Tag Archives: critique

Tips for giving constructive criticism on academic writing

In the course I’m teaching on academic writing for graduate students, the students are required to practice peer review: they have to give constructive criticism on drafts of one another’s essays. Some students have asked how to present criticism constructively: “My feedback on —‘s paper is quite critical,” wrote one student. “Any pointers in how I can manage the tone better would be appreciated, I don’t want to hurt people’s feelings.”

Giving criticism constructively is tricky, but it does get easier with practice. And while expectations of tone and etiquette can vary (for instance, anecdotally, academics in Europe don’t mince words the way North Americans do), academia tends widely to uphold standards, for peer review and critique, of politeness, professionalism, and focus on a given argument’s substance (theory, method, evidence, reasoning) and form (structure and style). These are standards of constructive criticism: criticism intended to support and strengthen writing in progress.

So how to put the principle of constructive criticism into practice? Here are a few of the rhetorical moves I use in giving constructive criticism to students’ work and colleagues’ papers:

    Give good news with bad news: begin by saying something positive about the work, something you think it does well, before moving on to discuss something you don’t like or something it doesn’t do well.

    Substitute imperative for negative: instead of saying something negative (e.g. “this paper doesn’t review enough articles”), say it as an imperative (e.g. “this paper needs to review more articles”). this also makes your criticism action-oriented; you provide specific steps and actions the recipient can take.

    Recognize intent amidst error: try to identify and if possible praise what a given bit or whole piece of writing is trying or intending to do – and then go on to discuss how it could better realize or achieve that intent.

    Be specific: this is related to the imperative idea above – constructive criticism means criticism that can be concretely acted on by its recipient. so avoid general or vague judgments about the whole work or about its component parts – instead, highlight specific ways to improve the work.

The practice of constructive criticism is vital in studies and research – especially in the distributed, “virtual” classrooms like those of #AthaU, where students aren’t actually facing one another, and where the risks are consequently higher for either remaining too reserved or getting rude. But constructive criticism is an eminently “transferable skill,” too, one that is important in lots of different work and social situations and communications. Since we’re trying to have a civilization here, after all.

If you know of other tips or rhetorical moves for giving constructive criticism, please feel free to share them in a comment below.

Call for papers on Literature & the Copyfight, for Congress 2012

Call for papers: Literature & the Copyfight, Congress 2012.

Critical scholarship is urgently needed to intervene on the question of copyright: once a staple stimulus for literary and cultural production that now tends more to stifle it. … This session invites papers on the relationship between literature, copyright, and the copyfight.

The deadline for submissions is 15 Nov. 2011 (see link for contact info). Thanks to ACCUTE and SDH for joint hosting.

[Instead of posting the complete call for papers here, I’m practicing not duplicating content.]

“Precious conceits and wild experiments”: _Orlando_’s critique of the patriarchal critical tradition

[An expanded revision of an undergrad essay I wrote, this has aged more gracefully than most of the other undergrad essays I wrote.]

One of the most humorous and telling threads in the narrative of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando (1928) is one that is alternately picked up and dropped over the course of Orlando’s unnaturally long lifespan. This thread is the story of literary criticism, and it makes two main appearances in the text, in tandem with Nick Greene, one of Orlando’s select ageless acquaintances. A survey of the genre and institution of literary criticism, as Woolf theorizes it, and a close reading of the scenes in Orlando wherein Green parodies this institution will argue that Woolf’s shrewd critique of literary criticism identifies it as an ideological apparatus to recuperate literature, to defuse its “powers and dangers” (Foucault 52) by securing it for the patriarchal epistemological monopolies on humanism and “common sense.”

