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The importance of being earnest

What I have learned about the blog so far is that some people see a discrepancy between our practical aims and the way we discuss them on the blog. I’d like to give some ideas about how we could improve the flow of exchange between people with different backgrounds. Since I’m very interested in the philosophical etc. contributions for example, but sometimes don’t have sufficient knowledge to comment, I would like to request some more practical exemplifications of the ideas you’re discussing.

I think that people can easily be intimidated by the technical terms you use and thus won’t read the text or contribute own ideas. I don’t think that your posts are pretentious though (what does ‘pretentious’ even mean? Each domain has it’s own terms and can only break things down to a certain point). Even if one might call them such, it’s no use taking it on a personal level (there shouldn’t be made a classification amongst us, scientists versus others). The idea of this blog is exactly the opposite – crossing borders, having specialists in each field who can contribute to the overall idea, growing through each other etc. It’s no use discussing about it endlessly. So

a. Be as clear as possible without trivializing ideas.

Perhaps we should start putting very short introductions to our posts – if they are of a difficult nature. (“This post is about…” or some basic information about the content….”what you absolutely need to know”).

It would be interesting to start a catalogue of practical questions and try to answer them from a philosophical… point of view (what would X have said about…). It demands high capacaties to transform such abstract ideas into practical advice, but that’s the way something genuinely new can emerge.

b. If you don’t understand a concept, idea etc., why not just ask? Sometimes one is so trapped in his or her ideas that one doesn’t even notice the  degree of complexity (as a trainee teacher I know how important it is to put yourself in your pupils’ position to see the difficulties).

I don’t want this blog to be a gladiatorial arena for who-knows-best, but a space where one can put whatever he/she wishes to express!

Julia Kröger

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19 responses »

  1. Thank you for this post! I really appreciate your honesty and I recognize myself in what you say: both in the “pretentiousness” (which often seems to be the result of intellectual and emotional unsecurity) and the feeling of being intellectually “overstrained”… too many ideas, not enough focus. If we want this blog to be accessable to everyone (and it should try to be), we need to be as honest and clear as possible. Of course, this should not lead to a reduction/elimination of complexity, diversity and imagination.

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  2. I agree and will comment further in a bit

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  3. I generally agree, but with one small exception: I think the focus is primarily on the writer to make their ideas accessible. I have a lot of sympathy with some of the views Chomsky has on theory, specifically around the way it is written in. The key point he makes for me, is that if he were to go to any other discipline (medicine, electrical engineering etc) experts would be able to expain an idea in simple terms that would allow him to appreciate it, whereas with what he calls ‘theory’, this isn’t the case.

    Breaking an idea down in to something simple is something that seems straightforward to me perhaps because I have to do it every day in my job, to explain fairly complicated physical processes to salesmen or call centre staff (for example, trying to explain the concept of electricity using ‘santa coulomb’ and his sack of joules), so I can appreciate that maybe it makes others feel uneasy who have never had to do this before.

    But there is one all important point here: If you absolutely can’t explain something in a way that the average guy in the pub could understand then either the idea isn’t that important or we’re all fucked.

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  4. mmm, i’m not sure about this last point. I will take the example of Gilles Deleuze. Deleuze was a french philosopher writing from the 60s-90s whose work can be broken down (amongst other ways) into a) books on other philosophers/writers b) philosophical enquiries c) collaborative work with Felix Guattari. I read a bit of his writing, am trying to work my way through, and I have to admit that I don’t get a lot of it except in a sort of ‘gut feeling’. That said, I do get a bit of it and it seems to me that whilst I might be able to describe one of his concepts – the ‘rhizome’ as one, the ‘war machine’ as another – that simply to describe them would be to miss some of the point. For whilst the ideas are integral in themselves, they are also bound in the Deleuze’s form, which is in a way ‘elliptical’. Basically, Deleuze refuses outright to offer you the concepts on a plate – with the form of the text as a window through which to see philosophy. Instead, the concept is bound with its form of expression – the text that is difficult to read, that takes time to understand, that forces you to keep reading and research elsewhere, to go here and there, it forces you to NOT understand before you understand, to reread.

