Tyranny of Normalcy


I came across this exchange via Slawkenbergius’s discussion of it, but as I read more, I like this Mark Dery fellow, despite the accusations of being a jerk. I think that the most recent discussions of Derrida, especially of his writing style, would be well-advised to raise the same sorts of questions: what’s really behind this tyranny of simplicity, when it comes to philosophical prose? is the demand to be clear and accessible not an ideological position?

In his comment, Dery writes:

Pardon my rant. But I cordially loathe the reactionary politics of style—the anti-intellectual philistinism and Babbitry hiding behind a lot of the calls, here and elsewhere, for clarity and concision. There’s a streak of pugnacious populism running through this mindset familiar from Hofstadter’s Anti-Intellectualism in America. At times, it even gives vent to a latent homophobia, linking an allusive, polysyllabic style to velvet-breeches pretentiousness, which is code for an un-Hemingwayesque unmanliness. Furiousthought nailed this point in the other thread, writing, “[Dery’s writing] wears its literary style on its sleeve and a lot of internet people have a taste for keep-it-simple-stupid boilerplate and are keen to beat up art fags.”

The Tyranny of Normalcy demands that all writers aspire to a Gladwellian blandness. It’s killing cultural criticism or public intellectualism or whatever term isn’t too art-faggy for the MeFi mind. Certainly, these two threads, which could have engaged seriously with ideas but opted, instead, for grammatical colonoscopy, are casualties of a killing insistence on the stylistic status quo and the repressive normalcy it embodies.

His point about simplicity=manliness is an interesting one. Is all of that Derrida-hate that’s been going around lately not a good example of some ideological repression? Why do people get so angry with Derrida’s stylistic experiments? He’s not the only philosophical writer who is difficult to read. I think the explanation is the alleged “uselessness” of Derrida’s twists and turns. The ideological message is “be clear or die trying” and “if you can’t express it clearly and concisely, you don’t know it yourself…” Surely, convoluted writing is difficult to process, it slows you down, requires time and thought. So the ideology of clarity-as-normalcy here is the ideology of consumption – if it takes too long for me to “get into” a thinker, it will take too long to “use” his writings for my own commodified thoughts (papers, essays, books), therefore my price as a commodity will rise slower…

9 thoughts on “Tyranny of Normalcy

  1. I can’t remember the source, but Derrida once wrote:

    “Why is it the philosopher who is expected to be easier and not some scientist who is even more inaccessible?”

    I wish I could remember the reference but it’s one of the statements I have up in my quotation rotation at my blog.

    All that said, I think his demonstrative period can be a bit much at times. It had its purpose but if you’re just trying to understand him then you can simply read his earlier works which aren’t much more difficult than the typical important philosopher. (I find them much easier going than Kant or Hegel, for instance)

    • This is kinda dumb of Derrida to say, since it confuses popular writing with technical research. Scientists write one way and with one set of goals when they do research. They write in another way when they try to explain their ideas to lay people. To appeal to either standard without some sensitivity to context is to miss the point (a great deal of philosophy doesn’t seem to recognize the difference between research and popular presentation, it seems). And, frankly, if you can’t present an idea clearly to a lay audience by using a streamlined (simplified, but not simplistic) account, then you probably don’t understand what you’re talking about.

      We can all read popular mechanics and understand what’s going on, but very few of us could even go through the simplified schematics and build something, let alone do the hard work to come up with a design on our own. These kind of conversations always seem to fail to take note of very basic differences in context and intent (yes, I said intent).

  2. Derrida provides a nice justification of his style in (I think) “The Time of a Thesis.”

    That being said, I tend to get a lot more out of the early Derrida (who’s still quite difficult) than the late Derrida (who’s often easier to read but seems to spend a lot more time spinning his wheels, describing the difficulty of beginning, and so on). Compare an essay like “Ousia and Gramme” to, e.g., “Limited Ink 2.”

    And I get a lot more out of Derrida than out of someone like Avital Ronell, who’s certainly done a nice job of picking up the master’s style….

  3. There is no moral associated with consumption but there are production costs and there is ROI. When you manage a private TV channel and you don’t reach the masses your channel is dead, economically speaking. The production costs for philosophy texts tend to be zero in comparison, so one can go all ways and increases investments where success is lurking. No prior assumptions about accessibility is required. They work when they work. There is certainly a moral of the avant-garde i.e. hipsters whose purpose is to bring enlightenment and modernity to the masses. More implicitly than explicitly you can find its defence in the texts of Adorno.

    Derrida was surprisingly successful or maybe not so surprisingly in the end, because he was original, more in style than in content but this was inseparable in his case, since much was about intersection of textual levels and he was profound enough to attract intelligent followers and obscure enough to have many intelligent antagonists who considered him a fraud. Secondly, he attracted many clueless, who were basically fond of his aura of radical chic. You need them to not only become famous within but beyond the scene. It suffices to agitate those people that he isn’t hip any more and the rave is now in the speculative realist blogger scene which causes them to jump ship. Not all of them of course but the young ones who haven’t already wasted their time and investments with in author who can’t set trends any more. The powerful fetish which is the authors name must be broken and destroyed.

  4. I do not fully understand the charge of “anti-intellectualism” which has become some sort of knee-jerk reaction flamed at people who distaste drivel. But I admit that I don’t understand “intellectualism” either.

      • Kay should take his tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, Spiegel-reading, body-piercing, pomo-loving, left-wing freak show back to Germany, where it belongs.

        My hidden identity is uncovered. Google knows all the details of my private life any way and soon everybody will know them.

  5. There are reasons to be clear, and reasons to be jargony, reasons to be high-falutin’ and reasons to be plain. Not all such reasons are good, or good enough, but when objections to a writer’s style outnumber engagements with content, it is a sure sign that someone is on the defensive. It was ever so. “By the dog, Socrates! Are you not ashamed to be bringing up such matters? Why do you keep changing the subject? Besides that, you’re snub-nosed. What, you don’t like your drink?”

    Of course, not every bad writer is Socrates, more’s the pity. Sometimes an editor’s red pencil is just a red pencil.

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