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On Pop Clarity: Public Intellectuals and the Crisis of Language

It is nearly impossible to become an educated person in a country so distrustful of the independent mind. – James Baldwin

Part of the Series

The presupposition that academics no longer function as critical public intellectuals willing to connect their knowledge and expertise to larger public issues is now pervasive. Many factors have contributed to this alleged withdrawal from speaking to public issues, ranging from the demands of academic professionalism and the suppression of dissent to a simple lack of time to address such work. What is indisputable is that the voices of progressive academics have become increasingly irrelevant when it comes to assuming the role of engaged intellectuals interested in sharing their ideas, research and policy recommendations with a broader public. All the better for those neoliberal and conservative critics, who insist that academics must remain neutral, apolitical and professional, disavowing that politics has a place in the classroom or in the pursuit of research that speaks to broader public concerns. Sadly, the most pronounced voices critical of academics as public intellectuals come from the general public (who may or may not agree with right-wing portrayals of the university as a hotbed of left totalitarianism), who unite in their dismissal of ivory tower elites for speaking and writing in a discourse that is as arcane as it is irrelevant.

In what follows, I support three increasingly unpopular positions. First, I argue that academics should assume the role of critical public intellectuals. Second, we must repudiate the popular assumption that clarity is the ultimate litmus test to gauge whether a writer has successfully engaged a general educated audience. In this regard, I insist that the appeal to clarity has become an ideological smokescreen for a notion of common sense and “simplicity” that have become excuses for abusing language as a marker of the educated mind. Third, I argue that public intellectuals need to take matters of accessibility seriously in order to combine theoretical rigor with their efforts to communicate forcefully and intelligibly to a larger public about the most pressing matters of the day. In short, I want to scramble the opposition between the work of public intellectuals and the alleged simplicity of clarity. The issue is not one or the other – a choice between a firewall of convoluted discourse or a frictionless discourse purged of complexity – but rather the challenge for public intellectuals to address important social issues by writing in a language that is accessible without sacrificing theoretical rigor. Underlying this challenge is a larger political project in which public intellectuals have a responsibility to share a commitment to language as a site of experimentation, power, struggle and hope in the interests of building larger democratically inspired social movements.

During the last 30 years, a rising generation of intellectuals within higher education unsettled the status quo, even by staid academic standards, by writing in a theoretical style that was at odds with the traditional convention of writing in a language that was clear, jargon-free and generalist. With the turn to high theory, close textual reading and a commitment to the instability and multiplicity of meaning in the university, proponents of post-structuralism, deconstruction, literary theory and postmodernism wrote in a language that was indeed specialized, theoretically dense and highly opaque. Yet, this diverse body of scholarship was an attempt to expand the possibilities of theory and politics within new and more complex registers of meaning, writing and criticism that undercut the totalizing, often authoritarian logics, of modernism. It was also a discourse that clashed head on with the long tradition of anti-intellectualism in the United States that worked to devalue important theoretical and social issues.[1]

As the new theoretical discourses took hold in academia, a resurgence of anti-intellectualism took place outside of its walls and inundated the country with fresh energy as Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency in 1980. Anxiously insistent triumphalism was in – coupled with a growing mood of conformity. The new orthodoxy wrapped itself in the cult of individualism and personal responsibility – freeing its advocates from any sense of social obligation and engagement with larger social forces that animated the political movements of the 1960s. As Noam Chomsky pointed out, at the heart of Reagan’s uplifting call to remake America was a market-driven ideology designed “to ensure that isolated individuals face concentrated state and private power alone, without the support of an organizational structure that can assist them in thinking for themselves or entering into meaningful political action and with few avenues for public expression of fact or analysis that might challenge approved doctrine.”[2] Participating in the heady optimism that suffused Reaganite rhetoric came at considerable intellectual cost. Only “adherence to doctrinal truth,” as Chomsky concluded, “confers substantial reward: not only acceptance within the system of power and a ready path to privilege, but also the inestimable advantage of freedom from the onerous demands of thought, inquiry and argument.”[3] Against Reagan’s carefully crafted persona of strong masculinity, decisiveness and middle brow wit culled from his early Hollywood days, intellectuals were cast in the role of radical, if not communist, subversives, or dithering eggheads incapable of effective action. The notion that important social problems required a more complex language or careful analytic accounting in order to render them with precision and accessibility was dismissed as a plunge into unintelligibility.

