Profanum vulgus

by Henry Farrell on March 29, 2005

Scott McLemee’s column today looks at some very interesting anthropological research on the Iranian blogosphere. Alireza Doostdar writes about a controversy in the Farsi-speaking blogosphere over whether or not blogging leads to increased vulgarity – sloppy language, bad grammar and intellectual overreaching. According to Doostdar, there was quite a vituperative argument between a small group of intellectuals, who deplored bloggers’ bad writing, and various bloggers, some of whom accepted the criticism and promised to do better, others of whom challenged the authority of the intellectuals by making deliberate grammatical mistakes and issuing their own polemics. This is interesting in itself – but perhaps even more interesting as a contrast to what’s happening in the English speaking blogosphere. I understand that there is a strong and lively classical tradition in Farsi, which there isn’t in English – most modern English literature is written in (or otherwise appeals to) the demotic. Thus, in one sense, it’s unsurprising that there hasn’t been the same sort of argument as there was in Iran. Instead, we’ve had the ongoing debates over the relationship between blogging and journalism.

Nevertheless, it strikes me that English language political blogging is still an emphatically vulgar activity – it demands a straightforward, relatively direct writing style that readers can easily understand. There’s a set of unwritten rules of rhetoric among blogs, which tend to militate against jargon and indirect argument. CT is a bit of an outlier in this regard – we do occasionally have quite technical posts or lengthy and discursive ones – but we’re still far closer in writing style to, say, Kevin Drum, than to the average academic journal article.

While expert knowledge provides clear advantages, it doesn’t preserve the expert from the frequent necessity of having to muck in with her commenters in order to get her point across. This has its disadvantages, as witnessed by the ever recurring statistically illiterate nonsense about the Lancet. Still, in general, it’s a good thing. Blogging is vulgar in the original meaning of the word – it’s ‘of the crowd,’ and bloggers who try to keep their readers at a distance are likely to find themselves without any. I suspect that this is why some blogs that one might have expected to have a substantial impact in the blogosphere, such as the Becker-Posner blog, have been relative failures. They try to play by a different set of rules. The Becker-Posner blog has interesting arguments, but it’s rather reminiscent of those German academic seminars where the senior professors talk exclusively to each other, and the junior people are supposed to be edified by the conversation. There’s not much of a sense of open dialogue to it – and open, democratic, sometimes demagogic dialogue is what the blogosphere is about (and, for all its faults, should be about).



Keith 03.29.05 at 3:16 pm

it’s unsurprising that there hasn’t been the same sort of argument as there was in Iran.

You obviously haven’t heard ALA President-Elect Michael Gorman’s recent opinion about bloggers. While he doesn’t throw a fit about our grammar, he does mock the size of our brow.


Winston Smith 03.29.05 at 3:52 pm

It seems like grammatical issues are far less important than substantive ones. If “intellectual overreach” means what it sounds like it means, then that’s a far bigger problem than mere ungrammaticalilty or vulgarity or lack of literary flair.

Doesn’t it seem like blogging encourages people to discuss things they know little about, and discuss them before they’ve even had time to think much about them? Is there any way that could not be bad? (


Winston Smith 03.29.05 at 3:54 pm

Um, dunno why my comment was cut off in the middle, but the rest went like so:

(That question is real, not rhetorical).

I still have loosely-related worries about cyberbalkanization, too, though the consensus seems to be that that’s not something we need to worry about.


Louis Proyect 03.29.05 at 4:15 pm

Blogs like Crooked Timber occupy a sort of netherworld between academia and the rabble that Iranian intellectuals sniff at. For example, when I mentioned to my own mailing list of 735 subscribers that I was engaged in a debate here, they didn’t appear to realize that CT existed. Most of them probably have much in common with the Iranian sans-culotte bloggers in a class sense, but prefer listservs to blogging since that is a more horizontal form of communication. I always get the sense when I am writing something in these stupid little forms that somebody is looking down at me from a podium.

There are some exceptions to the rule, I should say. Lenin’s Tomb is a Marxmail subscriber, but rarely has anything to say–he obviously prefers blogging.

Here’s my own take on the kind of blogging represented by CT, Cliopatria, etc. I look at it as gossip catered to the faculty club. It has the same kind of mixture of intellectual pretense and celebrity dirt-dishing that distinguished (for the lack of a better word) Lingua Franca.

