On the Question of Ethics in Academic Writing
A Group Discussion by Paul Levi Bryant
Edited by Jonah Dempcy.
Levi Bryant So here’s a question that might generate some heated controversy: If your aim is to change the world, is it ethical to write like Hegel, Derrida, Lacan, Deleuze, or in technical languages only accessible to the highly trained, or to publish in journals only available in well stocked university libraries? (Note, these are all thinkers that have been tremendously valuable to me).
Dock Angus Ramsay Currie No. Though I would note that Deleuze and Guattari wrote in a far more accessible style than Hegel, Derrida, or Lacan.
David Roden I think gratuitous obscurity is liable to be self-frustrating. I’m not sure why that should be unethical, though. Perhaps most people are better for not having read Lacan or Hegel.
Theodore Koulouris No, I don’t think it is ethical. You’re not suggesting that Hegel et al. sought to change the world, are you?
L.B. Theodore, not Hegel, no. I’m suggesting that the writing styles of many radical social and political theorists are unethical because 1) they’re anti-anarchic in the elitism of their style, and 2) because they render vital knowledge and claims that are required to produce social change inaccessible to the larger public. The addressee of these discourses seems to be other academics, not the broader social world.
Gabrielle Neavin First we have to ask: Who has the right to a higher education?
Tom Jayman With YouTube, blogs, and aaaaarg.org, college is pretty irrelevant to learning. Just actively engage in class struggle. You blog at least. Make your books available for free online, don’t write for academic journals no one can read.
Grant Vetter Considering the ramifications of books like THE COMMUNIST MANIFESTO, is it ethical not to write in a technical language?
Jacob Russell An incident in our trial — a good example of how accessibility is political. The prosecuting attorney in his closing, held up a law journal, telling the jury he had an article in there on the criminal red lining by banks, his point being, that there were legal, non confrontational channels for calling attention to social problems — that our defense of warning of a greater harm didn’t hold. Looking at that jury — none of whom would ever pick up, or even know the existence of that journal, let alone read it — brought to mind the importance of accessibility. Why do we give most of that creative power to marketeers and propagandists? Is philosophical street theater possible? I love Brecht!
Elephanté Dondelinger Isn’t what you’re describing the old idea of a “vanguard” with the intellectual know-how and wherewithal to lead the rest of us bunch of saps? Professional revolutionaries, as it were. Or the preferred term — Mercedes Marxists.
Levi Bryant I’ve become increasingly interested in the relationship between thermodynamics or energy requirements (at the level of calories, fuels, and time) and oppressive power. I think fatigue is a real political factor, maybe even a more profound form of control than ideology. This leads me to think about the thermodynamics of reading and wonder about the ethics of stealing time from readers in these ways.
Sean Smith Have you read any of Bifo’s stuff on fatigue/exhaustion? I also saw an interesting keynote years back by Jonathan Crary on sleep being the last frontier for capital productivity, accumulation or exploitation —I don’t know if he’s published it or not. [Crary has a 2013 book out on Verso called 24/7: LATE CAPITALISM AND THE ENDS OF SLEEP. –ed].
Simon Hold Yes, Franco Berardi writes about this in THE SOUL AT WORK and AFTER THE FUTURE. It would be interesting to see Speculative Realism and his work in relation to each other. I’d read that.
Jordan Lane Peacock I think it’s an open ethical question. I think there is a place for “technical” writing, but if one is writing in such a manner to “fit with the tradition” or “impress your peers” it’d be hard to argue that your choice of style is ethical. But sometimes difficult concepts are difficult. The literature on functional programming or quantum mechanics are representative, I think, from the other side of the academic fence. The simple explanations are simplistic, lossy, and if you want a comprehensive explanation it will require some amount of effort. Additionally, efficacy presumes a metric, and not necessarily one that is shared.
Levi Bryant Jordan, I think fields like QM struggle to make themselves as clear as possible. They’re not intentionally obscure. Compare Freud and Lacan. Freud is expressing incredibly difficult concepts, but in a way that’s accessible to anyone who puts the work in.
Jacob Russell Difficulty isn’t necessarily obfuscation. In literature and the arts, ‘obscurity’ often stems from the rejection of conventions, conventions that are themselves the tools of oppression. There’s a real problem here in that it’s easy to appear to communicate by trading in received notions, when in fact, there is nothing being communicated but the hypnotic: ‘You are getting sleepy… you are feeling very sleepy… ‘
L.B. In the arts I think the matter is different as the aim isn’t to transmit a message, so much as to explore a medium. Didactic art tends to be really bad and we get the opposite problem. It would never occur to me to call Finnegan’s Wake unethical in its style, but I’m very much inclined to think Anti-Oedipus is stylistically unethical in that it’s making substantial political and ethical claims on us.
