Whenever asked a question, [John Lewis] ignored the fine points of whatever theory was being put forward and said simply, “We’re gonna march tonight.”
Parting the Waters: America in the King Years Vol. 1
“Is this how you build a mass movement?” asked social critic Thomas Frank in response to the Occupy Wall Street movement: “By persistently choosing the opposite of plain speech?” To many in the American academy, the debate is over—and plain speech lost. More than fifteen years ago articles like philosopher Martha Nussbaum’s 1999 criticism of professor Judith Butler, “The Professor of Parody,” or political scientist James Miller’s late 1999 piece “Is Bad Writing Necessary?” got published—and both articles sank like pianos. Since then it’s seemed settled that (as Nussbaum wrote at the time) the way “to do … politics is to use words in a subversive way.” Yet at a minimum this pedagogy diverts attention from, as Nussbaum says, “the material condition of others”—and at worst, as professor Walter Benn Michaels suggests, it turns the the academy into “the human resources department of the right, concerned that the women [and other minorities] of the upper middle class have the same privileges as the men.” Supposing then that bad writers are not simply playing their part in class war, what is their intention? I’d suggest that subversive writing is best understood as a parody of a tactic used, but not invented, by the civil rights movement: packing the jails.
“If the officials threaten to arrest us for standing up for our rights,” Martin Luther King, Jr. said in a January 1960 speech in Durham, North Carolina, “we must answer by saying that we are willing and prepared to fill up the jails of the South.” King’s speech was written directly towards the movement’s pressing problem: bailing out protestors cost money. In response, Thomas Gaither, a field secretary for the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE), devised a solution: he called it “Jail No Bail.” Taylor Branch, the historian, explained the concept in Parting the Waters: America in the King Years 1954-63: the “obvious advantage of ‘jail, no bail’ was that it reversed the financial burden of protest, costing the demonstrators no cash while obligating the white authorities to pay for jail space and food.” All protestors had to do was: get arrested, serve the time—and thereby cost the state their room and board.
Yet Gaither did not invent the strategy. “Packing the jails” as a strategy began, so far as I can tell, in October of 1909; so reports the Minnesotan, Harvey O’Connor, in his 1964 autobiography Revolution in Seattle: A Memoir. All that summer, the International Workers of the World (the “Wobblies”) had been engaged in a struggle against “job sharks”: companies that claimed to procure jobs for their clients after the payment of a fee—and then failed to deliver. (“It was customary,” O’Connor wrote, “for the employment agencies … to promote a rapid turnover”: the companies would take the money and either not produce the job, or the company that “hired” the newly-employed would fire them shortly afterwards.) In the summer of 1909 those companies succeeded in banning public assemblies and speaking on the part of the Wobblies, and legal challenges proved impossible. So in the October of that year the Wobblies “sent out a call” in the labor organization’s newspaper, the Industrial Worker: “Wanted: Men To Fill The Jails of Spokane.”
Five days later, the Wobblies held a “Free Speech Day” rally, and managed to get 103 men arrested. By “the end of November 500 Wobblies were in jail.” Through the “get arrested” strategy, the laborers filled the city’s jail “to bursting and then a school was used for the overflow, and when that filled up the Army obligingly placed a barracks at the city’s command.” And so the Wobblies’ strategy was working: the “jail expenses threatened to bankrupt the treasuries of cities even as large as Spokane.” As American writer and teacher Archie Binns had put the same point in 1942: it “was costing thousands of dollars every week to feed” the prisoners, and so the city was becoming “one big jail.” In this way, the protestors threatened to “eat the capitalistic city out of house and home”—and so the “city fathers” of Spokane backed down, instituting a permitting system for public marches and assemblies. “Packing the jails” won.
What, however, has this history to do with the dispute between plain-speakers and bad writers? In the first place it demonstrates how our present-day academy would much rather talk about Martin Luther King, Jr. and CORE than Harvey O’Connor and the Wobblies. Writing ruefully about left-wing professors like himself, Walter Benn Michaels writes “We would much rather get rid of racism than get rid of poverty”; elsewhere he says, “American liberals … carry on about racism and sexism in order to avoid doing so about capitalism.” Despite the fact that, historically, the civil rights movement borrowed a lot from the labor movement, today’s left doesn’t have much to say about that—nor much about today’s inequality. So connecting the tactics of the Wobblies to those of the civil rights movement is important because it demonstrates continuity where today’s academy wants to see, just as much as any billionaire, a sudden break.
That isn’t the only point of bringing up the “packing the jails” tactic however—the real point is that writers like Butler are making use of a version of this argument without publicly acknowledging it. As laid out by Nussbaum and others, the unsaid argument or theory or idea or concept (whatever name you’d have for it) behind “bad” writing is a version of “packing the jails.” To be plain: that by filling enough academic seats (with the right sort of person) political change will somehow automatically follow, through a kind of osmosis.
Admittedly, no search of the writings of America’s professors, Judith Butler or otherwise, will discover a “smoking gun” regarding that idea—if there is one, presumably it’s buried in an email or in a footnote in a back issue of Diacritics from 1978. The thesis can only to be discovered in the nods and understandings of the “professionals.” On what warrant, then, can I claim that it is their theory? If that’s the plan, how do I know?