For the ordinary working slob like myself who has a smattering of knowledge about the culture wars, it is more entertaining than Doonesbury, for example. But not much more than that. If I really wanted to learn something, I’d take a book out of the Columbia Library–not read CT.


Kieran Healy 03.29.05 at 4:17 pm

If I really wanted to learn something, I’d take a book out of the Columbia Library—not read CT.

And here you are nevertheless, Louis. What conclusion should I draw?


praktike 03.29.05 at 4:53 pm

Pardon my vulgar ignorance, but what’s the point of the academic writing style anyway? I’ve always thought that language was about communication and persuasion rather than obfuscation. Hence, I’ve never understood why academic writing is so deliberately awful.


Anne 03.29.05 at 5:12 pm

I don’t think it’s that academic language is “deliberately awful.” It just strains for the appearance of objectivity while it struggles for precision, the words least likely to be misunderstood by the reader. (The more comman a word is, the more “alternate” or “tangential” definitions it’s likely to have. The less-common, the more likely it is to have one primary meaning understood by almost everyone. )

Also, I think they get paid by the syllable.


praktike 03.29.05 at 5:14 pm

Well, I don’t think it’s necessarily a question of vocabulary alone. Sentence structure doesn’t need to be overly complex in order for clarity to follow.


Kieran Healy 03.29.05 at 5:23 pm

Sentence structure doesn’t need to be overly complex in order for clarity to follow.

Try parsing that one, for example.


Jonathan 03.29.05 at 5:39 pm


Certain fields, such as literary theory, have a well-deserved reputation for clear and jargon-free writing. Others (economics, analytic philosophy) do tend to use excessive jargon, though untangling the formalisms in those documents can also be tough.


praktike 03.29.05 at 5:50 pm

I seem to have struck a nerve and derailed the conversation. To the barricades, academe!

Kieran rightly drubs me, however. Let me rephrase:

In order to be precise and clear, it is not necessary to write complicated sentences. Nor, moreover, do complex ideas require complex grammar. This is particularly the case if one’s goal is to explicate or persuade rather than to befuddle.


Barry Freed 03.29.05 at 5:58 pm

Please, please, PLEASE, call it “Persian.”

The only reason it’s become known in English as “Farsi” is because the State Department and CIA were too damned ignorant of Iranian culture too know that we already had a perfectly good English word for the language.

Shall we call German, “Deutsch” or French “Francais” or Arabic “`Arabiyya”? And, I might add, mangle the pronunciation as well.


Barry Freed 03.29.05 at 6:03 pm

And let me add that both Scott McLemee and Alireza Doostdar both eschew “Farsi” for the correct English word “Persian,” so you have no excuse.


joel turnipseed 03.29.05 at 6:18 pm

Jonathan — you jest? No one writes so badly these days as the average professor of English (James Wood, visiting Harvard, does not count).

As for blogging: I spent the afternoon reading Connolly’s Enemies of Promise out in the garden (bereft even of weeds, but it’s finally spring in Minneapolis) and am freshly reminded that I should not succumb so readily to the poppy of (especially asynchronous, typed) conversation…


Jonathan 03.29.05 at 6:24 pm

I must certainly do not jest. The average English professor is the best academic writer on any given faculty, as even a cursory examination will show.


joel turnipseed 03.29.05 at 7:18 pm

Jonathan! You suggest (though I have no power to implement) a Crooked Timber challenge: a random selection of papers from, e.g., MLA, APA, AHA–to be judged by a panel of competent prose readers taken from a broad selection of disciplines for the best and worst writing.

My own hunch is that, among major disciplines, the break-down for best would be:

1) Philosophy

2) History

3) Classics/Religious Studies

4) Political Science

5) Economics

6) Mathematics

7) AFSCME Janitor’s Subcommittee

8) Information/Library Science

9) Random Selection from Computer Lab Recycling Bin

10) English


Jonathan 03.29.05 at 7:44 pm

Joel, I’d be careful about ranking economics so highly. The journal Economics and Literature used to run a “Bad Writing” contest filled with incomprehensible examples taken from the best economics journals.


joel turnipseed 03.29.05 at 8:01 pm

I’m tweaking you: though, coming as I do from analytic philosophy background, I think it’s not even a contest between prose inheritors of Russell, Wittgenstein, Davidson and those of Derrida, Lacan, Foucault…

Also, my grandfather was an economist and not a bad writer: nor were, say, Arrow, Samuelson, Boulding… Herbert Simon when writing economics; even in Mathematics, you’ve got tremendous writers in Hardy, Kac, Wiener…


Jonathan 03.29.05 at 8:16 pm

Oh, I agree that they’re not all bad. The aforementioned Economics and Literature has a special issue coming out on Schumpeter’s rhetoric, and I take a volume of Business Cycles with me to bed each night.


seth edenbaum 03.29.05 at 11:51 pm

My god this conversation is perverse.
we’re talking about the public sphere. And someone is complementing Philosophy texts?
Jesis Fucking Christ. My choice for best writer I’ve read on the web would be a toss up between Riverbend and Belle de Jour.
Writing as writing is a literary act, and academics by and large suck at it.

