The AMM has been tagged as ‘anti-academic’, a stigma we wear with pride. However, that doesn’t mean we ignore how academic fads and fashions influence the world. So we applaud the advent of the Manchester Left Writers who – in their first ‘broadside’ – attack “symptoms of bad writing operating across contemporary ‘left’ academic discourse … because we feel that it needs to be rescued from itself”. This is an entirely necessary project. What we like about the MLW is that, though they are concerned with the degeneration of language and concepts in the postmodern humanities, their world is not defined by striking poses within that milieu. They are not aspirant alt.superstars vying for attention in the vile metropolitan limelight, but conscientious “autodidacts, libertarians and nonconformists“ as Liverpool AMMer Luke Staunton put it in a recent post (Derek Bailey: “free improvisation is better in the provinces”) . One of the MLW’s number, Robert Galeta, is actually from Bradford, but bothers to cross the Pennines to attend MLW meetings (metropolitan internationalism is a cinch; for a Yorkshireman to penetrate Lancashire takes REAL GUTS). Galeta is sufficiently unfazed by postmodern crapola to notice that Esther Leslie’s Derelicts “generously brings the Academy out through its doors” (New Cross Review of Books). That’s exactly why we published it: great reading material for precisely anyone. All hail MLW! May you flourish and prosper. THIS is how to rebuild the Left.
We want to provide a picture of what is wrong with ‘radical’ or ‘left wing’ academic writing, because we feel that it needs to be rescued from itself. What we have identified collectively are elements of ‘scripts’ that we fall back on when we are not utilising the full potential of our resources in the here and now. Scripts are all resources from the past. Scripts are always half bad style and bad meaning, ruts of lazy thinking which have congealed into dead literary-academic modes.
‘The left’ needs to reoccupy the present and future, actually, physically, and politically, but to do this we need to recalibrate writing so that it is symbolically fit for the scale of the task. This is the first utopian step. ‘Utopia’ is the unwritten no-place we have to move towards, but to do that we have to identify as many of the elements of the bad scripts as possible, the lazy, default modes of writing.
Otherwise, how can we write this no-place, how will we inscribe it with all the changes we desperately need? Scripts only allow us to produce something because the ego needs gratification. Scripts are not about exploring the representation and politics of life in 2014, in a new, risky or tentative way, because what is being produced has not yet been tried, and so is a little frightening. Scripts are about making ego-capital.
We wondered if we might get these reflections on scripts published in a ‘radical’ journal or philosophy magazine, but decided that most of them are probably far too enslaved by the lazy mental habits being described below. We are cynical about work being produced by a washed-up, London-centric, mediocre middle-class ‘autonomist’ scene. To get us started, here are some elements of bad academic scripts that we have identified, strung together as a loose narrative:
1. The Sanctimonious Style: a classic discourse of ‘traditional intellectuals’. An academic star system breeds noblesse oblige: ‘Here I am, fulfilling my “progressive” duties’, but in a self-indulgent windbag fashion, bound up with position and status. In fact, the tone of this script is produced by status, and a life essentially spent on a reservation. Ironically, this script is often replicated by admirers without that power. We can perhaps add to this the ‘Left Worthy’, where writers start to designate ‘the good socialist’. When this happens, be sure that all thinking has stopped. Some elements of this script reveal its emptiness, including…
2. The Tenuous Theoretical Inversion: ‘Aha! But is that the case? If we turn Habermas’s notion inside-out we get…’ not very much, usually. Inverting the ‘notions’ of others usually means that you have few of your own left.
3. The Abstract Expression: This has a long pre-history in leaden macro-Marxism, where everything is covered in ash, as thick curtains of theoretical fog obscure everything. We can include in this the excesses of Frankfurt School ‘totalizing’, and macro ‘up in the clouds’ views of vast swathes of countries and cultures. This leaves us with…
4. Opacity: The residual afterglow of texts that are meant to be complex, compressed, portentous, poetic or ‘deep’, but are actually just opaque. Some of us think that Calvino’s Invisible Cities falls into this category for much of the time, and is so celebrated that people shy away from describing it as such. We will add to this…
5. The Spurious Psychogeography: Accounts of vague wandering, accompanied by photographs of fetishised, aesthetic urban ruins, pierced by striking solipsistic outbursts, emptied of all politics.
6. The Foucauldian Cauldron and Deleuzian Eel Barrel: Power is everywhere and therefore nowhere, it is ‘between’. Everyone is oppressor and oppressed at the same time. This is correct in many ways, but nobody in this murky soup is ever prepared to identify ‘the enemy’, because nobody in it can actually see one. There is a related, but opposite risk here, in writing which posits all identities as ‘spectral’ on ‘our side’, yet ‘over there’ is a big slab of oppression called Capitalism, The Patriarchy, et cetera. These ‘slabs’ of oppression derive in part from Foucauldian and Althusserian anti-humanism. It was once said that Foucauldian theory is a giant ‘spider web without a spider’. If we’re just bearers of the structure, points of intersection, then the spectral spider becomes an abstract oppression, rather than something human beings do to each other (and some more than others). We need to identify the spider and pull its legs off. Then Deleuze arrived, and everything is unstitched, in a state of permanent exodus or ‘becoming’, nothing is one thing, everything is between states, or ‘problematic’ if it isn’t.
