Argument by Diktat

I’m becoming increasingly frustrated by writers whose style is characterized to a large extent by what we might call argument by diktat, or the Christopher Hitchens style of argument. That is, they make pronouncements in a tone that presumes agreement; the reasons, never given, are supposed to be obvious; insidiously, the effect is to imply erudition and insight on the part of the pronouncer and those who agree, and ignorance, obtuseness, bad faith, or all three on the part of those who disagree.


I name it for Hitchens because it was reading his columns in the Nation that I first became aware of this style. The two authors I’m frustrated with at the moment for employing it too often and with too little justification are Harold Bloom and Clive James, though it appears, from my limited exposure, endemic in the blogosphere as well. I can forgive it there a little more easily, where the line between the public and the clique is less well drawn; often what masquerades as writing for general consumption is just a particular local in-crowd talking among themselves, and a great deal of shared knowledge and opinion can safely be assumed. And the issue of shared knowledge is a real one. I know that when I write I write for an ideal reader who knows what I know, has read what I’ve read. The insistence that all that be explained quickly reduces to absurdity; no writing, as my composition teachers taught me, is possible without shared knowledge and frames of reference.

Nevertheless, I find myself increasingly irritated by the way these writers blur the line between that assumption of shared knowledge and the assumption of shared conclusions. Bloom, for instance, in his introduction to the Complete Poems of Hart Crane, declares ex cathedra which of the poems in The Bridge are the best, which are of middle quality, and which the worst, and goes on to wonder whether the latter detract more from the whole than they gain from it. Not a word is offered on how he arrives at these judgements. The whole introduction is composed to a very large extent of such pronouncements. I remember the relief with which I encountered an actual reason, like a pool of water in the desert, refreshing but hardly satisfying. For example: “The style of ‘Voyages II’ is so elliptical … that the sixteen verbs employed in its twenty-five lines almost all seem quite negative in regard to the lovers’ passion that supposedly is being hailed” (xxii). Unlike much of the rest of the introduction, which simply asserts judgements, influences, relationships, and affinities between Crane and his precursors and contemporaries that the less well read must take on faith, this comment is followed by specific examples from the poem in question offered as evidence for the claim. And they are convincing. Compare: “what is imperishable in The Bridge is not its lyric mourning, but its astonishing transformation of the sublime ode into an American epic, uneven certainly but beyond The Waste Land in aspiration and accomplishment …. My critical assertion here would still be disputed by many but time has only freshened the most vital sequences in The Bridge …” (xxv). This is followed by a quotation from the poem, with no analysis: why is it better than The Waste Land? What’s so great about that passage? We’re just supposed to know. The reader who asks can be excused for feeling stupid; a more sinister reading of this sort of rhetoric would be that it is designed to have just such a silencing effect. I had a similar feeling reading Bloom’s How to Read and Why, which seems to operate on the assumption that the mere weight of their Bloominess would make its opinions definitive and his readers better, in all senses. In this respect, paradoxically, he seems to join that set of middlebrow authors who flatter their readers by refusing to demand anything of them other than conformity masquerading as knowledgeable agreement—or, in Bloom’s case, awed acquiescence. But going back to the book briefly for an example, I cannot find one. Bloom offers close readings of a few Shakespeare sonnets, and if they’re not as close or detailed as I would like, they are hardly without support. So I’m not sure now why I got that impression from the book, though I definitely did. I’d have to re-read more to see if there was any justification for it.

But James, whose Cultural Amnesia I’ve just started, is worse—reminiscent of Hitchens, in fact—because he combines these aesthetic pronunciamientos with political, ethical, and moral ones. I finally lost my patience and had to start writing this down after reading the opening pages of his essay on Marc Bloch.

I should pause here to acknowledge my appreciation to him for making me aware of these writers and thinkers I never heard of, and his remarkable erudition, which I can’t hope to match. (It’s this trait, which he shares with Bloom and to which Hitchens aspires, or pretends, that makes the technique as formidable as it is illegitimate. Contrast Erich Auerbach, who is arguably better read than any of them, yet whose writing, from what I remember, is consistently generous with explanation.) Nevertheless, I find parts of the argument specious—in particular, the attacks on the writers who were so popular when I was in graduate school: Derrida, Foucault, Lacan, Benjamin, Baudrillard, and, I understand from a passing reference, eventually to include Lukacs as well. I haven’t seen mentions of Horkheimer or Adorno yet, but I won’t be surprised. (A quick check reveals that Adorno only makes it in obliquely, by way of his comment on poetry after Auschwitz, in an essay on Celan and Todesfuge—which, on a quick skim, I expect I’ll agree with.) Sartre comes in for similar treatment.

