Friday, October 29, 2010

A Critique of Pure Ressentiment

One of the most joyful messages available in the work of Deleuze and Foucault urges us to judge power, not by what it oppresses, but by what it produces or fails to produce. To value that which power oppresses is precisely the formula of ressentiment. It gives the game to power because it focuses our attention on the obsessions of power. Thus, "free love" did not so much liberate love from oppression as valorize the perversions that power, in its clumsy way, produced. Do not understand that too quickly, friends. Think about it.

If we instead looked at what power actually produces, at its effects, we would be in a much better position to choose our authorities in accordance with our own values. We would subject ourselves only to those configurations of power that gave us the strength to accomplish our goals. We would engage joyfully with alternative powers in becoming, not simply resent the "powers that be". We would understand, that is, that power is multiple, always in a position to be challenged, transformed, possessed, if always only in part.

Scholars who think that "the professional journals" are one thing, with one power, under the auspicies of one authority, live very impoverished intellectual lives, doomed always to resent the "demands" that "academic life" makes of them. Scholars who engage with the community of scholars more joyfully, respecting both its authority and its multiplicity, learning both from acceptance and from rejection, always developing the talent for thinking clearly, and speaking truthfully, well, needless to say, such scholars live happier lives, writing more productively, and, I would argue, much more effectively, which is to say, better.

This week I have been trying to push back against Levi Bryant's advice for writers, the core of which is aptly summarized in his title "You Can’t Write Before You Write". It is strange that I should object to advice that I would seem, at first pass, to agree whole-heartedly with. Here's what Levi says:

Writing produces the imperative to write more. This is because, as you write you discover new themes, new concepts, and things that need to be worked through. Like a growing crystal, writing expands. In my view, one of the biggest mistakes aspiring writers make lies in trying to write before you write. By this, I mean that many writers, myself included, try to have their ideas before they write their ideas. But things just don’t—at least for me—work this way. Now, of course, just as you need a seed to form a crystal in a supersaturated solution, you need a seed to start writing. However, the seed is not the idea. The idea is something that only comes into being in the process of writing. It is not something that is there prior to writing. The point is not to have the idea before you write, but to allow the idea to emerge in writing. And once you’ve produced a lot of chaff, you then get to the arduous work of polishing and organizing. In this regard, it is a necessity to write obsessively and all the time. This is where ideas are born, not before the act of writing.

Don't wait to have an "idea", says Levi; write all the time. Why does someone (me) who says "write every day" (like every writing instructor) object to this? That is what I would like explore this morning.

First, do not write "obsessively" and do not write "all the time". Write for a few hours every day according to a plan; write in a calm and collected way. Write responsibly. Second, it is not as true as it sometimes seems that ideas "only come into being in the process of writing". Ideas come into being when you least expect it, often quite unconsciously, and are always there in advance of the writing. Your writing simply presents your ideas. When writing, you are writing your ideas down, ideas you already have. It is true, as Levi says, that you shouldn't wait until you are aware of your ideas to write (you should write simply when your schedule tells you to) but the writing does not "give birth" to your ideas, it merely shows them to you.

This is especially true of academic writing, where you write, quite literally, "what you know". If you sit down every day and write down what you think for two hours, i.e., write about the ideas you already have, instead of forcing yourself "obsessively" through the barrier of your ignorance, then your knowledge will grow in a natural way. The next day, you can sit down, without ressentiment and do it again. The tree does not "overcome" itself when it grows; it just grows.

Trying to have ideas as you write (trying to give birth to them in writing) is as unproductive as trying to "write before you write". Levi replaces one joyless imperative with another: don't try to write before you write but do "write obsessively and all the time". Write, he says, to give birth to ideas. No, I say, write to make your ideas clear to you, and to your peers.