7. Kine-spew: Swallow a mix of pulped texts by Lacan and Deleuze. Find a film, cut it open, vomit in it. Type up the results and then publish it in a citation index journal. We can add to this…
8. The Pop Confection: Apply a random mix of theorists to an obscure corner of popular culture to simply describe it through the theory, in order to then have something to submit to a journal. I like this band or film or novel, and I like this theory, so even though there is no direct historical link between them, I’m going to mash them together and say that the cultural text conveniently reflects the ‘radical’ features of the theory. This is fandom writing itself into ‘academia’, the creation of product by re-describing other products. It is postmodern pick ‘n’ mix, which could only happen in better times. The recession claimed Woolworths.
9. Binaries, 010101: This is especially prevalent in subcultural circles of ‘third wave’ feminist and queer theory. The lived realities of oppression are seen through an abstraction that has taken binaries for reality. It would be bad enough if philosophical idealism was the only problem here: but it is not, the theory itself is also faulty. Distinctions are not necessarily ‘binary’. The dominant works in different, often contradictory ways. There are endless ‘radical’ propositions that exclaim ‘A-ha! this bit of the world undermines the binaries, which I’m assuming structure everything, so it must be radical!’ Suddenly, the world as described becomes a seething hotbed of queerness, and we can all relax and pat ourselves on the back. This goes some way to explaining the inane cultural populist radicalism of claiming that Lady Gaga is going to bring down Capitalism and The Patriarchy, or more to the point that she represents it apparently falling apart of its own accord.
10. The Trouble With Normal: The helpless confusion between a liberating left politics, which needs to posit desirable norms different to those we have, and countercultural transgression, which sees all norms as oppressive. ‘Radical’, ‘progressive’, ‘queer’, et cetera: there’s a total and convenient lack of specificity as to the political co-ordinates of the positions signified by the above countercultural confetti. Norm-bending becomes ‘radical’, and not just in what gets analysed by ‘left’ academics, but in their own writing. Every new book is about ‘radical’, shaken-up ways of doing theory. This starts to look a lot like the search for novelty in the capitalist marketplace.
11. The Affect Alibi: A trendy and vague contemporary script, which is yet another mirror of the personalisation of everything, and therefore the Americanisation of everything. It has become acceptable to form a worldview based only on your own immediate experience under the alibi of ‘affect’. This is a reactionary rebound from the theoretical weakness of ashen anti-humanism, heading straight back into romanticism, with its ‘immediacy’. We must add solipsistic forms of ‘experimental’ auto-ethnography to this. The deepest problem here is the utter confusion of ‘standpoint epistemology’, or so-called ‘strong objectivity’.
12. Undiplomatic Immunity: Smearing someone as transphobic, misogynist, or racist because their intellectual framework isn’t the same as yours doesn’t mean that you don’t have to engage with them, yet it’s a convenient way to shut down debate. David Harvey is often the victim of this kind of thing in the written ‘scripts’ we discuss, but it goes on at an everyday level too. It is the lurking, residual blunt instrument of 1980s identity politics, something supposedly abandoned in these more theoretically supple times. It is nevertheless a handy auxiliary club to beat people up with when they disagree with your work. If writers place themselves outside criticism nobody wins, but the writer is probably the worst loser of all, drifting off, unchecked. With well-known writers, this process is facilitated as much by their fans as the writers themselves. And they are ‘fans’. As you can see, the creation of ‘scripts’ involves both the consumers and producers of texts.
13. Don’t talk to us about Post-: Postmodernity and Poststructuralism were blind alleys. Poststructuralism has been extremely successful at becoming an authoritative discourse, rendering all other discourses relative and shaky, simply by saying that all other discourses are relative and shaky. Why? Because no-one explicitly talks about it as ‘current’ anymore. Its assumptions are now hegemonic, naturalised, taken for granted.
These are just a few examples of the scripts we have been discussing, at meetings and across them. Scripts are partly dead styles, and partly what some anthropologists have called ‘epistemological hypochondria’, sick philosophies. We are not saying that we can escape the historical repertoires of left discourses completely, nor should we try to. But we need to very carefully select resources from the past. Particularly script styles, because they frame so much, so subtly. All scripts need to strongly justify their direct relevance to the present as a resource now. If this is unclear, we should probably try to create differently.
