Vulgarities

by CarlD

This post from Perverse Egalitarianism about a new introductory commentary on Derrida’s (in)famous Of Grammatology combined with all the other mishmash in my head to make me think about vulgarizations of theory. (I will not be talking here about the many ways that theories may be improved by their contact with audiences.)

The most famous instance of this to many of us is the “vulgar Marxists.” Sort of legendary figures (no specific person quite qualifies, when you look at them closely and sympathetically), they stripped out a basic, simple, rough-and-ready theory from Marx and Engels’ massive and complex oeuvre that then became, as far as their readers were concerned, “Marxism.” In response to early versions of this Marx famously said that he was not a marxist. If you’re old enough to have been taught in school that Marxism is bad, that’s vulgar Marxism. (If you’re young enough to think it’s a ‘good idea on paper that would never work in practice’ there may be hope for you. Go sit in a corner and reflect on the Bible and the Constitution until the light bulb goes on.)

Marx himself was not much of an activist. There’s a way in which anyone who actually acted on marxism was a vulgar Marxist. His theory is just too complex to be an action handbook. Hell, no historical conditions under which a revolution has been attempted or carried out have ever been much similar to what he thought would produce likely success: complete development of capital industry, highly concentrated proletariat, vestigial agricultural sector, regular and intensifying crises of overproduction, etc. The ideas and practices of revolutionaries, such as maoism or that odd kludge marxism-leninism, never end up looking much like Marx to people who know their Marx.

Well, folks are dumb, lazy, obsessive, impatient, distracted, ignorant, what have you. What are the chances that a really smart theorist finds all readers ready and capable to ‘get’ the whole message, no matter how clear she gets? So theories get vulgarized, not to mention flat misunderstood, caricatured, repurposed, or ignored in something like direct proportion to their complexity.

Is that something we need to blame someone for, and if so, whom? In particular, do theorists have some responsibility to be aware of their inevitable vulgarizers and design in safeguards against dangerous kinds? Think what a different sort of world it would be if Marx had paid more attention to the sociology of vulgarization. Then again, who could control a Stalin with mere words on a page?

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5 Responses to “Vulgarities”

  1. Zizek wrote somewhere (or in many somewheres) about how we should not be too quick to identify what is proper and what is improper Marxism. Did Marxism fail with Stalin, or further back with Lenin, or even as far back as Engels’ popularizations? If, as I think is central to Marx’s project, communism is praxis for the masses, then vulgarization is integral to Marxism, and we must not be too quick to separate it from real Marxism. Instead, we must realize, as you correctly stated, that all revolutionary practice is vulgarization, and we must embrace this as a necessary presupposition to any fundamental change in the mode of production.

  2. Thanks for this! I must confess that I’ve not bothered to read Zizek, although I’ve heard/seen him speak. He was cute and vivacious and wowed the crowd of desperate lefty intellectuals, but apart from the amusing anecdotes he didn’t say much. His advice about marxism is very good, though.

    Your comment moves the analysis forward a step. Praxis for the masses is right, and I agree with you that vulgarization is integral to marxism for that reason. The Communist Manifesto strategically self-vulgarizes. Mass praxis is certainly not going to come out of the German Ideology or the four volumes of Capital. Which Lenin said can’t be properly understood without reading Hegel’s Logic. That’ll happen sometime between the beer and the bowling, I guess.

    The vulgarizations of marxism get their life from the premise that the world is preparing its own transformation — the bourgeoisie producing its own gravediggers, etc. When that is not true, the vulgarizers become murderous to try to force the issue. It’s here that the rubber hits the road on what ‘real’ marxism is, or might be.

  3. I see your point about “vulgarization” especially when it comes to folks like Derrida – on the other hand, I’ve been lately thinking along somewhat different lines when it comes to appropriation of theory (as opposed to vulgarization) – you’re right, almost every single significant thinker has had to deal with what was deems as appropriate (disciples) and inappropriate (“vulgarizers”) ways of reading this or that theory – my favorite example is Kant who spent an incredible amount of his time and energy trying to present his theory in a more accessible way (although not as accessible as to be understood by the hoi polloi) – to the first critique we have a second edition and a prolegomena, to the second critique we have the groundwork and to the third critique we have (one might argue) opus postumum – yet he’s an angry old man when it comes to Fichte’s appropriation – nasty philosophical stuff and much much frustration. I wonder if that is mainly because a thinker holds on to his/her ideas as if he/she owns them – “these are MY thoughts, this is that I mean, respect MY interpretation of MY OWN words!” – even things like sarcastic remarks of those who say: Ha Ha this particular postmodern author says I meant to say X, well, i certainly didn’t because who would know better what he or she meant to say but the author, right?” Wrong, after all we’ve learned since Marx and Freud (to mention just these two), it’s not as clear to me as some people might want it to be that “I mean what I mean when I mean it” – in that sense there’s no vulgarization of a theory but only a kind of development that one might or might not be able to control. Any control of vulgarization and interpretation is possible only politically – think about Freudian orthodoxy or Marxist orthodoxy in the Soviet school, philosophically ideas will go where they want to go, if we can have this image – actually I think Heidegger says that much in Introduction to Metaphysics – even though we have an illusory assurance that we think thoughts, it is actually thoughts that think through us or something like that – I kind of like this angle myself…

  4. Yeah, Mikhail, that aspiration for subjective authority and control is very powerful as a structural effect of entitlement. I remember for another example a feminist critique of Foucault by Nancy Hartsock in which she asks “why is it that just at the moment when so many of us who have been silenced begin to demand the right to name ourselves, to act as subjects rather than objects of history, that just then the concept of subjecthood becomes problematic?” (Pointing also to the structure/agency problem: how to square ’empowerment’ with the structuring of what we can say and mean by discursive formations or language games.) So in the democratizing discourses of modernity the subject is constituted as an entitled authority and makes demands on control of the text accordingly — both as writer and reader!

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