PM Pick

Prose style and ideology

Journalistic and academic prose styles seem fundamentally at odds, an antagonism that crops up, for example, when magazines cover some "Bad Writing" contest or wrench some theoretical point about current events made by an academic (usually in the humanities or social sciences) out of context. Often they'll point out how needlessly arcane academic writing is, how turgid and wordy and portentious it sounds, inferring that, since most people can't make out what it means immediately, that it actually in fact means nothing. The implication seems to be that academics are lazy writers; they stubbornly refuse to express themselves clearly and are too wrapped up in their fanciful ideas to bother communicating them clearly to an audience. They mask the simplicity of their insights with all sorts of jargon that performs a gatekeeping function, which makes academics the enemy of the free transmission of ideas; they purport to teach but really they are guarding their turf, trying to inflate that turf's perceived value with fancy doubletalk.

But what that perspective ignores is the idea that complex ideas necessitate complex prose, that in order for a reader to come to the same sort of insight that the writer is trying to convey, she must be thinking as hard while reading as the writer was while writing. The burrowing, tail-chasing intricacy of social theorists' sentences demands a reader concentrate in an entirely different way than a newspaper article does. It retards the flow of ideas, it forces careful consdieration of language, not its efficient consumption. Fluid readable prose may well discourage the kind of persistent, critical thought that would ultimately be required (and be widespread throughout a populace) in order to challenge the status quo. Frederic Jameson, who writes sentences as dense as anyone's, makes the case that such writing mirrors dialectical thinking, its abstractions necessary for placing idea in the context of the totality of soociety in all its conplex intertwinings, and poses this question, which is even more pertinent now than when he asked it 35 years ago: "What if, in this period of the overproduction of printed matter and the proliferation of methods of quick reading, [those ideals of clarity and simplicity] were intended to speed a reader across a sentence in such a way that he can salute a readymade idea in passing, without suspecting that real though demands a descent into the materiality of language and a consent to time itself in the form of the sentence?"

Technology has enabled us "to overproduce printed matter," to print more ephemera today than ever (this blog, as always, included). And the methods for speeding consumption of information have become only more and more refined. This serves two ends: It permits people to consume more, allowing for more consumption, and by extension, more economic growth for its own sake. And it discourages deep thought, reinforcing the notion that any thought worth having is immediately clear and accessible, is spontaneously felt. This is why certain poetry can be so reactionary, especially when it demands an immediacy of thought and feeling, and a spontaneous interconvertibility between the two. Practice allows thought to become feeling, an instinctual response, but it then also shields thought from analysis, and thus from change. Ideas critical to the established notions, the "common sense" so carefully achieved by the effects of power by those in position to control the social forces of production and the institutions that preserve and reproduce it, will always require difficult convoluted sentences to expresss them. The powers that be always work, Orwell-style, to efface ideas hostile to them from received language, from everyday expression, from what we immediately respond to as accessible and clear. What is "clear" is a careful production, is built into to a reader's habitus, which is itself the product of all the existing prevailing powers under which one is raised, whose ideological premises ones absorbs deeply precisely because we are unaware we have absorbed them. Long, thorny sentences, full of codicils and corrections and conditions, force us to think outside of those premises, or to at least dredge them out of our unconscious and into view for questioning, a difficult process that we subjectively register typically as boredom or incomprehension or frustration at language's sudden opacity. If we surrender at those symptoms, we'll never attain a perspective from which we can be meaningfully critical of the conditions we live in. Boredom is the status quo's best defense. It will always appear to be dull and boring to mount the efforts to dismantle it. Just ask any labor-beat reporter.

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

The year in song reflected the state of the world around us. Here are the 70 songs that spoke to us this year.

70. The Horrors - "Machine"

On their fifth album V, the Horrors expand on the bright, psychedelic territory they explored with Luminous, anchoring the ten new tracks with retro synths and guitar fuzz freakouts. "Machine" is the delicious outlier and the most vitriolic cut on the record, with Faris Badwan belting out accusations to the song's subject, who may even be us. The concept of alienation is nothing new, but here the Brits incorporate a beautiful metaphor of an insect trapped in amber as an illustration of the human caught within modernity. Whether our trappings are technological, psychological, or something else entirely makes the statement all the more chilling. - Tristan Kneschke

Keep reading... Show less

Net Neutrality and the Music Ecosystem: Defending the Last Mile

Still from Whiplash (2014) (Photo by Daniel McFadden - © Courtesy of Sundance Institute) (IMDB)

"...when the history books get written about this era, they'll show that the music community recognized the potential impacts and were strong leaders." An interview with Kevin Erickson of Future of Music Coalition.

Last week, the musician Phil Elverum, a.k.a. Mount Eerie, celebrated the fact that his album A Crow Looked at Me had been ranked #3 on the New York Times' Best of 2017 list. You might expect that high praise from the prestigious newspaper would result in a significant spike in album sales. In a tweet, Elverum divulged that since making the list, he'd sold…six. Six copies.

Keep reading... Show less

Under the lens of cultural and historical context, as well as understanding the reflective nature of popular culture, it's hard not to read this film as a cautionary tale about the limitations of isolationism.

I recently spoke to a class full of students about Plato's "Allegory of the Cave". Actually, I mentioned Plato's "Allegory of the Cave" by prefacing that I understood the likelihood that no one had read it. Fortunately, two students had, which brought mild temporary relief. In an effort to close the gap of understanding (perhaps more a canyon or uncanny valley) I made the popular quick comparison between Plato's often cited work and the Wachowski siblings' cinema spectacle, The Matrix. What I didn't anticipate in that moment was complete and utter dissociation observable in collective wide-eyed stares. Example by comparison lost. Not a single student in a class of undergraduates had partaken of The Matrix in all its Dystopic future shock and CGI kung fu technobabble philosophy. My muted response in that moment: Whoa!

Keep reading... Show less

'The Art of Confession' Ties Together Threads of Performance

Allen Ginsberg and Robert Lowell at St. Mark's Church in New York City, 23 February 1977

Scholar Christopher Grobe crafts a series of individually satisfying case studies, then shows the strong threads between confessional poetry, performance art, and reality television, with stops along the way.

Tracing a thread from Robert Lowell to reality TV seems like an ominous task, and it is one that Christopher Grobe tackles by laying out several intertwining threads. The history of an idea, like confession, is only linear when we want to create a sensible structure, the "one damn thing after the next" that is the standing critique of creating historical accounts. The organization Grobe employs helps sensemaking.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.