demands of the subject.
Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature
In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Ronald Radosh ["The Radosh File," October 1999] was known as a minor player among the left-wing "revisionists" who were reassessing the role of the United States in encouraging and even initiating the Cold War. Now Radosh has gone the other way, acquiring national fame as a major figure among the right-wing "revisionists" who see Soviet machinations everywhere and who see all antifascist and antiracist activists as fair game for smear campaigns and attacks.
So now the folks who fought for the Spanish republic were merely Soviet stooges! By reaching this conclusion, Radosh finds himself in unpleasant company. Patrick Buchanan, who comes from a family that thought Generalissimo Franco "a great man," is a lifelong admirer of the Franco regime. Radosh also indirectly ends up granting an honorable place in history to Hitler, without whose crucial military aid at various junctures the Spanish insurgents could never have won power. So Nazi Germany did some good after all.
As erstwhile Soviet archives become available to Western scholars, one can easily imagine the following scenario: Somebody finds a secret Russian protocol proving that the German Communist Party was on Muscovite orders to seize power and hand over the Weimar Republic to Stalin. Next step? A Radosh clone writes, "I think it's fine that Hitler won in 1933. His repression was fierce, but not as fierce as it would have been under the Red Terror."
After all, folks, let's not forget: Hitler fought the Soviets, and what's so bad about that?
Gene H. Bell-Villada
Chair and Professor, Department of Romance Languages, Williams College
JUST LIKE A WOMAN
I was charmed by most of Ruth Shalit's appreciative review of Crossing: A Memoir ["Today's Woman," November 1999]. But when, oh when, will people learn to talk about gender crossers without bringing up the Stereotype Charge that "in deploying stereotypically feminine gestures and turns of phrase" the gender crosser is "perpetuating offensive clichÈs." Oy. I want to reply to Ms. Shalit: It's to keep from getting murdered, dear. Get it? And am I right, I want to ask, that you put your hand to your chest when speaking of yourself or that you stand in the elevator in something other than a male squared-off stance? "Women are not always smarter, humbler, more collaborative, or less interested in their careers." Well, yes, they are: as I said repeatedly, and at one point (p. xiv) in those words.
It's distressing to say, repeatedly, that learning to do gender appropriately is a survival skill, not a statement in gender politics, and to say, repeatedly, that women and men overlap in dispositions, and are anyway socially constructed--and yet not be heard. Oh well: Welcome to womanhood, Deirdre.
Visiting Professor of Humanities
University of Illinois at Chicago
Director, Project on Rhetoric of Inquiry, University of Iowa
FAITH UNDER DECONSTRUCTION
Charlotte Allen's "The Postmodern Mission" [December/January] reports that we have been described as postmodernists, modernists, and even premodernists by some of our opponents. We take this as something of a badge of honor. When we are attacked by all sides in a debate as complex as the one that rages around the engagement of an ancient faith with a postmodern cultural reality, we start to get the feeling that we just might be on track.
Allen also rightly reports that most of those who are called postmodernist evangelicals do not believe their work contributes to secularization. It was disconcerting, then, that the article frames the debate in terms of secularization and the "slippery slope of liberalism." The overriding question that Allen asks is whether evangelical engagement with postmodernity is invariably the first step on the path to liberal assimilation. Even matters of our personal biographies and present church attendance are set in these terms. And while Allen evocatively concludes her piece by suggesting that perhaps "the metanarrative of secularization can be problematized, delegitimated, subverted--or even reversed," it is precisely such a metanarrative that has set the terms of the debate that she reports on.
It seems to us that any deeply postmodern turn is postliberal and postsecular. Posmodernity sees through liberalism's charade of universal reason and insists that so-called secular culture is deeply committed to its own self-justifying metanarrative. None of the so-called postmodernist evangelicals Allen discusses have any illusions about either a theological liberalism that lacks biblical depth or a socio-economic tradition that lacks sufficient ethical grounding to realize and sustain its ideals of social justice. The bankruptcy of liberalism is one of the reasons that we have a postmodern conversation at all.
Moreover, none of our postmodern colleagues would identify our biblical hermeneutics with a deconstructionist strategy of reading from the margins in order to "cleanse the Christian story of its past associations with oppression." To begin with, any such "cleansing" would ultimately be a whitewash. But more importantly, there is nothing biblically marginal about radical sensitivity to suffering and God's overarching intent to restore all of creation. Nor is this a strategy to have our Scripture and eat it too, thereby giving us a basis from which to discard the bits of the story that are distasteful to postmodern sensibilities. Rather, this is no more and no less than an attempt to find hermeneutical footing in the reading of a text that we receive as authoritative in its entirety and for all of life.
Christian Reformed Campus Minister, University of Toronto
J. Richard Middleton
Colgate Rochester Divinity School
As a longtime fan of both Charlotte Allen and Lingua Franca, I was honored to be quoted in Allen's article. And it was a delight to read an article about the evangelical world that mentioned Jerry Falwell, Pat Robertson, et al., only in passing. But alas, although I did indeed say the words I'm reported to have said, the context in which they are presented is seriously misleading. In conversation with Allen and with the fact checker who meticulously followed up a few weeks later, I made and repeated a distinction between serious intellectual engagement with postmodernism, pro and con, and the pop version of postmodernism dispensed by church consultants and other gurus. I have my disagreements with some Christian scholars who fly the postmodern flag, but I would never say that they are "pandering." Making this kind of distinction--between, say, people who have actually read Foucault and those who are doing PowerPoint road shows--seems basic to the mission of Lingua Franca.
Editor, Books and Culture
We are pleased to announce that LF senior editor Caleb Crain has received the Richard Beale Davis award for his essay "Leander, Lorenzo, and Castalio: An Early American Romance," which appeared in the spring 1998 issue of Early American Literature.
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