In A Room of One’s Own (1928), Woolf describes the “stridently sex-conscious” (97) literary critical discourse that prevails in her day as

[…] that persistent voice, now grumbling, now patronizing, now domineering, now grieved, now shocked, now angry, now avuncular, that voice which cannot let women alone […] dragging even into the criticism of poetry criticism of sex; admonishing them, if they would be good and win, as I suppose, some shiny prize, to keep within certain limits which the gentleman in question thinks suitable. (75)

Citing from contemporary critical journals, Woolf portrays and indicts the literary critical establishment as a masculinist institution that propagates and reproduces prejudices against women in the process of delivering learned commentary on literary texts and problems. From the New Criterion, she quotes that “women rarely possess men’s healthy love of rhetoric”; from Life and Letters, “that female novelists should only aspire to excellence by courageously acknowledging the limitations of their sex” (75). Having thus identified the guarded patriarchal order in an ostensibly disinterested critical establishment, Woolf goes on to critique criticism as a masculinist genre that is emotionally retarded (according to a familiar, essentialist grammar of gender traits):

It is the power of suggestion that one most misses, I thought, taking Mr B the critic in my hand and reading, very carefully and dutifully, his remarks upon the art of poetry. Very able they were, acute and full of learning; but the trouble was that his feelings no longer communicated […] a woman cannot find in [living writers] that fountain of perpetual life which the critics assure her is there. It is not only that they celebrate male virtues, enforce male values and describe the world of men; it is that the emotion with which these books are permeated is to a woman incomprehensible. (100)

Woolf also muses on the way in which the critical establishment deals oppressively, even violently, with the raising of self-asserting female voices: “Perhaps some great lady would take advantage of her comparative freedom and comfort to publish something with her name to it and risk being thought a monster” (59). That potential monster, the woman writer (more recently articulated in the “cyborg manifesto” of Donna Haraway), becomes the bane of an establishment whose function, as Woolf argues, is as much to police the gender-coded order of literary discourse and production as it is to “know the best that is known and thought in the world,” in the famous words of Victorian arch-critic Matthew Arnold (597).

We find parodic echoes of Arnold in Orlando, and it becomes clear that here too, Woolf is interrogating “disinterested criticism” as a patriarchal discourse. In “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” (1864), Arnold writes, “the epochs of Aeschylus and Shakespeare make us feel their preeminence. In an epoch like those is, no doubt, the true life of literature” (603). Central to Arnold’s vision of criticism as a social mission is his sense of present degeneracy and crisis, a modern malaise (594). It is this particular sensibility that Orlando parodies in the character of the critic Nick Greene:

No, he concluded, the great age of literature is past; the great age of literature was the Greek; the Elizabethan age was inferior in every respect to the Greek. […] Now all young writers were in the pay of the booksellers and poured out any trash that would sell. Shakespeare was the chief offender in this way and Shakespeare was already paying the penalty. Their own age, he said, was marked by precious conceits and wild experiments–neither of which the Greeks would have tolerated for a moment. (69)

Taking place during Orlando’s first encounter with Greene in Elizabethan England, this passage mimics the sense of degeneracy, determined by the temporal ontology of modernity, that Arnold naturalizes as the condition that makes effective criticism possible: the sense of the present as a time in critical condition, as it were. As Walter Benjamin notes of this prevalent practice of temporal naturalization, “the ‘state of emergency’ in which we live is not the exception but the rule” (257). This “tradition of the oppressed” — a tradition perennially, perniciously appropriated on behalf of patriarchal oppressors (as seen, for example, in the 1990s furor over “political correctness,” or in the self-positioning of far-right journalism as the speaking of a supposedly marginalized truth to a chimerical progressive power) — is exposed in Orlando as a tradition of venerable standing and lasting purchase, as well as a practice of hegemony, in its compulsion to convince, to be insistently stated and re-stated. Greene’s articulation of this tradition in the age of England’s first celebrated queen is conspicuously repeated when Orlando meets Greene again, during the age of her second, Victoria:

“Ah! My dear lady, the great days of literature are over. Marlowe, Shakespeare, Ben Johnson–those were the giants. […] all our young writers are in the pay of the booksellers. They turn out any trash that serves to pay their tailor’s bills. It is an age,” he said […] “marked by precious conceits and wild experiments–none of which the Elizabethans would have tolerated for an instant. (212)

