In Defense of Intellectuals

I’ve always admired Rick Hills’ facility with some rather dense intellectual material, so I hesitate to attack him for anti-intellectualism, even though he applies the label to himself. Maybe it’s because I’ve just come back from three weeks in Germany and France, but I want to defend what Hill’s derides as obscure intellectualism. I’d agree that sometimes difficult prose is deliberately obscure in the sense Orwell described in Politics and the English Language . (But wasn’t Orwell more concerned with the jargon of bureaucrats and politicians than of philosophers and literary critics? His closest modern analogue is not Martha Nussbaum on Judith Butler but rather Harry Frankfurt’s  On Bullshit .)

But I think it’s wrong to suggest that any writing that is not easily accessible must be in some sense dishonest. I can’t claim to have fully grasped (OK, or fully read) Bodies That Matter -a notoriously difficult book. But I do think that difficult prose can have its virtues, even when I don’t have the stamina to find them. Michel Foucault, for instance, changed the way a generation thinks about the relationship between knowledge, science, and power; Jean Paul Sartre offered a challenging account of the relationship between alienated modern society and individual integrity and responsibility. Their texts aren’t for everyone, nor were they written to be. But why dismiss them as dishonest simply because most people don’t have the taste or the patience for them? I don’t care much for Free Jazz or the atonal compositions of Arnold Schoenberg, perhaps in part because I haven’t taken the time to try to understand them (life is short, as Hills points out, and Miles Davis and Mozart offer layers of complexity in a more compelling aural package), but would it be fair to conclude that Ornette Coleman couldn’t play the sax or Schoenberg was tone deaf? I’d say that difficult prose is a style, which offers a different experience than the popular essay; that unless we think we can easily sever content from style, the same ideas could not be expressed otherwise; that like popular writing, difficult academic writing can be both well and badly done; and that unless I’ve made the effort to read the text on its own terms, I’m not well positioned to know which is which.

I sympathize with Hill’s frustration with needlessly obscure work, and there’s no doubt that the legal academy produces its share. But we must not exaggerate the harm even the worst of it causes, as Hills does when he writes: “It takes the convoluted abstractions of a Carl Schmitt or a Heidegger to offer apologetics for Hitler; a Sartre, to temporize about Stalin; a Foucault, to defend Khomeini. In this respect, I stand with George Orwell who spent the 1930s and 1940s denouncing the obscurity of intellectuals’ prose as a cloak for tyranny.” But tragically Hitler did not need Martin Heidegger because he had Joseph Gobbels as well as plenty of other less obscure apologists in Germany, elsewhere on the continent, and for quite a while in England and the United States. And let’s not forget that today it is not intellectual obscurantism that has managed to defend torture and indefinite detention without trial but rather conventional legalese, familiar political jargon, and some deceptively homespun abstractions. I think John Yoo and his ilk would be Orwell’s target were he writing today-not Judith Butler or the students of Foucault.