February 25th, 2011 / 10:50 pm

“…working class intellectuals like big words and their sentence formation is excessively ornate. It’s what they think of as ‘smart.’ Pomposity. It’s an embarrassing condition of being unsophisticated and not knowing what is truly smart which is simplicity and modernism…” —Eileen Myles



  1. deadgod

      Eileen Myles holds back water from sometime-seabed??

      joke, and by that I mean jyke, and by that I mean unit of humorosity, and by that I mean I’ll get my coat

  2. Amy McDaniel

      Christopher, I feel like you are disagreeing with the use of “simplicity” based on how you define it, rather than based on how Myles uses it. I don’t think she means simplicity is lack of rigor, or certainly not lack of length in chapters. Surely you don’t think your students are right in saying she author even COULD have said the same thing in a page? Like, surely something would be lost, in what the author is doing. I believe Myles is talking about saying more for saying more’s sake. More syllables, not because they sound right, or because they advance purpose or beauty or charge, but merely to sound smart. You are talking about simplistic, even in your own words. Simple is not simplistic. Sure, you can use simple to mean dumb. But I don’t think that’s how Myles is using it. Also, she doesn’t say don’t be ornate; she says don’t be excessively ornate.

      With all this, I’m sure you still have grounds to disagree with her, and I’d be interested to hear about them; for now, I don’t think your statement that she is wrong seems based on how she is using the words she’s using.

  3. deadgod

      Well, those people in Wisconsin – the emergency-room nurses, teachers of wild or differently-abled kids, firemen, and so on – are, many of them, paying down mortgages (i. e. buying houses from banks). I think that’s qualitatively different from paying a landlord’s mortgage + buying a jet ski for the landlord’s family.

      True, the landlord is another layer of bankster, of capital, but there is a “middle” between ‘desperately breaking even in terms of sustenance’ and ‘sustenance is not an issue’.

      The bottom and middle definitely reach pretty far up and down into each other, but I think public employees in the US are fighting to bargain collectively with the end of maintaining a way of life where necessity doesn’t account for so close to 100% of the compensation for labor.

  4. reynard

      not to beat a dead dog into the ground with a fence post driver but i think both you and your students are right, and you need to figure out where to find some common ground

      i am a huge fan of public intellectuals because they put themselves into a position, or anyhow get put into a position, where they are forced to become very poetic about big ideas, they must make beautiful metaphors, otherwise they will be ineffective and they’re too intelligent to do that

      on the other hand, in the academy ornate speech is used the way a medical journal has a lot of medical terms, to me that is whatever

      but then you have people i suppose outside of academia who are thus part of the public domain and working somehow to pay their bills, the total amount of those bills is irrelevant to me, and they are speaking essentially to other working members of the intelligentsia using this ornate language, then i think it often becomes excessive

      i learned to write from stunk & white, where the flow of logic ideally jumps from the end of one sentence to the beginning of the next so that the reader is taken on a series of strolls to an idea or group of ideas maybe

      obviously i don’t really do that all the time because sometimes its more fun not to or things can be done better using another technique, but i think basically that is the idea for how to communicate with most people

      as you said, judith butler is not easy to follow. even just the one paragraph is confusing and required that i read it probably three times before i really got it

      i don’t think it’s always the case that something said in five pages could be said better in one page but sometimes it can. myles discusses robert walser in the next paragraph for this very reason, what i just said in like four paragraphs myles said in none; the subtle juxtaposition (the subsequent space) said it all already

  5. deadgod

      Let me quarrel with a false equivalence here.

      The NAFTA idea was to foster a middle class in Mexico, so Mexicans could live happily in Mexico rather than (somewhat) unhappily in America. It was assumed – capitulated – that American capital would flee to wherever labor was cheaper — and this assumption was, had been for decades, and continues to be perfectly rational in the light of corporate management policy.

      Why hold “[p]oliticians on the left” responsible for exporting jobs?? – which was hugely happening before NAFTA and would have continued without NAFTA (and probably with even more and greater deleterious effects).

      What NAFTA did was to increase the ability of Mexicans to work and so to live in Mexico, but the religious policy of Increasing Efficiency (by seeking the cheapest labor costs) – hell, that theocracy was and continues to be forced on everybody by corporate favoring of quarterly reports over sustainably long- and even mid-term economic health.

  6. Christopher Higgs

      Hi, Amy,

      I’ll admit I have really hard time understanding what Myles is trying to say, so it could be that I’m misunderstanding her.

      The final part of the quote is a good example of how confusing supposedly clear language can be: “what is truly smart…is simplicity and modernism.”

      What does “simplicity” mean? If it is truly a matter of quantity, as you point out she uses the modifier “excessively” ornate, than this reduces to the realm of relativity. What for you seems excessively ornate, to me seems only moderately ornate, and to someone else might seem only minimally ornate. Who determines what is excessive? What criteria do we have to make that judgment?

      But even more egregious, what on earth does “modernism” mean? There are entire schools of thought, entire shelves of anthologies, entire conferences (perennial conferences!) focused on the question “what is modernism” — so for Myles to state simply and clearly that what is “truly smart is simplicity and modernism” makes absolutely no sense.

