de Beauvoir: the Second Sex

With some books, reading the table of contents is sufficient. Merely by knowing the topics that are covered within the bounds of a book, an educated person can glean the kinds of arguments made, the overall gestalt of the discourse. Some books are quite explicit about this, while others require a more subtle reading between the lines. Sometimes, it is a mixture between the two, where a retroactive glance (perchance to find a specific section) reveals that it was all there all along, plain for everyone with eyes to see. Some books are meant to open those eyes, and the Second Sex is definitely one such book.

To be sure, “The point of view of historical materialism” might not strike the casual reader as a key heading at first glance, but retroactively it stands out as a significant keystone. So too does the headings listed under the keyword “situation”: The married woman; The mother; Social life; Prostitutes and hetaeras; From maturity to old age; Woman’s situation and character. The instant, intuitive takeaway from this string of words is that this is a book about women. The retroactive, even more intuitive takeaway is that this is a no-nonsense, materialist book about women. And about how everything else is not about women.

Reading de Beauvoir – the aforementioned chapter in particular – is a tour the force introduction into gender dynamics. A marriage is not just something that happens once a young man finds a suitable woman to settle down with; it is quite literally the determining factor with regards to how one’s life trajectory will shape itself over the coming (possible remaining) decades. Becoming pregnant is not just a cute period of time preceding parenthood filled with anecdotes about ice cream; it is quite literally a matter of life and death, where complications could prove fatal to mother and child both. The following period of being a mother – at home, unpaid, isolated – is not an unproblematic given either. At every stage of life, de Beauvoir takes womanhood to task and shows it to be a constant struggle under unfair conditions against the full brunt of social expectations. All this in a no-nonsense, straightforward way which would require more effort to misunderstand than to comprehend.

The key to understanding the significance of the Second Sex is to know that this – any of it – was simply not done before she did it. Like any other thing that is simply not done, it had been done with regularity and alacrity since time immemorial. It had also been swept under the rug, like so many other embarrassing official secrets one simply does not speak about. Everyone knows it, everyone does it, but no one speaks about it. Until now, in unequivocal terms. Now there is a book which documents it all, for everyone to see. The cat is firmly out of the bag.

The key to understanding the backlash to the book – and indeed to feminism in general – is to see it as an attempt to get the cat into the bag again. To return to a state of blissful willful ignorance, where women’s issues were pushed aside and delegated to those it belonged: women. Women’s issues were private, personal issues, and therefore it was categorically wrong to seek public recourse to solve these problems, no matter how systematically recurring they were. Things were fine the way they were, when women grinned and bore it in silence. Don’t ask, don’t tell. Definitely don’t voice your long-held discomfort using the new vocabulary gained from having them formulated in a book.

Things have gotten better since the book’s publication in 1949. Some progress has been managed in the seventy years since then. But it would be a mistake to think this dynamic a solved issue. Even now, gender studies is seen as an optional extra, something one does above and beyond the actual work, the things that matter. Bringing up the very real material consequences of actually existing policies that primarily affect women is still seen as a minor speed bump, an inconvenience. An embarrassment, albeit a publicly known one. Everyone knows it, everyone does it. But to speak of it?

That is simply not done. Not even in 2019.

de Beauvoir: the Second Sex

Lefebvre: Notes on the new town

The city I live in is in an expansionary phase. At every turn, new construction is afoot, and it has happened more than once that I have turned a corner previously at the edge of town only to discover that there now is a brand new set of buildings there, unapologetic in their materiality. To be sure, these buildings were not unannounced, and with a bit of research it would have been very possible to not have been surprised by their appearance. But a person can only spend so much time keeping up with municipal developments; at some point, developments will overtake phenomenology. The city is, by definition, bigger than any one individual within it.

These new parts of town are at once free of history and overdetermined by it. On the one hand, the physical location they occupy used to be nondescript fields and marshes up until the point building began; the city happened until it didn’t, here being the point it stopped happening. On the other hand, these same locations are continuations of the city, and therefore inherit a plethora of administrative, aesthetic and phenomenological dimensions from the built environment it extends. There are no local traditions yet, in the overspecific sense of the word ‘local’ connoting this very spot; nevertheless, slightly less ‘local’ local traditions will inevitably impose themselves and terraform the cityscape into more of itself with time. For new students moving in to attend university, this part of town promises to be just like any other, in the absence of personal memories to anchor local identity.

