Obscurity and the Aesthetics of Political Discourse: between George Orwell and Theodor W. Adorno

by Michael Miller

(A Paper delivered at New School Conference, The Politics of Language, April 9, 2003 [All papers published at http://www.newschool.edu/gf/liberal/conference_040903.htm])

Although I haven’t been inclined to attack plain talk since my undergraduate days, I thought it was a good idea to take up the thought experiment James Miller proposed at the very end of “Is Bad Writing Necessary?”. I found it kept coming back each time I read the more dogmatic pronouncements by the principles of this controversy about language and politics, the language of politics, or the politics of language. I’ve jumbled the title not from any lack of seriousness, but because I want to suggest how the debate and its terminology shift about, as the participants engage them in their various ways. All are concerned about what kind of language is suitable as an engine of political expression. On the other hand, by making an issue of language, the protagonists of the current debate--Butler, Spivak, Eagleton, Nussbaum, and the rest--have made language the currency of politics, not world politics or the politics of the third world or even academic politics, but the politics of the small arena of high-profile academics who profess to play an active role in improving society. As I wondered whether this was the extent of the matter, I felt some comfort when Professor Miller’s article reminded me of Orwell’s fourth motive for becoming a writer: “Political purpose -- using the word "political" in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples' idea of the kind of society that they should strive after.” Even though we are compelled to give considerable attention to the former--certainly less attractive--kind of politics, it is at least reassuring to take an initial compass bearing by the larger sort.

Language in the highly developed, even decadent, form in which we use English today, owes much, in fact most, to politics. The vocabulary and syntax we use for even modest purposes above ordering a sandwich or casual talk around the house owe their formation to millennia of political life and, above all, penetrating and eloquent critics of the polis like Plato, Aristotle, Cicero and their intellectual descendants. On the other hand, politics can destroy what it has created, as Orwell understood, when he pointed to “the special connection between politics and the debasement of language.”

However, as I conjure these classical spirits, I am haunted by the images of a cackling Orwell and an Adorno not so much rolling over in his grave, as writhing in agony, modern shadows of Democritus and Heraclitus. After more than fifty years nothing has changed. Cultural values continue to decline, and obfuscation flourishes, above all among the intellectual elite, whom Adorno might have expected to protect the remnants of civilization. It seems our laughing and weeping philosophers have something fundamental in common after all. Both detested vagueness and insincerity in language and the purposes they serve.

For his part, Adorno would have been especially displeased to find his most personal and literary work cited in defense of bad writing, that is, if we take the doublet “difficult and demanding” as an example of the euphemism which Orwell joins with “question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness” as the pillars of political language. For Adorno, precision and concentration on the subject made an author’s work less accessible to the general public, but this inaccessibility has the advantage of protecting his work from misuse like that suffered by Nietzsche’s writings. When, as he explains in the dedication of Minima Moralia, Adorno abandoned Hegelian dialectic for aphoristic moral essays, he made a gesture which both challenged his readers and adapted his expression to the situation at hand. He certainly didn’t intend to write a quotation book or Konversationslexicon about his own thought. Judith Butler, one of the acadmics at the center of the present controversy, seems particularly given to quoting Adorno. In fact she cited him in both of her public letters to the New York Times and the London Review of Books. In spite of whatever its aphoristic style and the brevity of its chapters might superficially indicate, Minima Moralia demands to be read continuously, with close attention to the themes which develop out of each other and interweave throughout the text. If this almost untranslatable work is challenging, it is not because of the defects of its language, rather its author has shown himself to be a master of German through his concision, precise choice of words, biting irony and shocking paradoxes. Nothing could be farther from the leaden academic verbiage Adorno’s example is intended to defend.

The present controversy about obscure language, however, concerns for the most part professors who claim to speak to a larger audience and declare a goal that is not only philosophical inquiry but social change. In that case, we can’t avoid the contradiction between mass communication and obscure language. While poetry and philosophy may both lead us so far away from our mundane consciousness that we can accept obscurity as a vehicle towards enlightenment, prose that addresses worldly issues of society and politics has an obligation to communicate more directly, so that laymen can act on what they have learned.

