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January 28, 2009


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Hi Jodi

I really appreciate this post - it is very insightful. But I would take your premise and go in a different direction - why can't the same academic discourse be both elitist and useless. It is elitist in the sense that it is self perpetuating - once one "gains membership" they can keep generating papers, attend conferences, etc... in order to live a "protected existence." I remember years ago when I was in graduate school and involved in a labor dispute, it was the benefits and protections of tenure that clearly demarcated adjuncts and grad students from the "real professors."

And this leads to the second point - ultimately this elitism only serves to buy off folks who otherwise might cause trouble. In the process, the "leftist academics" then spend their time writing for each other, with no discernable impact on the larger community. I do not think this critism implies that their audience should be the "common folk" but that their theorizing should have an eye toward praxis.

Please do not take this as a personal criticism - I actually don't think this is always a fair description of academia - and certainly not a fair description of your work. But having spent a fair amount of time myself inside the special lingusitic maze of "continental philosophy," I think it is a legitimate line of inquiry.

And thank you again for bringing this up. I think it particularly timely as we now have a new, supposedly "progressive" President.


Hi Alain, thanks for your comments. Maybe I should have made the point in terms of what the uses (of specialized languages are):
--gate-keeping (protecting privilege)
--deradicalization (another way of protecting privilege by harnessing/capturing so-called radical energies.

I think we agree on both of those uses. And then the tricky part comes in: are there other uses? So, we might recognize that chemists and physicists have terms that are useful for their work but difficult for laypeople to understand and follow. We don't tend to complain about that. And we tend to recognize that there are social benefits (and dangers) associated with scientific research. This seems to fit with 'eye toward praxis.'

But what about those that write for each other (say, 6 political theorists?)? Is this useful? Or is it possible that the criterion of use has become coopted into a general way of thinking that is ultimately economic?

I'm not sure about these things, which is why I wrote the post and appreciate your remarks. My own view tends to think in terms of large scale practices and discourses and individual contributions as small elements of these; socio-political effects may be present even if they are difficult to see up close; the problem is that the effects may actually be quite bad.

Gray Cox

Some Thoughts by Gray Cox (gray@coa.edu)
about “Who You Talking To” by Jodi Dean at http://jdeanicite.typepad.com/i_cite/2009/01/who-you-talking-to.html

Academics are obviously not the only folks with jargon. As a high school graduate who became a master electrician, my dad acquired a very large technical vocabulary comparable to the sort that carpenters, chefs, nurses and other folks learn in their trades. He took pleasure in the skills it helped him master and tried, when I was young, to teach me some of them. He was also a member of the International Order of the Odd Fellows, which was a kind of secret society with various rituals and activities which he refused to ever explain to me. For academics in general and, for social theorists in particular, the assessment of their use of jargon should be based, I think, on the kinds of functions it serves and on the ways in which they conceive and practice their core enterprise.

In developing theories of social reality we have to start with descriptions that use the language of the people we are studying , whether they are community organizers, cocktail waitresses or hedge fund managers – their social reality is constituted with their words and related actions and if we do not first learn that language and use it to describe them then we have not actually taken the first, fundamental step that is required of any good theory, namely, to come up with descriptive language that allows you to point to the actual things in the actual world about which it will speak. So good social theory must at least begin with descriptions that are entirely accessible to the ordinary members of the community involved in the practices and institutions about which it will form theories.

People’s own descriptions of their actions and their world (what ethnographers like James Spradley in THE ENTHOGRAPHIC INTERVIEW would call “native language” descriptions) are normally flawed in ways that the people themselves are at least partially aware of and which they would normally like to remedy – flawed by being tacit and/or unclear, inconsistent, inaccurate, incomplete or lacking in follow through (they do not actually do what they plan or intend). One goal of good social theory should be to help people remedy their own understandings of their actions and world by remedying those flaws. Social theorists who do this will be able to write in language that is accessible to -- and (if they are successful in their theoretical work) persuasive for -- the folks they are studying, precisely because the theoretical activity carries out and completes the efforts at self-understanding the community already had undertaken in their own efforts at describing their actions and world in the first place. It will help them talk and act more meaningfully and effectively as community organizers, cocktail waitresses, hedge fund managers or whatever it is that they are.

Besides practicing this kind of critical, participatory social research that begins with the self-understanding of a community and seeks to improve on it, it is perfectly appropriate for social theorists to set out to invent new social practices and institutions and invite people to try them out. In doing so, they may create language and ways of acting that are not easy to access, precisely to the extent that the creation is systematic and novel. So, for example, the methods of community organizing that Gandhi developed involved a relatively new language and set of practices that were difficult for many people to understand, just as the people who invented Dungeons and Dragons created a game that was not easily understood at first by folks not initiated into it.