    This is part of the emancipatory aspect, the breaking of a way of thinking that needs answers now, solutions and actions straight away. Of course, ‘the guy in the pub’ doesn’t give a monkey’s, and I agree, so my question is more: how to get people not only interested in the basic idea, but also interested in taking the time? How to get people to be ok with being confused about something and to know that they are still learning through the confusion?

    Indeed, for lit. students (Dan and myself) this comes quite naturally, as certain literary styles (in particular) tried to break with the forms of writing that were directly representative. Ulysses is a good example. So, I appreciate your point completely, and wonder how we can work on it. Free copies of Ulysses for everyone who turns 16?

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  5. I think the points you made in this entry are really important Julia. There definitely needs to be an awareness on the part of contributors of the possible ´experience´ (exposure to certain ideas etc.) of readers who may not have the same background as the author, and for whom technical terms which are not explained can intimidate and dishearten.

    If the aim of the blog is to share ideas, and to try learn new things from outside our normal (whatever that is for each of us) experiences, then a concern for the positions of others is vital for the blog.

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  6. For the record I don’t really understand most of Hermann’s comment above.

    I think Joe’s absolutely right though – if this blog is actually about generating new ideas for improving society then these ideas need to be communicable to everyone, not just the intellectual class. If people don’t understand the change that is proposed then they aren’t going to be able to engage with it.

    Despite having a degree in physics, I can’t help but feel that in the weird realm of this blog I probably most closely represent ‘the guy in the pub’, and I will be delighted to continue playing that role.

    I quite frankly don’t have the time to read Deleuze, but I do believe that any philosophical or political ideas worth their salt can be explained in plain english to others. It’s therefore great that some of you are well up on your philosophy, because you can explain it to the rest of us.

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  7. Happy days. We now all know where we stand. Philosophers/ theorists: make it accessible where possible, since if this is to be democratic, all must have a way in. Non-theorists: be open to new ideas and approaches, and have patience with theorists when they’re still in the process of understanding ideas themselves. As Terry explained: confusion is not always and everywhere bad – you have to go through it to arrive at knowledge. Most of us (theorists) aren’t trained philosophers, so we’re still struggling to understand a lot of this ourselves.

    And so the united front marches on together…

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  8. John, I feel a little daft that my ideas were not communicated clearly enough, and cannot help but want to clarify my point a little more. For whilst I totally agree that ‘the man in the pub’ (and we’re all ‘men’ or ‘women’ in the pub regarding some topics and that, I believe, is the point of the blog – to exercise those aspects of ourselves that are ‘person in the pub’-ish) doesn’t have time or want to give time to read some french tosser going on about rhizomes and war machines – fair play – and that you don’t necessarily have the time either – also fair play – others, who do have time/want to have time, can help inform you. Great.

    Except, and now to my point.

    What if distinctly clarifying the ideas was doing something contrary to what the idea was trying to express? ie, what if the idea is about something beyond clarity? A clear, defineable form might contradict this.

    In science this is never (i guess) a problem, because most problems have a distinct answer, but in the humanities this is not so. In science (as you expressed about calculus) the point of form (of style/of notation/of any form of communication) is to define as simply as possible what is going on. In the humanities, this is not the case. I hope i’m not being condescending John, and if I am, I apoligize, but for the humanities, style is NOT a window through which we see the truth of the message (that which is to be expressed), but forms an integral part of what is being said itself. Style becomes content.

    As a scientist, this is obviously a big issue.

    So the fact that the style of a piece of writing isn’t immediately transparent and doesn’t yield the meaning immadietely IS THE POINT of the piece (or can be) – thus when Deleuze writes, I get the feeling that HOW it is written is telling you something about WHAT the concepts being discussed actually mean. Thus, to reduce his issues and ideas is obviously useful and I won’t stop doing it, but it shouldn’t be ignored that this is somewhat missing the point as well.

    As an arts student, perhaps I need to understand that this form of writing bewilders many scientists, but the scientists should look at style here as something much more flexible – as something that can speak as well and by itself, making points independant of the content.