Questioning authority was now a symptom, a bad hangover from the alleged anti-Americanism of the 1960s, and the long period of dissent and opposition that had marked the period was viewed by many politicians and conservatives as a disease eating away at the body politic. As the state was increasingly hollowed out and militarized, critical public spheres were commercialized or made to disappear altogether. Equally onerous, the mainstream media increasingly became an echo chamber for corporate values and a harsh form of economic neo-Darwinism. Under the growing influence of a corporate-dominated cultural apparatus producing right-wing public pedagogies, civil discourse degenerated into cheap advertising copy, promulgated by an expanding celebrity culture and its consumerist dream world. Or, it became a nonstop avalanche of vicious soundbite for the new class of conservative talking heads that dominated the mainstream media aimed at denigrating all things public. Attempting to break through this citadel of linguistic conformity, many progressive academics hoped to raise the intellectual bar in order to engage complex ideas that challenged the attack on critical thought and democratic political culture that was sweeping across the country – finding its ultimate resting place in the administration of George W. Bush.

The turn toward critical cultural analysis and other forms of theory in the academy was inspired by the recognition that new ideas often require different terms and that such writing, while difficult, was necessary to expose the appeal to common sense and totalizing authoritarian narratives that the Reaganites valued. The deepening complexity of that theoretical turn produced opposition both within and outside of the academy as a strange coalition of conservatives, liberals and some Marxists found common ground in arguing that clarity was the paramount issue in privileging writing as a form of political and cultural expression. Some charges wee not entirely without merit. Writers such as Russell Jacoby warned, “social critics against the danger of yielding to a new Latin, a new scholasticism insulated from the larger public.”[4] Benn Agger suggested that theory itself should be dismissed when “it courts incomprehensibility” and, like much academic writing, “fails to invite dialogue, instead reporting itself as an objective account purged of authorial intentionality, perspective, passion.”[5] But by the beginning of the 21st century, the critique of difficult and complex language degenerated into a full-court effort at eradication, similar to what one would expect when governments mobilize to tackle the spread of a deadly virus. The journal Philosophy and Literature initiated an annual Bad Writing Contest, offering “prizes” to some of the country’s top scholars. One Internet site shocked its horrified readership with examples of a “post-modern” essay, “replete with bloated jargon and incomprehensible sentence structure, every time someone log[ged] onto it.”[6]

In one particularly instructive case, the highly regarded philosopher Judith Butler was the target of a widely read piece of rhetorical overkill by Martha Nussbaum, who insisted that Butler’s dense specialized language not only revealed a deeply disturbing disengagement from a nonacademic public but also “a loss of a sense of public commitment.”[7] According to Nussbaum, Butler was a prime example of a trend that found many academics turning away from practical politics by hiding behind a firewall of jargon that offered little hope of addressing oppressive structures of power while simultaneously producing “a dangerous quietism.”[8] Symptomatically dismissive of Butler’s radicalism, Nussbaum’s call for intellectuals not to mistake symbolic gestures for political change was not unreasonable. But the real value of her statement lies not in its generalized attack on abstract theories or complex language, but in her call for intellectuals to take the issue of public commitment seriously (provided, for her, that it stay within the limits of liberal discourse) and to recognize that the issue of accessibility should be valued by academics in reaching wider audiences.

Butler, for her part, has responded to this dismissal by arguing that scholarship that strives to be clear often “serves to shut down thought” and that part of being an intellectual demands “working hard on difficult texts.” She also insisted, “learning how to deal with difficult language is essential for developing a critical attitude towards the world.”[9] For Butler, there is no such thing as a transparent language that can ignore various contexts, audiences and modes of intervention. More significantly, she suggested that what is often at stake in the attack on complex language as merely “jargon” is both the assumption that criticism is destructive and the fear of “opening up the possibility of questioning what our assumptions are and [the risk of living] in the anxiety of that questioning without closing it down too quickly.”[10] Perhaps, not wanting to side step this important insight, Butler did not mention what Nussbaum willfully ignores, the fact that Butler does write for multiple audiences and that her prose is often oriented to fit the uniqueness of specific groups of readers. Butler has written in both public prose and academic discourse and she always addresses important public issues.[11] Hence, the attack on Butler appears both overstated and a misrepresentation of the important work that she does.