Lefebvre, in writing Notes on the new town, ponders these same tendencies, albeit writ large. My city is a 21st century boom town, firmly entrenched in the later stages of modernity. Lefebvre’s new town is a 20th century new construction, designed townscapes specifically meant to break with the old order and upgrade the living conditions of ordinary people to modern standards (i.e. electricity and running water). Out with the organically grown, gnarled, unplanned chaotic messes that were old towns, in with the rationally planned, carefully ordered and functionally specialized architectural beacons of modernity. If changing the physical conditions wherein humans dwell, then these new construction projects were the epitome of social engineering; from these ordered homesteads, modern humans would emerge fully formed.

There is a grammar to these new towns. They can, in a sense, be read by those who know the linguistic and architectural twists and turns embodied by the buildings themselves. Nothing is hidden, there are no secrets here; everything is planned and designed to be understood at a glance. To quote:

Every object has its use, and declares it. Every object has a distinct and specific function. In the best diagnosis, when the new town has been successfully completed, everything in it will be functional, and every object in it will have a specific function: its own. Every object indicates what this function is, signifying it, proclaiming it to the neighbourhood. It repeats itself endlessly.

Thus, there are housing units, where you house, shopping units, where you shop, and playground units, where children play on or with the ground. There can be no confusion as to which is which, seeing as any given part can only ever do the thing it was designed to do. Indeed, it would be a grave breach of social order should someone attempt to use the built environment at cross purposes; nothing attracts the authorities faster than a homeless person taking a nap in the playground. Whether children actually play there on a regular basis is beside the point – every object has one and only one function, to the exclusion of all others.

Implicit in this totality of vision and comprehensive planning is a sense that the built environment is not actually built for human beings. Rather, it is an extension of the logic operating in modernity as a whole – functional separation leads to more efficient usage, increasing productivity overall. The immediate objection that it is difficult to quantify the effectiveness of a dwelling or a playground is pushed aside; in Lefebvre’s new town, an argument can be made that running water, television sets and washing machines constitute the sought after increase all by themselves. It might even be true, in the short term. But as anyone know who has ever been bored in the suburbs (this most functionally separated of architectural units) with nothing to do and nowhere to go, efficiency on its own does not provide for a good home. The city is, by definition, an amalgamation of different things, who all have to be accessible to make it livable. Reduced to a single function, apathy and boredom sets in. Thus, it becomes imperative to connect the functionally separated dots. To quote:

Consequently, the intermediaries between these disjointed elements (when there are any, which is always a good thing: means of communication, streets and roads, signals and codes, commercial agents, etc.) take on an exaggerated importance. The links become more important than the ‘beings’ who are being linked. But in no way does this importance endow these intermediaries with active life. Streets and highways are becoming more necessary, but their incessant, unchanging, ever repeated traffic is turning them into wastelands.

The streets turning to wastelands is an image I think most dwellers in these new towns can relate to. Nothing happens in the streets except traffic, either by car or by foot. This space, too, has its own separate and unique function: to move from A to B. Attempts to utilize these spaces for something else are frowned upon and, if deemed necessary, stopped – be it in the form of children playing football or citizens assembling in collective action. Intermediary functions, i.e. neighbors sharing the same physical space and socializing as they happen upon one another in their daily walkings around – have been delegated to their own functionally specialized architectural units, and thus have no business taking place in the streets. The new towns frown upon spontaneous gatherings, unexpected encounters and people just hanging around doing nothing in particular (but socializing ever more naturally because of this lack of purpose). The logic of the new town is the logic of modernity: either you are busily and efficiently occupied with your assigned task, or you are redundant. It is a working metaphor built into the physical environment, as inescapable as it is worthy of being criticized.

Lefebvre: Notes on the new town

Yeats: Sailing to Byzantium

Finitude is the natural state of things. All things, things in general. All things end, and leave only the faintest of memories behind, detritus of history. Good old Ozymandias, whose grand statues were famously reduced to a mere fragment and an imperative to despair, serves as a reminder of this: even the largest, most elaborate constructions fade into nothing, given time. Nature reclaims every thing.