In the ancient world, this public voice would have fallen into the category of oratory. Cicero, who practised philosophy, poetry, as well as oratory, considered the distinction between the stylistic requirements of the different genres to be crucial. As he stated in his De Oratore.

...But far fewer good orators than poets will be found. [12] This should seem even stranger, since the study of the other arts is drawn from remote and hidden sources. In speaking, by contrast, the whole discipline is placed out in the open entirely for public use and concerns people’s ordinary conversation. Consequently what is most excellent in the other arts, that which is farthest separated from the reasoning and understanding of laymen, in speaking that is the worst fault, to eschew everyday speech and the custom approved by common sense.


...multo tamen pauciores oratores quam poetae boni reperientur. [12] Quod hoc etiam mirabilius debet videri, quia ceterarum artium studia fere reconditis atque abditis e fontibus hauriuntur, dicendi autem omnis ratio in medio posita communi quodam in usu atque in hominum ore et sermone versatur, ut in ceteris id maxime excellat, quod longissime sit ab imperitorum intellegentia sensuque disiunctum, in dicendo autem vitium vel maximum sit a vulgari genere orationis atque a consuetudine communis sensus abhorrere.

Cic. De Orat. I.iii.11-12

In stark contrast to this stands his view, already familiar in Plato (Phaedo 64b, Republic 520b,2f., 494a4f.), that philosophy, which is unpopular not only because of its difficulty, but because of the hostility it arouses in society at large through its problematic content:

Philosophy in fact is happy with few judges, for her own part deliberately fleeing the crowd, since she is suspected and hated by it...Even in Greece itself philosophy would never have been so highly respected, if it hadn’t flourished in the controversies and debates of the most learned.


Est enim philosophia paucis contenta iudicibus, multitudinem consulto ipsa fugiens eique ipsi et suspecta et invisa....In ipsa enim Graecia philosophia tanto in honore numquam fuisset, nisi doctissimorum contentionibus dissensionibusque viguisset.

Cic. Tusc. Disp. II.1.4

Clearly one has to make a choice. If a philosopher decides to address the public, he will have to compromise his thinking by casting it in language which can be understood by many. Also, this appears to be the least of his worries, since he is likely to incur a backlash of public resentment, simply because of the nature of what he has to say. As Leo Strauss said in his famous essay, “Persecution and the Art of Writing”:

Exoteric literature presupposes that there are basic truths which would not be pronounced in public by any decent man, because they would do harm to many people who, having been hurt, would naturally be inclined to hurt in turn him who pronounces the unpleasant truths. (p. 26)

It appears, then that these revolutionary academics are attacking this ancient crux head on. They are putting their challenging thought and language before the public, assuming that it will be read by enough people to produce a practical result, and assuming that they themselves will be safe from the kind of harm suffered by Socrates in Aristophanes’ Clouds, much less what he suffered in reality. As Strauss observed, persecution has existed in many different forms and degrees of severity. In the contemporary United States, one is much more likely to suffer persecution for breaking social norms in practice, than by preaching it from a well-paid university chair. This hypothetical risk can create a sense of community, if not of discipleship, as well as a reputation for courage with little or no real danger.

Besides this historical posture, there must be an quality in the language itself, which provides some advantage for its practitioners. It is clearly as much a part of their personae as their clothing or hairstyle. If there are historical echoes in their self-presentation, these must exist also in their language, and their chosen language, English, shows its history more vividly than any other in the striking vestiges of its diverse parent tongues. A look at this historical dimension will help us to understand the phenomenon, help us to temper our reaction to it, and perhaps give us a hint of how it may appear to future generations, if they show much interest in it at all.

