CRITICAL LANGUAGE: opaque vs transparent

  1. Comment cross-posted from the discussion of “double-talk” led by Bharath Vallabha on his blog IN SEARCH OF AN IDEAL

I find this whole discussion very interesting, yet very puzzling. Bharath, you seem to use a model of “detachability”, where insights and discussions can be expressed in academic format, but can be detached from that and expressed and pursued in a more popular mode. This is behind your idea of getting rid of the academic “packaging” and of “throwing away the ladder”. The result would be the far more desirable practice, from the point of view of resisting academic power structures, of “speaking out simply as a person”.

Yet is this what you are doing on this page of comments? One could argue that no, you are being incoherent, as you are using terminology, concepts, bibliographical references that are not familiar to the lay person. From this perspective you have been lured back into an academic debate, if ever you left it behind, and you are yourself now guilty of double-talk.

One could also argue that you are “speaking simply as a person”, from a number of points of view. One is that such speaking from the heart cannot be simply generic, but involves, as you say above, “mutual understanding and a shared framework”. It would seem that there is some degree of mutual understanding between you and Jason, based on partially overlapping reading and even on some degree of shared aspiration about philosophical debate (despite divergences). So perhaps with a different interlocutor you would proceed differently, as the shared framework would be different.

This phenomenon suggests that “speaking out simply as a person” does not mean speaking generically, as if one had never had any experience of academia or had never read any jargon-filled philosophy books. I question the detachability thesis. It seems to me that speaking simply as a person would mean mobilising all my experience, when relevant to the discussion. I have read, with passion, a lot of philosophy, although I am not an academic. I even migrated from Australia to France to attend seminars by Deleuze, Lyotard, and Foucault. So if I speak out as a person t would be very bizarre if I made no use of all that experience. One aspect of that experience is the language, as French philosophers think that a new vocabulary can be transformative without necessarily being authoritarian.

An opposing point of view to yours is expressed in a blog post by Daniel Tutt entitled “Should Critical Theory Be Accessible?” ( I think that it chimes in well with Jason’s concern about ideology. I think you will agree with me that speaking out simply as a person is not just a spontaneous letting go, as that runs the risk of just unwittingly repeating ideology. Speaking simply as a person is in fact hard work, or the result of hard work, although it can also be very enjoyable in the sense of the “joy” of exercising our intellectual and relational capacities to the full.

2. Comment cross-posted from a discussion of the language of critical theory on Daniel Tutt’s blog SPIRIT IS A BONE:

Hello Daniel, I find this question of “accessible” versus “opaque” language very interesting. This is something that I remember Deleuze discussing a few times in his seminar. He argued that given that philosophy involves the creation of concepts, there are two ways to handle that in language. One way is to create a new jargon to convey the new concepts (according to Deleuze this is the Continental way) and the other is to use familiar words in a new way (for Deleuze this is the Anglo-American way). I think that this distinction need not be mapped onto the Continental/ Anglophone divide, but can be maintained independently of this division. Badiou too claims that conceptual creation involves a “poetic cut” in language.So I would argue that the question of opaque vocabulary and references is a pragmatic one, rather than an essential one. Resistance and worldmaking can be served by either procedure, depending on circumstances. I have been following a discussion on the blog IN SEARCH OF AN IDEAL which takes the contrary position to yours, arguing that opacity of language consolidates existing power structures. I feel sympathy with both sides, and I think that each solution has its pathologies, e.g. at one end of the scale François Laruelle’s opacities and at the other end Bruno Latour’s pseudo-transparencies.

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2 Responses to CRITICAL LANGUAGE: opaque vs transparent

  1. This is something I struggle with a lot as well, as someone who works primarily on German idealist philosophers not known for their accessibility, but who also wants to be able to explain to people outside the field why I think their work is important. But as for the political value of accessible vs opaque language, I would point out that Marx’s theoretical writings are not particularly accessible but have probably had more political effect (however one evaluates it) than all other philosophers of the past two hundred years combined.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Anonymous says:

    Terence, I would like to see a more lengthy piece on your own journey towards philosophy – from studying in Australia to moving to France for Deleuze seminars and so on. I’ve recently read Feyerabend’s “Killing Time” and think directly personal reflections from teachers of philosophy, though rare, very exciting.


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