Monday, February 14, 2011


The repressed cultural critic in me loves Aaron Bady's essay on "The Twitter Can't Topple Dictators article" as a genre. One of many money quotes:
the Western generalist (Gladwell) gets to retain Serious Authority. The man who knows nothing about Egypt still gets to Seriously Know, precisely because it‘s only a dialogue between two Western speakers. And this, I think, is the real key. It isn’t just that really “hard” questions get skirted; it’s the fact that Egyptians are driving this narrative — and that if we want to understand it, we have to know something about Egypt in its particularity – that makes these people nervous.


Anonymous said...

Anyone who describes Malcolm Gladwell as:

a generalist intellectual about everything (and nothing in particular) like Malcolm Gladwell

gets my vote. I remember when The Tipping Point was released to great fanfare, I got a copy, and read it, and found nothing at all within its pages... just a bunch of things where Gladwell says, "everything reaches a tipping point, and that tipping point is crucial." Yeah, thanks Malcolm. Brilliant stuff.

Jack Crow said...

Ethan, thanks for the link. Great essay. I'm wary of the claims to "twitter revolution" but Bady plugged a hole in my knowledge.

bonobo said...

Once again, the jargonny Bady fails to impress.

Coming down against the Twitter revolution is not inherently more question-skirting than coming down in favor of it, since neither claim requires you to get even toe-deep in all the specialist knowledge the credential-seeking Bady thinks we need to understand the Egyptian revolution.

In other words, you can write a smart article that takes account of the particularities of the Egyptian situation, that minimizes the impact of social media or you can write a smart article that takes account of the particularities of the Egyptian situation that emphasizes the impact of social media. It seems to me, actually, that placing an emphasis on social media has more inherent risks of trivializing the particulars, while adding a dollop of tech corp fetishing on top.

The idea that people like Gladwell, are 'made nervous' by their ignorance about Egypt and therefore stake out positions where they can retain this ignorance and their authority is beyond naively ignorant of how American journalists, particularly a pop widget like Gladwell operate. It's stupid.

And the problem isn't that Gladwell's a generalist. It's that he's a banal dipshit.

Jack Crow said...


Bady is jargony. No doubt, but what was wrong with the central idea: that new media did in fact connect people who otherwise would not have cooperated?

bonobo said...

but what was wrong with the central idea: that new media did in fact connect people who otherwise would not have cooperated

I didn't see that as his central idea, with which I have no argument at all. To me the potentially revolutionary character of social media is rather obvious and I have been waiting for it to finally demonstrate itself.

I took issue with Bady's little identikit cultural studies take on the two Twitter 'genres.'

Richard said...

Actually, he's not terribly jargony at all.

You're looking for something to bitch about, bonobo.

As for Gladwell, my rule of thumb is if it's in the New Yorker, don't read it.

Jack Crow said...

Ahah. No argument from me on that. I'm a fanatic for ordinary language, so...

Jack Crow said...

Well, I didn't read bonobo as "bitchy." Seems an unfair and off-point criticism.

bonobo said...

Richard, in my world, which no doubt is very different from Bady's, this, is jargonny:

'a topography of knowledge defined by a meridian set in Cairo'

But then in my world, Western movies don't talk to Noirs.

You could be right though about me looking to bitch. Bady does represent a social type I've never cared much for.

Richard said...

So then it's natural for you to be pointlessly condescending in response.

bonobo said...

Richard, I wasn't being condescending. You said the dude wasn't being jargonny. I gave an example where I thought he was. There are others, but I thought one would suffice.

I also said you were correct that there may be more to my objections to Bady than simply that he's jargonny and unenlightening.

Now, do please continue to improve my manners by example!

Richard said...

These were what I saw as condescending:

"Bady's little identikit cultural studies take"

"Bady does represent a social type I've never cared much for."

as well as the opening "once again ... Bady fails to impress", with or without the jargonny.

Also, ordinary language, such as it is, is not always adequate to our needs.

Anonymous said...

I have absolutely no problem with bonobo saying Bady is of a social type bonobo doesn't like.

Of course this is Ethan's place and not mine, so I'm not wishing to control content here -- just observing a counterpoint to Richard's nefarious take on bonobo's comment.

Bonobo's impression of Bady's writing is as interesting to me as my own impression of it.

Jack Crow said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ethan said...

I promised myself an internet sabbatical until later this evening at least, so I'm not going to respond substantially until then, but Jack, your last comment is so absurdly over the line that you should be ashamed of yourself.

Ethan said...

