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?