Russell Jacoby expanded the debate about the use of arcane language by tying it to the loss of the very conditions for public intellectuals to flourish in the United States. In his book “The Last Intellectuals,” Jacoby recalled fondly the writers associated with The Partisan Review as well as writers such as C. Wright Mills, Murray Bookchin and Edmund Wilson, among other incisive theorists of an earlier era. According to Jacoby, these writers achieved the status of public intellectuals, who wrote not only for academic journals, but also for broader public audiences. He admired their writing for refusing arcane language or a kind of quaint scholasticism. Such work did not sacrifice intellectual rigor in order to reach a general and educated reader. Public prose mattered for them, but not at the expense of theory, critical analysis and sometimes difficult language. Rather than lower the bar of intelligent communication in the name of clarity, they elevated it by offering complex thoughts in an accessible public discourse. To be sure, this generation of public intellectuals lived at a different time and worked under different conditions. Many of them drew from a highly heterogeneous and more questioning culture, were not dependent on jobs located in the academy, made a decent salary from their publications alone and engaged a polity that was not seduced by the new media, the imposition of multitasking in a time-deprived world or the solipsistic gratification that too often comes with blogging.

I think it is fair to say that a different notion of reading and literacy, along with the institutions that supported it, dominated the first half of the 20th century. The notion of the public intellectual was not marginalized, and such writers engaged in ongoing public conversations about political and cultural issues that were of great social importance. These intellectuals spoke to more than one type of audience and were able to comment critically and broadly on a number of issues. To be a public intellectual, you had to be a particularly attentive student of society and the problems it faced and you had to take risks by intervening in ongoing public conversations that disrupted the powerful interests that shape common sense in efforts to change the nature of the debate. Such intellectuals exemplified a mode of writing and political literacy that refused the instinctive knee-jerk reflex of privileging plain speak over complexity. Clarity today too often legitimates not only simplistic writing, but an absence of rigorous analytic thought. Clarity, with its appeal to simplicity and common sense has become an excuse for abusing language as a marker of the educated mind. Public intellectuals in the past achieved complexity and accessibility in their writing for nonacademic audiences – crafting a language that was intelligible, but did not sacrifice its theoretical rigor – while insisting on the value of providing readers with the opportunities to struggle with matters of language and meaning rather than imposing a slick authoritarian style in the name of “unadorned truth.” As we move into the 21st century, Twitter-like clarity has replaced accessibility and has grown more pernicious as it aligns itself with an array of new corporate and military institutions, a dumbed-down cultural apparatus, school systems that miseducate and a growing network of films, talk radio and television shows in which language is emptied of content and thought only creates obstacles to the desire for thrill-seeking entertainment. In an age in which the acceleration of time is perfectly suited to the eradication of thoughtfulness, pop clarity and its notion of frictionless, spontaneous truth now governs the conditions for all modes of intelligibility.

The lack of critical literacy fed by populist appeals to common sense and the high pleasure of mass mediated reality, increasingly secured by the speed and endless spectacle of video game culture, induces a moral and political indifference that cannot even be bothered to engage intellectually on a public level at all. But more fundamentally, the appeal to common sense and plain language has become a rhetorical maneuver that masks a grab for power (especially by conservatives and corporate media) based on an illusion of legitimate authority and truth that denies the very existence of power embedded in linguistic constructs. Language in this dubious scenario is neither shaped by nor deploys power, nor is it worth struggling over.

Public discourse has taken a bad hit with the rise of the new media, with its economy of overabundance and its dizzying array of platforms. But there is more at stake here than an overabundant economy of information; there is a new kind of society of the spectacle producing a new kind of thoughtlessness. Print culture, which slows time down because it demands a more sustained focus, is no longer the primary source of information and entertainment for a generation of young people hooked on the immediacy and high interactivity of an audio and visual culture and the various media outlets that supply it. Or as the French theorist Stéphane Baillargeon put it, “I would dare to say that audiovisual media, radio and television, have imposed their cognitive model everywhere … Now the model demands that reality be echoed, that the movement be followed by the minute, without seeking perspective and comprehension.”[12] The corporate domination of the new media is producing a dangerous form of depoliticization and moral indifference – a kind of collective descent into an obsessive compulsive disorder existence – not allowing people to focus, take their time, develop a sense of compassion and social responsibility, or create the conditions for thoughtful reading and writing. This is not to deny that the new media also produces new and useful modes of interaction and exchange, but that is only part of the story and one under the threat of erasure. The underside of this narrative is a social order mobilized and shaped by new technologies and forms of audio and screen culture that blend all too seamlessly with the anti-intellectual tendencies of the dominant society which is wedded to the spectacle of celebrity culture and mass advertising and resistant to almost any notion of critique and rhetorical complexity. What has come out of this unprecedented historical emergence of technological spectacles is more than a culture of distraction; we are witnessing a withdrawal from complexity – even social reality – and a devaluation of the cultural apparatuses now overwhelmed by an infusion of endless soundbites, celebrity babbling, hate talk, consumer mania and endless pornographic representations of violence. All too often justified with the appeal to clarity, entertainment and record-breaking profits.

