Wednesday, 17 November 2010

More Crap Writing

Only time for a quick foray into Philistines' Corner tonight.

I've
done this one before but it really is shameful when self-described Marxists try and play the inscrutability game. How can socialists who've not had the dubious benefit of "professional" philosophical training access important theoretical issues when writers insist on applying the technical vocabulary with a trowel? The below comes from the English translation of Sebastiano Timpanaro's On Materialism and was published when Althusser-speak was all the rage in academic Marxist circles, so there's your context.

Anyway:
Generally, its point of departure are real and serious problems in the epistemology of the sciences, related to the need for a re-examination of the very foundations of scientific knowledge. But this epistemological crisis is quickly used in order to reassert an absolute, mythological creativity and freedom belonging to man, and in order to be able to disregard both the real conditioning to which man is subject and the way to overcome it. It then becomes possible to proclaim a completely rhetorical and mystifying subjectivism-voluntarism (p.123).
According to this obituary by Perry Anderson our Seb was "one of the purest and most original minds of the second half of the century." Pity more than a few will have been put off by his impenetrable prose.

10 comments:

Next Left said...

I think he is rejecting the idealism inherent in structuralist formalism in favour of historical analysis. Not very clear - but I have read much worse.

Hegel makes my brain hurt - and I don't think he was trying to be particularly obtuse.

Madam Miaow said...

Crikey!

Ken said...

Timpanaro's On Materialism is a model of unpretentious clarity by comparison with Althusser, or with Perry Anderson at his most high-flown. (The passage in Considerations on Western Marxism where he contrasts the obscure styles of the Western Marxists with the plain writing of the classical Marxists is a particular gem. As I recall, Anderson writes something like this: 'in Gramsci, an oblique and gnomic utterance, imposed by prison ... in Althusser, a ponderous and abstruse diction, freighted with academicism; in Sartre, a hermetic and unrelenting maze of neologisms.' The whole paragraph is either a masterpiece of self-parody or a woeful instance of the very inclination it decries. (So to speak.))

I read Timpanaro's book and that one of Anderson's decades ago when I was a science postgrad with a very short fuse for pretentious Marxist academic writing, and I found Timpanaro easy to understand and a breath of fresh air.

These days, Althusser himself reads like Engels compared to the sort of stuff I encounter in any academic paper influenced by Critical Theory.

David said...

I would agree with other posters that the above quotation, whilst bad, falls short of the obscurity achieved by the likes of Roy Bhaskar!

I disagree with your claim that philosophical training is of dubious value, though (surely it depends on the type of training? Most philosophers in the analytic tradition are, unlike Timpanaro, committed to clarifying abstract concepts and making the logical structure of their arguments explicit).

I suspect someone like Timpanaro would say that the analytic philosophers’ demand for clarity is misguided because it works against any radical political project (in so far as lucid writing conforms to supposedly bourgeois norms of legibility). I know that this is absurd, but something very like it was once given as a defence of Adorno’s writing by Herbert Marcuse (in a televised discussion with Bryan Magee about the legacy of the Frankfurt School):

Magee: A criticism of a quite different kind, often made, is that the writings of the Frankfurt School are not just difficult to read but usually turgid and sometimes unintelligible. Take Adorno, for instance. You described him earlier as a genius. I find him unreadable. That seems to me a tremendous barrier between the ideas the Frankfurt School were trying to disseminate and the public they were trying to disseminate them to. It is a serious criticism, in any event – and if anything it is made more so by the fact that alternative philosophies are expounded by better writers. Bertrand Russell won the Nobel Prize for literature, after all – and so for that matter did Jean-Paul Sartre, the best-known exponent of Existentialism. So when one reads Existentialist or analytic philosophy one has a fair chance of reading prose which is distinguished as prose. But when one reads the members of the Frankfurt School…

Marcuse: Well, to some extent I agree with you: I confess there are many passages in Adorno I don’t understand. But I want at least to say a word about the justification he put forward for this. It was that ordinary language, ordinary prose, even a sophisticated one, has been so much permeated by the Establishment, expresses so much the control and manipulation of the individual by the power structure, that in order to counteract this process you have to indicate already in the language you use the necessary rupture with conformity. Hence the attempt to convey this rupture in the syntax, the grammar, the vocabulary, even the punctuation. Now whether this is acceptable or not I don’t know. The only thing I would say is that there lies an equally great danger in any premature popularization of the terribly complex problems we face today.

(From pp. 54 – 55 of Talking Philosophy, by Bryan Magee)

The complete programme is available to view on YouTube, along with the rest of the series: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2pzfy2izu44

Anonymous said...

I too have read much worse. It should be remembered that the book was written (and was translated into English) as an intervention into what was already a debate in academic philosophy. The result is that some jargon is completely inevitable, just as it is in any specialist field, in order to achieve precision: look at the workshop manual for a car, or at a textbook of the law relating to property in land ...

Mike Macnair

Liam G said...

I agree with Ken - compared to some Timpanaro was a model of clarity and the technical language used in that passage would be familiar to any member of the audience at which it was aimed. Taking it out of context like this, tends to distort the sense of his terms. While I would always be ready to translate obtuse vocabulary for my students, my response to peers is usually 'do the reading and look it up':-)

TGR Worzel said...

Nope, I didn't understand a word of it...!

Not sure I want to either. It looks as though it was written by somebody more interested in establishing their own importance than communicating anything meaningful...

andy newman said...

I am sorry Phil, but even as a non -academic who has read a bit of marxism I find that quote from Timpanaro quite clear and accessible.

isn't he saying that the crisis in the thories of knowledge in the natural scinces has led to an idealist conception that mankind has a mythical intellectual creativity unconstrained by material conditions, and on this basis there has been a growth of subjectivism and voluntarism, or beleif that the human will is itself sufficient?

Inded, the only technical language here is "epistemology", and that is a very clear concept that anyone witha dictionary can master.

Callum said...

...you've missed the target here, Phil. I have an undergraduate degree, I'm doing a Masters, and I'm familiar with the basics of Althusserian Marxism, so perhaps I'm getting ahead of myself, but this sentence is not at all obscure.

Its grammar is logical and linear. Its clear what the subject matter is. It uses philosophical concepts, yes, but not in a deliberately obtuse fashion. Unless you object to the discussion of epistemology as such (which I know you don't), I don't see what is at all obscurantist or objectionable about this bit of writing.

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