This is the proper mindset to be in when reading Sailing to Byzantium. On an intertextual level, it responds to Shelley’s famous poem, not least in the quite unsubtle byz/oz pairing. For poets, this is what passes for being on the nose. On a thematic level, the two poems both poke and prod at the passage of time and the inherent futility of all attempts to resist or reject it. Time will come, and it will claim its due; it is the nature of things.

Given this starting point, a reader might be surprised to find out that Yeats goes full cyborg. Ozymandias is comfortably familiar in its fuzzy particulars – nothing remains except this one fragment, and we are left to infer all manner of ancient civilizations once inhabiting the sand-swept nothing that remains. Fantasy provides us with all the necessary details, free of charge. It is familiar, safe, cozy. And then, wham! Yeats hits us with the following motherlode of exposition:

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing

Careful readers will notice the two mentions of nature: first as a negative, being out of it, and second as a refusal to adopt its forms. It is not specified just what exactly it means to be “out of nature”, but somehow during the course of the poem, this natural state of things has been escaped. No longer bound by finitude, post-natural beings can take any shape they so please, and it would appear that some hitherto unimagined unnatural form is desired. We have left nature and embraced cyborghood, without regrets or remorse.

Indeed, regret and remorse are precisely the things left behind. These are narrowly focused states of mind, which contemplate what has been done and how it has affected things relating to the limited time between life and death of natural entities. “Whatever is begotten, born, and dies”, and from the perspective of those unburdened by death, it all amounts to naught. Finitude is the natural state of things, and thinking about it only makes it worse; we did not effort hard enough to overcome the passage of time. Everything will be forgotten, no one will remain to remember.

Thus, the imperative to get out of nature. This whole death and oblivion business is not the cheeriest of outcomes, prompting the desire to evade it. What if we just skipped that part and kept going, went on, stuck around for the aftermath and transcended into a point of view that didn’t have to feel all those pesky death-related feelings? Just say no to nature and do something else, forever. Stop being “fastened to a dying animal” and instead transmogrify “into the artifice of eternity”. Level up both physically and metaphysically.

An unintended side-effect of stepping out of nature is also stepping out of time. Mortals organize everything around time, even when they do not think about it – the mortal body itself is scarred by each passing moment, every breath a tiny movement towards death. Oxygen, the very thing that powers our bodies, also ever so gradually degrades it. Oxygen-based metabolism is life, but it is also death; such is the nature of these things. Stepping out of nature would, presumably, involve a transition into something more comfortable and permanent – once out of nature, metabolism becomes sustainable. Whatever unnatural form it might take, it will be able to keep at it indefinitely, orthogonal to the passage of time.

This raises the question of what to do with all the extra time allotted. Merely existing in general seems a waste of potential, but just what exactly one does upon attaining immortality is not an easy question to answer. Indeed, there is not even any particular rush to answer it – doing anything now is as good as doing it later, seeing as there is no existential time limit to contend with. Everything, in the most general of terms, will still be there whenever the decision to spring into action is made. Having stepped out of time means not being in a hurry. Ozymandias may come and go many times before the first move is made. But just what might this move be?

Yeats, seeing this coming, invokes Byzantium for this very reason. Byzantium is old news, history, long since faded from contemporaneity. When the future becomes an indifferent extension of the present, the only remaining temporal direction worth mentioning is the past. History becomes the building material of the present, but not in the same way as for mortal beings. Mortals have to deal with being situated in time by virtue of being mortal; it goes with the territory. Immortals, however, can pick and choose their time period at will, regardless of grammatical tense. Thus, Byzantium will do just as well as any other point in time – the future is indifferent, the present arbitrary, and the past a catalogue of equally compelling available options. Thus, aloof, disinterested, Yeats’ cyborgs contend themselves to sing

To lords and ladies of Byzantium
Of what is past, or passing, or to come.

Yeats: Sailing to Byzantium

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018)

One of the most difficult tasks of doing criticism is choosing what to write about. Or, rather, which aspects of a work to zoom in on once the writing gets going. The choice is seldom obvious or straightforward; more often than not, there are several interesting things going on in parallel, and the logistics of writing gets in the way of covering them all. Out of the many possible critical points of entry, some must be chosen and others left unexplored. Art is long, life is short – between the two, criticism.