Although there are still a number of academics such as Noam Chomsky, Angela Davis, Stanley Aronowitz, Slavoj Zisek, Russell Jacoby and Lewis Gordon, who function as public intellectuals, they are often shut out of the mainstream media or characterized as marginal, even subversive, figures. At the same time, many academics find themselves laboring under horrendous working conditions that either don’t allow for them to write in an accessible manner for the public because they do not have time – given the often almost slave-like labor demanded of part-time academics and increasingly of full-time academics as well – or they retreat into a highly specialized, professional language that few people can understand in order to meet the institutional standards of academic excellence. In this instance, potentially significant theoretical rigor detaches itself both from any viable notion of accessibility and from the possibility of reaching a larger audience outside of their academic disciplines. Consequently, such intellectuals now exist in hermetic academic bubbles cut off from both the larger public and the important issues that impact society. To no small degree, they have been complicit in the transformation of the university into an adjunct of corporate and military power. Such academics have become incapable of defending higher education as a vital public sphere and unwilling to challenge those spheres of induced mass cultural illiteracy that doom critically engaged thought, complex ideas and serious writing for the public to extinction. Without their intervention as public intellectuals, the reign of clarity gains new force and cancels out any attempt to give the political necessity of experimental language accessibility and rigorous writing a public hearing.

Before his untimely death, Edward Said, himself an exemplary public intellectual, urged his colleagues in the academy to develop a sense of intellectual rather than professional vocation. He insisted that the central issue for intellectuals is to directly confront, in efforts to alleviate, those forms of social suffering that disfigure contemporary society and pose a serious threat to the promise of democracy. He believed that such a task could be addressed by creating the pedagogical conditions and formative cultures that promote critical awareness, thought and dialogue – the primary ingredients of a literate culture necessary for any aspiring democracy. According to Said:

one of the things that I therefore see as an extraordinarily useful job is to make people sensitive to the uses of language, not as a kind of arcane classification of languages in let’s say the jargon of mechanical engineering versus the jargon of political science, but rather the way in which language carries forward values, does work. It does actually work, it performs services of one sort or another and above all, how language can change perceptions and indeed in the end change the world in which we live. And unless we have a sense of the way in which language can in fact change reality, instead of the other way around, which we always assume, then I think we’re committed to a use of language that is dead and passive. And one of the things I feel as a student and as a teacher and as an intellectual, which I’m trying to teach my own students, is a sense of the creative powers of language, no matter in which field it’s used. And the best use of language for me is the use of language that is committed to the self-reflectiveness, the self-consciousness, of a student, of a user of language, rather than the student or the person who uses language simply as a passive receptacle. Therefore, for me, my antagonist is the person who passively watches CNN all day long and says that’s the world. My ideal is the person who looks at CNN and says, no, that’s not the world, that’s a version of the world and my duty as a mind in society is to understand what alternative versions there are in order for me to make my choice and to go out and to change the world.[13]

For public intellectuals such as Said, Chomsky, Pierre Bourdieu, Angela Davis, and others, intellectuals have a responsibility to unsettle power, trouble consensus and challenge common sense. The very notion of being an engaged public intellectual is neither foreign to nor a violation of what it means to be an academic scholar, but central to its very definition. According to Said, academics have a responsibility to enter into the public sphere unafraid to take positions and generate controversy, functioning as moral witnesses, raising political awareness, making connections to those elements of power and politics often hidden from public view and reminding “the audience of the moral questions that may be hidden in the clamor and din of the public debate.”[14] At the same time, Said criticized those academics who retreated into a new dogmatism of the disinterested specialist that separates them “not only from the public sphere but from other professionals who don’t use the same jargon.”[15] This was especially unsettling to him at a time when complex language and critical thought remain under assault in the larger society by all manner of anti-democratic forces.

