To complement our Contradictionary, we’ve added an exchange with Kristian Williams about anarchist writing to our reading library. Choosing Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language” as his point of departure, Kristian takes contemporary anarchists to task for sloppy writing that leads to sloppy thinking. We respond with an assault on everything normative in language, calling for an anarchist writing that shakes readers free of the control mechanisms coded into English itself.
English and the Anarchists’ Language
CrimethInc. Writers’ Bloc
, responding to Kristian Williams
“The alchemists have a saying: ‘Tertium non data’: the third is not given. That is, the transformation from one element to another, from waste matter into best gold, is a process that cannot be documented. It is fully mysterious. No one really knows what effects change.” –Jeanette Winterson
Kristian’s essay says much of what we would like to say to other anarchist writers. It is cowardly to conceal slipshod reasoning behind a smokescreen of gibberish—and dangerous, too, if you still encourage people to act on your arguments. Down with pseudo-academic posturing! Death to all who affix suffixes to project, potential, and position! And hyperbole to the guillotine!
Yet seeing this spelled out as a program, our hearts rebel. Orwell’s advice, as Kristian presents it, might improve bad writing, but it says nothing about the alchemy that sets good writing apart from the merely serviceable. Nor does it engage with what could make writing anarchist. Does one write well as an anarchist the same way one writes well as a social democrat or an advertising agent? Or is anarchist writing another project entirely, which must be evaluated according to other criteria? Kristian is either making a big assumption or a fatal omission. It’s important to address this, lest his prescriptions be used against those who strike off in the right direction.
So given the choice between incoherent, insular jargon and the clear transmission of rational arguments, let us add another dimension to the discussion. We hypothesize a third pole—the mysterious third, the factor that effects change.
For the purposes of his argument, Kristian takes for granted that our language can adequately represent our ideas if we use it properly. But like any technology, language is not neutral; it incarnates the power relations of the society that produced it. It is generally easier to use contemporary English to convey the capitalist worldview than to express ideas or experiences outside it. There are submerged currents of resistance within English, as there are within every aspect of our society, but it tends to impose the values of the dominant social order.
When “legitimate” is inseparable from “authority” and drastically differing activities are defined as “violent” depending on who engages in them, an anarchist cannot trust words to represent her ideas the same way they represent those of politicians and pundits. This is not just a question of misuse, as if the words would tell the truth if they were used correctly. On the contrary, the language of politicians and pundits often appears more accessible than ours because the playing field is slanted in their favor. When we try to be more accessible, we sometimes end up making their points rather than our own.
In the face of such challenges, an anarchist has to bring the subterranean currents of resistance within the language to the surface in the course of making her case, or else she may not be able to make it at all. Moreover, as an anarchist, she must not establish new norms, but open up spaces of free play and uncertainty. Semantics is not just “the science of evading the point,” as a comrade once quipped, but one of the most important battlefields on which the balance of power is determined.
So if we begin with Orwell’s demand to “Let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way about,” we must end by using words in a manner that shakes them loose of their old meanings. When we speak, we shouldn’t focus only on properly designating our ideas via language, but on destabilizing the language itself—showing how it is enemy territory and opening new points of departure.
Let’s perform an example of this. Kristian urges us not to write barbarously. This sounds straightforward enough. Yet this loaded word, barbarous, comes to us from the ancient Greek onomatopoeia, βάρβαρος—it was a mockery of the foreigners whose incomprehensible speech (“bar bar bar”) marked them as inferior to Greek citizens. Similarly, in the essay Kristian cites, Orwell called on his countrymen “to drive out foreign phrases” for the sake of “the defense of the English language.” Orwell meant only to denounce jargon and abstraction, but in both cases we see how swiftly one could pass from demanding intelligibility to something more sinister. If our language is not neutral, it may be most dangerous when it is most intelligible. If that is so, our task as anarchists is to make language unfamiliar in a way that renders the ensuing confusion irresistible rather than off-putting.