The choice is further constrained by considerations of what would be interesting or relevant to read. Unless the act of criticism is an exercise in writing for its own sake, there is usually some sort of point to be made. While there are many ways to arrive at any one point, some are bound to be more effective and resonant with the current moment than others. The critic thus have to sort through the many possible options and make an estimate of the various pros and cons, such as the ease of conveying the significance of one aspect versus the critical potential of a less obvious aspect. The former would tend to be easier to write, but its obviousness might lead a reader to wonder why it needs to be said at all; the latter would make for a more difficult writing process, but if successful it might end up being a more engaged and insightful critique. Whether to go for the one or the other, as always, depends.

Take, for instance, the new televised incarnation of Sabrina the Teenage Witch. There is something to be said about the initial expectation of this new incarnation being anything like its 90s predecessor, and having it dashed by the realization that this new version is about as far from that as it is possible to get without switching media format entirely. This state of things might be indicative of some sort of shift that has taken place between then and now, a shift which can be fruitfully explored through comparative efforts. A critic might also use difference between versions as a basis for expressing their opinion – be it that the 90s version was better, or that the new direction is a bold but successful move. It is an obvious point of entry, affording many quick write-ups which may or may not remain interesting as time goes on.

There are also individual scenes which could serve as focal points. One scene in particular involves three witches ganging up on titular teenage witch and threatening to hang her from a tree, just as women of yore were hung during the time of witch hunts. As the threat looms closer to being realized, the noose quite literally tightening around the protagonist’s throat, she turns the tables by enlisting the aid of a number of local ghosts to counterhang her tormentors in invisible (but seemingly quite effective) ethereal rope. After letting them dangle for a while, the ghosts release the witches from their ghastly hold, alive. The scene ends with Sabrina making it clear that nothing like this will ever happen again, by virtue of the ghosts doing everything in their considerable power to ensure this outcome. It is a powerful scene, which establishes that the new Sabrina is someone who does not fuck around, and who is not afraid to fight fire with fire.

A critic might do any of several things with this scene. The obvious being to use it as contrast between the different incarnations of the series – the 90s version most decidedly did not include these kinds of violent happenings, and definitely not with such frequency. It can also be used as an example of character development, as in the previous paragraph. A third use is to zoom in on the fact that one of the tormenting witches happens to be a person of color, and that Sabrina turning the tables by use of a ghost mob technically qualifies the scene as a depiction of an old style lynching, with all the racist connotations that go along with it.

This third reading has the potential to be interesting. In light of the 90s version being an extremely white series, implicit racism is very much a relevant aspect to bring to the fore, if and where it occurs. As an attention-grabbing moment, however, this reading combines all the elements for a hot take – it is relevant, juicy and has the potential to generate a whole lot of social media heat. With a little effort, it can be ever so gently packaged in a way that suggests the lynching was the explicit point of the scene, rather than an unfortunate side-effect of the setting. Ramp up the phrasing, crank up the confidence and press send, then enjoy the immediate attention that comes from exposing the new hot series as racist.

Unfortunately, such a course of action would not be the most interesting thing a critic could do with this source material. To be sure, the immediate attention might generate a retweet or two, but when the dust settles, it does not add to anyone’s overall understanding of anything, least of all the issues this series has with regards to representation. As a critical intervention, it is severely lacking in every respect.

Thus, we are back where we began, with the question of choosing what to focus on. It is always tempting to go for the low-hanging fruit or the hot topic of the day. When the two combine, it might even seem like an inevitability. Over time, however, making a habit of picking such convenient aspects to write about tends to lead to piles of uninteresting writing, even as it allows for great productivity. Hot takes can only remain hot for so long, after all.

As to the series itself, it remains to be seen if this bold new move into the spoopy horror genre will stand a second glance, or if it will become as formulaic as its 90s counterpart tended to be. Bobunk notwithstanding.

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina (2018)

Cities: Skylines

The key to understanding Cities: Skylines is to know its history. The game comes from a very particular tradition, and is in many ways a continuation of it. Things that might seem inexplicable become clear as day once put in context, and indeed take on an appearance of being nigh inevitable. The letter arrived at its destination, and it took a very particular route to get there.

I am, of course, referring to the fact that the game is a continuation of the Cities in Motion series.

This might come as a surprise to some readers. The most common comparison is to other games explicitly labeled as city builders, particularly the various iterations of Sim City. It is a natural comparison to make – apples to apples. The games even share a non-trivial amount of gameplay elements (zoning comes to mind), making the comparison that much more intuitive. At a glance, it requires intimate knowledge to even tell the games apart. Indeed, it is very difficult not to place these games in the same category.