      Ultimately, this is my critique. Those who argue for simplicity ignore the complexity at the heart of ideas and words. Clarity is not the opposite of opacity, it is actually a covert synonym for opacity.

      Butler says as much, in that quote I quoted, a few more lines down, she says:

      The demand for lucidity forgets the ruses that motor the ostensibly “clear” view…What travels under the sign of “clarity,” and what would be the price of failing to deploy a certain critical suspicion when the arrival of lucidity is announced? Who devises the protocols of “clarity” and whose interests do they serve? What is foreclosed by the insistence on parochial standards of transparency as requisite for all communication? What does “transparency” keep obscure?


  7. David

      Just quickly: to this point – “When Myles says “excessively [slippery word, here] ornate”, “[p]omposity”, “unsophisticated”, and, especially, “simplicity”, she is “dismissing difficulty” – unless one take her words away from her in order to help her out??”

      I have to disagree, deadgod: she’s talking about what composes the simple, which is, of course, an exceedingly complex – though not excessively ornate – question. There’s no need to take her words away from her to understand that she adds one more: modernism. If she wanted to take about simplicity only, she could have stopped at that. And things would, indeed, have been a lot more “simple”, though not in the way she means to signal the content of simplicity. Because modernism indicates something else, something that complicates what she means by simplicity.

      As for your argument about modernism as difficult among other things, well, we could argue back and forth, forever, about what valence is placed on modernism’s difficulty. Whether modernism is synonymous with difficulty v. merely characterised by, among many other attributes. I stand by synonymous, since modernism, very peculiarly, is still associated with it in our literary imagination. And it was also part of modernism’s brief: to shed ties with the straddling of the educated/uneducated reader (which, mind you, was a difference between educated intelligences: between a lay and elite intelligence) defined by 19thC realist prose in favour of artistic productions so intellectual, so allusively and intertextually dense, they often even surpass the reading knowledge of the elite readership itself. Obviously, other difficulties of form exist but as you note, modernism’s difficulty stands out specifically to us because it has been subject to accusations of difficulty for difficulty’s sake, often by the elite itself at the time, who saw in it an interloping canonicity, a bogus modern classicism. Today, modernism is nothing but the canon and the modern classic so the critics turned out to be right but only because they are now its fondest readers. And that position, of course, is what Myles is obviously against: in her saying knowing what is truly smart is simplicity and modernism, she’s also necessarily saying modernism is not tenured difficulty. It’s something simpler and ‘not smart’, a literary technic, not a episteme. Going off the content of the rest of her article, I’d argue she’s using modernism here – especially since she references Walser – as a shorthand for that kind of literary exploration which mixes personal observation and intertextual reference, with a set style modulated through a series of interweaving scales (as opposed to postmodernism’s interweaving of styles through a set scale), defined above all by the injunction to make it new. The deliberate eschewal of the term postmodernism is also crucial here, I think. That’s the word that feels like it is negated by the word – modernism – she anachronistically puts in its place even while defining it as something different from what it was in the past.

      On this point: “David, that’s not, or not categorically, true of “working class intellectuals” – that’s true of the academy, of academic intellectuals, the knowing class, the institutionalization of the production of knowledge.” Agreed that the knowing class is not a working class phenomenon nor the instutituonalisation of knowledge but Myles is making a more subtle argument, I’d contend. Perhaps this will be seen as more “special pleading” but the argument is there to my eyes: she mentions the 19thC, she mentions Dickens and Alcott, and what she also mentions is that what was there to fantasize about was antique. It seems to me that Myles is saying that the working class intellectual is placed in a special relation to the institutionalisation of knowledge in that the working class is likely to look backward – the 19thC was as likely as the 21st – and in this, mistake for authenticity a psychological verisimilitude and encyclopedism that was not working class. Dickens was not working class. Alcott was not working class, nor was Jo, though in Little Women, the family suffers terrible poverty due to the Civil War. Marx was not working class, though he was frequently broke. What Marx gives to the working class is indispensable – but the indispensability is a problem if we all want to be the next Marx – hence, the tart Santa and elves remark is funny for precisely placing Marx in the role of the distributer of the gifts to the working class (our Santa) that the working class, as elves, slave to produce in the workshop. So her argument runs to a special relation between the working class and intellectuality and how class is groomed. All this in passing, which is Myles’ very proletarian talent: the deep intelligence of her street poetry.

      Lastly, to whether Myles is saying something to the effect of whether the working class should not footnote and use big words, like the bourgeois or the academic or whatever, I don’t think so, since she makes the point that the plan in American democracy is for people to be free to be dumb. But what she also says – when she returns to that word dumb – is that the working class intellectual is above all afraid to be seen as dumb. And that fear is not corrected insofar as it thinks it can ever master the apparatus of class-economicized knowledge: footnoting everything. Insofar as it is about the unexperiencec condlusion, then, writing is the working class university.

