Good prose is written by people who are not frightened

This summer has been, for me, the summer of Twin Peaks. I am a huge David Lynch fan from way back. Twin Peaks gives me all kinds of things I can write about, not least of which is my theory that DougieCoop is Parsifal. But when I sat down to write something about it a couple of nights ago, the words got caught in my throat. I wrote and rewrote and re-rewrote a single page and finally threw it out in disgust. This has been going on for months. Everything I write looks so paltry on the page, so feeble and colorless and trite. It feels dishonest, for some reason. I have been trying to figure out why.

Officially, I don’t believe in writer’s block. As Garrison Keillor once pointed out, plumbers don’t suffer from plumber’s block, and writing is, among other things, a craft you can practice whether or not the muse decides to pay you a visit. And yet I have been struggling, day after day, to write this one goddam thing I promised the Los Angeles Review of Books (sorry, Lee), straining like a sick man on a toilet, trying to squeeze out so much as one little compacted turd of a paragraph. I know what I would tell a graduate student who came to me with this problem: keep writing. Focus on drafting, not revising, when composing your thoughts. Give yourself permission to write what Anne Lamott calls the Shitty First Draft. Sound advice, usually, but it isn’t helping me now. The problem lies deeper.

In his 1940 essay Inside the Whale, George Orwell argues that the novel is the characteristic “product of the free mind, of the autonomous individual.” And the decade just behind him, the 1930s, was uniquely hostile to writing born of free minds:

From 1933 onwards the mental climate was increasingly against it. Anyone sensitive enough to be touched by the zeitgeist was also involved in politics. Not everyone, of course, was definitely in the political racket, but practically everyone was on its periphery and more or less mixed up in propaganda campaigns and squalid controversies. Communists and near-Communists had a disproportionately large influence in the literary reviews. It was a time of labels, slogans, and evasions. At the worst moments you were expected to lock yourself up in a constipating little cage of lies; at the best a sort of voluntary censorship (‘Ought I to say this? Is it pro-Fascist?’) was at work in nearly everyone’s mind. It is almost inconceivable that good novels should be written in such an atmosphere. Good novels are not written by orthodoxy-sniffers, nor by people who are conscience-stricken about their own unorthodoxy. Good novels are written by people who are not frightened.

What Orwell says of novels is equally true of my own preferred medium, the essay. Fear, I think, is why my writing has dried up.

One of Orwell’s insights about totalitarianism is reminiscent of Foucault’s panopticon bit: the most effective way to control people is to turn them into their own jailers. Once you have been disciplined to ask “ought I to say this? Is it pro-Trump?” — or for that matter, “could this be construed as being racist/sexist/ablist?” — the censors need not tell you to fall in line with the ruling orthodoxies. You do it for them. If you retain some memory of happier and freer days, when you could write without fear of a mob, real or virtual, visiting professional ruin and personal disgrace on you, you are reproached by the ghost of your former integrity as you vacillate weakly over the choice of a pronoun. Your mind turns about smaller and smaller spaces. Like a veal calf, it eventually discovers it can’t turn around at all. You can’t think freely, so you can’t write worth a damn.

And that’s what’s up with me. I write something down; the inner censor frowns; and I start trimming and shaping what I’ve written, not in order to make it more vivid or precise, but to avoid violating the rules, whatever they are.

We are never really told what they are. For our self-appointed minders, this is a feature, not a bug. Anna Holmes wrote an essay about “cultural appropriation” in a recent issue of the New York Times Book Review, which concludes with Holmes saying “You can’t always prove appropriation. But you usually know it when you see it.” Which means that Holmes has reserved for herself (and whomever she deems sufficiently woke) the privilege of deciding what appropriation is. In a world where a university can insist that a free yoga class for disabled people be cancelled because of the “cultural genocide” of British imperialism and an artwork accused of appropriation can trigger a petition that it be destroyed, this is no small amount of power.

You know you are dealing with tyranny when the rules are never precisely formulated or written down, so that you can never know in advance when you are violating them. You know you are dealing with tyranny’s ideological enforcers when they make themselves the sole arbiters of the rules — when the rule becomes consubstantial with the rule-givers. And you know you are dealing with a tyrannical rule when merely questioning it is tantamount to breaking it.