Certainly, as Kristian points out, neologisms like “cisgendered” are not familiar to everyone. But if we stay within the bounds of language that is widely used in this society, we will only be able to reproduce consensus reality, not challenge it. How could we possibly challenge gender normativity in the same terms that maintain it? We have to invent new words, styles, and discourses that enable us to say new things while seducing others into the conversation. This calls for a dynamic rather than static understanding of the transmission of meaning—not to mention a little Dadaism. It calls for poetry rather than prose: the third that is not given.
When we approach writing thus, mere accuracy ceases to be our principle virtue. This explains some of the examples of powerful writing that fall outside Kristian’s parameters.
A strict focus on accuracy alone would never produce a Lewis Carroll or a Kathy Acker—two authors whose work hints at the kind of anarchic style we are postulating. What is Orwell himself remembered for today—his essays, or his novels? His logic, or his neologisms? His politics, or his thoughtcrime? If not for the vitality of his imagination, his realism would never have reached us. He invented Newspeak to portray how language can be used to limit thought, but paradoxically he needed new language to convey this idea.
And then there is the problem of bad writing that is better than good writing. We remember the famous Audre Lorde quote—“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house”—precisely because, on the face of it, it is patently false. It sticks in our minds; it is an enigma, a knot we can’t stop trying to untie. The same goes for the mixed metaphors of Peter Gelderloos; we may be “defenestrating the stranglehold” long after we have forgotten David Graeber’s methodical formulations. The cheerful excesses of youth will always outshine more prudent prose, to the despair of editors and other pedants. Anarchists should make the most of this, not fight it.
Good writers are generally intelligent, but some truly great writers are idiots savants. As one reviewer wrote of AC/DC, “One brain cell less and it wouldn’t have worked; one brain cell more and it wouldn’t have happened.” The slogans punk rock bequeathed to anarchism, which have borne its resurgence as far as Indonesia, function precisely because of their mystical banality. “Two clichés make us laugh,” wrote a certain Italian, “but a hundred clichés move us, because we sense dimly that the clichés are talking among themselves, celebrating a reunion.”
Then there is the problem of non-representational expression. A humorless reactionary might charge that the best page of Days of War, Nights of Love is the one ripped out of every copy; but the true aesthete knows it is the best page because, more effectively than any other, it conveys a sense of limitless possibility. If the anarchist author’s task is not to put up fencing but to pull up surveyor’s stakes, it is beside the point whether every reader derives the same sense from a sentence; the more widely diverging their responses, the better. Some Rorschach tests are worth more than expressions that convey the same information to everyone—and nothing else.
Besides, those who are convinced that they speak precisely—yet see imprecision virtually everywhere they look—rarely communicate well with others. That’s not how communication works. It is a mutual undertaking, for which rulebooks are no more useful than they are for any other kind of voluntary relationship. When it comes to communication, the proof of the pudding is in the eating, as the saying goes. Which anarchists are most widely read outside the anarchist milieu?
Here we have returned to a centuries-old debate. Do we side with the lucid prose of William Godwin, or the incandescent poetry of Percy Shelley? The sober Murray Bookchin, or the intoxicating Hakim Bey? Apollonian argumentation that frames anarchism as the culmination of the Enlightenment, or the Dionysian romance of an assault on Western civilization?
But who remembers William Godwin? A conservative minority within the anarchist movement has always held that we should be even more serious and scientific than our foes. But anarchists should concentrate on our strengths. Most people are drawn to the anarchist project by the desire for the wild and mysterious, for something ineffable. This is the same philosopher’s stone that distinguishes great art from scrupulous writing—that makes it worth violating the rules—that makes it worth writing at all. No amount of obfuscation can make up for its absence, but neither could any degree of accuracy.
Therefore, in defiance of Orwell and our own better judgment, we are compelled to conclude: Write barbarously! Build your arguments on the slopes of Vesuvius! Send your prose into uncharted seas! Break with common sense and convention in such a way that everyone else joins in!
When in Rome, do as the Vandals do: sack it. Axe clichés and replace them with a coinage of your own mint. Topple the Tower of Babel, the imperial project of imposing a unitary logic on language and thought.
Forget about writing properly! Barbarians to the barbarricades! WRITE BARBAROUSLY!