Jonah Dempcy I like Deleuze’s idea of “picking up speed” when writing — if you’re reading Deleuze slowly, trying to make sense of every sentence, trying to fit it into a consistent system, you’re doing it wrong.
J.R. Is didactic art bad because it transmits a message, or because the intent to transmit the message makes itself dependent on degraded conventions? Using the corrupted language of power to oppose power is self-defeating, as the medium, whether language or other, is itself forging the means of oppression even as the message would appear to oppose it. Guernica, or Goya’s late work, I think show how a deep exploration of the medium will be infused with message — beyond anything possible to express in conventional terms.
L.B. Jacob, I think the problem with didactic art is that the art of the art becomes mere ornamentation, contributing nothing. Nothing is lost if we just replace Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged with a discursive paraphrase. The problem isn’t that the work has a message, but that it’s subordinated to the message.
J.R. Doesn’t any deep exploration of a medium subvert the existing conventions — including those used to structure a message? It doesn’t feel like this is quite the same as saying the problem of didactic art is that the art becomes mere ornamentation. Rather, the problem to me begins with the separation of the ‘art’ & the ‘message,’ any separation… not merely an imbalance on one side or another.
Jake Hamilton It depends on the purpose, if any, it ultimately serves. Efficiency? Exclusion? Sequestration? Steganography? Philosophy tends, at least in the last instance, to bar itself from these issues as regards itself, unfortunately. Even analytics, for all the bluster.
J.D. I have roughly two kinds of books in my collection, the ones which are intellectual food and the ones which I feel are more food for the soul, at a visceral level which does not rely on comprehension. It’s kind of like the idea that maybe a dream image can heal you without rushing to interpret it — maybe keeping the image in the half-light of semi-consciousness is itself healing, and the compulsion to evacuate confusion by bringing it into the full light of day is problematic. When I am having a personal crisis, I turn to “books for the soul,” stuff like Deleuze & Guattari’s A THOUSAND PLATEAUS, Jung’s MYSTERIUM CONIUNCTIONIS or LIBER NOVUS, Von Franz’s AURORA CONSURGENS, or Bucky Fuller’s SYNERGETICS. These are all incredibly idiosyncratic books which use “highly technical” language, or near-schizophrenic ramblings, depending on your perspective. But they all speak to me at a core level beyond conscious comprehension. I can “pick up speed” reading these books, as Deleuze calls it, where I move on to the next sentence without fully grasping the previous one, building up momentum to a sort of fever pitch or delirium where I can grasp things without sublimating them and extracting their meanings. (How would you grasp something after fully sublimating it anyway, since the sublimation process is an extraction or turning-into-gas, which allows for intellectual comprehension but prevents grabbing it at a visceral level?) Usually I advocate clarity above all else. Especially if you have an already-complicated theory and are trying to bridge the gap between your thought and other peoples’, yes, by all means, be clear! But sometimes when you are getting at some deep mysterious stuff of the unconscious, clarity is not possible or even favorable. Can you imagine if A THOUSAND PLATEAUS were written in the clear, concise style of the analytic philosophers? It would not hold up to scrutiny under the harsh light of day. It is only in the twilight that a book like PLATEAUS is effective. That being said, I am a big fan of Gerald Graff’s ideas like “Dare to be reductive” and the ideas espoused in the book THEY SAY, I SAY — in short, that you should be as clear as possible about where your ideas fit into a conversation, and don’t be afraid of reducing your ideas to bite-size approximations. There’s an essay by Graff called SCHOLARS AND SOUNDBITES: THE MYTH OF ACADEMIC DIFFICULTY (2000) which gets into some of this stuff.
L.B. I think there can’t but be a relationship between writing and ethics. To write is to address another person and make a claim on their time. Style involves issues of power, hierarchy, subordination, etc. Esoteric and obscure styles are also styles that subordinate others and enslave them.