The mood in American society at large is more hostile to free minds and free speech than at any point in the 30 years I’ve been here. Not only in the White House — that’s obvious — but also in academia and its outer orbital rings, the culture industry, stocked as it is with the gleaming and toothy spawn of America’s elite private colleges, busily putting the ideas they learned at school into Facebook-ready form. It is a time when any random professor can accidentally say or do something that aggravates the horde of the perpetually aggravated, which then sets about making an example of the offender. Remember Pierpaulo Polzonetti? Remember when Polzonetti made it weird there for a second and we all lost our minds? What did he do wrong, again? Oh yeah, he used the words “frightening crescendo” to describe the voice of a black prisoner getting upset. For this, Polzonetti was called a racist, a white supremacist, etc., and classical music itself — the music that Polzonetti wanted to teach prisoners — became “the music of white supremacy.”

This insane inflation of concepts (white supremacy goes from denoting David Duke to anyone who plays the bassoon) is something intellectuals are prone to. In graduate school, I took a seminar in neo-Marxist philosophy from a student of Herbert Marcuse. He invited a friend, a cranky old German philosopher who had known Adorno, to come speak to us. As worshipful acolytes in the cult of St. Adorno, we all wanted to know, what was he really like? And to our disappointment our guest replied, “he was a fanatic, like all intellectuals.”

If you have read much Adorno, you know what he means. Reading Adorno’s writing on the “culture industry,” you can see him striving to make a theory that covers everything, a theory that brooks no exceptions and from which there is no escape. Freudianism and Marxism (two especially important sources of Adorno’s thought) are the epitome of such totalizing theories; it’s not an accident that academia is the only place they still have much currency.

(Wait, Adorno, Marx, and Freud were all Jewish. Could someone accuse me of anti-Semitism here? Maybe I should throw a non-Jewish name in there, just to be safe …)

And the only thing that intellectuals like more than totalizing ideas is being the ones to whisper them in the tyrant’s ear. This is what Mark Lilla means by the philotyranny of intellectuals, of which there is a long and sordid history.

Many of the ideas that progressives are using as cudgels — for example, “cultural appropriation” — were originally ideas of limited provenance applied in skilled and disciplined ways by people trained to think precisely, which is to say, by academics. But the intellectual’s tendency to fanaticism means that we are never satisfied with the limits we have learned to place on ideas. And so “cultural appropriation” starts off as an intelligent way to discuss why you shouldn’t wear blackface and ends up with campus activists bullying white girls for wearing hoop earrings. Marshall McLuhan was onto something when he suggested that any idea, pushed as far as it will go, reverses into its opposite. And so anti-racist activists end up telling people to stick to their own kind.

Sound like anyone we know?

I hardly need to remind you of Donald Trump’s authoritarian intolerance of thought and speech at odds with his own. I don’t think anyone is in any doubt about that. Even the diehard Trumpists, the ones who will never abandon him no matter what he does, the ones for whom Trump will always be Bonnie Prince Charlie — a loser and pretender burnished to the high shine of a romantic Lost Cause — even they know perfectly well how hostile Trump is to free speech. They like that about him.

But this isn’t the whole danger Trump poses to public discourse. The bigger danger has to do with the fact that he is the first reality-show president. He is must-see TV: his power is to make us incapable of not talking about him. Sure, Trump the man wants nothing but adulation, but Trump the media phenomenon is the ultimate fulfillment of the old maxim that there is no bad publicity. Earlier this summer I was in London for a conference, and there was no escaping Trump; later, I went on vacation in Canada, and there was still no escaping Trump. Trump is everywhere, on everyone’s lips, on their minds, in their Twitter feeds, on TV, in books, in classrooms … Trump has single-handedly recreated the monoculture. Even in our fragmented media world, finally there is a show that everyone is watching. The unspooling disaster of Trump’s presidency is your favorite show. Admit it. You hate him — fine. You still love the show. You say you hate the show — fine. You’re still watching it, and how you feel about it doesn’t make any difference to website click-counters. Trump is a virus, a zombie virus that propagates in our minds: get bitten and you become another shambling recruit in the army of the undead, mindlessly attacking the dwindling band of holdouts who are just trying to live their lives.

You want to know when we will finally be rid of Trump? When we no longer find him entertaining.