After this background, I think it would be helpful to turn to the basic issues of the controversy and to examine just how they have been defined. I will start with Butler’s letter published in the New York Times on March 20, 1999, because here she addresses the inhabitants of the world at large. After setting the stage by characterizing Philosophy and Literature as a “small, culturally conservative academic journal [which] has gained public attention by showcasing difficult sentences written by...scholars of the left”, she makes her fundamental point that these scholars resort to difficult and demanding language because they “are obliged to question common sense, interrogate its tacit presumptions and provoke new ways of looking at a familiar world.” From here she pursues common sense for three paragraphs, the body of her argument, culminating in a quotation from Adorno that “nothing radical could come from common sense” and a second quotation which she holds up as an example of the kind of language, “hardly transparent in its meaning,” necessary for effective social criticism. In fact whatever opacity lies in Adorno’s sentence -- “Man is the ideology of dehumanization.”--stems from its lack of a context as it is cited. However, Butler helpfully provides her own version of the context in the next sentence. Again, the radical social critic has not only reverted to the medieval schoolman’s reliance on textual authority, she has obscured her authority by quoting him out of context.

Another, more important difficulty lies in her critique of “common sense”, which she equates with “social norm,” a concept that has nothing to do with the koinos nous or communis sensus on which ancient and modern philosophers relied to describe the basic understanding shared by all humans, educated and uneducated alike. Is this what C. S. Lewis would have called a “tactical definition”? Since it is unexplained, are we to take it as carelessness or deception? Adorno would surely have castigated this as the laxness of popular communication. At the end of her letter it becomes apparent that this use of language is not confined to her public utterances, when she defines “hegemony,” a key word in her work, with an emotionally charged definition. She says that it denotes (not connotes, even!) “a dominance so entrenched that we take it for granted, and even appear to consent to it -- a power that’s strengthened by its invisibility.” The word hegemony first came into general use in English in the nineteenth century in the pages of historians who were writing about ancient Greek military alliances. Students of the Athenian Empire know it as the term for the earlier, happier period when Athens led the Greek military alliance by common consent, before any Imperial ambitions or imperialistic political expedients appeared. Butler should surely have let the New York Times readers in on the news that hers was yet another “tactical definition” with a tendentious force added to its familiar neutral or favorable meaning. she can’t expect the readers of a daily newspaper to have read the books in which she and others have explained this specialized definition.

However, my purpose is not to attack a scholar in a field in which I have no expertise, but to bring into relief the presumptions (to borrow her word) which underlie her use of language. Even if I wished to, I could not conceal my sympathies. As Orwell said, “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.” “Hegemony”, once an Anglicized Greek word used in a specialized Greek historical context, has become in Butler’s usage pseudo-scientific jargon. All readers of contemporary theory know how Grecisms proliferate like poppies in this field. Greek vocabulary was rare in English before Renaissance humanism brought Greek studies to the Universities and St. Paul’s, and then it was still quite limited. Greek philosophical vocabulary, as Owen Barfield has gracefully shown in his article “Greek Thought in English Words”, entered English in Latin clothing, thanks to Cicero and Boethius. Only when modern science began its rapid growth and ravenously devoured new technical terms, did Greek words make a widespread appearance in English, and then in technical terminology. If we observe the appetite of the postwar theoreticians for works like “hegemony” and “cathect” (a “Grenglish” translation of Freud’s besetzen) from a more distant linguistic perspective, it is clear that these disciplines, allied with traditional humanistic disciplines which had by nature favored a belletristic style, have abandoned these ties. It is apparently considered more radical to borrow authority from science rather than the humanities, which are assumed to be compromised by their supposedly inherent elitism.

When we look into these Greek words we will find that they carry notable French associations. Enough of them have been borrowed from French authorities like Derrida, Foucault, and Lacan that they have enhanced the aura of traditional scientific coinages and translations from German (cf. Freud).