Note the verbatim repetitions between Greene’s Elizabethan and Victorian pronouncements; note also the substitution of Elizabethans for Greeks as the apogee of ancient aesthetics; and note the corresponding promotion of Shakespeare from “chief offender” in the former pronouncement to a “giant” in the latter. This conversion from vilifying Shakespeare to valorizing him maps, in miniature, the historical rehabilitation and canonization of “the Bard,” his makeover as Britain’s “national poet” (see Dobson). As Orlando herself critically reflects on Greene’s words: “the names were different, of course, but the spirit was the same” (213).

By “spirit,” Orlando in fact refers to a kind of letter, that is, to a particular and readily recognizable discourse of authenticity, a discourse of “art versus commerce” (see Weinstein), that has long served to mystify cultural production in gender-coded terms. This discourse (which is now virtually endemic to popular forms of cultural criticism) posits an established masculine authority, legitimized by its “disinterested” spirit and devotion to artistic authenticity, as threatened, or even usurped, by an emerging feminine competitor, illegitimate in its venal materialism and abandonment or ignorance of taste. This patriarchal critical tradition–a discursive structure that privileges ancient (or at least pre-modern) aesthetic authenticity–reifies (and for Arnold, to an extent, deifies) its disciplinary regulation of literary value in that body of work we call “the canon.” As the recurring references to Arnold here suggest, this tradition also reifies a mode of speech–the commentary–by reproducing unto canonicity the male voices and positions that have grounded and entrenched the literary critical establishment’s authority. That is to say, the literary critical establishment has legitimized its cultural authority by speaking not truth to power, but power to itself, closing that power into a loop of self-validation (or self-pleasuring, if we figure this loop as an onanistic Ourobouros).

From neoclassical anxieties over professional authorship as prostitution, to rock criticism’s valorization of “blues legends” at the expense of “pop divas,” to Big Media’s increasingly draconian campaigns against the unruly and excessive circulations of digital media, the patriarchal critical tradition enables a heterogeneous array of critical articulations and materializations. Catherine Gallagher has historicized the image, derived from antiquity, of the writer as prostitute, an image “related to anxieties about the ‘unnatural’ proliferation of signs” that stands in stark, gender-coded contrast, as Mark Rose notes, to the equally common paternal image of the “author as begetter and the book as child” (38).

This tradition also enables a similarly broad spectrum of projects in critical revision and recuperation. Michel Foucault’s observations on the function of commentary are relevant here: “Commentary exorcises the chance element of discourse by giving it its due; it allows us to say something other than the text itself, but on condition that it is this text itself which is said […] The new thing here lies not in what is said but in the event or its return” (58)–which would be not only the return of the text, in how criticism reproduces it with a difference (a difference that nevertheless turns the critical reproduction more often into recuperation than into radicalization–more “exorcism” than possession), but also the return of criticism itself to its traditional field of power, to be recharged by each new reproductive iteration it issues.

Certain texts (and the social norms and cultural politics that accompany their authoritative installation) are thus reproduced, canonized, in two ways: in the commentaries that repeat and supplement them, reinforcing their centrality; and in their material reproduction, which escalates as the commentaries on them proliferate, promoting the texts to and ensconcing them in specific (and traditionally privileged) sites of reading and reception.

