Wednesday, May 25, 2005

Everyone's favorite Neo-Trotskyist

Christopher Hitchens has been tickling me lately -- well, by way of his good prose, anyways. Two essays in particular -- "Trangressing the Boundaries" in the Sunday Times, a review/critique of the new edition of the Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism, and "Unmitigated Galloway" in The Weekly Standard, a much more incisive (and funnier) take on MP George Galloway's testimony before the Senate last week -- are both worth reading.

Hitchens often praises Orwell's argument in "Politics and the English Language" that bad and/or dangerous thinking often finds refuge (and unconscious support) in arcane or mystifying language, euphemisms, and mixed metaphors. Clear, direct, and univocal prose pulls thought out by the roots and shows poor thinking and malicious political rhetoric for what it is.

Even if you grant this premise, however, it doesn't suffice to simply write well or to show that your opponent writes badly to prove that your ideas or politics are superior to his. You have to show that the ideas masked by his bad language are wrong and/or poorly thought out, or that his political allegiances are untenable.

Hitchens does this in his essay on Galloway, lauding the MP's rhetorical skill and laying bare his suspect politics. In the essay on theory, though, he just revives the old chestnut: literary theorists write poorly -- therefore what they say can't be of much importance.

I would certainly be the first to agree that literary critics could and should write better, more accessible, and more exciting prose. (Excitement and accessibility don't always go together -- Derrida's writings show a virtuoso stylist at work, but they're worlds away from being entirely transparent or accessible.) Everyone -- and especially Judith Butler and Homi Bhabha -- needs an editor. We need to distinguish, though, between willfully difficult writing on the one hand (of different varieties and merits) and sloppy writing -- and also between genuinely obfuscating shallowness and complicated ideas that deserve further thought and clearer expression.

What annoys me is the mutual arrogance that assumes either (with Hitchens) mal dit, mal pensée or (with Butler et. al.) one's thoughts are so irreducibly complex that they can't possiblty be phrased any better. I think we can all do better than that.

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