    Furthermore,

    A) This is important for many reasons, but a prominant one for politics is the fact that contemporary rhetoric (in fact ALL rhetoric since the birth of language) is much more in line with the humanities than with science (it is the humanities, or was the birth of it). Being able to break down what style is doing, indepenant of content, is hugely important in terms of deciphering the true implications of political rhetoric.

    B) Perhaps we might need to realise that we live in an age consumed by the desire to understand straight away, to possess knowledge immediately. Thus, maybe we need a way of re-inventing social relations in which things can be taken much more slowly. Maybe change overnight (revolution) is inherently bourgoeis in the sense that it wants everything too quickly (it is a knee-jerk response that is not bringing about something new, ie, a new society, but is merely changing Y for Y.1) and a truly emancipatory politics is one that changes things slowly (changes the way we look at the world, which is – amongst other things – from quickly –> slowly) – and thus means that us lefties need to slow down too…

    Is this any clearer? A blog is needed on the issue between science and humanities, because it seems to me that this is one of the key issues at stake.

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  9. is say ‘slow’ and ‘slowly’ a lot. Maybe I’m slow

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  10. Pingback: Commonwealth – Hardt and Negri « The Night Shift

  11. Hermann, I offer up this analogy of ‘style becoming content’ so you can see if I sort-of understand what you are saying.

    From what I understand it’d be a bit like me reading you the lyrics of a really great song so you can understand how moving it is. You might understand the lyrics, but without hearing the music you’re still kind of missing the point.

    How am I doing?

    I admit I am still a bit bewildered as to how this all relates to trying to develop a better society, and if you could provide some sort of tangible example I would really appreciate it.

    It seems to me that from the way these discussions have gone so far there is this tension between Science pulling towards simplification and the Humanties pulling towards complication. Have you got any ideas for making these schemes of thought more compatible?

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  12. Maybe for now we should just get back to doing whatever it is that each of us does best. If these problems crop up in the future in some blog post or another, at least then we’ll have a concrete example in front of us according to which we can weigh up the pros and cons of various approaches.

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  13. Hang on a sec Dan, I’m actually learning stuff here. If we “just get back to doing whatever it is that each of us does best” then this discussion has been a bit of a waste of time.

    You can’t tell me that I need to be open to new ways of thinking and then tell me that I should just get back to being “John the scientist”. I’m really keen to learn how other people think and what it is that makes them tick. So if it’s ok with you I’d quite like this discussion to continue for a little bit longer.

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  14. Whatever, it’s all good.

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  15. A good question John, but because it’s late I will reply properly later.

    What you said is, in a way, spot on and it could be useful think of Orwell’s ‘1984’, in which ‘doublespeak’ is so prominent. We are all very aware of the fact that the way we say something drastically modifies the meaning of what is being said (a nice example is given at the beginning of ‘The Hobbit’ when Gandalf talks about the phrase ‘Good morning’ and the various meanings it could have coming out of Bilbo’s mouth) – well to put it very simply, and again I’m sorry if this is condescending, this is transposable to the style of a piece of writing. In literature, this really punched in with Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’, and I dunno about philosophy but I guess a big break comes with Hegel in the 18th/19th Centuries (but I don’t know this I’m sort of stabbing in the dark – anyone?).

    This is important for what we’re talking about and for when certain philosophers want to try and break apart current ways of thinking (which is only one of the ways that we need to proceed in breaking down capitalism). If you want to say ‘a rapid understanding of a topic doesn’t allow you time enough to fully absorb the full weight of the point being made’ then if you said this as quickly as this then well, you might be contradicting yourself…because whilst it makes sense and you do ‘get it’, it is highly probable that if read quickly then your previous ways of thinking (ie, to think and absorb everything rapidly and then move on) might have not REALLY been dislodged at all. I mean, one might get the point, but (like most things in life) you need to earn it to really appreciate it, to work through it a bit and fully understand what this actually means in terms of your life in general, what it means for the world. SO…phew, this got long quite easily…it would perhaps make more sense for the person writing that idea or concept to do so in a LESS accessible manner, in a way that took time and effort to get there – so that when you finally did get there you have really learnt and considered the point. The writing literally forces you to live through an example of what it is saying. Thus, the style is literally enacting (being) the content.