My warrant extends from a man who knew, as Garry Wills of Northwestern says, something about “the plain style”: Abraham Lincoln. To Lincoln, the only possible method of interpretation is a judgment of intent: as Lincoln said in his speech at Peoria in 1858, “when we see a lot of framed timbers, different portions of which we know have been gotten out at different times and places by different workmen,” and “we see these timbers joined together, and see they exactly make the frame of a house or a mill,” why, “in such a case we find it impossible not to believe” that everyone involved “all understood each other from the beginning.” Or as Walter Benn Michaels has put the same point: “you can’t do textual interpretation without some appeal to authorial intention.” In other words, when we see a lot of people acting in similar ways, we should be able to make a guess about what they’re trying to do.
In the case of Butlerian feminists—and, presumably, other kinds of bad writers—bad writing allows them to “do politics in [the] safety of their campuses,” as Nussbaum says, by “making subversive gestures through speech.” Instead of “packing the jails” this pedagogy, this bad writing, teaches “packing the academy”: the theory presumably being that, just as Spokane could only jail so many people, the academy can only hold so many professors. (Itself an issue, because there are a lot fewer professorships available these days, and only liable to be fewer.) Since, as Abraham Lincoln said about what he saw in the late 1850s, we can only make a guess—but we must make a guess—about what those intentions are, I’d hazard that my guess is more or less what these bad writers have in mind.
Unfortunately, in the hands of Butler and others, bad writing is only a parody—it only mimics the very real differences between the act of going to jail and that of attempting to become the, say, Coca-Cola Professor of Rhetoric at Wherever State. A black person willing to go to jail in the South in 1960 was a person with a great deal of courage—and still would be today. But it’s also true that it’s unlikely the courageous civil rights volunteers would have conceived of, much less carried out, the act of attempting to “pack the jails” without the example of the Wobblies prior to them—just as it might be argued that, without the sense of being of the same race and gender as their oppressors, the Wobblies might not have had the courage to pack the jails of Spokane. So it certainly could be argued that the work of the “bad writers” is precisely to make those connections—and so create the preconditions for similar movements in the future.
Yet, as George Orwell might have asked, “where’s the omelette?” Where are the people in jail—and where are the decent pay and equal rights that might follow them? Butler and other “radical” critics don’t produce either: I am not reliably informed of Judith Butler’s arrest record, but I’d suspect it’s not much. So Nussbaum’s observation that while Butler’s pedagogy “instructs people that they can, right now, without compromising their security, do something bold” [emp. added] she wasn’t entirely snide then, and her words look increasingly prescient now. That’s what Nussbaum means when she says that “Butlerian feminism is in many ways easier than the old feminism”: it is a path that demonstrates to middle-class white people, women especially, just how they can “dissent” without giving up their status or power. Nussbaum thus implies that feminism or any other kind of “leftism” practiced along Butler’s lines is not only, quite literally, physically cowardly—but perhaps more importantly suggests just why the “left,” such as it is, is losing.
For surely the “Left” is losing: as many, many people besides Walter Benn Michaels have written, economic inequality has risen, and is rising, even as the sentences and jargon of today’s academics have become more complex—and the academy’s own power slowly dissolves into a mire of adjunct professorships and cut-rate labor policies. Emmanuel Saez of the University of California says that “U.S. income inequality has been steadily increasing since the 1970s, and now has reached levels not seen since 1928,” and Nobel Prize winner Paul Krugman says that even the wages of “highly educated Americans have gone nowhere since the late 1990s.” We witness the rise of plutocrats on a scale never seen before, perhaps at least since the fall of the Bourbons—or even the Antonines.
That is not to suggest, to be sure, that individual “bad writers” are or are not cowards: merely to be a black person or a woman requires levels of courage many people will never be aware of in their lifetimes. Yet, Walter Benn Michaels is surely correct when he says that as things now stand, the academic left in the United States today is largely “a police force for, than an alternative to, the right,” insofar as it “would much rather get rid of racism [or sexism] than get rid of poverty.” Fighting “power” by means of a program of bad, rather than good, writing—writing designed to appeal to great numbers of people—is so obviously stupid it could only have been invented by smart people.
The objection is that giving up the program of Butlerian bad writing requires giving up the program of “liberation” her prose suggests: what Nussbaum calls Butler’s “radical libertarian” dream of the “sadomasochistic rituals of parody.” Yet as Thomas Frank has suggested, it’s just that kind of libertarian dream that led the United States into this mess in the first place: America’s recent troubles have, Frank says, resulted from “the political power of money”—a political power that was achieved courtesy of “a philosophy of liberation as anarchic in its rhetoric as Occupy [Wall Street] was in reality” [emp. Frank’s]. By rejecting that dream, American academics might obtain “food, schools, votes” and (possibly) less rape and violence for both women and men alike. But how?
Well, I have a few ideas—but you’d have to read some plain language.