There are different ways to achieving the same results, however. The way to reach an outcome is almost as important as actually getting there. The journey is, as the famous saying goes, the goal. This was very much the core principle of the Cities in Motion games, whose main activity was building public transit networks in order to allow people to get where they needed to go in a fast and expedient manner. The challenge being to build the transportation networks in such a way that bottlenecks are avoided, delays rerouted and, above all, waiting times eliminated. The mere possibility of getting there by public transit is not enough – it has to be a doable and convenient possibility too, in equal measure.

The main way this manifests in Cities: Skylines is that the primary building blocks are roads, and the main mechanical challenge is to place these roads in such a way that the city functions. Or, rather, to avoid gridlocks and overly long transit times; there are no actual game mechanics for a city to fall into a state of dysfunctionality. Every social ill is solved by a vehicle arriving at a location, be it fire, illness, crime or even death itself. The protagonists of this game are not the citizens who ostensibly inhabit the city, but rather the myriad of trucks that forever move back and forth. The city is built and designed for them.

One of the main challenges in the Cities in Motion games is to not have the solution get in the way of itself. Merely building a series of bus routes crisscrossing the city does not solve the problem of getting from here to there. Indeed, given enough buses, it is a very real possibility that the main impediment to a smoothly running public transit is the system of public transit. Buses block the way of other buses, who then block the way for other traffic, exacerbating the problem rather than solving it. The main joy of these games is zooming in on particular locations and situations to pinpoint just exactly where the problem arises, and make subtle adjustments which intuitively should not have a great impact, but which nevertheless do. It is all about setting up a system and tinkering with it.

The same challenge is present in Cities: Skylines, albeit with less of a focus on public transit specifically. And the game is forgiving enough to let you zoom in on a problem for a considerable amount of time without anything important breaking while you are distracted. Spending weeks and weeks of in-game time setting up a highway intersection that does not cause a stau longer than the list of city residents – has little to no consequences on the functioning of the city. At no point does a player zoom out only to discover that the city is now a racially segregated, crime-ridden, no-prospects hive of villainy and corruption, long abandoned by the very notions of progress and prosperity. Homelessness literally does not exist (except, interestingly enough, for corpses). At most, the problems might extend to a series of abandoned buildings where city services have been insufficient. There are no consequences for this neglect; new residents and businesses will continue to move in at a regular pace once the old lots have been cleared. Traffic continues to flow, life goes on, as if to say: Robert Moses was right all along.

This would be a major critique of the game if it was seen as a city builder. There is no city residing in these buildings, there is no whole greater than the sum of its parts. There are just a great number of parts that have to move from point a to point b, preferably at decent speeds. As a city builder, Cities: Skylines is an utter and total banishment of humanity from the built environment – everything and everyone are just replaceable numbers. To invoke de Certeau, there are no tactics to be found here, only strategies.

Fortunately, Cities: Skylines is not a city builder. It is a logistics simulator. The main change from the Cities in Motion series was to drop the word “public” from “public transit simulator”, thus increasing the scope of ambition whilst also remaining firmly within the narrow framework of moving things around. With this in mind, the game performs the task it has set out to do admirably. It allows players to endlessly fiddle with knobs and calibrate adjustments just to see what happens, and then repeat the process to see if the system runs smoother this time. In and of itself, this is an enjoyable experience, as far as it goes. But it is important to remember that it does not go very far, and that any social commentary the game makes with regards to actual cities is entirely incidental.

Cities: Skylines

Haraway: a Cyborg Manifesto

Every now and then, I am asked if I can summarize the Cyborg Manifesto. Every time, my answer is a resounding “no”, because what would be the point? It would, to be brutally blunt, be counter to the many points made along the way, beginning with the very first line:

An ironic dream of a common language for women in the integrated circuit

This point is mirrored in the final paragraph, wherein Haraway writes:

This is a dream not of a common language, but of a powerful infidel heteroglossia. It is an imagination of a feminist speaking in tongues to strike fear into the circuits of the supersavers of the new right.

