U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Working Through Working Through

One of the great mysteries of academic life concerns the mechanics of writing for a non-specialist audience. The loftier questions of what it means to be a public intellectual have been debated to death. But the more pertinent issue, I think, pertains to how one deploys (or decides not to deploy) the raw materials of historical scholarship when drafting essays for readers who are not working historians or humanities professionals.

I confess that I don’t know how to write about this meta-question, even as I continue to think that it is something we ought to discuss amongst ourselves.

To compensate for this failure of imagination, I offer up an essay that I wrote for the excellent magazine Real Life that was published recently: http://reallifemag.com/the-laugherators/

As I wrote and revised this essay, I learned that I wanted to bring a few theoretical texts into the discussion: Bernard Stiegler’s essay on Facebook (published in translation in the Lacanian journal Umbr(a)), John Protevi’s excellent study Political Affect, Sianne Ngai’s Ugly Feelings, Mark Fisher’s Capitalist Realism, Linda Hutcheon’s Irony’s Edge, and Klaus Theweleit’s Male Fantasies.

From Stiegler, I wanted to extract a non-moralizing and non-Luddite critique of social media qua technological innovation; from Protevi, a materialist theory of affect; from Ngai and Fisher, a theorization of the politics of resentment; from Hutcheon a review of the dangerous mechanics of indirection; and from Theweleit, an indictment of the sexual politics of Western Marxism.

Was any of this successful? Who knows.

Should anyone want to discuss anything related to this, in either process or content terms (or both), and in relation to the formal challenges of writing for the public in a more general sense, we would welcome that kind of dialogue in the comments section.

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Kurt, thanks for this post and thanks for pointing us to your recent essay, a piece of writing that is (characteristically) both sharp and fluid at the same time.

    And I wonder if that combination of sharpness/fluidity doesn’t have something to do with the work that you’ve outlined above, which is (I gather) taking the sharpest theoretical insights and not “dulling” them for the non-theory-grounded reader so much as interpolating (interpellating?!) them within the “natural structure” (no such thing) of the discursive essay.

    In that sense, I think your signposting in the essay is more than simply crediting / explicitly acknowledging the various theorists upon which you draw. I think it functions in a couple of ways. First, it does that meta-work that you have gestured to above; it says, “This is how one uses theory for a non-specialist audience.” More importantly, it’s a kindness to the reader — a kindness in keeping with the thesis of your essay. Maybe not so much cave canem as cave pistrem: “Oh the shark has pretty teeth dear, and he keeps them pearly white…”

    You do not come to the reader empty-handed, but you do come open-handed — or at least it seems so! “I am wielding this blade,” you kindly and honestly say, and while the reader is still thinking over whether it’s a jackknife or a scalpel, you put it to work.

    I say it’s a scalpel, and that through the essay you are performing a surgery, wounding as little as possible to heal as best as possible. But it’s sharp, and it does cut beautifully.

  2. L.D.––thanks so much for this wonderfully generous and detailed feedback. I appreciate it so much.

  3. Hi Kurt, Like L.D., I thought the Real Life piece was really fine for walking (to mangle her really rich metaphor) that tricky knife’s edge between care for complexity and care for a general audience. (I couldn’t help the “fine”/edge pun there.) It can split into condescension on the one side or impenetrability on the other pretty easily.

    I’ve been thinking about your question more generally as it applies to what intellectual historians do. This could be obvious, but it seems to me that intellectual historians are, by their nature, often charged with “translating” the technical language of this or that kind of specialized knowledge into non-technical language for nonspecialists. I think this is so because we often find ourselves navigating lots of different kinds of source material. In my own case, I have to find ways to get literature together with political theory or formal epistemology/ontology in a way that makes sense. We tend to be interdisciplinary in ways like that. A better example might be those intellectual historians who do the philosophy or history of science or deal with economic theory, that kind of thing. We can think of any number of examples. So in a certain way, we sometimes write for a more general audience than our sources ever did or intended to (disregarding for the moment the question of reception and how many people actually read our stuff. I’m talking about imagined audience here.)

    Yet, when I write for intellectual historians or historians more generally, I don’t write the same way that I would for some imagined intelligent reader who may or may not be familiar with our approach or with the sources I’m reading and writing about. I think that’s how I see a “general audience.” I tend to be more allusive or suggestive when writing for intellectual historians/historians of ideas or culture, because there’s a common set of references that I hope they get or enjoy. For good or ill, that’s not all that dissimilar from the “aristocratic” character of certain kinds of ironic humor, which you treat in the Real Life essay.

    I suppose I’m not sure where to draw that line all of the time either. For example, I tend to err on the side of framing or narrating too much rather than getting down to the point, that kind of thing.

    This might be more confusing than helpful, I’m not sure.

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