Thursday, July 25, 2013

The uninhabited clause (16)

On this blog, I have often discussed the uninhabited clause* – a clause with a subject that is a physical thing or a concept, as opposed to a person or group of persons. For example, “Saturn is a planet” is an uninhabited clause. There is nothing inherently wrong with using uninhabited clauses. But when we use a lot of them, we bore and exhaust our readers.


Recently Abbie Bakan delivered a stultifying speech consisting almost entirely of uninhabited clauses. For example, here are Ms. Bakan’s first five paragraphs:

MARXISM IS, of course, an extremely useful frame for explaining the nature and limits of present-day global capitalism and imperialism. At its best, creative Marxism offers a realistic strategy for envisioning a new world of human freedom.

But there is a strand of Marxism that, in its relationship to feminism, is troubling, and merits close analysis and theorization. I want to suggest a very simple argument--that the theoretical claim that there is grounds for a coherent Marxist approach that is for "women's liberation," while against "feminism," makes no sense. It is unclear and unhelpful.

A strand of Marxism, what could be termed Marxist Anti-Feminism (or MAF), has diminished the contributions of feminism in such a way that distorts, rather than advances, historical materialist analysis. In so doing, MAF hampers our understanding of both women's liberation and Marxism.

Alternatively, as Marxists, we would be better served to start from a position that looks at feminism as a positive--if diverse--contribution to an emancipatory project. From this perspective, we can build a constructive and creative dialogue between and within Marxism (or, more accurately, Marxisms), and feminism (or, again more accurately, feminisms).

At best, a Marxist theoretical starting point that rejects feminism is confusing. The risks of confusion are paralysis and divisiveness, creating an unnecessary chasm among like-minded activists and scholars.


Ms. Bakan selected non-human subjects 18 times:

Marxism is
Marxism offers
strand is
that is
that merits
argument makes
claim makes
grounds is [sic for are]
that is
It is
strand has diminished
that distorts
that advances
MAF hampers
that looks at
point is
that rejects
risks are

And human subjects only 3 times:

I want
we would be served
we can build

A livelier version

By putting in more people, Ms. Bakan could have made her speech more lively and powerful. For example, here is how the first paragraph might read:

I am sure you know that Marxism has been extremely useful to us. We have used it to explain the nature and limits of present-day global capitalism and imperialism. Many of you have done that and are doing that. And you probably also know that we can go even farther. We can use creative Marxism to build a realistic strategy – a strategy for envisioning a new world of human freedom.

This version of the first paragraph contains eight personal pronouns. Ms. Bakan’s version contained none.

The Takeaway: Unless you are writing about abstract topics such as metaphysics or mathematics, you should strive to include persons in most of your clauses. Otherwise, you will sound academic and boring. Intelligent readers will notice that you have worked hard to undermine your own points. At best, they will ignore you. At worst, they will distrust you.**

See disclaimer.

*My coinage, so far as I know.

**I would be afraid to do business with anyone who writes this way – unless he were hiring me to improve his writing. Even then, I would ask for payment in advance.

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