Any attempt to strictly and straightforwardly summarize the Manifesto would immediately run into trouble when faced with these two snippets. By beginning with the statement that this is an ironic dream of a common language, and ending on the note that this is in fact not a dream of a common language, the neat categorization characteristic of orderly summation becomes ever so slightly undermined. Things can not be both A and not-A, and yet here it is, proclaiming to be both, unabashedly and unapologetically. It is language, but – I think you can agree with me on this point – it is not common in the least.

To make things worse, this is the point. Haraway is not trying to give you the analytic rundown of what the concept of cyborg is, means and implies, working through all the definitions with helpful clarifications along every step of the way. This is a manifesto, where the act of reading forces readers to shift their thinking on the subject in order to retroactively fill in the gaps. By partaking of the language and immersing oneself in the verbiage, uncommon thoughts become possible. Adopted at face value, it indeed becomes an infidel heteroglossia, capable of alienating even the most integrated of individuals. Take for instance the following passage:

The main trouble with cyborgs, of course, is that they are the illegitimate offspring of militarism and patriarchal capitalism, not to mention state socialism. But illegitimate offspring are often exceedingly unfaithful to their origins. Their fathers, after all, are inessential.

There is a lot going on here, not least in the juxtapositioning of oppositional concepts. Untangling the precise nature in which a cyborg is an illegitimate offspring of both capitalism and socialism would be a substantial project in and of itself, but the Manifesto is not the place where this work is performed. The point, again, is to move readers to a place where such retroactive reasoning can be undertaken. This is the irony of the common language – if you stop too long to think about it, it becomes drastically less common by the second. By providing this launch pad from which to propel yourself into adopting an uncommon language, the text performs an ever so small act of violence upon its readers. The thought is now in your head; it is up to you are your curiosity to find out what it means.

Seeing how this is the mode in which the Manifesto operates, a quick clean summary which extracts the main points and lays them out in a neat orderly fashion (preferably with bullet points) – would miss the boat entirely. The point is to assault your brain with language and immerse your thinking in it for the duration. What does it mean that “[o]ur best machines are made of sunshine; they are all light and clean because they are nothing but signals”? Any one answer to this question would be insufficient, given the vast range of interpretations opened up by having made the statement. The irony of the common language is, yet again, that it isn’t.

This mode of presentation has the advantage of getting the creative juices going. At the same time, it suffers from the disadvantage of being an infidel heteroglossia. The Manifesto does not give readers anything for free, and merely reading through from beginning to end is a slog, an accumulation of efforts too large to be readily performed with enthusiasm by newcomers. There is always the risk of readers throwing up their hands and proclaiming that they can’t even, leaving the words unread. (This audio version might prove helpful in that regard.) To borrow an insight from 80s cultural studies: it is unimportant how a text is structured if no one actually reads it.

If anything definite can be said about the Manifesto, it is that it is a relentlessly 80s text. This manifests itself by a myriad of references and things taken for granted that are simply not obvious to our current moment. It takes a certain amount of historical knowledge to realize that the references to star wars is not just about the movies, but also about the cold war endeavor to build space defenses against nuclear missiles. The intellectual context of the text is one where the Soviet Union was a very real and immediately felt presence on the world stage. Readers from the cybernetic future have the combined advantage and disadvantage of knowing how things turned out. Predictions can be deemed either accurate or mere speculation, but the basis of these predictions can not so easily be reconstructed. Unless you are already familiar with this past mode of thinking, the Manifesto will be slightly more alien than it intended to be; it will not provide you with the expository discourse necessary for its decryption.

The main point about cyborgs – then and now – is that they herald a new world order which we do not know yet. Things could become more of what they already are, or completely different. Or, as the almost thirty years since the publication of the Manifesto have shown us, something in between, where radical brand new innovations inevitably find themselves conforming to old established patterns, revealing that we already knew the shape of things to come, but simply had not extrapolated far enough yet. This could be both a cause for despair and a reason to double down on the ironic dream of a common language. If the future is already written, then there is an ever more pressing need to point out its inconsistencies and fault lines. Proclaiming that one would rather be a cyborg than a goddess means carving out a piece of uncertainty for oneself, and – this would be the point – an abject refusal to ask permission to rewrite one’s own code, be it common or uncommon.