However, lest any of us begin to feel comfortable in Orwell’s camp, I should point out that the plain language he espoused has been appropriated in our day by a cultural establishment which controls the way in which we relate to the arts: the primary expressive activities through which the educated and the half-educated form their ideas of “the kind of society that they should strive after”. As deeply as he had immersed himself in the debasement of culture in his time, Adorno would be shocked and horrified by the increasingly rapid “progress” it has made, even since the phrase “dumbing down” became popular. Just how often do we close a concert program, turn off the radio, or emerge from an art exhibition with Adorno’s gnawing post-cinematic feeling of having become “stupider and worse”? Supported, if not directed by public and private funding institutions, the organizations entrusted with the nurturing of the arts which were created with much effort, sometimes with pain, to delight and stimulate us adhere to policies of presenting and interpreting their offerings in the most banal possible way, so that no one will be forced to learn anything he didn’t already know. In this context I can now quote with some feeling a passage from Minima Moralia, cited at one point by Butler (LRB 1/7/99: “Nur was sie nicht erst zu verstehen brauchen, gilt ihnen für verständlich; nur das in Wahrheit Entfremdete, das vom Kommerz geprägte Wort berührt sie als vertraut.” (They accept as understandable only that which they do not need to understand; only that which is in truth alienated, the word minted by commerce, touches them as familiar.) In a time when even ambitious exhibitions devoted to culturally deified figures like Leonardo da Vinci are mediated by displays of tchotchkes and piles of commercial magazines, Orwell’s faith in the simple language may seem naive. I will quote one admittedly extreme example of the way in which institutions invite us to relate to art -- a label written as part of a project funded by the Getty Trust for the reinstallation of the Renaissance and Baroque galleries in a major museum:

“ In both of these paintings, the composition (that is, the arrangement of the people and things on the canvas) is dominated by a woman wearing blue, who sits in the brightest area of the scene. Both women hold one hand to their breasts and extend the other. Also both paintings have men who stare with wide open eyes and mouths. These are important parts of what the two artists mean with their pictures. What do you think their meaning is? Do you think the artists are alike or different?”

It should come as no surprise that former Disney employees are highly valued in the museum world. (Perhaps some intellectual journal should offer an annual prize for perniciously condescending English prose.) Desperate for head-counts and funds, the higher sector of the culture industry has eagerly opened itself to assimilation by the bottom end. In fact, it is not clear which end has swallowed the other. The fact that our discussion is based on texts over fifty years old should be a sobering reminder of the maturity of the debate and the extent of our decline. Museums send the public a message that art is stupid and that the first response a visitor emerging from their galleries should make is to shop.

The “presumption” of this museological condescension is that the public are virgins to aesthetic experience and relate to works of art through information, above all information of a bland, tautological sort. The visual arts offer a telling example of our problem, considering how our culture favors the image over the word to the point of fetishism, since public functionaries of art take great pains to ensure an intellectually neutralized environment for its enjoyment, and the academic art historians and critics, who are capable of the most extravagant obscurity. As the middle ground between these two vacuous realms vanishes, it appears that one extreme reaffirms the other. If we admit that the great truths of aesthetics can be expressed in plain language, there is no longer any pretext for official condescension. The sesquepedalities of the experts, if it is accepted that they are unnecessary, must be recognized as effectively meaningless.

What should the linguist or cultural historian make of all this? Is there a historical context or parallel that might help us to understand what is going on? The scholastic appeal to authority and the self-importance of the professors recalls the waning generations of the middle ages. The clumsily Englished German phrases and clattering Greek cant-words transport us to a time in England when the court spoke French, the clergy Latin, and the common man a variety of German...a time when academics faced stiff fines for speaking the vernacular in college. The shadow persisted long after French was expelled from government offices and Latin became almost a dead language. At one time it was the prerogative of the king to borrow the prestige of the clerical estate, whether he knew more than six words of Latin or not, and an alert commoner could, by listening in church, extend his knowledge of Latin beyond the Paternoster and the Catechism, or purloin a few scraps of French from gentry he overheard in the street. Some time later, on a higher level, a learned visitor like Erasmus could promote and influence the use of Latin, and, beyond that, leave a mark on literate spoken English through translation and linguistic interaction at a time when England was still by no means monolingual. Then and for some time to come, most printed books in England were translations from Latin, French, or Italian. The selection of books, their style, and the process of translation exercised a major formative influence on English. When the Bishop of London entrusted Thomas More with the task of writing rebuttals of Lutheran doctrine in the vernacular, the reason was More’s skill at controversy in English, at a time when most were hemmed in by their Latin training in the art. His opponent, William Tyndale, recalls our present dilemma in his attack on scholasticism, which to him as he wrote in the latter 1520’s, was hardly a thing of the past:

