THEORY-LADEN, POWER-LADEN, SUBJECT-LADEN: obstacles to democratic exchange

Cross-posted as comment to a post by Bharath Vallabha, on his blog IN SEARCH OF AN IDEAL.

To translate your analysis into my terms, you are saying that Stanley’s book is theory-laden, power-laden, and subject-laden (which I take it that you think any book is, not just his). His theory is at the level of thought purely ad hoc, it encodes already existent or readily accessible insights. Usually one would think that a theory-laden observation or insight is inseparable from the theory used not just to account for it, but also formulate it or to express it. In Stanley’s case, you argue, this is not so, hence the impression of “conceptual” mobilisation around platitudes that are in principle separable from the theory and concepts. This separability means that his theory is functioning as extraneous meta-language, i.e. first elaborated on a different plane it remains on that plane, and doesn’t interact with the insights and examples that are conveyed in the book to shed new light on them. Nor do the insights and examples transform the theory. So there is no positive heuristic to take us forward: once you have read his book you have no idea how to go further in understanding and dealing with propaganda in your life.

Your therapeutic recommendation at this level seems to be to drop the jargon and talk about your ideas.But maybe this is a little one-sided, and you could also say: stop being so static about your jargon, push it further and transform it when you apply it. Otherwise you are enouncing a dualistic version of Wittgenstein’s maxim of silence, that you criticise at the end. The dualist version seems to say: let the theoretical mind be silent, but let the public mind talk. This is in danger of enforcing conformism, because sometimes to get further we need to reconceive or at least reformulate platitudes.

If we take an example of a failed conversation to see the problem better, we can take the dismissal by Chomsky of “Continental” thinkers such as Zizek, Foucault, and Derrida. Chomsky has declared repeatedly that it is a waste of time to read these people, because they merely express obvious ideas in convoluted language. On some days I believe he is right, but on others I am convinced he is wrong. The point of the obscure language of the Continentals is that they think that you need a sort of “poetic” break with the ordinary way of talking to get new ideas. So maybe your critique goes too far, in that what you are thinking through by means of the specific example of Stanley’s book cannot be simply generalised.

It is true that in France in the 60s and 70s intellectuals had to write in a complicated élitist style to gain social prestige and institutional power, and then in the 80s and 90s began to valorise a more democratic style (power-ladenness was at work). But it is not obvious that they could have gotten to their later ideas without putting their brains through the jargon-mixer (which was also, one hopes, a concept-mixer). Today, Alain Badiou writes brain-crackingly complicated books, but after publishes simpler summaries. So he makes a democratic effort without presuming that the whole of his theory can be captured that way. Bruno Latour says he wants as little meta-language as possible, but this may paradoxically make his latest book AN INQUIRY INTO MODES OF EXISTENCE in some ways more difficult to understand.

Your therapeutic recommendation for the subject-ladennes seems to me quite sound. Do not impose the path you followed to get to your insights on your conversational partners. Do not presume that people need to go through the same experiences, master the same disciplines, apply the same methods. Yet are all my insights fully detachable from my path through life, including my academic path? I want to say: it depends. Somtimes I may need more experience, or a change of heart, to understand what you are saying. Or even just to read more.

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