Haraway: a Cyborg Manifesto

Hall: Theoretical fluency

I recently stumbled upon the phrase “theoretical fluency” in an essay by Stuart Hall. In one sense, it is an intuitive phrase – being able to converse fluently about things theoretical, knowing how to produce discourse around things in the abstract. In another sense, perhaps equally as intuitive, it connotes an ability to spring into lengthy soliloquies on any topic theoretical, be it postmodernism, feminism or the mood in late 19th century Prussia prior to German unification – without necessarily knowing what the ever increasing voluminousity of verbiage actually means. The first sense is, as you might imagine, preferable; nothing quite beats someone who knows what they are talking about. Yet there is always the suspicion whenever someone goes on at length, on any topic, that it might all very well be a case of fluency in the second sense; the author, having finally found an excuse to expound the matter, goes at it with gusto and great enthusiasm. Being able to tell which is which is not always an easy proposition.

It does not help that the ability to explode into theoretical discourse is a skill in its own right, only loosely related to grasping the theories themselves. Knowing the theories of Foucault (to take a popular example) does not automatically lend an immediate proficiency in retelling them in an interesting or accurate manner. It takes time and effort to craft language which conveys both the broad strokes and the fine points, and like everything else there is a skill to it. Like with most theory, the one surefire way to improve this skill is practice.

What makes matters even less clear is a cultural tendency to view presentational prowess as intelligence. Being able to perform the moves of presentation (as in giving a lecture or writing a text) lends an aura of being knowledgeable. Someone who has delivered a stunning TED talk is seen as more competent than someone who barely managed to stumble through the same material. This goes even if the TED presenter exhausted every bit of knowledge in that one presentation, while the stumbler has spent years reading up on this stuff. Knowledge is not necessarily a powerful mover of hearts and minds, as it were.

This opens up for a notion of theoretical fluency which conforms very closely to a common stereotype of academics: people who are very adept at blowing hot air, but whose range of actually useful knowledge only extend as far as keeping themselves employed in their cushy jobs. And to be sure, being able to perform Foucault, Derrida or whomever else happens to be in vogue at the moment – is a very useful skill to have in academic settings. It helps in getting the grades needed to insert oneself into such circumstances, and can be instrumental to maintaining an employment once attained. Since so many things in academia do not go without saying, being able to blow hot air has a very tangible real world application.

It might be tempting to go all in on the bullshit angle, and describe someone who knows nothing but is very good at verbally passing the bucket along. This would be unfair, however, and less than useful. It takes a certain amount of effort to find out what to say, which sources to invoke, which turns of phrase will accomplish just the right amount of ingroup bonding – and so on. A more interesting aspect of theoretical fluency is how knowing these subtle discursive signs becomes a skill and goal in itself. Given that most of them are rooted in reasons that are historical (and thus ruthlessly arbitrary), they can not be intuited or deduced from general principle. The only way to know the generic markers and secret handshakes is to perform a certain amount of work – or, phrased another way, to undergo the process of socialization. Attaining theoretical fluency is not a matter of pretend or being an impostor; it is still necessary to become a legitimate member of the academic community, jumping through all the requisite hoops and performing all the rituals.

What worries Hall is a possibility (perhaps a tendency) to become too proficient at performing the theory, at the expense of grappling with what the theorists set out to do. A non-trivial number of the canonical 20th century theorists wrote under 20th century conditions, and wrote with the intent to accomplish a radical theoretical shift which would prevent their present from repeating itself. Never again. There is a radical intensity to these thoughts which is not easily translated into theory, even in contemporary academic circumstances which style themselves as critical. There is a tendency of translating manifestos into tokens, talking points which convey just the right amount of context without actually having to work through the implications. A reference to this thinker here, another thinker there, and a third one just to cover all the bases. Suddenly the history of ideas is reduced to a number puzzle pieces, which only have to be placed in the correct order to achieve publication.

Again, let’s avoid the temptation to fall into caricature. Some shorthand is always necessary, and finding fast ways to convey complex ideas is a virtue. Hall’s worry is a theoretical fluency which turns on all topics with equal alacrity, without first assessing where theoretical action is most necessary or useful. To use an example: someone wearing a piece of symbolically loaded article of clothing of an indigenous culture may or may not be cultural appropriation. It probably is, in several ways. However, if an author’s first and only response to centuries of colonial history leading up to this point is to mobilize a vast array of theoretical frameworks and resources in an elaborate attempt to show why this one singular person was wrong – then the author has exhibited an impressive amount of theoretical fluency, and a very clear case of not getting the point of any of it.

Hall: Theoretical fluency