Charlie Bertsch (cbertsch) wrote,
Charlie Bertsch

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Yesterday was really intense, not least because of the exchanges between me, Steven, and Kim related to my entries on In the Cut.

The nature of writing in this potentially public and never fully private forum is that people read differently than they do when they are having one-on-one exchanges. Sure, e-mail can always be forwarded and phone and in-person conversations can be relayed indirectly. But we usually act as if private conversations are, in fact, private. It's one of those basic illusions that sustain interpersonal communication. In blogging, by contrast, we act as if a person's comments are for public consumption, even when it's nearly certain that only three or four people will read them. That's what can make reading a blog so compelling. And it's also what can lead to conflicts that are difficult to resolve through blogging.

Because Steven and I -- and, to a lesser extent, Kim -- have extensive experience communicating with each other "in public" on the now-defunct discussion list -- the "Bad List" -- that Bad Subjects started back in 1993, it's a little easier for us to get over conflicts. We know that private -- or ostensibly private -- e-mail or phone conversations are a better, faster way of regaining our comradely equilibrium. That's the approach we opted for yesterday -- though Steven also updated his blog as a response to our back-and-forth -- when we had a pretty large misunderstanding.

Kim and I also had some blog-related tension with Laura recently. Laura called us the next morning and we quickly dispensed with our respective anxieties.

The lesson, obviously, is that the language game called "blogging," or, to be more precise, "personal blogging" works better for some purposes than it does for others. Indeed, the lesson is so obvious that I'm ashamed at my obviousness in stating it baldly.

The reason I did state the obvious point, though, is that I think -- or is it, rather, that I hope? -- that the limitations of this particular discursive mode can give us insight into the problems we have with other ones.

Laura's current blog entry -- "Public and Private" from 11-13-03 -- does a great job of tackling the issues I've been broaching here from another perspective. She relays her sense that the largely closed-off world of scholarly discourse deprives intellectuals, herself included, of the audience they desire.

I share that concern. It's why I spend so much time writing outside the bounds of traditional academic communication. It's why I work so hard to make my scholarly prose accessible to people who aren't professors or graduate students.

At the same time, though, I have always been and remain a staunch defender of thinkers who choose to communicate in specialized discourse, provided -- and this is the sticking point -- that they A) actually seem to comprehend that discourse and B) that they demonstrate the capability to recognize that it is specialized discourse by stepping outside of it sometimes.

I've encountered a surprising number of academics who fail to meet the first test. They use jargon because they feel they are supposed to use it. But their writing betrays a lack of familiarity with the history of the terms they use or the thinkers they cite. It's this sort of not-quite-getting-it theoretical discourse that has sullied the reputation of academic cultural criticism. If I were to have a contest for "bad writing," it would be for these academics and not the Judith Butlers and Frederic Jamesons of this world who, whatever their faults, clearly do "get" the language they deploy.

The number of academics who fail to meet the second test is legion. Having read the short pieces that Judith Butler has written for mainstream publications and having seen her speak to a non-academic audience, however, I can state with confidence that she is not one of them. She can step outside her specialized discourse when it's prudent to do so.

Nevertheless, she prefers to do the vast majority of her work within that specialized discourse. This allows her to get more done within its confines. And that helps people like me, who read her with interest but want to convey some of her ideas to a broader audience.

My own personal and political choice has been -- and will remain -- to devote a lot of my energy to "translating" -- knowing how fraught that term is -- the insights communicated in specialized scholarly discourse for my students and my readers in Bad Subjects, Punk Planet, Phoenix New Times, and other publications in the alternative press.

Like Laura and Steven, I want to reach people who aren't going to spend much time with university press treatises. I want an audience. And I hope the audience will one day want me, instead of simply encountering my writing by accident.

I know, though, that my attempts at accessible writing are not only conditioned but strengthened by the reading I do in practitioners of specialized discourse: Judith Butler, Kaja Silverman, Jean-François Lyotard, Pierre Bourdieu, John Searle etc.

That's why I'll continue trying to integrate that reading with what I write here.

I want to be as intellectually honest as possible. If I think of Judith Butler when musing on a film, I'll say so. And it won't be to bully. In my book, it's a lot worse to pretend that everything you write is coming from your own mind than it is to acknowledge the influence of others, be they academics, journalists, or friends. I believe that sort of pretense is itself a kind of bullying.

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