    Helpful?
    T

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  16. I think what he’s saying is that if you wrote a book whose central argument was that reading quickly is detrimental to rigorous thought, but you wrote it in bullet points of no more than ten words over only three pages, then there would be a disjunction between form and content. The content is telling you it’s important to read slowly, to pause and think, whereas the form is such that it naturally spurs you on to read as quickly as humanly possible, offering as little obstacle to your immediate understanding as possible. Therefore, if one decided that a form of writing whose style lends itself to easy consumption were simply an extension of a certain capitalist logic of consumption, then it would make sense to write in a way which does not lend itself to such easy consumption. To write, that is, in a manner capable of generating ‘critical negativity’ – something which is uncomfortable, which makes us stop, pause, go back, rethink, go elsewhere, look up terms, read through the history of certain ideas, etc. To write in a manner which inspires agency rather than passivity on the part of the reader.

    But this is just one hypothetical example.

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  17. I appreciate your responses, they are very interesting. But I still don’t understand how this relates to improving society. I accept that the relationship between style and content can be very significant in literature. I think I also get your point Terry (Hermann? Terry? – whatever) about making something a little less accessible so that perseverance on the part of the reader results in perhaps a more intimate understanding.

    But I would have thought that successful social movements would be ones based on ideas and principles that are easily communicable to the masses. If you haven’t got the masses on side then it’s not gonna happen, unless of course you’re a fan of the ol’ benevolant dictatorship idea.

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  18. John, it’s applicable to many things beyond literature, but I’d rather focus on your second point, with which I totally agree: if you can’t communicate your ideas to the masses, you’re screwed. I think issues of style and taking one’s time are more applicable to those who are fortunate enough to have the time and degree of education sufficient to the understanding of very complex political, philosophical, historical and economic texts/ ideas. Marx, for example, was frighteningly well-read, multi-lingual and a sometime poet; he combined the economic theories of Britain with the political theories of France and the Hegelian idealism of Germany. Lenin and Trotsky were also voracious readers and philosophers of the very highest calibre. (It’s worth pointing out that between the February Revolution and the October Revolution Lenin spent much of his time in the library studying Hegel’s Logic). Che Guevara, Castro, Rosa Luxemburg… all of these people were simultaneously super-intelligent, sometimes the most philosophically astute minds of their times, and yet nonetheless managed to wage revolutions. I see the task of ‘intellectuals’ (those paid to think and teach to fairly high academic standards) as attempting to match the range and intensity of such forebears. It’s also to find ways of communicating what one learns – which will alter significantly depending on one’s intended audience, and depending on what one needs to achieve with that audience. At the moment, I’d say we’re all failing pretty miserably to live up to these ideals: either our thinking is generally amateur and shoddy, a worldview pieced together from some pop-economics books and videos on YouTube, or we’re incapable of communicating much more sophisticated ideas. Or both (which is where I’d class myself much of the time).

    You can’t wage radical action unless you know exactly what you’re talking about, including not only the overt theory but also the philosophical and historical implications of what you’re saying and why. It’s irresponsible. And I for one don’t yet know exactly what I’m talking about.

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  19. John,

    The example I gave was one amongst many, and I simply meant to say that there is something to be noted re: style. Bringing in Dan’s point about those who have time and those who don’t, I’d say that, for me, part of the process that needs to be instigated on a mass level is the desire to slow down and learn. This is quite a pragmatic issue, and one that (I admit) requires massive restructuring of the currently crap education system. For this we need teachers to be involved as well as management…but I digress.

    As for Dan’s comment, I share the cynicism in my own ideas (at times) but am rather resolute in the concrete steps I am trying to make in my life – ie, where I buy, what I buy etc etc I’m very very tired so can’t quite muster much more.

    But anyway, yes we need to be concrete – so the challenge I set then (or that is emerging) is who else to engage with, how else to engage them and where and when to do so? ,…I will write more when i’m not falling alseep at the keyboard

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