You must admit that  Trump’s drive to put his brand on everything — Trump University, Trump Taj Mahal, Trump water, Trump this, Trump that — has been wildly successful. Trump has stamped his logo on the mind of practically every public thinker and writer in America today. His extremes have prompted complementary and opposite extremes in his opponents, just as the embossment on a document is the obverse of the stamp. The intellectual options have narrowed down to two: pro-Trump and anti-Trump. But it’s still all Trump. A precise negation of Trump leaves a Trump-shaped hole, which Trump’s ideological enemies fill with their own rages and resentments. And so Trump’s certainties, his brutal simplifications, his foreclosing of all debate, his refusal to talk to other human beings like, well, human beings … all these things appear in an inverted mirror image opposite him.

(I pause to wonder: will this post get picked up by some odious snitch at a site like Campus Reform or The College Fix? You know, those websites that aggregate conservative complaints about liberal professors and send out the flying rage monkeys to write them death threats? Maybe I should tone down the zombie stuff … )

Thus we have lately seen a steady drip-drip-drip of attacks on professors from both the Left and Right. This Chronicle roundup gives a useful overview of the harassment and threats of violence that various unlucky academics have had to deal with. If you are wondering if there is any empirical measure of the vanishing space for the free expression of ideas, check out FIRE (the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, a sort of ACLU for academics) and its database of speakers disinvited from college appearances.* In the early naughts, this happened roughly 10-12 times a year. In 2016 it was 43.

One phrase I have heard a lot lately is “I’m done.” As in, I’m done talking to cis white men, or I’m done talking to social justice warriors, or I’m done talking to you. It’s a satisfying rhetorical flourish, this verbal equivalent to storming out of the room in outrage, cape whirling behind you. (You’re wearing a cape because you’re a hero.) It’s very tempting to say “I’m done.” How much easier life would be without having to make yourself understood to people you don’t like, or to understand them. When we say “I’m done” we might imagine we are one of the characters left onstage after Don Giovanni has been dragged off to hell — my new life stretches out before me, free at last from a troublesome companion.

(Hmm. Left activists don’t like being called “social justice warriors.” I think I’m using the phrase in a suitably ironic and distanced way, as the thing that people say, not what I say, but irony is always the first thing to go in this kind of discussion. Maybe I should change it …)

This way of thinking is totally illiberal. We should be ashamed to announce our unwillingness or inability to talk to those different from ourselves. The fact that everyone seems proud of shutting down conversations is a depressing sign of the times. In his piece on the burgeoning genre of the “How I Felt On Election Night” essay, Carlos Lozada quotes Katie Kitamura, who in a letter to her young child writes “I worry that you will grow up in a time of ideological haste, a time of wild conviction and coarsened thought.” A world of wild conviction and coarsened thought is exactly the world in which writers must make themselves at home now. The enemies of ungoverned speech, thought, and writing are lined up on every side around a rapidly vanishing space of freedom.

Of course, there are those who will automatically discount everything I have said here because I am a white male. Rebutting that notion would take a whole other post. Actually, though, you can never rebut a comment designed to demean you by erasing your individuality and treating you only as the instance of a type. Which is another thing that intellectuals are very good at doing, by the way. And anyway, it’s not as if people usually come back at you with arguments about this sort of thing. What you get is mostly the customary internet attitude of snarky condescension — Aww, did you get your little privileged white-guy fee-fees hurt? To which the only real rejoinder is the one Margaret Atwood imagines for her protagonist in Cat’s Eye, a painter unhappily married to a guy who is suspiciously similar to my Dad.

Jon sits in the living room, having a beer with one of the painters. I am in the kitchen, slamming around the pots.

“What’s with her?” says the painter.

“She’s mad because she is a woman,” Jon says. This is something I haven’t heard in years, not since high school. Once it was a shaming thing to say, and crushing to have it said about you, by a man. It implied oddness, deformity, sexual malfunction.

I go to the living room doorway. “I’m not mad because I am a woman,” I say. “I am mad because you’re an asshole.”