Honestly, I love conversation and debate, but comment threads like this make me want to just delete this blog entirely and never communicate with another human being ever again.

Jack Crow said...

I don't see how so Ethan, since it's what I have already been repeatedly saying specifically and generally, for the better part of a year; I don't belong to the "our" Richard spells out, and won't be included in it, especially if that "our" requires him to look down his nose at other correspondents as "bitching" and "pointless" - but it's your house and I'll respect that as fact.

Ethan said...

OK, you know what? Thinking about this is making me completely unable to read at the moment, and since that's the only thing I really want to do right now I'm just going to break my fucking promise and respond.

bonobo, by all means disagree with me. That is just fine. You obviously have a very different perspective on Bady's essay than I do, and I could have been interested in talking about that. But when I link to an article and say that I love it, I'm not sure what purpose you think is served by disagreeing in such a condescending, nasty way as you did. Certainly the purpose could not be to have a conversation. That is my purpose in writing here; I don't know what yours is, but today, it was definitively not that.

And if you're going to claim that you weren't being condescending, you need to work on either your honesty or your writing skills. I'm not going to be as generous as Richard and list examples of your pointless superiority games. Find them yourself.

And Jack, if you're going to claim that you don't see the condescension either, I'm going to suggest you work on your own honesty or on your reading comprehension.

As far as the "jargon" issue goes, I didn't find Bady's essay jargony. Others differ. What a world! I'm not sure I understand, though, why anyone would want to limit the number of ways that humans can express themselves to one another, nor why Jack apparently thinks that the working classes are too monstrously ignorant to understand the word "topography." Nor do I understand why, if Jack does in fact think this, and thinks also that disagreeing apparently makes you--what, a capitalist? a boss?--why he thinks it's a good idea to write the way he does in general (which I, as a matter of fact, tend to like).

And Jack--one nice thing about the English language is that when someone says "we" you can decide for yourself, without imperiously lording it over anyone, whether that "we" includes you. Richard's "we" doesn't include you. We got it. Move the fuck on.

There. Now we've all taken turns being condescending at one another. Are we happy? Can we now talk to one another?

I'm no longer sure if I want to.

Jack Crow said...

Wow. I didn't intend any sort of condescension. It's the same critique I would offer myself. If you need jargon, what's your interest? I treat my own words by exactly that standard, daily. It's neither imperious nor lordly to challenge a thought, especially one expressed in disdain. Contempt merits itself, and that applies as equally to me as to anyone else. I don't have particularly thin skin, so that is also my blind spot.

But, if you've taken offense to that, of all things, it's just best to remove it.

Your house.

Moving on.

bonobo said...

Can we now talk to one another?

Obviously not.

Ethan, I am going to resist the temptation to respond to you in kind as I did with Richard when he first started insulting me and simply say, see ya.

JRB said...

It's good to have a little passion on Valentine's Day!

I only want to say that a lot of times we don't really get what another person is trying to communicate on these here nets.

I've misunderstood Mr. Crow a whole bunch of times, but it was only by extending a minimum courtesy toward him as a comrade that, in the long run, I came to understand and really benefit from his perspective.

So the important thing for me, whatever we may say to each other in anger or disagreement, is that we assume, overall, that people basically mean well. And if it seems like they don't, give them the benefit of the doubt and see what happens.

JM said...

Speaking of supposed western influence:

JM said...


bonobo said...

only want to say that a lot of times we don't really get what another person is trying to communicate on these here nets.

Actually, I think everyone was fairly clear. I noted, with just a little snark, that the sun doesn't shine from Aaron Bady's behind. This and the related offense of guardedly agreeing with me, are punishable by spew, first from Richard then from Ethan, who, no doubt remains convinced - with a gob-smacking shortage of self-awareness - that he and Richard are the civil ones here.

On a re-read, Bady's article hit me better than the first time through, though it still seems to me that his beef is as much with Gladwell's generalism as the form it takes, particularly when he makes a pitch for Charles Hirschkind, who's been 'studying the formations of publics in Egypt for decades now.' This, along with a largely irrelevant foray into film criticism, a pitch for Berkeley's Center for Middle Eastern Studies and the use of phrases calculated to signify Bady's membership in a certain academic club, give the impression that while he thinks we should certainly let the Egyptians narrate, it's university specialists who have the skills and cultural sensitivity and the big swinging intellectual dicks required for the mediating and interpreting. I find this counterrevolutionary as well as elitist and tedious.