The complementary function of this “spirit” of modern cultural malaise is to dismiss and marginalize new, popular, or other contemporary texts and productions, in gender-coded terms. In devaluing contemporary texts as “precious conceits and wild experiments,” the patriarchal critical tradition maintains control, including censorial control, over cultural productions by mystifying its own aversions and anxieties to them in the guise of a defence of culture, or even of civilization. What is at stake here is the need to manage or neutralize cultural productions that interrogate the foundations and premises of critical discourse, interrogations that would expose its investments in gender and genre, and its protection of said investments by way of appeals to culture, authenticity, and temporality, as in the idealization of pre-modern productions over degenerate contemporary ones. Although the patriarchal critical tradition depends, even thrives on a certain possibility of dissent and debate, debate over the foundations, forms, and modes of criticism itself poses a threat that, as Woolf demonstrates (and as numerous scholars have since investigated), issues from female voices, historically disenfranchised as they have been from the critical tradition. The hypothetical woman writer in Woolf’s Room threatens the critical establishment not just by gaining access to the means of critical production, but by asking why and how those means have been assembled in this way and not another, hence disrupting their smooth operation.

Orlando’s puzzled response to Greene’s Victorian re-statement of the patriarchal critical tradition shows how alien this tradition can be to women readers and writers. That Orlando almost finishes Greene’s sentence for him, after a separation of some three hundred years, suggests her grasp of the ideological form of his utterance above and beyond its specific content. Orlando thus accentuates the absurd obviousness of an ideological formation apparent to those marginalized or excluded by it. A similar accentuation occurs when Orlando converses with “giants” like Alexander Pope, whose words are pointedly withheld from the text, since “the biographers” assume that “these sayings are too well-known to require repetition” (155). This ironic appeal to the presumed knowledge of canonical literature on behalf of the implied reader also represents a sly erasure of that literature. And it is followed by Orlando’s archly patronizing, subtly feminized descriptions of “the company of men of genius” as “fond of tea,” and fond, too, of “collect[ing] little bits of coloured glass” (159). Such descriptions enact an alienating and alienated woman’s perspective of the patriarchal critical establishment, a view from the outside that plays with and against literary norms and cultural standards. Woolf suggests that the alien alterity that women writers bring to critical practice is an excess, a “monstrosity” from which the patriarchal critical tradition recoils. As Sandra Gilbert writes:

Feminist connections between the personal and the political, the theoretical and the practical, renew those bonds of feeling and thought that T.S. Eliot, the paradigmatic patriarchal critic, regarded as irrevocably severed. In fact, the feminist classroom, as anybody who has entered on will tell you, is the home of undissociated sensibilities. (40)

In this way, Nick Greene’s repeated–and revised–representations of ancient excellence versus modern degeneracy parodies one of the ideological linchpins of the patriarchal critical tradition. And as parody, it both exemplifies Foucault’s idea of commentary and subverts its rarefying, restricting function. Woolf supplies precisely that commentary on commentary–a secondary, “critical” form ironically embedded in a primary, “creative” form–which strips literary criticism of its gender-coded ideological veil. Greene’s commentary, about which the critic character is (somewhat ambiguously) either insistent or oblivious, is not to be taken at face value as a corrective revision, signalling a critical or pedagogical progression or graduation from early modern ignorance of correct taste to its enlightened, high modern apprehension. In its mixture of verbatim repetition and substitution of names, it instantiates Foucault’s theory of commentary as both reproduction and explication; Greene’s second statement comments not only on its purported subject, modern literature, but also as meta-commentary on his first: as a comment, that is, on his own prior comment. Greene’s patronizing, patriarchal pronouncement on the perennially fallen state of literature (and by extension culture) echoes itself, occults itself, and necessarily forgets itself, demonstrating a kind of doubly meta-critical and non-critical manoeuvre: a gesture of deference to historical authenticity that camouflages the revisionism and oppression required to make such a gesture. It’s a manoeuvre still very much with us, all too prevalent in criticism today, as promiscuous in the strident, canon-defending campaigns of Harold Bloom, as in the back-in-the-day one-upmanship of fanboy pop-culture scenes (whose masculinist discourse of “subcultural capital” has been authoritatively analyzed in Sarah Thornton’s book Club Cultures).