So if you care about any of this, what are you supposed to do? I’ll tell you what I am doing. For a couple of years now, I have been engaged in an extraordinary correspondence with J. F. Martel, filmmaker and author of the brilliant book Reclaiming Art in the Age of Artifice, on subjects related to what I have called “Weird Studies.” And guess what domain name was available? So J.F. and I are going to put to use the 200000 or so words we’ve written to one another by launching the Weird Studies Podcast. The original name for it was “the limits of the thinkable,” which is a bit clunky but nevertheless conveys the point of the show: to discuss ideas that our comfortable habits of mind resist. As J.F. wrote in his own announcement, we “both have a strange attraction to the weird and value the affordances it grants those who choose to look at the world through its lens.” My hope is that one of those affordances — maybe the main one — is the possibility of expanding our limits of the thinkable.

Plus I think we’re going to do a show on Twin Peaks …

*”Disinvited” here can mean a variety of things: the rescinding of a formal invitation, “no-platforming,” shouting down an invited speaker, the old “we can’t guarantee your safety” ploy, etc. This database counts both successful and unsuccessful attempts at disinviting.**

**As I finish writing this, an old friend calls me up and I tell him about what I’ve been writing. “Don’t get fired,” he advises. It’s true, this is a world where craven university administrations sell out their faculties again and again and allow professors to be dismissed for trivial and trumped-up reasons. I suspect that this is due to a wholesale surrender to the customer-is-always-right ideology of the neoliberal university, but this is a topic for another day. I’m looking on the bright side: if I get fired, I will at least have a lot less committee work to do.

About Phil Ford

Chairman of the Committee for the Memorial to the Victims of Modernism
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6 Responses to Good prose is written by people who are not frightened

  1. Lionel Snell says:

    What a powerful, and enraging post!

    I now feel like an angry Don Quixote on my charger burning to hack those dumb windmills to pieces but finding nothing more to tilt at than a vapid, shapeless cloud.

    I want to scream: “How can people be so stupid?” But to ask for a reason behind it all is perhaps even more stupid.

  2. Benjamin Fowler says:

    Amen, Brother. Testify! Its just a refreshing reminder that here in academia land, the purpose of our education is to confront ideas and perspectives that may be at odds with our own. Demonizing, or villainizing someone with a different way of thinking is the greatest tyranny we face today. Some great Greek thinker once said, “Its the mark of an educated mind to entertain a thought without accepting it.”

  3. dellantonio says:

    Phil, I love almost everything you say here. And yet you are trivializing the controversy over the Musicology Now “Mozart in Prison” post. The passage you quote was in fact not the reason why some folks took him to task. And perhaps some people inflated the rhetoric in criticizing him; but this does not mean that there was not legitimate critique or even productive outcomes, because I think there were. So I eagerly look forward to your continuing goal “to discuss ideas that our comfortable habits of mind resist”, as you propose. I’d suggest that the Musicology Now controversy was a site of such discussion, for most of those engaged in such, at least.

    I can understand when those who feel disenfranchised by structures of power and established privilege and prestige react with anger and what might come across as “inflated” rhetoric, and sometimes exasperation as well. And I’ve seen many — most? — such folks come back to the table for discussion at a later time, after having vented their frustration.

    Some of us — I try to include myself — have longer fuses, whether through temperament or through privilege or some other combination of factors, and are less likely to throw up their hands and more likely to stick around and engage and try to learn with humility as well as offering their perspectives with a reasonable combination of well-earned wisdom and humility. I consider you to be similarly willing to both listen and suggest with a comparatively longer fuse. And yet I doubt you would immediately choose to have a “let’s meet in the middle” discussion with the folks who were carrying torches on the UVA campus yesterday evening. By using that rhetorically charged example I would propose that we all have our moments and parameters in which we think conversation is productive, and each of us has different parameters because reasons, and it’s tricky to judge why someone else might not be willing to talk to someone different from themselves if that different person’s whole frame of speech (and here let’s pick Trump again) is deeply alien to the continuation of their pursuit of life/liberty/happiness.

    So maybe I’m picking nits but I both look forward to your writing always (and to being reshaped in my perspective by your arguments, as you have done again) and am disappointed by your trivialization of what turned out to be a real pain point in the discipline, one that has been partly addressed in ways that I think are important for the very inclusivity of perspective and identity that you seem to otherwise advocate.

    Thanks, always. And always the best to you.

  4. Phil Ford says:

    Hey Andrew,

    I appreciate your message, which is a lovely invitation to exactly the kind of free exchange I am on about. (Young scholars, please take note, this is how you do it.) I won’t discuss the Musicology Now controversy as such, firstly because everything that can possibly be said about it has already been said, and secondly because I don’t want to reopen old wounds for Polzonetti himself.

