Saturday, July 20, 2013

How to Write Bad Social Criticism

 The other day, I bought The Consumer Society Reader, edited by Juliet Schor and Douglas Holt, at a used bookstore. The book had some familiar texts---Adorno and Horkheimer's The Culture Inudstry and Thorstein Veblen's The Theory of the Leisure Class--and a number that I had never read before.  Although most of the scholars who contributed to the collection are critical of consumer society, one section featured works by consumer society's advocates.  Included among those was James Twitchell's "Two Cheers for Materialism."  The title appears to be an allusion to Irving Kristol's well-known work Two Cheers for Capitalism---Kristol held back the last "cheer" because of capitalism's failure to cater to humanity's spiritual needs. Twitchell, however, never carries through with the scheme presented by the title, denying the reader the knowledge of why he is holding back a third "cheer"--or what any of the "cheers" are.

Twitchell's article, in many ways, offers a valuable case study in how not to write social criticism.  I've listed the lessons below.

How to write bad social criticism:

(1) Lump together similarly minded critics whom you dislike and generalize their argument in order to empty it of any nuance or intent.
(2) Offer no citations or textual evidence when disagreeing with other critics. Better yet, cite nothing and no one at all.
(3) Make up your own words, and don't bother to define them.
(4) Toss around abstract/conceptual terms like "freedom" and "democracy" without ever providing your definition for what such words mean.
(5) Make an allusion to a well-known piece of social criticism in your title, and then ever refer to that original text anywhere in your work. Also, proceed to ignore the argument or scheme you made by your title when writing.

Also, another good lesson--which we can learn from the author although not this text in particular--is that you shouldn't plagiarize.

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