J.D. I couldn’t disagree more with the idea that esoteric and obscure styles subordinate others and enslave them. Jung talks about the value of writing equivocally, how the demand for unequivocal writing is our addiction to evacuating frustration, confusion, ambivalence instead of holding the opposites. Dialetheism and paraconsistent logic are relevant here. I also defer to Ian Almond’s work on Derrida as a Sufi mystic, who sees the value in ambiguity, in productive states of confusion, instead of attempting to eliminate all ambiguity in concise, clear speech. Also: as a Jungian, I believe in the ego functions. I can’t help but notice that the thinkers you single out as problematic are mostly feeling types — Lacan, Derrida, Deleuze, all feeling types. I highly recommend Hillman’s essay THE FEELING FUNCTION for an exploration of the difference in feeling and thinking communication. Feeling works at an evocative, non-diminishing, highly equivocal way which generates feeling-tones without being clear or consistent. Your demand for a consistent logic or clear communication is also by its very nature a rejection of feeling-toned communication.
L.B. Jung is also more or less a mystic or a priest; ie., a participant in the ideological state apparatus that oppresses people.
J.D. Jung was a mystic in the same way Derrida was, but not in the same way as a Blavatsky or Gurdjieff. In his own words, “I am not a philosopher . . . but an empiricist who describes the progress of his [inner] experiences [with the higher Self]; thus, my work has no absolute beginning and no all-encompassing end. It is like the life of an individual, which suddenly becomes visible somewhere but rests on definite though invisible foundations, so has no proper beginning and no proper end, ceasing just as suddenly and leaving questions behind which should have been answered. … As for the writings of Ouspensky and Gurdjieff, I know enough to satisfy me that I have no time for them. I seek real knowledge and therefore avoid all unverifiable speculation. I have seen enough of that as a psychiatrist. You might as well recommend Mme. Blavatsky’s Isis Unveiled or the compendious opus of Rudolph Steiner or Bo-Yin-Ra (why not Schneiderfranken [the latter’s real name]?) … It is so difficult to establish facts that I detest anything that obscures them.” (Jung, “Letter to Pastor Ernst Jahn,” 7 September 1935; Letters, I, 195).
L.B. And I see that sort of mysticism as ethically wrong. It’s a way of capturing people in transference and subordinating them.
J.D. All writing captures the reader in transference, either positive or negative. To be clear, you see Derrida as ethically wrong by capturing people in transference and subordinating them?
L.B. Jonah, to be sure there is always transference but there are different types of transference. The style of Lacan is akin to rhetorical strategies cult leaders use to control their followers. They present themselves as possessing a hidden agalma or objet a as a way of capturing their followers. I don’t think that’s ethical.
J.D. Ethics and aesthetics are closely related under the umbrella “axiology.” According to Jung these are both the domain of the feeling function. Something “feels unethical” or else “feels in poor taste,” aesthetically speaking. We develop our feeling function as a way of making value judgments as to relative merit on the good-bad or good-evil spectra. In this case, what you find unethical seems to be the style of ambiguous, evocative communication which is itself the expression of a highly sophisticated feeling function.
L.B. I realize it’s very difficult for us to discuss these things because we’ve all invested so much time and energy in understanding these figures so our tendency is to just dismiss any critique of style. However, I don’t see how one can simultaneously advocate an egalitarian, emancipatory, and anarchic/communist politics and write in a style that subordinates, mystifies, and leaves people unable to determine what their ethical and political responsibilities might be.
J.D. How would you reconcile the critique of normativity as a tool of oppression with your critique of e.g. Jung, Derrida, Lacan and Deleuze as mystics who are part of the ideological state apparatus which oppresses people? That is to say, how can you both critique normativity and those who themselves critique normativity? Isn’t your critique that they aren’t “normal” enough?
Ben Brucato First: In your original status update, the word “only” is in the wrong place. Is it ethical only to communicate in such a manner and to only publish in such fora? Probably not. Is one ethically obligated to never communicate as such and in such arenas? Absolutely not. Second: There is no universal language. Particularly now, there is no language that will reach everyone. Nor is the issue of “reaching” people even the issue in improving one’s/our/their lot in life. They lack neither message, analytic tools, or much that an academic would provide, so determine the ideal language is not an issue. Third: There is no universal community of Man to whom we should speak. Similarly, determining the ideal forum is not an issue. Neither should one aim to construct a universal forum.
L.B. Ben, I agree with everything you say there, but certainly you would agree that there are ways of communicating that actively strive to cultivate obscurity? I’m not making a call for a universal language.