The statements with which Woolf fills Greene’s mouth pose a subtle, shrewd critique of how the patriarchal critical tradition continues to patrol its territory and protect its members. (Pun intended.) But if this tradition has enjoyed a long career thanks to its complex forms of repetition, at least Woolf’s ironic and parodic kind of response to it has engendered repetitions of its own. In Tania Glyde’s 1998 short story, “Pavlovs Bitch and Yoga Cow Reach 2000,” the narrator (“Pavlovs Bitch”) argues with a male character in a scene that resonates with Orlando, a passage of meta-commentary, embedded in fiction, which plays fittingly feminist havoc with the patriarchal critical tradition, its revisionist manoeuvring, and the rather more ominous cultural politics that it indexes–a politics broached in the last line of the quotation below, to which I’ll leave the last word:

Luke barely acknowledges us before launching into a tirade.
     Oh my God you wouldn’t believe it! I went to this club last night and the DJs were awful I mean the people there were all so bloody young, they don’t know anything about what’s going on. Fuckin’ dingy tunes, it was all really manky, all kind of housey techno-ey trancey drum ‘n’ bassy–O mean they just weren’t there, were they? Oooh, halls of residence are gonna be swinging to that derivative crap. It’s not like the old days I can tell you. I can’t believe all these people are trying to enjoy themselves to that shit when they weren’t even there at the beginning.
     Beginning of what? I hiss. Tip when chatting about musical trends of the last twenty years to someone like Luike Roadkill: Think of what style you’re on about, take the year you think it “all started”, and then go back a couple more, just to be safe, e.g. “but Afrika Bambaataa was doing that in ’78, surely?” etc.
     Luke responds.
     Well, they weren’t there. When it all started.
     How could someone who’s seventeen years old in 1999 have “been there” in 1986, at the age of four? I mean, even if they were actually in Ibiza that year, they’d have been making sandcastles, wouldn’t they?
     Club fascists are a race all their own. (277)

 

Works Cited

Arnold, Matthew. “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time” (1864). Rpt. in Critical Theory since Plato. Ed. Hazard Adams. Orlando: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1992.

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt, trans. Harry Zohn. New York: Schocken, 1968.

Dobson, Michael. The Making of the National Poet: Shakespeare, Adaptation, and Authorship, 1660-1769. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1995.

Foucault, Michel. “The Order of Discourse” (1970). Rpt. in Untying the Text: A Post-Structuralist Reader. Ed. Robert Young. Boston: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981. 48-78.

Gallagher, Catherine. “George Eliot and Daniel Deronda: The Prostitute and the Jewish Question.” Sex, Politics, and Science in the Nineteenth-Century Novel. Ed. Ruth Berbard Yeazell. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1986.

Gilbert, Sandra. “What do feminist critics want? A postcard from the volcano.” Rpt. in The New Feminist Criticism. Ed. Elaine Showalter. New York: Pantheon, 1985. 29-45.

Glyde, Tania. “Pavolvs Bitch and Yoga Cow Reach 2000.” Disco 2000. Ed. Sarah Champion. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1998. 273-89.

Haraway, Donna. “A Cyborg Manifesto: Science, Technology, and Socialist-Feminism in the Late Twentieth Century.” Simians, Cyborgs and Women: The Reinvention of Nature. New York: Routledge, 1991. 149-181. Rpt. in Program in History and Philosophy of Science and Technology, Stanford U, 2 Dec. 1997 http://www.stanford.edu/dept/HPS/Haraway/CyborgManifesto.html

Rose, Mark. Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1993.

Thornton, Sarah. Club Cultures: Music, Media and Subcultural Capital. Hanover: Wesleyan UP, 1996.

Weinstein, Donna. “Art Versus Commerce: Deconstructing a (Useful) Romantic Illusion.” Stars Don’t Stand Still in the Sky: Music and Myth. Ed. Karen Kelly and Evelyn McDonnell. New York: New York UP, 1999. 57-69.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. London: Penguin, 1928.

—. Orlando. London: Hogarth P, 1928.