Now, I will admit that part of my discomfort in reading these critiques is the sneaking suspicion that he may be right, and that these thinkers are not only not all they’re cracked up to be, but maybe even the frauds he makes (some of) them out to be. (He’s easier on Benjamin, though the overall thrust of his remarks is damning.) But that discomfort soon turns to frustration when, seeking reasons, I’m given assertions and expected to take them on faith.

Now that I’ve gone back looking for examples I find that there are fewer of them than I imagined, or that they are not as unsubstantiated as I imagined, or that there are many which have nothing to do with the Theory folks I’ve mentioned, though his scorn for them and their followers is palpable. But I’ll continue nevertheless, to try to make sense of my unease.

The essay I’m looking at now discusses Marc Bloch’s posthumous career, at first obscure, later if not celebrated then at least better appreciated; he died fighting in the French Resistance and so, according to James, was an intolerable reminder to those who survived of their own compromises. “Bloch,” James writes,

went on to say that history must offer us a progressive intelligibility. For those with a vested interest in offering us a progressive unintelligibility—Lacan, Foucault, Baudrillard, Derrida, et hoc genus—such a precept could not even be given the status of anathema: it could only be thought naïve (60).

(The colon used in just this way, one is tempted to remark, is James’s signature punctuation: it structures a declaration.)  In the context of the preceding discussion of the Resistance and the shame of those who failed to participate in it, and their vested interest in maintaining a discreet silence about one whose example revealed their own moral weakness, such a remark cannot but be read as conflating the intellectual failings of Lacan et al. with moral ones. But the implication is unfair, on straightforward historical grounds: of the four names mentioned, only Lacan was out of his teens at the end of the war. You might, if you were being generous, suppose that James means that the “malaise” he speaks of later in the same paragraph infected not only those who were directly involved in the events of the war, but those who followed them, chronologically and intellectually. But it’s a lot to ask that we should accede to this quite serious imputation on the basis of such slender argument. Even if we do not make the connection between the moral failings he has just finished anatomizing and the intellectual ones he denounces here, the latter are neither described nor explained. They are simply assumed. “Progressive unintelligibility”? What, exactly, does he mean by this? True, followers of Derrida for example have argued that intelligibility itself is suspect, but it is not enough for an opponent of this view merely to point to it, as if it were self-refuting. Even if it is, the reasons why deserve explanation.

Another quick check reveals that Derrida makes only one more appearance in the book, virtually identical in effect. Here it is (from the essay on Sartre, which appears to be equally critical):

Foucault, Derrida and the like shouldn’t have needed scientific debunking to prove them fraudulent: the pseudo-scientific vacuity of their argufying was sufficiently evident from the wilful obfuscation of their stylistic hoopla: and the same could have been said of their progenitor [Sartre] (671).

In short, he declares in so many words (actually a few too many) that the case is self-evident. Well, as a fellow prisoner remarked to Jack Abbott, as he recounts in In the Belly of the Beast, whenever someone says, “That’s obvious,” it’s prejudice. James has declared that Derrida, Foucault, and company at least rise to “the status of anathema,” but apparently no further. But anathema is anathema to the very spirit of humanism of which he so loudly proclaims himself the champion. I keep thinking of the arguments over free speech for Nazis, and the slogan, which I agree with, that the remedy for bad speech is more speech. James does not counter these frauds, as he sees them, with speech, and that’s a shame, because it would be nice to hear his reasons. As much as Derrida and the rest may revel in obscurity, they at least make a pretense of argument, or deliberate parody of argument, which is also a form of argument. The irony, in other words, is that James does this in the service of what he claims are not only humanist values, but in particular in his diatribes against what he sees as the obscurantism of Theory.