First they nosel them in sophistry and in benefundatum. And there corrupt they their judgments with apparent arguments and with alleging unto them tests of logic, of natural philautia, of metaphysic and moral philosophy and of all manner books of Aristotle and of all manner doctors which they yet never saw. Moreover one holdeth this and another that. One is a Real, another a Nominal. What wonderful dreams have they of their predicaments, universals, second intentions, quiddities, haecceities and relatives.

Tyndale, The Obedience of a Christian Man, ed. Daniell, pp.22f.

By the later sixteenth century, with the Queen herself setting the example, French and Italian were ensconced as the correct prestige languages of cultivated young men and women, and we can see the reflection of this in Shakespeare’s plays. French had its day in the eighteenth century, as Samuel Johnson resentfully observed on several occasions. German, however intensely influential figures like Coleridge and Carlyle might study German thought and poetry, never left much of a mark on English until the twentieth century, and then more in the United States than in Britain. I don’t need to remind anybody of the influence of the German-speaking intellectual immigrants of the thirties and forties, not only on the way people studied certain disciplines, but on the prestige of disciplines like art history, which never would have acquired the cachet it now has without Panofsky, Wittkower, and Krautheimer. Some émigrés, particularly in Britain, learned to communicate in an English hardly distinguishable from that of native speakers, others acquired little more than an English vocabulary that could be twisted into German syntax, and still serve. Their familiarity with masters of German periodic style like Hegel reinforced their influence on the comparatively malleable language of American academic discourse. It was of course a fine vehicle for Hegel’s dialectics, but an exotic import into mid-twentieth century American campuses. Even first-rate minds learn by imitation and later may find it hard to shed their teachers’ most beloved mannerisms, especially if they suit the methods of research and argument they have learned along with them.

Their writing of course is difficult to read for people who haven’t studied with the same German masters, and this creates a barrier which clearly has advantages and disadvantages. It can in fact seem more of a pedestal than a barrier and set the user apart from his more ordinary colleagues who use standard English. Admirers are inspired to become students in order to gain access to the hidden meaning and the inner circle, success in which is easily apparent to all through their mastery of the imported idiom. This is how academic jargon is born. It creates the appearance of separateness and superiority, if the jargon is hard enough to understand.

As mentioned above, Leo Strauss explained how official or popular hostility could force the greatest thinkers to bury their true thought under convoluted prose. Only the dedicated initiate, who could free himself from the received ideas of his society (not common sense, one would hope), and was willing to take the trouble to penetrate the author’s linguistic maze, could strike through to the truth. I do not doubt that this defensive tactic accounts for many of the difficulties and riches of Plato and the others enumerated by Strauss. However, obscurity isn’t hard to imitate, and what is tactics for one writer can become style for another. The writer can create a sense of virtue and a feeling of being under siege, which transports them and their followers imaginatively to Socrates’ Athens, or St. Petersburg on the eve of the Revolution. This explains why their turgid pronouncements have proven so annoying for everybody, except their circle of students of admirers. A false whiff of martyrdom or revolutionary spirit is deeply offensive, apart from the base dishonesty of the posture. Counterfeiting, after all, is a crime, and counterfeiting meaning has the same enfeebling effect on language as killing words. Oliver Wendell Holmes, in giving birth to a famous neologism, was not the first to criminalize the abuse of language: “Homicide and verbicide that is, violent treatment of a word with fatal results to its legitimate meaning.. are alike forbidden.”