J.D. Ben, I think your point could be phrased in personality typology speak — yes, I know people roll their eyes — as just saying that not everyone is a thinking type, not everyone is a feeling type. Deleuze speaks to feeling types while Nagel calls him an idiot and a charlatan. Just last week Chomsky called Zizek and Lacan charlatans, along with most French “theorists” — he put it in scare quotes because he doesn’t think they are worth the name, because they do not have scientific theories. Jung was also a feeling type. Feeling types really get a raw deal in society at large, especially the male ones, who are expected to be clear and concise, now apparently even accused of being unethical if they do not conform to thinking-type language.
B.B. Actively striving to cultivate obscurity is a very strong charge, and one that must be established historically and in particular situations. Many, like Heidegger, Wittgenstein and Derrida, recognized the limits of conventional language and approached it creatively, acting to generate new discursive arenas/fields and in order to challenge the aporetic nature of all language through play. This has what I would consider to be unintended (but your charge is that it is intentional, a very moralistic form of ethics) effect of being obscure to those who will not invest the time to track the shifts in language and the creation of new discursive rules. That’s not, to me, unethical. It may in fact be unethical for those with the time to opt out of attempting to play themselves and to attempt to understand the play of others when they have the time and cognitive capacities to do so, and choose instead to reproduce discourse that is intrinsically authoritarian and reproduces existing material relations that are co-constitutive with these discourses. To throw this back on you, if we recognize that the conventional discourse is co-constituted with the status quo of material relations, it may in fact be unethical to communicate in conventional discourse.
J.R. Ben, I think this is parallel to what I’ve saying about the arts.
L.B. Ben, I think that’s the standard argument, but I wonder whether it really holds up under scrutiny. The problem, I think, is that many of these texts are making ethical and political claims on us. For example, Adorno’s Negative Dialectics is making an ethical and political exhortation on the reader, claiming that we are ethically and politically responsible in a particular way, and calling for us to transform our thought and action. However, how can the author’s call be ethical and just when *only they* know the rules of the game or where we can only decipher those rules after 20 years of reading them? I think it’s unethical in the same way that moral claims based on sacred texts are immoral. If the only way we can know the moral truth and just is through an esoteric authority this seems profoundly inegalitarian and to place us in a situation analogous to Kafka’s Joseph K where we either have a duty or are guilty of something without reasonably being able to figure out what that thing might be. How, for example, are these rhetorical styles any different from the rhetorical strategies used in credit card, car, home, and apartment contracts?
B.B. Sorry, there is no ideal speech situation. Habermas is just wrong. Language is always tribal. Politics is always partisan. Outside of moralistic ethics, ethical determinations are always going to be made on the basis of position/situation, and accountable to the terms of that situation. So, we don’t fault Adorno for his language, but for the position he chose, then. Maybe that’s a reasonable claim. We might, then, say, academics are invested in cultivating and being cultivated by a discourse among the wrong people/tribe/etc., because they are presently in a social position that is relatively privileged, and their ethical commitments ought to drive them to move their situation physically, discursively, linguistically to a position more deserving of their efforts. That might have some legitimacy. My current project, however, is backed into a troubling situation. I am aligning with a particular partisan interest and researching from that perspective with the intention, in part, of providing actionable analysis to improve the political work they do. However, it’s also critical of the work people in such a position are doing, largely because it appropriates the dominant discourse in really unhelpful ways and structures their material activities on the basis of such. Making my argument absolutely requires the use of language that will likely be initially alienating, and, in order to be concise, must reference the works of others, some of which is also not very accessible.
L.B. Ben, of course there’s no ideal speech situation, but I’m not suggesting there is. Rejecting the sort of criticism I’m making on the grounds that there’s no ideal speech situation is a bit like claiming that it’s a mistake to criticize racism and privilege because there’s no perfect situation where racism and privilege don’t function. Certainly there’s different degrees of privilege. Similarly, we can’t define ideal driving speeds but it’s nonetheless true that there are reckless speeds, no?
B.B. Good points. Let’s consider something that might help here. Is there any theorization or writing outside of or beyond pedagogy? Certainly many writing tasks are pedagogical. But I think that your position here requires that everything be pedagogical. I don’t think I can support that position, but I’m not certain I deny it, either. I’m open to being convinced. Stated differently, much of theory is a searching, and invites whoever is up to the task to follow along. It neither demands they do nor expects they will. And such searchings are often productive of powerful situations, many egalitarian in their consequences. Consider that both Wittgenstein and Foucault have produced things that ended up absolutely saturating all of Western culture to positive ends.