I truly hate phrases like 'formation of publics' without apology and Ethan, I would respond to your by-the-numbers defense of jargon replete with the predictable 'elitist' smear, but I'm tired and it's as boring as Nader in 2000. Put simply, jargon is variously the lingua franca of the exclusionary circle jerk, a way to confer prestige upon oneself and a method for making fairly mundane observations sound smarter.

Richard is correct that sometimes specialist language is needed. There is no place in Bady's essay, however, where that is true. It is not simply that this language isn't clear to the working class. It's that it's not clear to anyone outside the club. That's because it's not intended to be, any more than calling someone dishonest, or a poor writer, or condescending has anything to do with a genuine interest in debate.

Now good night and fuck you.


Jack Crow said...

"...nor why Jack apparently thinks that the working classes are too monstrously ignorant to understand the word 'topography.' "

I don't.

Topography wouldn't be a word I choose, especially in the fuller context of the sentence and paragraph in which it's found, but it also wasn't my example to point out as jargony.

My contribution to this discussion, on Bady's jargon, was to agree that he was jargony. That's it. That's all.

Ordinary language doesn't require a rejection of terms, or words. It doesn't require a simplification of vocabulary.

It's about usage.

And bonobo is fairly on the money, to that account, here:

"Put simply, jargon is variously the lingua franca of the exclusionary circle jerk, a way to confer prestige upon oneself and a method for making fairly mundane observations sound smarter."

If I write, "The cat walked past the door," this is perfectly appreciable by almost anyone with a grasp of English and a knowledge of doors and cats.

If I write, instead, "The feline, composed of constituent organ machines and hunger machines and motion machines, perambulates according to a path dependent linearity, passing the constructed opening through which pass the many modes of blah blah blah," this is language intended to exclude. Intended.


I can understand Bady's essay because I don't do anything with my day but read and study and take care of my kids. I have had time to learn the cultural criticism mode in which Bady writes it. Hell, I can read Zizek - and he's not only useless, he's a real internal enemy of revolution.

If I were to bring Bady's essay into my wife's office - which is full of ordinary but very smart people, not a few of whom are nurses and doctors with plenty of learning - I'm willing to wager that no one would finish it, because it was not written for them. It's written to exclude them. It's certainly not written for the secretaries and couriers and maintenance men and cafeteria workers who populate the hospital in which my wife's office is located.

Not because they are stupid or ignorant. Because they haven't spent their time and lives learning the cultural studies and cultural criticism way of re-interpreting and re-using language.

That's an exclusive club.


bonobo, point taken on specialist language. I'm not suggesting that two engineers must express everything in common idiom in order to get a bridge built.

I'm thinking only that if it can be done without, it didn't need to be used in the first place. It excludes, which is as you say, counterrevolutionary.

Anonymous said...

Put simply, jargon is variously the lingua franca of the exclusionary circle jerk, a way to confer prestige upon oneself and a method for making fairly mundane observations sound smarter.

Nicely said, bonobo.

adi said...

wonder how many 'people on the street'(or in this case, the office of MRs. Jack Crow) understand what lingua franca actually means...

why are we talking about the style instead of, i dont know, the content??

almostinfamous said...

adi = google Id of the blogger aka almostinfamous.

word verification - eurgspit

Anonymous said...

Don't hurt yourself now, adi. Notice bonobo said "variously," which assumes a like thread of sentiment demonstrated in assorted ways, which suggests there's different ways of saying the same thing, with different people in mind.

That's a pretty obvious point to miss. Unless you're just aiming at snarky sniping, that is.

Anonymous said...

seriously??? charles fucking OXTROT says someone else is missing the point and aiming at snarky sniping? fuck. obviously almostinfamous was just pointing out that if topology and meridian are jargony so is lingua franca.

davidly said...

Ethan: you're a Mensch. Obviously the German variety, but also the Yiddish one.

Jack: you are capable of distilling the essence of an issue with eloquence and simplicity of meaning. Your steadfastness is likewise admirable. You can also be a purveyor of jargon; but my perception is likely hindered by my ignorance of respective subject matter.

Private letters between historical contemporaries can be fascinating to read. Open letters between the same, interspersed and interjected, well, can make one want to say, "Just hold on a minute." Tone is both lost and exaggerated on the Interweb.

This is the reason I don't have comments activated: I don't want to risk coming off the wrong way; the way I probably often do as a guest.

I can imagine having written the topography and meridian bit. I can also imagine having subsequently deleted it.

Anonymous said...

And you, Anonymous, missed my point completely, though not for its clarity which was obvious, but for your intentional misread, while hiding behind... well, you know what you're hiding behind. Don't you?