Whether in the dominant media or in other institutions shaped by militarism or market-driven or other reactionary values, society is incessantly offered up prepackaged dribble for faux analysis, fast food discourse as a substitute for sustained thought, instant commentaries instead of substantive critique and a range of spectacles that continually work to awe and infantilize the larger public. Under such circumstances, Said insisted that the academy with its commitment, however idealized, to critical thought, self-reflection, engaged research and reason is one of the few spheres left where engaged and critical agents could be educated. And while he railed against the cult of professionalism and expertise in the university with its world of “hermetic, jargon-ridden, unthreatening combativeness,”[16] he rightly argued that the university is still a viable site of struggle, and urged academics to connect their intellectual work with interventions into public life. He also argued that, even as the university became more hostile to engaged criticism, mimicking the values of the larger corporate-controlled media, academics have a responsibility to take advantage of the widening circles of educational exchanges. As he put it, “Think of the impressive range of opportunities offered by the lecture platform, the pamphlet, radio, alternative journals, occasional papers, the interview, the rally, the church pulpit and the Internet, to name only a few,” as places where academics could assert their role as public intellectuals.[17] Rather than endorsing a notion of clarity as simplicity (or too often infantilism) that eschews any vestige of critical thought, theory, or willingness to struggle with language, Said argued for a notion of accessibility in which complexity and rigor were translated for a general public. In his analysis, the distinction between complexity and clarity is viewed as a disabling binarism and is rejected in favor of an approach to writing that addresses what it means to make language accessible without emptying its content of any viable meaning or insulting the public by not challenging it to assume some responsibility for its engagement with the text.

Tragically, intellectuals who write for a broader audience have not disappeared either from the academy or from other institutions such as corporate-sponsored foundations; they have simply changed sides, no longer writing for the public as much as they write against it, and always in the language of clarity. These individuals are what George Scialabba calls the anti-public intellectuals. As he put it, the function of the anti-public intellectual “is not criticism, not defense of the public against private or state power, but the opposite.”[18] These are intellectuals who offer their talents and skills to the goals of the state and corporate elite. They attack the semi-welfare state and any viable notion of social protection. In doing so, they actively work to pathologize all things public such as schools, health care, public transportation and other important social services. They rail against big government playing an important role in providing social protections and improving citizens’ lives, but have no trouble supporting an expansion of government power in regulating morality, investing in a permanent war economy, supporting the coercive powers of the state, expanding the surveillance state and advocating government power to free corporations of any form of regulation. Examples abound and are evident in the misguided, often racist rumblings of Dinesh D’Souza, the anti-public school rhetoric of privatization advocated by Chester Finn and the anti-social state discourse of Charles Murray, among others. The basic ideological elements that shape the discourse of the anti-public intellectuals is also hard wired into consolidating the far right wing of the Republican Party. Their cruder counterparts can be found in the anti-public intellectuals, who dominate the radio and television talk-show circuits, including Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, and that ilk. These are what the late French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called “‘fast thinkers,’ specialists in throw-away thinking.”[19] These are the recycled anti-public, public relations intellectuals who do nothing more than offer “cultural fast food – predigested and prethought culture,”[20] who trade in soundbites and write with a clarity that debases complex issues, insults its readers and simplifies important subjects to the point of draining them of any real critical complexity and substance.

As the late Pierre Bourdieu put it, such intellectuals justify “a policy of demagogic simplification (which is absolutely and utterly contrary to the democratic goal of informing or educating people by interesting them).”[21] Instead of uncovering the unseen workings of power, they cast a linguistic fog around it, banishing wherever possible public capacity for thoughtfulness and engaged debate, always pitting their discourse – wrapped up in the right-wing populist appeal to common sense and deeply at odds with any notion of social and economic justice – against the vocabularies of the media elites, academics and other members of the “liberal establishment,” who don’t subscribe to their uniform and anti-intellectual notion of clarity. The reactionary politics conveniently hidden beneath the appeal to plain speech and common sense becomes startlingly clear, for instance, when conservative broadcaster Glenn Beck on his March 2, 2010, radio show stated, “I beg you, look for the words ‘social justice’ or ‘economic justice’ on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words.”[22] And as The New York Times pointed out, Beck “was saying they were code words for Communism and Nazism.”[23]