 

Cross-blogged from the AU Landing

The stakes of literary criticism

The stakes of literary criticism sometimes turn out to be higher than prevailing preconceptions about it would suggest (you know, the preconceptions involving elbow patches, overpaid obscurantism, and social irrelevance). For instance, earlier this year a New York law professor faced criminal libel charges in France for publishing a critical book review. Around the same time, a Kuwaiti blogger got sued for posting a bad restaurant review.

The counter-discourse about literary criticism as a matter of life or death has roots in the pamphlet and periodical hostilities that marked (and marred) print culture in the Romantic period. The most famous example is the poet Keats, famously sensitive to critical reviews. “Who killed John Keats?” asked Byron in 1821, promptly answering on behalf of one particularly persecuting periodical: “‘I,’ says the Quarterly…”

But Keats’ case is still figurative, not literal, after all: it wasn’t bad reviews that actually killed Keats — it was tuberculosis, whose close reading skills apply only to deconstructing the ambiguities and aporias of the body’s immune system. Rather, the real life-or-death stakes of literary criticism surface in the fact that most negative reviews themselves were published anonymously — as were numerous now-famous novels, from Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, to Walter Scott’s Waverley series, to Austen’s oeuvre. As William St Clair argues in his endlessly absorbing study The Reading Nation in the Romantic Period, “anonymity protected publishers and printers from the law of libel” (174).

Perhaps that’s a protection that some of the aforementioned present-day critics wish they had, just as, perhaps, it’s a protection that explains the death of netiquette and the ubiquity of commentating trolls. But anonymity warded against more than just libel in the romantic period:

Anonymity also reduced the risk of being called out to fight in a duel, a form of literary criticism which killed more than one writer of the romantic period. (175)

Such wryly observed literary history puts in perspective “the death of the author,” reminding us of a time when an act of reading represented a kind of re-writing that was radically and literally tantamount to murder (not even murder most foul, but murder socially sanctioned, at that). Let’s hope that, amidst increasingly extremist, neoliberal forms of deregulation, IP law enforcement, and extreme sports (like ultimate fighting or chessboxing), the current spate of libel actions against critics doesn’t augur a return to the good old bad old days when running an unfavourable critique could risk catching a bullet.


Cross-blogged from the AU Landing

Fighting words for crapitalist democrazy

This whole notion of running a government like a business — a business is the least democratic institution — the government is supposed to look after the welfare of people.
Dionne Brand, in interview with Ashante Infantry

Do we need a plainer-speaking critical language to mobilize against fight the new feudalism?

1. “The New Dumb”

I recently read a series of shrewd, sharp blog postings by Tobias Van Veen, posts that try to make sense of — and resist — emerging social and political trends like “the rise of the New Dumb,” “cultural fascism,” and the corporate mobilization of proudly uninformed groups and movements to destroy democracy: “Moloch’s multitude,” he calls it. This last point is a common theme in these posts:

The supercorporate state is on the move, and it appears to be using the angry multitude to do its dirty work — which is nothing less than to undermine democratic governance itself. Is such an entity a new form of the State? Not really; it is more or less an agglomerate of competing and disorganised interests who are nonetheless aiming in a similar direction: the destruction of the democratic sphere. We are entering a feudal, warring period on an international scale.

These posts make for some dread and dire reading; check out their tags: cryptofascism, Weimarization. This last comes courtesy of Chris Hedges; Van Veen notes a recent interview Hedges gave CBC Radio’s The Current:

Hedges contends that we are now entering the “Weimarization” of the United States, ending his interview (somewhat to the shock of Tremonti [The Current‘s host]) with the contention that we stand at the bring of the complete downfall of the United States of America.

Hedges has sounded this kind of alarm before — on a global scale.