    1. Re. UVA: well, you’re right, this is most rhetorically-charged possible way to frame the issue. Then why did you do it? Isn’t it a bit reckless to imply that the spectacle of torch-bearing white supremacists has some significant connection to the kinds of things (yoga classes etc.) that I wrote about? If you are suggesting that white nationalist marchers at UVA excuse our desire to say “We’re done talking,” then you are doing what I was complaining about in my original post: using the dismal state of Trump-era politics to rationalize intellectual illiberalism. The same kinds of extremes (fascists and anti-fascists brawling in the street) dominated life in the 1930s, and intellectuals had very much the same kinds of discussions then as we are now. The voices to which Orwell opposed his own were apt to say, we are in a state of emergency, we don’t have the luxury of free speech, some conversations just have to be squelched for the greater good, etc. And my whole point was that to agree with Orwell that this is not an atmosphere that makes good writing very likely. Some readers might feel that this is a price they are willing to pay. I do not.

    I am not saying we should be nice to Nazis. Far from it. It’s worth noting that Orwell took a fascist bullet in the throat, which is more than any of us has sacrificed in the fight against fascism.

    2. You write, “I can understand when those who feel disenfranchised by structures of power and established privilege and prestige react with anger and what might come across as “inflated” rhetoric, and sometimes exasperation as well.” There are some assumptions embedded in this phrase that I don’t share.

    First, there is the assumption that it’s enough for someone simply to “feel” disenfranchised. Why should feelings be the arbiters of whether someone really has any standing to say they are “disenfranchised,” much less to get their way when they demand that someone be fired or no-platformed for their views?

    Second, is power, privilege, and prestige (PPP) on its own a bad thing? The world is run by entities with PPP; that’s what it means to run things. If the people to whom you are most sympathetic were to get everything their own way, then they would have the PPP. Do you believe that this would suddenly falsify their beliefs? Surely not. So being disenfranchised is not the same thing as being right, any more than having PPP is the same thing as being wrong. The reason that resistance to Trump is right is because Trump is wrong, not because resistance is an inherently just act. And yet here is one of those comfortable habits of mind we are talking about: the belief that a subaltern position itself confers value. That being resistant to the status quo is a good in itself. This is one of the underpinnings of the countercultural idea, and I have written at great length about the history of this idea and its many follies, fallacies, and incoherencies, both in my book and on this blog. While I love works of the imagination that have been fashioned under the aspect of this idea — a lot of them, anyway — I don’t think it has a very good track record as a political idea.

    Finally, third, do we know what “disenfranchised” means, anyway? Someone who is powerless in one frame of reference can be powerful in another; someone who has suffered childhood abuse and mental illness might also be a wealthy doctor in a nice suburb. Even if we do accept the notion that a subaltern position confers some inherent value to a person’s utterances, which subaltern position confers that value? All of them equally? The question of who is disanfranchised is the flip side of the question over what properly constitutes diversity, which is a question that has not by any means been settled. Does viewpoint diversity matter? Should we be worried that very few humanities faculty self-identify as conservative? (For data, see How about class? If we worry about the number of ethnic minorities in a pool of grad school applicants, why should we not also worry about the number of people in the bottom two quintiles of wealth? This article

    shows just how enfranchised, at least economically, are the students at America’s top schools. Many of them see themselves as disenfranchised, though. And perhaps they are right, in one frame of reference, but clearly not in others.

  5. David Powers says:

    “Marshall McLuhan was onto something when he suggested that any idea, pushed as far as it will go, reverses into its opposite.” I’m actually laughing, because you know who else suggested this? ADORNO! After all, the Dialect of Enlightenment is about precisely this, how enlightenment ideas when taken to an extreme constitute a kind of new mythology. 😀

  6. Phil Ford says:

    David — Thanks for bringing up the Adorno connection. Indeed, the idea of enantiodromia is not unique to anyone. It’s a very old idea: Plato, Heraclitus, and Lao Tzu (“reversal is the movement of the Tao”) all express it, and it is the dynamic principle that makes the Yijing a true “book of changes.” I suspect, though, that Adorno would not be entirely happy to find his thinking compared to the Yijing.

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