The anti-democratic tendencies of fast food thought and discourse are also readily available in the “fast thinkers,” who usually ramp up their embrace of banal and commonsense language with a dash of the sensational and the spectacular. This type of spectacle is on full display in the McCarthy-like ramblings of Dick Cheney’s daughter Liz Cheney and the inevitable Bill Kristol, the neoconservative editor of the Weekly Standard, both of whom have recently inundated the media with the accusation that government lawyers who provide pro bono defense for Guantanamo Bay detainees are un-American, if not traitorous. Not only did they produce a shameful video branding “these government lawyers as ‘the Al Qaeda Seven,'” they also “juxtaposed their supposed un-American activities with a photo of Osama bin Laden.”[24] At its most elemental, such demagoguery draped in the language of clear speech and sensationalism, while eliminating any pretense to thoughtful argumentation, undercuts the ability of the American public to function as critically informed citizens.

With the rise of the disengaged academic and the anti-public intellectual, public commitment is sacrificed to professionally sanctioned discourse on the one hand, and the authoritarian appeal to clarity and common sense on the other. Both positions pose a serious problem for civic engagement and democratic practices, each contributing in their own way to undoing the possibility for critical agency and informed modes of communication. But these forces do not exist on an equal footing or inspire equal effect. As Richard Hofstadter wrote in his monumental “Anti-Intellectualism in American Life” and Susan Jacoby updated in her book, “The Age of American Unreason,” anti-intellectualism has a long history in the United States and at the present moment it appears to have reached unprecedented heights “thanks to the converging influences of junk science, fundamentalism, celebrity-obsessed media … declining academic standards … political pandering and the weakening of investigative journalism, among other factors.”[25] How else can one explain the lack of outrage over the Texas Board of Education producing a social studies curriculum for thousands of school children that rewrites history so as to consolidate the values of religious fundamentalists, celebrate right-wing social movements such as the National Rifle Association, justify McCarthyism and eliminate Thomas Jefferson “from a list of figures whose writings inspired revolutions in the late 18th and 19th centuries” because he endorsed the term “separation between church and state.”[26] Clearly, what all of these examples suggest is that critical literacy, or reading the world and the word critically, cannot be separated from the ability to deal with difficult language and complex argumentation to piece the lies, misrepresentations and omissions that comfortably wrap themselves in Sarah Palin folksiness and belligerent common sense a la Glenn Beck.

And while I have focus on the role of academics and intellectuals in this debate over language, I think it is fair to say that the need to write in a discourse that has vigor and passion and can be read by the general public is both essential and problematic. It is essential in that language has to be accessible to reach broad and diverse audiences – even as what constitutes “accessibility” is inevitably a matter of trial and error. The shift toward greater accessibility should not be compromised by a populist commonsense appeal to clarity that cancels out any necessity to struggle with language and meaning, tragically undermining what might be the critical public function of accessible prose. Against accessibility, clarity condemns any notion of difficult reading, complex language and sustained focus and thoughtfulness. Its advocates often ignore entire arguments, even intellectual traditions, by dismissing them as unclear, just as they reduce the importance of all meaning to the yardstick of clarity, by which they really mean simple, transparent, entertaining and in keeping with a pet ideological agenda. The invoking of clarity as a tool to promote anti-intellectualism is not so far removed from a species of dogmatism that refuses to give opposing points of view a fair hearing. It is also close minded to any language that is unfamiliar and often substitutes emotion and opinion for sustained argument and careful analysis.

The fashionable use of clarity to delegitimize any struggle over meaning and language distinguishes among forms of writing based on a facile opposition between what is deemed complex and what is deemed clear – denying altogether the political motivation that drives it. This binarism presupposes that the simple invocation to clear language can by itself confer sense, if not a certain type of spontaneous and immediately recognized truth and legitimacy. This position also suggests that readers should be able to engage ideas effortlessly, thereby placing no burden of responsibility on the reader for critical analysis and reflective thought. The imperative to write in clear language redefines the relationship between language and power in largely strategic terms. That is, when structured around the binary opposition of clarity versus complexity, this particular focus on language not only ignores how multiple audiences read differently, but also subverts the very problem it claims to be addressing. It restricts the possibility for expanding a culture of questioning and dialogue by refusing to address the importance of developing multiple literacies that allow people to speak across and within different maps of meaning. Clarity in this case seems to me to do more to fuel intolerance than advance receptivity to different discourses, meanings, values and modes of translation and exchange.