L.B. Oh sure. I gave an example of non-pedagogical writing in the case of literature. Literature *can*, of course, teach, but it doesn’t have to. Moreover, literary style can be enjoyed for its own sake even where no meaning or message can be found in it as in the case of late Joyce. I’m not suggesting there’s no message in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, just that it can be enjoyed simply on the basis of its style or thingliness. What I’m interested in here, though, are those instances where rhetoric exercises power as in the case of certain pedagogic forms that claim to have particular ethical and political aims, contracts such as we encounter when renting an apartment, etc.
B.B. Okay, what I would say to that is likely that the demand upon the reader is what is much more potentially unethical than the language they chose.
L.B. But the language is what makes the demand. If Lacan weren’t making a demand on me to embody a certain ethics of desire and practice, there wouldn’t be a problem.
B.B. Perhaps. A refined version is to be very attentive to the intended audience of a text and the particular claims to the responsibility of that reader. Then you determine whether the language is up to that task. However, if the writer presumes a universal audience, all bets are off, both with the academic language and the presumption that there is a universal audience!
L.B. The same, I think, can be said of a lot of Marxist theory that insists on writing in a needlessly (I think) obscure dialectical style, while simultaneously calling on us to act on the world in a particular way and understand it in a particular way. There is no universal audience, definitely. What I find accessible is going to be quite different than what one of my first year students find accessible.
B.B. And Hegel wasn’t writing for the latter. And he knew that. So is the problem, then, the audience selection?
L.B. It belongs to the very nature of writing that it never knows its audience. I do think there are things internal to Hegel’s style that makes it difficult for even the expert (refusal to give examples because that constitutes “picture-thinking” and refusal to define because that fixes what is in motion). These two refusals are curious given his commitment to dialectics.
B.B. I would go so far as to say that it is unethical to cultivate a language mostly suited to academics and simultaneously not cultivate a skill at popular communication. I would also go so far as to say that it is unethical to spend an inordinate amount of time attempting to reach audiences that are inappropriate to affect the demanded change. I would also go so far as to say it’s unethical to spend all of one’s time teaching privileged students, writing for journals no one reads and if they do are among the most privileged, etc. without also devoting time in one’s community to affect changes for those who need them most. Most academics that I consider the more ethical are people who did not fail in these areas. I look up to people like Joel Olson, who beyond being an amazing teacher and amazing theorist who wrote incredible works, was also writing for the popular press, speaking before varied audiences invested in challenging the racial order, organizing people of all sorts of backgrounds in a variety of arena, etc. That’s the model of an intellectual who makes ethical demands of his audience in a way that is politically and ethically defensible.
L.B. I’d agree. There are different types of texts. Clearly a text in QM is going to be addressed to an audience that shares a particular discursive universe. However, when we get to ethics and politics we seem to be getting to something that addresses us all. Is the density and allusiveness of Butler’s earlier work defensible in the same way that Heisenberg’s difficulty is defensible? Serres makes a nice point about style in his discussions with Latour. He remarks that technical language in mathematics and the sciences is for economy of thought and precision, whereas in philosophy it seems to serve the opposite purpose. He pokes fun at Husserl and phenomenology for generating a technical vocabulary that seems to abolish all economy and trap us in endless commentary for such little pay-off (so we can say, for example, that we can’t see the back of a table but nonetheless intend it).
B.B. Here we are, back to universals. What about politics and ethics requires a universal audience? Butler is an academic who mainly traverses an intellectual world, and is communicating with other academics. Nothing about her texts are absolutely impenetrable even to someone who only speaks Chinese. Just like they would have to learn English, they’d also need to learn Butlerian. Such is the nature of language. It’s always tribal, and therefore always exclusive. Is it unethical for me to write a political book without first lining up translators to translate it into German, French, Italian, Spanish, Chinese, Urdu, Kiswahili, Setswana, etc.? Trust me, I’m absolutely on board with your intentions here, I just don’t think we can get to where you want us to go.
Special thanks to all who participated
Levi Bryant — Host
Dock Angus Ramsay Currie, David Roden, Theodore Koulouris, Gabrielle Neavin, Tom Jayman, Grant Vetter, Jacob Russell, Elephanté Dondelinger, Sean Smith, Simon Hold, Jordan Lane Peacock, Jake Hamilton, Ben Brucato — Commentors