Journalism vs. theory

I make fun of awkward academic writing as much as anyone, but this crack by Christopher Shea in the Boston Globe Ideas blog about something Matt Yglesias wrote about Avatar annoyed me nonetheless. The post is titled “Someone Remembers His Theory Classes!” and gently mocks Yglesias for this sentence: “The Avatar narrative starts with a form of reactionary anti-capitalism and thus ends [up] re-inscribing the logic of colonialism inside an ostensibly anti-imperialist story.”

In keeping with the blog’s mission, Shea probably wants to call attention to the idea behind that Yglesias’s sentence and maybe even champion it. But he still feels obliged to write as though the main thing the sentence connotes is “I’ve read political theory.” This reduces ideas to the level of a personality game, to a matter of peacocking cultural capital. Ideas, from that point of view, are merely counters that all signify the same thing, ultimately: status.

This is what media and mediatization has become. It’s no longer about information dissemination so much as it about systemizing information, reducing its significance to a single dimension. Everything is reduced to a play of identity signifiers, making everything a posture, rendering all ideas into gestures of identity creation, attempts at ego projection and nothing more. That’s what I argue in this essay, at any rate, drawing from Baudrillard’s “Requiem for the Media” (pdf).

It’s not as though Yglesias’s point is obscure or difficult to grasp as he phrases it. “Inscribe” is critical-theory jargon, but even so the word has not been twisted or distorted from its ordinary meaning. Avatar pretends to be against capitalism and environmental destruction and for indigenous claims and thus against “evil empires”, but in the end the film is so patronizing to the natives it invents for its plot that it retells the same old imperialist “White Man’s Burden” tale. (More on that to come in my next post.) But Shea acts as though he has made that point simultaneously obscure and flashy. I think this is a bias that is endemic in journalism. Journalists seem unable to resist the impulse to feign ignorance or impatience with certain semi-erudite expressions in order to curry favor with an audience they presume is equally impatient and ignorant. But it is not theoretical language that’s obtuse. If journalists assume readers don’t want to hear about “imperialism,” readers never will, and journalists will accordingly be open to the accusation that they are that empire’s most effective flunkies: they hide the fact that the empire even exists.