Moreover, the claim that some writers, academics and journalists write in a language that is arcane and inaccessible runs the risk of reifying the issue of clarity by presupposing rather than demonstrating a universal standard for measuring it. For example, do critics who invoke the litmus test of clarity have a specific standard in mind when they pass judgment on the literacy levels of the various audiences that read sources as diverse as Truthout and Dissent? Is it the equivalent of a reading level embodied in Reader’s Digest? What is definitive about their assessment that grants them the authority to judge for all readers what is accessible and what is not? Unfortunately, the discourse of clarity appears to rest on a universal standard of literacy that presumably need not be questioned as well as a self-righteous and deeply anti-democratic suggestion that most people are just too dumb or indifferent to struggle with language and meaning. This approach to language suppresses questions of context – who reads what under what conditions? More importantly, it presumes that language is a transparent medium for the seamless transmission of existing facts that need only be laid out in an agreed-upon fashion. Such a position runs the risk of fleeing the politics of culture by situating language outside of history, power and struggle. While such an anti-theoretical stance may be comforting to some, it provides no help in understanding the complex relationship among power, critical thought and the inevitable struggle over language. Moreover, the appeal to clarity often ignores the challenges of language use incurred by writers whose aim is make the familiar strange – retooling certain commonsense assumptions by putting them in different contexts, revealing their hidden order of politics or placing them in new modes of language.

To be sure, this is not an elaborate excuse for unintelligible language or “bad writing” – were such a category ever agreed upon – as much as it is an attempt to discern between a notion of clarity that shuts down thought and a notion of accessibility that enables public intellectuals to get “their ideas across to more than one type of audience [while also being] able to comment broadly on society, culture and politics.”[27] If the greatest obstacle to critical thinking and social agency is the enforced insistence on a kind of general ignorance in the name of clarity, it is time for both academics and the general public to think more carefully about what it means to be not only responsible writers, but also responsible readers.

At the very least, one must question what makes these warriors for clarity capable of reading certain texts critically while simultaneously suggesting that the general public is not intelligent enough to understand them. There is more at work here than an elitism of the grassroots; there is also the ungenerous presupposition that most people are too “dumb” to read a text or engage a language that is critical, theoretical and oppositional. Accordingly, this position suggests that activism and intellectual labor are mutually antithetical – and, more revealing, best left to a coterie of visionary leaders. In addition, it suggests that there is no room for academics to translate theory or specialized work so as to make that “knowledge available to wider social forces,” to connect such work to readers and public spheres outside of the boundaries of the university.[28] Stripped-down notions of clarity build a wall between academia and the larger public and in doing so reinforce the worst intellectual tendencies in both. On the one hand, the notion allows academics to retreat into their disciplinary specialisms and arcane jargon, often allowing them to become complicit with dominant modes of power and authority. On the other hand, the celebration of stripped-down clarity invites members of the broader public to deskill and depoliticize themselves by diminishing their capacity for reading the word and world critically, simultaneously placing themselves in positions of subordination by undercutting their own sense of agency.

In an age in which a ruthless market-driven culture reduces literacy to being a savvy consumer of commodities and an ongoing participant in brainless celebrity culture, language, literacy and meaning must become crucial terrains of contestation and struggle. Making the appeal to clarity problematic should not be mistaken for a clever exercise intent in merely reversing the relevance of the categories so that abstract language is prioritized over the language of common sense and folksiness – or that the appeal to clarity is always on the side of a willful mystification. At issue here is the need to both question and reject the reductionism and exclusions that characterize the binary oppositions between clarity and complexity, intellectual labor and simplified prose. The problem is not “bad” writing, as if writing that is difficult to grapple with has nothing important to say. Rather, the most important issue to be addressed by readers is not clarity, but whether such writing offers a vision and practice for deepening the possible relations between cultural discourses (including academic discourses) and the imperatives of a substantive, pluralized democracy. Hence, the defining principle for theoretical practice belongs to a “renewed interest in democracy and … how a democratic culture might be fashioned.”[29] It has become too easy to miss the role that the language of clarity plays in a dominant culture that cleverly and powerfully uses clear and simplistic language to systematically undermine and prevent those conditions necessary for a general public to engage in at least rudimentary forms of critical thinking. In effect, what is missed in this analysis is that the dreadful homogenization and standardization of language in the mass media, schools, and other cultural sites point to how language and power often combine to offer the general public and others knowledge and ideologies cleansed of complex thought or oppositional insight.