2. “Inverted Totalitarianism”

In March he posted an essay called “We Stand on the Cusp of one of Humanity’s Most Dangerous Moments”: it’s a terrifying and inspiring call to action, well worth reading. “We stand on the cusp of one of the bleakest periods in human history when the bright lights of a civilization blink out and we will descend for decades, if not centuries, into barbarity.” Hedges places the blame for our present precarity squarely on the increasingly unregulated rule and rampage of corporate capital and the fascist politics it has produced:

Our democratic system has been transformed into what the political philosopher Sheldon Wolin labels inverted totalitarianism. Inverted totalitarianism, unlike classical totalitarianism, does not revolve around a demagogue or charismatic leader. It finds expression in the anonymity of the corporate state. It purports to cherish democracy, patriotism, a free press, parliamentary systems and constitutions while manipulating and corrupting internal levers to subvert and thwart democratic institutions. […] The free market’s assumption that nature and human beings are objects whose worth is determined by the market allows each to be exploited for profit until exhaustion or collapse. A society that no longer recognizes that nature and human life have a sacred dimension, an intrinsic value beyond monetary value, commits collective suicide. Such societies cannibalize themselves until they die. This is what we are undergoing.

I’ll let you read on to find out where the inspiring bits are in this impassioned yet deeply reasoned essay, one that at times resonates with the ominous tone of Old Testament prophecy.

I’ve quoted at length from Van Veen and Hedges because I’m struck by their forceful but different uses of language. Van Veen, a philosopher, makes learned and esoteric references, and works with some of the most complex philosophy going (the inescapable but infinitely productive Deleuze and Guattari, for example). But he also makes biblical allusions (like Moloch, which I guess is also a beat-poet allusion now), and, after the fashion of major continental theorists, coins his share of portmanteaus and neologisms. That is, mashed-up or made-up words. Like “cryptofascism” (which could be someone else’s, I don’t know). Or, more plainly, “supercorporate nonstate.” Or, plainer still, “the New Dumb”: a great phrase for the kind of politics Van Veen sees as common to Toronto’s new mayor, Rob Ford, and to the alarmingly fast-growing Tea Party thing in the USA.

Hedges has done his homework too, but tends to use more consistently plain-speaking language. I’ve quoted his discussion of “inverted totalitarianism” because it’s a bit of an exception to the plain-speaking rule. But “totalitarian” has proven a useful enough ingredient in coinages minted by some of the New Dumb’s heaviest hitters: remember George W. Bush’s “tomatolitarian Islamofascism”? It would sound positively academicalistic, a neologism to rank alongside différance or biopolitics — if it weren’t just so much nonsensical bullshit racist propaganda.

Otherwise, Hedges tends to stick to plain-speaking language, using words like corrupt, thwart, and cannibalize to sketch our apocalyptic present and its abysmal future. (Not to mention his inclusive, collectivizing use of “we” and “our” — a tactic to involve the reader, to “invoke the You,” as Constance Rooke liked to say.)

3. The Aristocrats

The simple, forceful language in these posts reminds me of an earlier essay, Phil Agre’s 2004 “What is conservatism and what is wrong with it?” It’s a stridently partisan essay, written specifically to intervene in the election that ultimately gave Dubya his second term: “Liberals in the United States have been losing political debates to conservatives for a quarter century,” Agre writes. “In order to start winning again, liberals must answer two simple questions: what is conservatism, and what is wrong with it?” Agre’s answers to these are pointedly plain:

Q: What is conservatism?
A: Conservatism is the domination of society by an aristocracy.
Q: What is wrong with conservatism?
A: Conservatism is incompatible with democracy, prosperity, and civilization in general. It is a destructive system of inequality and prejudice that is founded on deception and has no place in the modern world.

The essay goes on to support these points in great detail. What I like here is his opening tactic of simply re-defining “conservatism,” by calling it out for what it is, now: “aristocratic rule.”