“On one side were members of the roshanfekr class — meaning those writers and intellectuals possessing an “enlightened mind,” but also a certain degree of education, sophistication, and social prestige. The term, writes Doostdar, “has historically come to represent one who is conversant with modernist or postmodernist discourses, is a humanist, feels a certain commitment toward the well-being of his or her won society, and continually and publically [criticizes] the values, norms, and behaviors of that society.”

This has a lot more to do with the argument over whether one should write in latin than with the ins and out of the technics of academic analysis. I’d prefer eith side of the debate in iran to the crap in english. Humanism? Where is that in evidence much on the English speaking web? The web is populated by enthusiastic tech heads, futurists and geeks who do calculations and imagine they represent the world. The web in Iran and China, and frankly for Belle d. and Riverbend was and is the only way to communicate otherwise common human concerns.

None of you hsve any sense of the value of the literary, of the community of language, in English, Persian or any other language. You’re all more interested in being right than in being good at something, which is the poet’s or the craftsman’s -or woman’s- desire. It’s why lawyers laugh out loud at at HLA fucking Hart. Conciousness is logic to you people, and that’s absurd. It’s like saying justice is the words in a book.
You talk in schemas. Writers describe, as lawyers perform law.

And your friend Ophelia Benson argues the logic of religion with believers. Any anthropologist worth his weight in sand will laugh and walk away. I keep hoping for better. it’s not gonna happen


joel turnipseed 03.30.05 at 1:36 am

seth — calm down. Henry’s words are apposite here:

“… open, democratic, sometimes demagogic dialogue is what the blogosphere is about (and, for all its faults, should be about).”

Conversation, side-conversation, tangent and loop are what make the bustle of CT (and all free talk) so intriguing. In a discussion of the relative merits of blogging versus more refined academic writing, it is hardly surprising that Jonathan and I engaged in a little jawing about the relative prose merits of disciplines within academic writing.

As for “a sense of the value of the literary” and the rest of your penultimate paragraph: you hoist yerself by your own pike. And while you’re hanging there, looking every bit the angry doofus, allow me to ask whether a craftsman can be good at something if he is not also right about it–and vice-versa? It’s an old question, but eternally interesting. In wrapping up Connolly’s Enemies of Promise this evening, I was just thinking how like Socrates’ line of questioning were his judgements and cautions (and how fitting those cautions were to the question of whether or not blogging’s casual nature is or isn’t, as Socrates might have asked at Plato’s hand long before the Iranian spate over the matter, damaging).


des von bladet 03.30.05 at 5:50 am

Plus, of course, no corner of the Intarweb can consider itself properly turned out until a neo-scholastic philosopher has congratulated themself on their Clarety Rigger and disparaged some French persons.

But in the meantime I have learned that “Farsi” = Persian, so I’m still ahead of the game.


seth edenbaum 03.30.05 at 7:42 am

Did I say it was a new subject? I said it was ignored. Plato’s rigor is as formal as any other dramatist- his politics grotesque. And Connolly is the perfect critic for the age of ideology: a failed one.
I’ll take Euripides any day.


Rob 03.30.05 at 7:45 am

I’m going to go out on a limb here, and say that whilst a lot of academic philosophers do write very well – Scanlon, I think, is one – a lot of them write awfully – Rawls, here, must the prosecution’s prime evidence: a Theory of Justice is about four hundred pages too long. Equally, a lot of Continental Philosophers are nigh-on unreadable: Habermas at his worst is atrocious, and the little Derrida I’ve encountered is simply incomprehensible, jargon-ridden, nonsense, although both of these may stem (partly) from translation problems. Barthes, though, I like (again, the little I’ve read).

As for seth, if practice is what matters, then what philosophers do matters.


seth edenbaum 03.30.05 at 7:43 pm

Scientists do not ‘practice’ science.
And logical analysis is now akin to science, right?

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