What many academics, intellectuals and other individuals too often forget is that the importance of language and communication as theoretical practice is derived, in large part, from their critical and subversive possibilities. Hence, judging an article or text by the simple yardstick of clarity and plain speak does not offer a serious enough challenge to modes of writing and speaking that become complicit with either anti-intellectualism or elitism, both of which undermine the ability of a general public to think in critical and oppositional terms. The question of “what is language good for?” becomes relevant when it situates the issue of clarity and accessibility within a larger discourse about the role of public intellectuals, the dynamics of power and agency and the formative educational culture necessary for democracy to function.


[1]. Richard Hofstadter, “Anti-intellectualism in American Life” (New York: Vantage Books, 1963).

[2]. Noam Chomsky, “The Culture of Terrorism” (Boston: South End Press, 1988), p. 21.

[3]. Ibid.

[4]. Russell Jacoby, “The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe” (New York: Basic Books, 1987), p. 236.

[5]. Ben Agger, “The Decline of Discourse” (New York: Palmer Press, 1990), pp. 35, 37.

[6]. Denita Smith, “When Ideas Get Lost in Bad Writing,” New York Times (February 7, 1999). Online:

[7]. Martha Nussbaum, “The Professor of Parody,” The New Republic (November 2, 2000). Online:

[8]. Nussbaum, “The Professor of Parody.”

[9]. Judith Butler, cited in Gary A. Olson and Lynn Worsham, “Changing the Subject: Judith Butler’s Politics of Radical Resignification,” JAC 20:4 (2000), p. 727.

[10]. Olson and Worsham, “Changing the Subject,” p. 738.

[11]. One can see examples of both of these discourses in her recent books. See Judith Butler, “Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence” (London: Verso Press, 2004) and Judith Butler, “Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?” (Brooklyn, New York.: Verso, 2009).

[12]. Stéphane Baillargeon, “Emerging from the Media Fog,” (January 11, 2010). Online at:

[13]. Edward Said, “What Is the Role of the Intellectual in Public and Political Life Today?” Interview by Michael Phillips on Social Thought, February 1991. Online:

[14]. Edward Said, “On Defiance and Taking Positions, Reflections on Exile and Other Essays” (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), p. 504.

[15]. Edward Said, “Humanism and Democratic Criticism” (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), p. 70.

[16]. Edward Said, “Humanism and Democratic Criticism,” p. 126.

[17]. Edward Said, “Humanism and Democratic Criticism,” p. 132.

[18]. George Scialabba, “What Are Intellectuals Good For?” (Boston: Pressed Wafer, 2009), p. 7.

[19]. Pierre Bourdieu, “On Television” (New York: The New Press, 1996), p. 35.

[20]. Pierre Bourdieu, “On Television,” p. 29.

[21]. Pierre Bourdieu, “On Television,” p. 3.

[22]. Laurie Goodstein, “Outraged by Glenn Beck’s Salvo, Christians Fire Back,” New York Times (March 11, 2010), p. A14.

[23]. Laurie Goodstein, “Outraged by Glenn Beck’s Salvo, Christians Fire Back.”

[24]. Frank Rich, “The New Rove-Cheney Assault on Reality,” New York Times (March 14, 2010), p. WK8.

[25]. Thomas Benton, “On Stupidity,” Chronicle of Higher Education (August 2008). Online:

[26]. James C. McKinley Jr., “Texas Conservatives Win Curriculum Change,” New York Times (March 12, 2010), p. A10.

[27]. Ellen Willis, “Who Will Support the Intellectual’s Work,” The Minnesota Review 50 – 51 (October 1999), p. 189.

[28]. Stuart Hall, cited in Greig de Peuter, “Universities, Intellectuals and Multitudes: An Interview with Stuart Hall,” ed. Mark Cote, Richard J. F. Day and Greig de Peuter, “Utopian Pedagogy: Radical Experiments against Neoliberal Globalization” (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007), p. 115.

[29]. Gregory Jay, “The End of ‘American’ Literature: Toward a Multicultural Practice,” College English 53 (1991), p. 266.

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