  8. Amy McDaniel

      I’m currently reading Inferno, and I just heard Myles read, so I didn’t actually read her quote as a rebuttal to Butler. Myles has, beautifully and necessarily, her own grammar. Parts of that are made from the kind of conventional grammar Butler talks about, maybe, but those conventions are also being upended and often ignored in Myles’s sentences. She writes, “Cause I could know myself, that’s all. Some lazy thing I could always do because I was dumb and not normal, but special…something crazy–maybe that could be my job? I had that thought just briefly one tiny light and then it was gone.”

      Surely, part of what Myles is putting forward is an aesthetic preference. So? Why begrudge her that? But the main thing, for me, is I think something pretty specific, something that I think I’ve seen. As a teacher, I have students who think they will sound smarter if they say commencement instead of smart, or that it is more evocative to say vermilion instead of…I don’t even know. Red? Blue? Red, apparently. Now, surely, it is sometimes okay and good to say commencement or vermillion. But in student writing, it can sound pompous, and silly. And then sometimes they misuse the big words. People would laugh at them for this, when they think they will be taken more seriously. As a teacher, I do think they should be aware of that.

  9. Dan Moore

      I don’t think the solution to the problem of hydroplaning over the surface of clear writing is Judith Butler’s needlessly obfuscated sentences. That’s like trying to make your reader feel how hot a fictional environment is by setting some pages on fire.

      In any case I find Butler’s style just as desperate to avoid critical suspicion, by means of its affected rigor and its hysterical, academic voice. People are engaging more with Myles’s words because they’re written in a way that allows and encourages engagement.

  10. Guestagain

      I only listed what happened and business will go wherever it can like water. Not to restate the whole thing, but NAFTA was a Clinton/Gingrich production. If our politicians take donations because they have to save their seat before they save the country to allow business to export intellectual property, dies/tooling, manufacturing, to restart the industrial age in another country and take the tax base with them, then there are a number of things here we can no longer pay for so have to either borrow or cut. Germany does not do this and finished 2010 in a very good domestic growth position. This is the objective state of things and I don’t know that there is any argument to be made about it but you can try.

  11. deadgod

      Not to restate the whole thing, but, before – long before – NAFTA, “American” companies had been industrially abandoning America (while phonily supporting American consumers by supporting import tariffs on “foreign” products). The objective state of things is that NAFTA did not introduce the export of American jobs to “American” corporations as an accumulation strategy (one with the unhappy effect of killing the goose of a tax base).

      It’s not true that “we can no longer pay” for things. It is the objective state of things that the bills for 1) an unnecessary, stupidly fought. and still-lied-about war, 2) continuing reluctance to make owners and managers of corporations pay their fair share, 3) tax giveaways to rich people, and 4) the socialization of the risk undertaken by lenders and traders in loans, all make paying for socialized investment difficult. Blaming NAFTA for these deductions to the common weal of America is irrational.

  12. deadgod

      Well, it sounds like you’re saying that Myles “isn’t dismissing difficulty” (you taking up my words) by calling “simplicity” “truly smart”, because she understands complexity to be what “composes the simple”. That’s what I mean by ‘taking her words away from her’ – not letting a word mean the opposite of its contrary!

      Essential to Myles’s discussion is that “[f]or all intents and purposes [Walser] was 19th [century] […] the century of the working class”, that Walser’s micrographs are of the same “century” as Dickens and Alcott (??). – and that Walser’s writing isn’t “modernism”, “working-class” writing that ‘looks back’ at the “century of the horse” as it does (?). I think she’s just not in control – in this piece – of the terms she’s using.

      Myles says that “in acting ‘smart’ and footnoting everything [working class people] betray the insecurity and weightiness of the unexperienced conclusion” – this is not to the effect of recommending that working-class intellectuals not ‘footnote’??

      For Myles, “dumb” is a Bad Thing, and a Bad version of “dumb” is ‘acting “smart” in a dumb way’. – and this “acting”, on the part of the “working class”, is by way of the excessive ornament of pompous self-explication. David, is “working class” really a useful way to get at purple rhetoric of the Academy?

      It’s, to me, a loosely-woven ‘essay’ – fine; an instigation. To see in it rigor is, I think anyway, to impose rather than to discover.

  13. Guestagain

      I agree with much of this to varying degrees, but NAFTA is a best and most egregious example and the tax giveaways there have been made clear. These government/business deals happen in backrooms with secret handshakes, but with NAFTA we were warned publically about jobs disappearing en masse in a giant sucking sound during the 92 campaign as Clinton looked to the floor red faced and shaking his head. It is true that we can no longer pay for things, China is financing Treasury and our heroes are again negotiating to raise the debit ceiling. We can end the 2 wars and soak the wealthy for 99 cents on the dollar instead of 43 cents on the dollar but still come nowhere close to covering the tax revenue and transactions generated by the now exported industrial sector of the economy. My primary point here was speculating somewhat sarcastically on if we still had a working class in response to the phrase “working class intellectual” which struck me as oddly specific at the time. Those trying to feed a kid all day on minimum wage have a more profound sense of shit then either of us and the situation is a failure of government and politics which has been bribed so rolled on the regulation responsibility over markets that will naturally run wild without them, we’ve been through all this in the 1920s.