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Resisting the Call of Exceptionalism
In this world, you better know who is going to show up for you in a fight + some things I hope you will read when you get a chance.
Some guy on Twitter who may be famous for something but I am not sure what, did a thing where he made fun of a passage from a literary theory text. This is very common in The Discourse. It is an easy way to drum up attention on social media platforms that turn attention into capital. People like to make fun of this specific genre of text. Those are texts written by and for what a mentor of mine once called those “-ity people,” or, people who turn nouns into adverbs. The Discourse is especially fond of leveling this critique at humanities scholars and what we broadly call “critical theory.” I say broadly because I rarely see someone in The Discourse making an honest claim about actual critical theorists. It is more common to see someone label any non-scientific (and sometimes scientific!) scholarship written by, about, or for women, Black people, non-white people, non English speakers, leftists, or sexual minorities as “critical theory.” It is a silly little thing … with a big context.
You see, the “culture wars” is a decades-long fight for control of The Discourse. It traffics in discursive violence — words and ideas are the weapons. The stakes are never explicit but that does not mean they are not high. The war for controlling The Discourse is a war over controlling which ideas attract money and social capital. That’s it. Some people stake their entire livelihoods on the outcome of this war. If you are an ambitious Googler, you can see it happening right now among some of my Substack colleagues.
I am rarely invited to this war. People either think I am too serious (yay!) or too mean (eh, yay) or too dumb (whatever) to drag into this nonsense. Every so often, however, I get a little mud on my shoes because someone lifts me up as an example of an academic who writes in “clear prose.” This is usually a compliment. I acknowledge and honor the intent, truly. I like being a writer. I am absolutely compelled to write as best and as clearly as I can. Compelled isn’t even a strong enough word. Whatever it is that gives people with penises a boner? It’s that, but writing in a strong, clear voice that is my own.
Not unlike boners, however, my compulsion is my own. It is not a public political problem. Because of that distinction, when people lift me up as a positive example of academic prose, I acknowledge the compliment privately but rarely accept it publicly. Let me explain the difference.
My entire life, people have tried to use me as an example of excellence. In school, I was often (although not always) the student who did not struggle to read, or who could sit still long enough to complete a standardized test at a good clip, or who did not make out in the bathroom, or who could entertain herself quietly for hours on end. If you are getting a mental image of a very delightful nerd, you are being too generous. I am an introvert who learned to be an extrovert because the tools of extroversion — communication — came easily to me. I was also well fed and generally housed and safe and loved and a particular mix of biology and inheritance. I did not know it when I was younger but even then my deeply ingrained sense of justice led me to believe that not everyone had the same mix of stuff. It seemed strange to me that any authority figure who held up an example of excellence to prove a general rule was making an unjust conclusion.
It is not lost on me that people expect me to take up the mantle for clear, accessible prose. Given how much I invest in writing, it is a reasonable assumption. They are often surprised when I do not take the bid. I know that many people on the other side of the clear prose divide would not give me the time of day. There is absolutely a lot of elitism in narrow, technical jargon. I am not among the Ivy League set, if you know what I mean. I also know that these people do not have a fraction of the power that those who critique want to convince us that they have. There may be a lot of -ity people in elite institutions, but most people who teach, use, and take up the ideas from critical texts are working-class academic professionals and come from very non-elite groups. Intersectionality and gender performance and even something like “the performative model of subject formation” did not originate from the text where you first discover those words. I promise you that people, regular-degular folks, think about these ideas all the time. Some of them even write about them. They write about them with various degrees of prose styling and sophistication. Some of them write about it for their own edification and others do so for publics. None of them owes anyone a type of prose. It is great if writing is clear. It is fun if writing is clear. It is not a crime if it isn’t. There are value systems other than clarity.
Listen: It isn’t like I am morally superior. I made fun of boys and got angry when other kids slowed down the assignment and I am terrible at group work to this day. My isolation is also just as likely a result of traumas — being left alone to figure out the world and being held responsible for other people’s emotions — as it is any “achievement” metric. But, what I am is crystal clear on is this adage, passed down to me from my mother: In this life, little girl, you better know who has your back in a fight.
When people invite me into the public discourse as an example of excellence to prove a general rule based on unstated assumptions about who has what resources and how that should define who gets what rights — well, I decline. I am not a story of Black excellence for well-meaning white people (or the talented tenth or anyone else) because I know who has my back in a fight and it ain’t anybody who reduces my humanity to a debate point. In the same way, I do not always know what the hell everyone in The Discourse is fighting about, but I do know that the -ity people are more likely to show up on my side of a battle than are the people who think studying minority people is silly.
Invitations issued in The Discourse to make fun of overwrought literature and theory texts are always trying to conscript you into a culture war. The pop-culture stereotype of privileged academics obscures the working class politics and minority identities of the majority of people who actually do that work.
There is always a little truth in a stereotype. That is why it is one of the most violent discursive tools in all of modernity. It does not mean you have to buy it. Don’t be a foot soldier for a war you did not intend to sign up for. Let rich people die for their own ideas.
In conclusion, sometimes clear writing is a sign of clear thinking, and sometimes clear writing is just a sign of brightly drawn battle lines. You gotta know the difference.
What I’m Reading This Week
This week has been tough. A few people got the vaccine and everybody lost their minds. People are partying it up in Miami and New Orleans when we should still be socially distancing. A violent mass murder in Atlanta of mostly Asian-American women brought up fresh waves of collective racist trauma. A mass shooting in Colorado marked the return to “normal” in a society where that means regular mass gun violence.
If you are up for it, please spend some time with the humanity of victims. NPR gave us information about the lives of the victims in Atlanta, with stories from their families here. So often media coverage focuses on the shooter and the singular, tragic event that ended the victim’s lives. But they were whole people, and we should recognize that. You can donate to families and survivors of the Atlanta shooting here and Colorado here.
If you need an escape, I’m reading a few new books out this week. The Whiteness of Wealth by Dorothy Brown explores racism in and through the tax code. Her advice through my home buying process profoundly shaped my perspective on it. And, as I plan my fully vaccinated post COVID white lady camp trip, I’m reading about travel. Mia Bay’s new book Traveling Black gives a great history of racism and resistance through transportation and mobility.