I write all this feeling very much like the young, inexperienced reader to whom James appears to address his essays, at times at least, or even those whom he jabs in this remark: “For the semi-educated Beatles-period junior intellectual intent on absorbing sociology, philosophy and cultural profundity all at once and in a tearing hurry, Benjamin’s scrappily available writings constituted an intellectual multivitamin pill, the more guaranteed in its efficacy by being so hard to swallow” (50). I’ll admit to recognizing myself in that portrait, although I’m of the next generation, taught by those Beatles-period (junior? semi-educated?) intellectuals. And I rebel against the scorn: hasn’t he declared it his job to contribute to that education? Which makes me wonder, a little bitterly, why the scorn. Although it occurs to me now that he is really describing himself. In any case, I’d like the book better if he explained himself more.

So I’m left in the position, uncomfortable but refreshing, of having to make up my own mind. To do so convincingly would require re-visiting some of those writers James dislikes so much, and I’m not particularly inclined to do so, having arrived at not dissimilar conclusions about, if not them, then at least their followers, or at least having decided that my tastes for now lie elsewhere. But drawing on memory I feel that he does not do them justice. I’m suspicious of them but also feel that the attack on rationalism, foundationalism, and the rest was needed, if only as a corrective against excess and not as a full-blown substitute. But I feel pretentious even writing that; it’s simplistic; it can’t achieve the compactness of what James is attempting in his style because it’s insufficiently grounded in the texts it tries to discuss. And that, by the way, speaks to the other side of the argument, which is that James really is erudite, and his discussion is the distilled product of decades of careful reading and thinking. The flip side of my frustration is the awareness that his utterances are highly compact, and that if you unpack them there’s a lot there. In this they remind me, though they’re not as successful in this way, of Adorno, who is the unparalleled master of that style among all the essayists I’ve read. (Again, I feel pretentious saying this, not having read nearly enough essayists to have an opinion, but there you are. One persists in having opinions regardless.) Of course, if you really want compact, read poetry, which is what I’m doing more and more. I also should note that James does support his arguments more than, say, Bloom; for instance, his critique of Benjamin rests in part on contrasts with other writers who, he says, do what Benjamin did much better. And there the erudition is real and not polemical: it’s not his fault I haven’t read them.

Finally, I should cop to the fact that I’m doing exactly what I’ve complained about, though on a smaller scale, which is to say, with less justification. Take this assertion: the style I’m objecting to “appears, from my limited exposure, endemic in the blogosphere as well. I can forgive it there a little more easily, where the line between the public and the clique is less well drawn; often what masquerades as writing for general consumption is just a particular local in-crowd talking among themselves, and a great deal of shared knowledge and opinion can safely be assumed.” Nary an example to be found. So where is the line between the legitimate assumption of shared knowledge and conclusions, and the illegitimate assumption of same? Posed in this way the question is absurd; “legitimate” is such a problematic term and the “line,” if it exists, shifts more than Twain’s Mississippi. But that’s another reference.

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3 thoughts on “Argument by Diktat

  1. Hi Davis! Julie told me about your blog. So much to . . . grok! Bloom’s a fanboy. Hart Crane RAWKS. T. S. Eliot SUCKS. OK, I’ll go read Crane and ignore his distastes. Somewhere Northrop Frye says that the least interesting thing about criticism is judgment. Good? Bad? One pays attention to what draws one’s attention; the reasons that it has drawn one’s attention are the subject of criticism. I have to put the kids to bed — more soon! XXOOO —

  2. Hi again, I read your post on How to Read and Why (a book I haven’t read) and saw that you make similar points: that Bloom’s enthusiasms are infectious and that evaluation is of little intrinsic interest. Agreed!

    I’ve only read excerpted chapters of Clive James that I came across on the web, and I thought he was bad: snotty toward the social deviancy of artists (who cares?), and dishonest and factually wrong about things. I wrote about him on my olde defunkte blogge a few years ago. If you’re interested: http://utopianturtletop.blogspot.com/search?q=clive+james

    Cheers — and happy blogging —

    • Thanks for the comments, John. I checked out your posts on James. Thanks for doing the digging to refute him on the subject of Ellington and Coltrane. I found his comments on Coltrane as aggravating as you did.

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