4. Counter-hegemony

So what other words need to be re-defined, to help not just scholars but the public (whatever that is, now) apprehend understand the present state of emergency? What these readings and reflections lead me to wonder is whether those of us working in progressive-to-radical criticism, commentary, research, scholarship, and/or praxis could gain firmer purchase get more traction in the public sphere (or whatever it has become) by deploying a plainer-speaking, common language of critique. This idea should not at all be misunderstood as some “revolt against theory,” as a caricature-communist purging of the “ivory towers,” or as some other kind of anti-intellectual rant. I’m thinking of something more in the line of bell hooks’ “Theory as liberatory practice”: a carefully crafted, deeply nuanced, and widely influential essay on “theory,” its complexities, and the urgent necessity of translating its insights and applications into tools for everyday people. An essay that gave us what Len Findlay calls (in an essay I’ll cite when I recall it) “the wonderfully plain-speaking portmanteau”: “white capitalist patriarchy” (hooks 71). Findlay himself is another public intellectual worth considering in this connection: a trenchant, eloquent defender of rhetorical sophistication and critical rigour, whose essays and extemporized remarks combine vast learning and reflective reasoning with radical politics — as well as scathing wit and a colourful salting of sailor talk. “A new goal for Englishes,” Findlay writes (in an essay I do recall: “Always Indigenize!”), “is an enhanced capacity for analytical and imaginative critique of the current (Amerocenric, neocolonial, capitalist) hegemony” (326).

So I’m certainly not claiming any originality here. There must be dozens or hundreds of attempts, from dissertations to diatribes, to renovate critical language in the service of progressive, equitable, and just social change. In addition to the interventions and reflections discussed above, John Foran has just published a “manifesto for radical social change” that advocates, among other things, for re-defining the field of “globalization studies” as “global crisis studies.” The crisis in question here is a crisis of communication, of understanding, catalyzed by the all-too-easy domination of the terms of public discourse by the slightest fraction of its richest members, passing off their own narrow, short-term, and selfish interests as those of everyone else. Hegemony. How to deploy counter-hegemony against a corporate mediascape in which such highly concentrated ownership purports to represent (while redefining in its own way) the public interest?

Well, maybe not by using terms like counter-hegemony.

The numbered neologisms from the aforementioned essays and blogs are just a few of the rhetorical crowbars we might use for prying open the doors of perception and kicking out the corporate thought police that have taken up squatting all too comfortably in our heads. For now I’ll wrap up these reflections with a few extra entries for the long-overdue next edition of the Devil’s Dictionary:

crapitalism: a better word for the world-shitstem that has elevated its “race to the bottom” to the status of a commandment. That would reduce any and every element of life to the abject status of a mere commodity. That has tried to convince us that recycling is an adequate solution to the bloated over-packaging of more stuff, that’s more cheaply made than ever before, by people who are paid less to make it than ever before. That is garbaging up the world, in the process.

democrazy: what passes for a “knowledge” of democracy among “the New Dumb.”

the new feudalism: a plainer word for globalization; though Negri and Hardt’s model of Empire also works well.

Wanted for this list:

a name for the now-ubiquitous brand of businessperson — your Ralph Klein, your Sarah Palin, your Rob Ford — who campaigns for a government position on an anti-government platform. (That more people aren’t inherently suspicious of such a platform speaks to the success of Empire’s PR machines.)

Print Works Cited

Findlay, Len. “Always Indigenize! The Radical Humanities in the Postcolonial Canadian University.” ARIEL 31.1-2 (2000): 307-26. Rpt. in Unhomely States: Theorizing English-Canadian Postcolonialism. Ed. Cynthia Sugars. Peterborough: Broadview, 2004. 367-82.

Foran, John. “From Critical Globalization Studies and Public Sociology to Global Crisis Studies and Global Justice Work: A Manifesto for Radical Social Change.” New Global Studies 4.2 (2010)

hooks, bell. “Theory as liberatory practice.” Teaching to Transgress. New York: Routledge, 1994.

Infantry, Ashante. “The voice behind a novel full of sound” [interview with Dionne Brand]. Toronto Star 26 May 1996: F6.