We felt ourselves being pulled into a script when we caught ourselves thinking, out of nowhere, that we needed a ten-point manifesto, we do not. However, we also admit that this piece was written in a ‘mode’, a kind of script, because of course it is a satire, and therefore it reduces and ridicules in order to make its points. The broadside pamphlet also has a long history. But we think that these scripts have been carefully selected, because the one thing ‘the left’ and ‘radical’ academic writing is clearly in need of right now is sending-up. It also uses a cartoon version of the aphoristic style in its epistemological rubbishing, a little like Adorno in Minima Moralia, a wonderful work that is also opaque in places.
So you see, script problems aren’t always total. We admit that we are playing devil’s advocate in order to diagnose. We all seemed to be in agreement that Zizek’s book on film and Lacan, Looking Awry, was good, but it’s often what happens to these resources when they become lazy paths to nowhere that concerns us, and it concerns us as a group of writers. These are representational questions. It isn’t always the fault of Marx, Foucault and Deleuze, it’s what does or doesn’t get done in their names, although sometimes, the theory is simply faulty.
There’s an urgent, current need to start creating a new kind of attack in political writing. These bad scripts function, like any cliché, to block new associations and thoughts. ‘Critical theory’ which uses Marxist or other premises without any sincere interest or belief in social change, has become orthodoxy in many universities. What use is the obscurantist prose, the demand to go back and read some dead 19th century saint, or do closer research, or ‘problematise’ some incoherent juxtaposition of popular culture and some mishandled linguistic or juridical concept? It all actually seems to prevent people from engaging in politics. It polices knowledge, the right and wrong way to think, it doesn’t necessarily produce knowledge, particularly when its peddlers are professors or senior lecturers.
We need to make completely explicit the fact that these scripts are hegemonic within ‘left’ academia. Unquestioned. They are doxa. Meaning is so much assumed that thought stops, despite the constant claims that everything is being ‘re-thought’, a claim that has also become hegemonic. These terms are being used with only a vague, general sense of what they might mean. Writers simply cast the same scripted spells on everything they encounter, producing the same results every time, yet expecting something different to happen.
There is much more work to do here, and the biggest script myth of all is perhaps that of the ‘left’ and ‘right’ itself. This co-ordinate version of politics is often so much fairy dust, the geographical-spatial metaphor designating the places where the people wear white and black hats, and it is created and maintained by language. At the same time, this does not mean that we are ‘post-Marxists’, what we need to do is redefine the use of our terms to better fit where we are historically, and always be specific.
These scripts are magical acts, and the field we are critiquing is occult: In the 17th century, as alchemy became chemistry, much time and energy was spent in the blind alley of trying to isolate ‘phlogiston’, a supposedly elemental substance that causes things to burn. That’s what we’re stuck in, a massive waste of energy, analysis hamstrung by bad theory, a search for something that might ignite, but never will. Often, bad scripts simply chop up existing knowledge into even thinner slices and then re-circulate it. Their failure is confirmed by their inability to imagine or suggest any political alternatives. Even revolution in its most vague outline has been largely dropped. Instead, wherever one turns, careers are made and incomes sustained by an infinite pursuit of criticising the existing state of things. The urgent desire for change is there, but much of its energy is pulled into this collapsing star. In this universe, any real fruits we bear will rot on the vine.
There’s another way for left thinkers, we are sure of it. Left or radical academic writing needs to be saved from itself and the institutions and measuring systems which frame it and will continue to transform it in a bad order. Crucially then, we must scrutinise not only bad scripts, but also the institutional systems that frame them, not to mention their geo-political and economic surrounds. If we do not start working out how to transform these conditions in tandem with transforming left scripts, our intervention is just more bad writing.
We are not suggesting that these are new observations. Everybody involved that we speak to affirm it as a commonplace assumption, if not in an official capacity. This diagnosis could be depressing. But that we all seem to roughly agree on this is extremely exciting, because that means something is happening. The new crisis of the academy may actually be productive, although that also means we’re going to be poor. But being ‘outside’, even though that also means working for them, for many of us, at least at the moment, is going to produce new critical positions. We may actually be lucky not to have access to a stylish lift into a dead ivory tower.
There’s a broader and deeper dissatisfaction brewing against institutions of politics, education, policing, et cetera. The university is going through a major transformation, towards an even more marketised, profit-driven system. Outside, the rest of the First World resembles this in mirror image, with even more precarious and divided peoples. All of this is obvious, and has a much longer history, which pre-dates the 2008 crash. E.P. Thompson on Warwick and Althusser may be a useful service station back down that road
The changes made to the academy, and the ways in which knowledge is now weighed and judged, were in so many ways completely unnecessary, but they have all been underwritten by the post-Lehman Brothers crash world. As a group we need to concentrate on the question of institutions next. But these shifts in the fabric of the university mean fundamental changes to the calibration of academic writing. We need to take this moment as an opportunity to clean the epistemological stables.Download Article as PDF Manchester Left Writers: EMail Manchester Left Writers: Blog