Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Friday, February 15, 2008

As An Actual Person, May I Point Out That I'm Actually Speaking A "Language of the People" Already, Thank You Very Much?

A comment in the Moot suggests that Dale could reach a larger audience of both academics and laymen if he talked the "language of the people." Actually the comment appeared in the context of a defense of yesterday's Valentine's Nay post, against some numbskull who idiotically accused me of being over-intellectual and elitist (something I get a lot of here, together with boo-hoo crying about my "negativity," especially from the Robot Cultist brain trust members who like to lurk around the edges of my blog because I talk about the politics of emerging technoscience here among other things).

This comment is probably true, and not particularly objectionable to me at all, inasmuch as it leaves open the very real possibility that reaching such a larger audience by this means may not be the reason I am blogging here after all, and maybe that's fine. But the comment goes on to imply that this is a choice with wider stakes, and I think it is interesting to think these through a little bit.

After proposing I might reach a wider audience by speaking "the language of the people" (for obvious response, see title of post), the comment goes on to quote Howard Zinn (author of A People's History of the United States) [who] argue[s]:
The Left hasn't reached out to people with a clear, coherent, and emotional message. The Left often does not know how to talk to other people. Tikkun magazine appeals to intellectuals. I've never spoken the language of ivory tower academics. And there are other voices on the Left that speak in understandable language. For instance, Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickel and Dimed, in which she took menial jobs across the country and wrote about those lives, was a bestseller. There's an emotionalism to her message that makes contact and touches thousands. Michael Moore's movies have been seen by all sorts of people. GI's in Iraq watched his movie. We just have to do more along those lines.

Of course, Zinn is right that the authorized voices of the Left too often have failed to speak to everyday people effectively. Of course, I know exactly what he is talking about here, and endorse the palpable good sense of what he is saying for the most part.

I happen to think this ineffectiveness he is talking about has largely been a structural matter, more than some personal failing, a consequence of the inherently reactionary division of "intellectual" from physical labor and a resulting tendency of even many notionally left-leaning intellectuals to function primarily as water-carriers for incumbent interests rather than as people empowered to speak truths to the powers that be. Also, high financial/time costs imposed by exclusive broadcast model media landscapes, high psychological costs imposed by the precarity of the increasingly privatized and financialized economy for low and middle income folks likely to do much of the actual work of organizing, among many other factors, has produced what has too often been a harsh tradeoff even for very righteous well-meaning well-informed dem-left folks between our democratic ideas and the demands of organizational effectiveness in a pre-p2p epoch.

Part of the reason this doesn't lead me to despair is because we are living in an era of emerging p2p democratization that is undoing this impasse -- blogs among other things are filled with passionate voices from all walks of life, inspiring change with knowledge, emotion, character, good sense, helpfulness, wit, and provocation. p2p formations are also loosening the financial and time constraints that have circumscribed effective rapid pushback against mass-mediated deceptions, exposure of corrupt and secretive practices between representatives and incumbent interests, educated people in real time about anti-democratic manipulations of parliamentary processes in the service of incumbent interests, organized petition drives, small donor aggregation in support of people doing good work at great personal risk, and countless other things, transforming right here, right now the terrain with which Zinn is grappling in that passage. Even so, probably the deft-left will never manage a message so "coherent" as the right does, but that is because diversity is as real and as valuable as equity is for the dem-left and perfect coherence is always only the marching orders of incumbent interests.

The word "often" in Zinn's second quoted sentence seems to me more true than the categorical "hasn't" of the first, though. The left often hasn't been as effective as it could have been and surely should have wanted to be in connecting to the very people who would benefit most from the work we are trying to do. Often... but hardly always. And this matters enormously. And as you well know, I love Zinn's book and his work more generally and recommend it widely because it has affected me powerfully personally, in part because he manages to do precisely what he says more people of the dem-left need to do. I think he is certainly right about that.

However, I do want to insist that there are more things to do in the world, and more ways to contribute to the diversity of human expressions and knowledges and lifeways than just the one Zinn is emphasizing here.

Look, I'm a theory head. I am an ivory tower academic, I guess. I mean, I lack tenure or print publication or the conventional trappings of academic professionalization, but I do make my happy home in the ivory tower, I suppose, and I do try to do democratizing and emancipatory work there. I don't approve of those who invest this institutional location and lifeway with more value and authority than it deserves, but I do enjoy most the conversations I have in this ivory tower with my students and some colleagues and I do think that these conversations can contribute a real measure to the sum of human freedom worthy of celebration on its own duly modest terms. I am capable of writing in the clear and emotional way Zinn prescribes here and do so here on this blog from time to time. But I also write dense, theoretical, provisional, sometimes exploratory and meandering prose on topics of concern to me from time to time.

Welcome to me.

Let me speak some everyday language here.

