Thursday, September 22, 2011

No B.S. Discourse

A ongoing hobby for me within the discipline has been how discourse in the real world differs from discourse in the academic world. I'm not sure what the pretentious title for this type of research is, so, let's, like good pretentious people, make something up - I'll call it No B.S. Discourse.

I'll define this as talking and writing in a manner that is understandable to everyone. See how easy that was? I could probably write a book about it, though, with logic and everything.

No B.S. Discourse first became an interest for me when I read Excitable Speech by Judith Butler. Now, I LOVE that book so hard. It blew my mind when I read it. Before reading it, I had never realized that political theory could be so goddammed critical, but the entire thing is virtually unreadable if you aren't within the discipline and have little experience reading thick texts.

What the book comes down to is that censorship needs to be questioned because not saying a word (whatever it may be) does nothing to investigate and remove the violence of it; indeed, saying you can't say the word propogates that violence. What Judy B wants us to do is to trouble the water of words, make them change, or if we must remove them, we need to do so in  way that challenges the entire system of that word.

I know! I read that at 19 and was like, "Whoah!"

While I understand that book now, it took hours to get to that point and a few class lectures, but I think a lot of people could get there more quickly, and some have:

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See? It doesn't have to be so difficult. But some would argue that it does. Here's Judith Butler's response to being given an award as a terrible writer:
Herbert Marcuse once described the way philosophers who champion common sense scold those who propagate a more radical perspective: "The intellectual is called on the carpet. . . . Don't you conceal something? You talk a language which is suspect. You don't talk like the rest of us, like the man in the street, but rather like a foreigner who does not belong here. We have to cut you down to size, expose your tricks, purge you." 
The accused then responds that "if what he says could be said in terms of ordinary language he would probably have done so in the first place." Understanding what the critical intellectual has to say, Marcuse goes on, "presupposes the collapse and invalidation of precisely that universe of discourse and behavior into which you want to translate it."
What Butler is saying is that the common language is too supportive of very bad things, and she is right. Language matters and troubling language in complex ways could be useful, but I question its usefulness when the majority of people cannot understand it.

There is so much out there that makes me question Butler's premise (and remember, I LOVE  her): Jon Stewart, Persephone Magazine, Old Jezebel (before it got bad), Racialicious, Tiger Beatdown - I could go on, but these are all places where language is challenged in ways that people can understand. Of course, many of these authors have read Judith Butler first (among many others) but like me, they question the assumption that language must be difficult to trouble the water. They want it to be understandable so that everyone, not just the scholar or grad student, feels troubled.

What's more, these spaces of no b.s. discourse are quick; they operate at the speed of where people are at and what they are talking about at the bar, and that's at a level of immediate influence that an academic is hard-pressed to come by.

I'd like, for a moment, to quote Habermas (yes, I am going there, into the world of hard-to-understand discourse). He defines the principle of discourse ethics, or the way at which we reach universal principles of right and wrong as, "Only those norms can claim to be valid that meet (or could meet) with the approval of all affected in their capacity as participants in a practical discourse." (Discourse Ethics: 93).

What Habermas says that is so important is that everyone must be allowed to participate. No one can be prevented from speaking. We all have to participate in this discussion so we can come to a moral conclusion that is acceptable.

Academic discourse precludes so many people in a multitude of ways. It is expensive. It requires training to understand. And in order to be taken seriously, you must also talk in a very specific way. In a way that gives you an "A." I take this as fundamentally against allowing everyone to participate.

Of course, non-academic discourse can preclude, too. The yelling talking heads on Fox News show us this every day.

And that's why the thought of finishing my PhD is sometimes so daunting. Because as critical as I can be of Judy B (it rhymes!) I still need her and how I think in the world and my ethics have been fundamentally shaped by people like her. But at the same time, I've read and had experiences outside of academic discourse that have been just as, if not more, influential.

I'm never certain of the right location for this work - here or someplace locked in an ivory tower. Goodness knows I'd have more time for it if I were in an ivory tower.

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