The "demand" of your peers is not that you write something but that you present your ideas clearly. This is part of the quality control system of the academy. When you are not writing, after all, you are an authority on your subject. Levi is an authority on Deleuze's philosophy and no doubt teaches his students what Deleuze thought. When Levi writes as an academic (for publication in academic journals) he is presenting his ideas to people who are qualified to correct him where he is wrong, people who know roughly as much as he does about the subject and are therefore able to contribute to the development of his thinking on the subject. To resent this "demand" for clarity, this requirement that we open our thoughts to qualified critique, is to resent the basis of our own authority. It is to abhor the sound, if you will, of our own voice as scholars. We should write to find out what our ideas look like and then submit those ideas, once clarified to our satisfaction, to review by our peers. If it passes the preliminary review, it is thereby exposed to critique.

Deleuze and Guattari say somewhere in Anti-Oedipus that "there are no contradictions, only degrees of humour," and somewhere in my reaction to all this, I hope it will be clear, there is some good-natured disagreement, not just a surly rejection of Levi's position. While we no doubt have different senses of humour, my issue here is with the advice he gives as a writer. I don't think it is sound at all. It is largely the opposite of the advice I give, mainly because I've seen what his attitude towards writing can do to perfectly promising writers and scholars. He is proposing, not to dismantle your ressentiment, but to ratchet it up into a full-blown obsession.

I'm not unaware of the difficult rhetorical space this topic occupies. Writing processes are highly personal matters, and Levi's readers, some of whom we meet in the comments, are right to admire his forthrightness about how his process works. Levi has made a certain attitude (even philosophy) of writing available for critique, and I have exploited that opportunity, now, for all it's worth. But I would caution against taking criticism of his approach (with which a lot of people identify) personally. Indeed, Joseph Goodson's comment (#14) offers a good indication of how difficult this conversation can be. Jonathan had said (#11), as I have, that he "totally disagrees" with Levi (albeit only on a particular point). In response, Joseph offers the following sarcastic retort:

The best way to start a conversation on the internet:

“Totally disagree with this.”

Also good are: “You’re completely wrong,” “what were you thinking?” and “you’re an idiot.”

Ah, the internet.

It is, of course, a version of "Who let this asshole into the conversation?" Notice that Goodson here equates the rhetorical effect of "I totally disagree with you" with the rhetorical effect of "You're an idiot". Jonathan was starting from a position of genuine, if complete, disagreement. Goodson is saying that Bryant should take offense rather than engage with this disagreement. Ah, the internet, indeed!

The "tics and phobias" Levi has bravely, although, I suspect, somewhat self-righteously, presented for us have helped to bring an object lucidly before us. He has, if you will allow me to wax Kantian for a moment, made it possible to investigate the conditions of the possibility of academic ressentiment. I hope only that I've made some small contribution to a critique of this pernicious sentiment, which, as Levi rightly says, seems to be founded on a kind of "transcendental illusion".

PS: Much of the traffic on my blog this week has come via this post at Perverse Egalitarianism. Thanks for the plug, Michael.


Jonathan said...

I was thinking the same thing. To say I disagree completely is simply that--a disagreement. To equate that with calling someone an idiot. Well, if you think those things are the same, then you are an ...

I mean I disagree...

Thomas said...

Norman Mailer to his compaign staff in May, 1969: "This I say to you. You are all gonna go through a tremendous hour of horror, panic, and vomit if you start to work seriously for us, because you know I'm not the only nearsighted crazy man in America, and some of you could get hit. Get it straight. If you're gonna come in and work for us then work, but leave you ego at the door. If you think I'm in this for fun, then I feel sorry for you, 'cause I might have to pass on you after I have gone through. Got it? Got it? All right. Then fuck you. Got it? If you're gonna help me, then help me. But I don't want any of those dull mother-tired ego trips. Work."

Critical scholarship becomes impossible if scholars insist on taking criticism personally. If "I think you're wrong" is always answered with "Do you think I'm an idiot?" we're not ever going to correct errors and advance knowledge. There is work to be done.

Anonymous said...

You're welcome - I find your patience with Bryant to be admirable...

Thomas said...

Most authors resent editors at some level. Patience becomes part of the job.