In a short essay on style published in 1933, Owen Barfield, after comparing the kind of work a writer must do to perfect personal style to polishing the finish of wood “to bring out the full beauty of the grain”, moves on to the moral dimension of his inquiry.

“A man may say and write things which he does not mean for two reasons. He may do so because he, personally, is a poseur and a hypocrite. But on the other hand he may do it because he either will not or cannot express himself; because he has no style. Thus there is an artistic or literary insincerity as well as a personal one. In the purely artistic insincerity the ego takes no part and so no obvious moral blame attaches. But it is nevertheless actual insincerity, for things have been uttered which purport to be uttered by the ego, but which have in fact been uttered by something or somebody else. And to the extent that the ego allows this--though it might have prevented it--the ego is to blame...’Look in they heart and write!’ said Sir Philip Sidney, and that is necessary in order to achieve even personal sincerity. But to achieve literary sincerity something else is necessary also. There are positive, objective hindrances to be overcome. Thus the price of literary sincerity, like that of liberty, is eternal vigilance, and the writer is a man waging perpetual war against an enemy perpetually on the watch to cozen him of his own thoughts.”

This gentle foreshadowing of Adorno’s harsh page on morality and style (written, by the way, by an Englishman who was steeped in German language and culture) sets our problem further into relief. Since this group of academics have declared themselves intellectual activists and public figures, they must account for their actions as well as their words, and if there is a disjuncture between their claims and their actual service to society, it is not free from moral blame. They have weakened the credibility of their social program and activism in general, along with the language they use.

In another context, Barfield reflected on a group of words which first appeared in English in the late seventeenth and eighteenth century, the period from Milton to Sterne, which, as already noted by Logan Pearsall Smith (The English Language, 1912), formed “a curious class of verbs and adjectives which describe not so much the objective qualities and activities of things, as the effects they produce on us, on our own feelings and sensations”. Among them are entertaining, exhilarating, perplexing, refreshing, charming, interesting, and at least the verb to bore. Smith urged his reader “to try to imagine a time when people thought more of objects than of their own emotions, and when, if they were bored or interested, they would not name their feeling, but mention the quality or object that produced it.” Barfield carries this thought further: words that originally betokened “influence originating from without” turned into adjectives “signifying only a state of mind resulting within”. These words have become such a common part of our daily conversation that they are little more than fillers, more victims of slow suffocation than of violent verbicide. Just so, it won’t be long before we overhear quarreling couples shouting words like hegemonic, interiority, and ontic, just as we do deconstruct, repressed, and anal in our own post-Freudian age.

If I have taken a moralistic and occasionally acerbic tone in my remarks, it is because pretension and self-promotion exercise a deleterious effect on academia and corrupt well-intentioned movements in the world at large; and the problem has reached a point where it arouses a sense of urgency. Unlike C. S. Lewis, I have not tried to avoid “the moral, but I should de glad,” he continues,

if I sent any reader away with a new sense of responsibility to the language. It is unnecessary defeatism to believe that we can do nothing about it. Our conversation will have little effect; but if we get into print--perhaps especially if we are leader-writers, reviewers, or reporters--we can help to strengthen or weaken some disastrous vogue word; can encourage a good, and resist a bad, gallicism or Americanism. For many things the press prints today will be taken up by the great mass of speakers in a few years.

C. S. Lewis, Studies in Words, pp.6 ff.

In this call for a moral engagement of our higher ego in respect to language, Lewis, the Anglican, his friend Barfield, the student of Rudolf Steiner, and Orwell, the socialist, are of one voice. Didn’t Orwell begin his famous essay by stating that his purpose was to tell people that everyone, not just professional writers (pace Lewis), should accept the responsibility to eliminate

“bad habits which spread by imitation and which can be avoided if one takes the necessary trouble. If one gets rid of these habits one can think more clearly, and to think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration.“