One central question academics and others should ask themselves when they invent a new set of terms and practices that are difficult for others to enter into is whether, like Gandhi, they are attempting to create a practice that can, once learned, empower and liberate individuals and communities or whether they are trying to create a practice serves to create cliques who play with fantasies to merely entertain themselves at the exclusion of others. Whether any particular body of theorizing or new language serves the first purpose or the second is a question of intent which can be demonstrated in any number of ways – e. g. by how hard the theorists try to listen to others and make their practices accessible to them, or by how ready they are to be self-critical, or by who they laugh at and how, or by how ready they are to move from abstract terms to examples or from thin metaphors to thick ones which they elaborate.

Perhaps by way of a summary I would say that, in general, in academia, in social theory at least, what we say should be as readily accessible to the folks we are theorizing about as the words of a compelling leader in that community and that the visions we offer for alternative ways of living should be at least as accessible as the ads and recruitment spiels for the U. S. Navy, the Salvation Army, and the NBA.


These are interesting observations. Thank you for posting them. I have some reservations about them, though. The requirement of functionality can become an attribute of larger attempt to control: so, functional for whom and why? Also, the emphasis on ordinary language presumes a clarity and opacity that is generally not an element of ordinary language use--as you acknowledge, there are multiple specialized languages within what one might take to be a larger ordinary language (which then troubles the very claim for an encompassing ordinary language). Additionally, psychoanalysis is ruled out from the beginning.


Hi Jodi,

I'm a new reader of your blog. But already grateful to have found your writing and also the others you link to.

I have a question about this post. Although i work with film, i have a strong interest in language (and a degree in linguistics). Because i work within an "avant garde" heritage, i've run in to some similar issues regarding "who are you talking with?" (very conscious here of not using "talking to") These are not strictly parallel concerns to those in your post, because i'm not theorizing (which requires constituting a 'subject.') But to have an audience is to be engaged in a conversation, and at that level i think there are some parallels, as long as one is interested in working in the world as more than an "artists' artist."

My question is, must theoretical discourse be monolithic? Doesn't the way you say something depend on when you are saying it? Of course this means that "saying the same thing" is not as simple as using the same language.

Under "when" include all the things that vary discourse on diverse occasions (the application for a panel, the panel talk, the Q&A, the dinner after the panel, subsequent correspondance) or audiences (the conference, the rally, the spontaneous confrontation, the letter).

Circumlocutions or reformulations for jargon are extremely important to be able to produce for these different situations. But also the timing of something, of an interjection or a 'holding forth.' If said in the right context, or in the right spirit, or, in general *performed* in the correct manner -- can differing formulations get to the same point?

Is there a way that attention to *rhetorical* aspects of language can avoid the twin problems of totalizing and marginalizing? The non-definitive aspect of rhetoric (as opposed to the sophistic aspect) can allow reciprocal learning to take place during and through the occasions of address, i.e. the language of the scholar is not one that others "need to learn" to understand the perspective, but rather the scholar also has to learn to use language in a gestural way.


Konrad--really great remarks. I completely agree. The reciprocal learning is a particularly important point. Thanks for the intervention.


(From Mehmet Cagatay; sent by email)

Hello Ms. Dean,

I still can't manage to post on your blog, here is my comment about the post "Who you talking to?"

"The first time I read this post I automatically recalled Lacan’s critique about the commonplace phrase, “One has to speak the patient's language”… “One absolves oneself, pays one's debts - except that one only displays condescension and reveals at what distance one maintains the object in question, namely the patient. Since he, too, is present, well then, let's speak his language, the language of simpletons and idiots. To mark this distance, to make language a pure and simple instrument, a way of making oneself understood by those who understand nothing, is completely to elude what is at issue - the reality of speech.”

One of the most striking application of speaking the patient's language, is Emile Zola’s L'Assommoir, which was said to be duplicating the naked reality of the working class in its crudeness and also reproducing its vulgar language. When he was condemned by the left for actually reproducing the typical bourgeois contempt for the working class, it is not surprising that his defense was they detest my writings because I’m using the language of the working class.

Opposite examples comes to my mind are Manifesto and the April Thesis, or the complete works of Althusser, etc. Remember when Marx wrote that "The workers have no country" or resuscitated the pejorative term proletariat in an original context, if there was a slight possibility that someone might be called as proletariat in 1848, they were the part of Europe blazing in the midst of nationalist sentiments. The collective feature of those works is the deliberate ignorance of the authors about whom they are talking to. While Marx overlooks the appearance of working class for the sake of “ought to be”, to locate it at the center of revolution, Lenin ignores the nonexistence of the industrial working class and Althusser seems to have zero connection with the language of people and indulged to perplexing academic jargon, etc. On the other hand, Zola in L’Assommoir and Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier reproduce the reality of appearances, but actually they submit to the comfort of neglecting the impossibility that there is no way to observe the appearances without the mediation of ideology.

Therefore, I think the crucial question is whom do you think you are talking to?"


this is great and really thoughtful.

now I agree with Mehmet.

Mehmet Çagatay

Ms. Dean, thank you for posting my comment. Now the buttons below the form seem active again. It is incomprehensible how in the digital world things suddenly breakdown and recover by its own accord, or at least, things look free from human intervention. very strange.

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