I don't give a fuck if anybody doesn't like any particular facet of the expression I engage in here. I don't give a fuck if people are disappointed I don't stick to the topics and stylistic mannerisms I exhibit in their favorite posts. I don't give a fuck if some people decide I have become preoccupied with the wrong issue and want to talk about it here. I don't give a fuck if some people think I'm an "elitist" because they don't understand or aren't interested in some of the writing I do.

Nobody knows just what writing, just what style, just what formulation, just what perspective, just what frame, just what provocation will be the one to make the best contribution to the collective work of greater democratization and expressivity and consensualization and justice in the world.

Maybe we would indeed find our way to global permaculture and democratic world federalism with a universal basic income and healthcare if everybody wrote like Howard Zinn. But Zinn does not know that this is true, nobody does. Nobody can.

We do know that it hasn't only been "plainspoken" work (already, actually, a rather problematic notion in my view -- but, hey, I'm a snarky elitist, don't mind me) like Zinn's that has produced democratizing accomplishments the left celebrates now.

And, besides, there are other good things to do and other enriching contributions to make to the sum of human equity and diversity and freedom than just the ones Zinn is making, absolutely fabulous though they are and celebrate them though we rightly do. (Please don't take any of this as a denigration of his wonderful work!)

Even the dem-left should be able to walk and chew gum at the same time. And worse than that, when people get too strident on this particular line (I do not refer here to Zinn) they often start to endorse highly anti-intellectual and expurgationist attitudes in my view that are much more suited to reactionary than to progressive politics when all is said and done.

As an example of what I mean by that last point, contemplate the endless variations -- mostly on the Right but increasingly among some on the Left -- accusing them effete elite English major types of being a right relativist menace with their fancy wordgames and such. All that is just bullshit, and the dem-left does not benefit by it, nor do the emancipatory practices of consensus science demand the denigration or sacrifice of poetry or theory to do their good work in the world as some of science's would-be Priestly and Curatorial "Champions" seem to want.


Michael Anissimov said...

Who's lurking around the edges? I, for one, am right here. You don't have to be a transhumanist to see that this blog is frequently negative, either. You do discuss a range of topics I find interesting, though.

Dale Carrico said...

So, you actually comfortably self-identify with the phrase, "Robot Cultist brain trust member," do you?

De Thezier said...

Since I am the anonymous commenter you quote, understandable language (rather than "negativity") is the issue that concerns me the most when seeking to promote your work to a wider audience of both academics and laymen (whether or not you care that I do that I will continue to do so). So I really appreciate you taking the time to write this defense of your writing style.

I'll be able to direct people to this post when someone tells me:

"I'm embarrased that I don't have the fortitude to understand this great mind."

In other words, I'll able to tell him or her that you don't give a fuck!

PS. I'm just teasing you with that last line. ;)

Eric said...

Shorter Transhumanists:

"We, the select few who will soon be immortal cyborg gods, hereby accuse you of elitism!"

Anonymous said...

"I don't give a fuck.." Ouch, you sound hurt and a bit defensive.
For the little it's worth, I don't find this blog negative at all, just realistic and insightful. Perhaps my own outlook is more negative (I know tags won't work) - that might just be so since you see I come here for laughs. Look it's not this blog that's pushing all those middle age men and women over the brink to suicide, these aren't exactly happy days.

So add my appreciation to this blog's apparently unhealthily negative blend of feedback. As for speaking the "language of the people", what is plainspoken these days -- the schlock of CNN? NYT? The 5th grade English of TIME? I come here to help me see how English can be written. We're up to our ears in the language of the people. I know very well that writing an original thoughtful grammatically correct blog is hard, unappreciated work, since what' passes as interesting and readable is two banal sentences and a link 10 times a day. Your engagement is noteworthy also, when it would be so easy to delete irritating comments.

I come here to read insights on things I don't usually think about and get different opinions on some I do. Perhaps I leave satisfied, sometimes irritated, sometimes puzzled, but thank God it's never common cotton candy. That's why I come back.

Jackie said...

I think this is a ridiculous "critique". I am a 20 year old girl who wants to be a grade school teacher, and I have no problem with investing my time in reading difficult theoretical writing. Granted, I have the leisure to educate myself that uneducated immigrants who work labor jobs (like my parents) don't - but I doubt that they are reading Zinn either. One of the staff people at the community center that I do tutoring for was completely bewildered when he started reading a few pages of my copy of Middlemarch, and he didn't know what the word "deaden" meant in my Leo Tolstoy "Calendar of Wisdom". Zinn is good reading for a high school student beginning their education in the humanities and social sciences - he is not a replacement for more difficult scholarly work so that the "people" (read: the village) can keep up to date on the latest progressive ideas.

To quote from my own blog: One cannot feel guilty when writing for a select few individuals. Someone who says otherwise does not realize that each mind is not soothed by the same therapy, though each body of ours may be (but even this is questionable).