On Bad Writing and Banality and Klaus Schwab

Friend-of-the blog Igor Chudov disagrees with my suggestion that Klaus Schwab’s Great Reset amounts to “a lot of jargon and vacuity, signifying nothing.” Instead, he proposes that

… the WEF purposely makes their proposals to be difficult for ordinary people to comprehend. To a person reading without paying close attention, their writings appear to be feel-good generalities written without a purpose — and yet when understood fully, they contain radical proposals that would upend the most basic foundations of our Western societies.

Chudov is right to emphasise that no few paeans to sustainability, diversity and equity harbour worrying plans. He’s also right that the rhetoric surrounding climate change policies in particular is absurdly euphemistic; terms like “sustainability,” “renewables,” “energy transition” and “degrowth” are sad attempts to put a happy face on mass unemployment and poverty, in the dark and the cold. But I also think that using euphemisms to talk over the heads of hostile readers is a rather different strategy from producing such boring unreadable material that nobody can get through any of it. I also wonder why the World Economic Forum would bother to circulate their sinister tracts in the first place, however many euphemisms they bear. Wouldn’t it be better to keep evil plans under wraps, limited to internal memos and closed meetings?

Chudov rejoins:

Is the most powerful supranational organization, whose Young Leaders lead governments of many important countries, states, or territories, or collectively own and manage trillions of dollars, simply a nonsense production factory? Are their messages “signifying nothing”? Why does the WEF exist, then? To blather nonsense? Do people gather in Davos for nothing but vacuous press releases?

As I am fond of typing, the WEF is a conference circuit, where elite attendees and young leaders and scientists and thinkers and journalists and who knows who else can network with each other and coordinate policy and messaging. For providing these services, the WEF collects dues. I think we should regard Schwab’s books as the equivalent of advertising or promotional material, of the kind that many organisations put out. If you look at his footnotes, you’ll find support for this view: He cites a lot of WEF-affiliated thinkers and scientists and he likes to quote WEF-affiliated politicians and WEF-affiliated journalists. Schwab’s customers read Schwab’s book and are happy to see their own ideas repeated and to imagine themselves as constructive participants in the intellectual world that they pay Schwab to curate for them.

That helps a little to explain the problems of Schwab’s rhetoric. His books for long stretches devolve into elaborate exercises in name-dropping, which is never good for clarity or argument. He also writes a lot of books, lately more than one a year. As a guru to the political and economic elite, he probably thinks that constant commentary on current events is demanded of him, but it leaves him no time to think his thoughts through to the end. This is why everything he writes seems so superficial and half-baked, and why he has this persistent research assistant co-author.

But, Schwab has other problems too, and I agree that Chudov’s thesis of deliberate obfuscation has its attractions. To further plumb the problems of Schwab’s words and mind, I propose to take a brief tour of bad writing, to get a better feel for the phenomenon in general. Here I don’t mean the bad writing that comes from semi-literate school children, or from instruction manuals written in India. I mean the bad writing you get from the heavily educated, the over-networked, and the intellectually benighted.

For my first example, I turn to the Bad Writing Contest, an amusing feature carried by the journal Philosophy and Literature in the late 1990s. The purpose was to mock the unreadable prose of critical theorists, and the essay announcing the “winners” of the 1998 contest is a minor classic. The victor that year was notorious gender theorist Judith Butler, for this offence against truth and beauty:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

Welcome to critical theory as it was practised through the end of the twentieth century. Whole journals are filled with incomprehensible verbiage like this. Butler can actually write reasonable prose when she wants to, so we know she’s not suffering from some exotic aphasia. The problems are rather intellectual. The least important, is what I would call “profundity via abstraction,” which is pervasive in much academic writing and especially common in the theory crowd. If I say that I’m often tired after work, that doesn’t sound very interesting, but if I write of the experience of human exhaustion upon completion of the enactment of labour, I have a faint hope that some dim person might mistake me for a philosopher. Beyond that, there’s a real undercurrent of brittleness and anxiety running through theorists like Butler, whose arguments are often indefensible, and also (as here) dedicated to moving the emphasis of leftist thought away from matters of economics and capital, towards cultural issues. In this way, upper middle-class professors could be leftists and avoid overt hypocrisy at the same time.

Our second example comes from professional brown person Mary Rambaran-Olm, who appeared in the plague chronicle back in May. Like Butler, Rambaran-Olm hails from the academic left, but she’s much stupider. When the LA Review of Books refused to publish her absurd review of some book on medieval history that she thought centred white people too much, she had a big sad on the internet and put the rejected text on her medium page instead, for us to laugh about:

Books that begin with the words ‘our story’ demand that we ask who is included among ‘us’? In my own pedagogy as a medievalist and public-facing scholar, I often ask myself and others to interrogate who ‘we’ and ‘our’ refer to in written discourse and conversations. This is often a good way to identify a core audience. The Bright Ages, written by historians of the European Middle Ages, Matthew Gabriele and David Perry takes readers on a journey through most of what is considered the medieval period over a span of a millennium, starting with the 5th-century fall of Rome and ending with the 14th-century Italian poet Dante Alighieri. …

However, the language and core themes of the book don’t reveal brightness so much as ‘whiteness.’ What unfolded as I read through each chapter was not necessarily a revelation of a more complex European history but an understanding of who was at the heart of “our” story. Gabriele and Perry describe how “scholars in medieval studies themselves [historically] sought a history for their new world order to justify and explain why whiteness [my emphasis here]— a modern idea, albeit with medieval roots — justified their domination of the world” (xiv). In The Bright Ages’ attempt to help undo the ‘whiteness’ of European history, it repackages ‘whiteness’ with new terms and slightly different re-tellings of conventional historical narratives and traditional canonical works. I was struck by many of the terms used in this book geared towards a specific type of reader. The writing style and packaging seems to be at odds with the reader. What is ‘whiteness’ to them?

If Butler sought profundity via abstraction, we could say Rambaran-Olm is after relevance via grievance. The constant questioning and hostile distancing and undermining of conventional terminology cost her a lot of words and make her a tiresome author. Good writing requires a deftness, a light touch. Beneath all the anger and passive aggression, though, I can’t detect the anxiety you find in the theorists. It’s been replaced, instead, by a terrible verbose striving. Rambaran-Olm’s complaint here is simple enough – the book she loathes so much is about “white” people and not about her. But she carries this styrofoam thesis through 3,300 totally unbearable words. The critical theorists, however insubstantial their thought, had genuine political and (pseudo-)intellectual commitments. Rambaran-Olm is what happens when you drain all of the theory out of a critical theorist and make her a petty striving careerist instead.

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