So here is the latest action alert for the I.A.R.B.. (I fear that this is going to be a long-running series.) As a reminder of why we fight:
Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous, and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon numbers. The jargon peculiar to Marxist writing (hyena, hangman, cannibal, petty bourgeois, these gentry, lackey, flunkey, mad dog, White Guard, etc.) consists largely of words translated from Russian, German, or French; but the normal way of coining a new word is to use Latin or Greek root with the appropriate affix and, where necessary, the size formation. It is often easier to make up words of this kind (deregionalize, impermissible, extramarital, non-fragmentary and so forth) than to think up the English words that will cover one’s meaning. The result, in general, is an increase in slovenliness and vagueness.
As I have tried to show, modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by sheer humbug. The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy. It is easier — even quicker, once you have the habit — to say In my opinion it is not an unjustifiable assumption that than to say I think. If you use ready-made phrases, you not only don’t have to hunt about for the words; you also don’t have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious. When you are composing in a hurry — when you are dictating to a stenographer, for instance, or making a public speech — it is natural to fall into a pretentious, Latinized style. Tags like a consideration which we should do well to bear in mind or a conclusion to which all of us would readily assent will save many a sentence from coming down with a bump. By using stale metaphors, similes, and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself. This is the significance of mixed metaphors. The sole aim of a metaphor is to call up a visual image. When these images clash — as in The Fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot is thrown into the melting pot — it can be taken as certain that the writer is not seeing a mental image of the objects he is naming; in other words he is not really thinking. Look again at the examples I gave at the beginning of this essay. In [the example from a Communist pamphlet], the writer knows more or less what he wants to say, but an accumulation of stale phrases chokes him like tea leaves blocking a sink.
— George Orwell (1946): Politics and the English Language
Now here’s an example of exactly that kind of writing, which I’ve taken from an article recently printed over at LibCom. I take it that the article has something to do with radical feminism, gender identity, and sex-reassignment surgery. Beyond that—well, let’s just try to read it.
What matters, then, is the practical implications of the best insights of feminist theory. Clearly, the violence and intimidation transgender people routinely face is unconscionable. But the question again boils down to the contradictions between the politics of affirmation and the politics of negation. This may at first seem strange. As Slavoj Žižek amongst others has argued, the difference between the politics of oppressed and marginalised groups seeking to defend themselves and the politics of class struggle is that class struggle seeks as its end point the abolition of class. “Class pride” is a reactionary concept, and though class relations can and do express themselves through communities and class identities, if class struggle is to be part of a revolutionary project rather than the affirmation of the working class within capitalism then it must abolish capitalism and with it abolish class. Class is furthermore a material position within capitalism – those who have nothing to sell but their labour and who must work for the money necessary to live, those dispossessed of ownership of capital and who must sell their labour time and labour power to those who have or administer it. It is not a sociological category, but a condition and a social relation. The struggles of women, ethnic minorities, gays and lesbians insofar as they are organised around the marginalised group must struggle for recognition of various kinds. But this, as so often, is an oversimplification. The various marginalised roles are themselves constituted within the process of their marginalisation – and though the material proletarian condition which is the prerequisite for capital accumulation is demonstrable in a different way to the constitution of various marginalised identities, we can still see the issue in terms of affirmation or negation: in the case of gender, either liberal feminism’s affirmation of women as bourgeois subjects with equal legal standing, or the radical project of the negation of gender binaries and with it gender identity.
So what would this look like in practice? I don’t pretend to have the answers. In the case of negating the proletarian condition, the answer is relatively straightforward: the direct communisation of the means of production, the abolition of wage labour and the replacement of the state by the construction of real human community through linked councils. Gender cannot be negated in the same way, though the same processes of seizure and transformation growing out of class antagonism. Its fairly easy to imagine that a society where the production of the entire social environment is no longer alienated would allow for a new kind of society and more radical possibilities, but its not enough to talk abstractly of revolution as being the cure-all we must invest our faith in.
But we do know where it can’t start – certainly not from the reification of binary gender identities. The task must be to destabalise and desacralise gender, and this cannot be done whilst upholding a belief in the ability to “match” bodily organs to gendered behaviour. The critique of gender cannot be held back because it offends the sensibilities of marginalised groups, and whilst we recognise the difficulties transgender people face, we can’t let those difficulties be an excuse to suspend critical thought.
— Django @ LibCom.org (2008-11-28): The Stonewall/Bindel affair, and the politics of transsexuality
I’d like to know what to say about this passage, or the point that the author is trying to make. But I’m not sure whether or not I can, because I’m not sure whether or not I even know what point the author is trying to make. I’m setting aside, for the moment, the fact that nothing after the eighth paragraph even attempts to connect the author’s points to the ostensible topic of the post — the radical feminist journalist Julie Bindel and her expressed views on sex-reassignment surgery. Because, even at a more local level, I think I understand most of the individual sentences, or at least clauses in the passage, but the way that it is written makes it nearly impossible for me to figure out what those parts add up to, or where that whole is supposed to be going by the end of the post, to the extent that I honestly don’t even know whether or how strongly I disagree or agree with what the author’s trying to say.
I suspect that the only way to understand it is for us to dig in and try to rewrite it, so that the author’s point, if he has any, isn’t lost beneath the dull, thudding drumbeat of his language. In any case, even if it turns out that there’s really nothing much, either good or bad, to find in this passage (a conclusion I haven’t yet drawn, but which I haven’t abandoned either), then it’s worth trying as an exercise, if nothing else. If we want to talk about the things we need to talk about, then we need to find better ways of saying things than this.
If you were going to try to rewrite a passage like this to try to make it more clear — especially to those who haven’t spent years reading and writing in Marxian jargon — and more enjoyable to read even for those who have, how would you go about it? Just what is going on here? What conclusion does it seem to you he’s trying to get to, and what reasons is he using to get to that conclusion? If you were trying to say what he’s saying, how would you say it well?