Last week saw the awards ceremony of the Orwell Prize, with a dinner afterwards. Congratulations to the winners - Johann Hari for his journalism, Raja Shehadeh for his book, Palestinian Walks, and Clive James for his lifetime of broadcasting. It was a generally splendid occasion, with some excellent speeches by Tony Wright MP, Clive James and others.
The British establishment's relationship with Orwell is always somewhat perplexing. On the one hand, the celebration of Orwell reveals British intellectualism in the best possible light. Critical, thoughtful, elegantly expressed, fearless and independent. Every speaker stressed that these were the most important features of all political writing and journalism, with Clive James mentioning that Orwell was proud to call himself a journalist.
More interesting still, celebrations of Orwell are rare instances of British public recognition that language has a politics. One suspects that were it not for Orwell, the British would allow the French to have a monopoly on semiotics (although heaven forbid that anyone on this side of the channel call it that). Were it not for Orwell, our political culture might have been given over to the positivists once and for all; save for Orwell there would be no recognition that politics must risk relativism because it involves multiplicity of perspectives. As I tried, in vain, to explain to some of my dinner companions, there is not that much of a gulf separating what Orwell was trying to say about language from what some French structuralists and post-structuralists were saying.
Why will the Orwell lobby not accept such a thing? In all liklihood it comes down to a piece of reasoning that Tony Wright displayed during his talk. Just as he was getting into his stride, attacking spin, obfuscation, and political double-speak, and just as I was beginning to feel entirely at home in this crowd of independent-minded columnists and politicians, he had to go one step too far. The next target, I felt sadly, was social scientists and theorists.
This is the territory of Karl Popper, Ralf Dahrendorf and Isiah Berlin: the emigre, conservative-liberal mentality in which purveyors of complicated ideas are equally suspect as the commanders of tanks. Kant threatens to destroy democracy, while Hegel is almost accused of inventing totalitarianism. In the late 20th century, Althusser becomes an especially popular target, while Foucault, Derrida and others are attacked for having no concept of truth (err.. but wasn't it the production of historical 'truth' that made Karl Marx supposedly so dangerous?). For committing the grievous political sin of being unclear, Tony Wright lumps these figures together with Alastair Campbell, Rupert Murdoch and - who knows - maybe more tyrannical manipulators of language.
As for sociologists, they refuse to use language in a 'normal' fashion, and are therefore equally suspect, if not as dangerous. They are obviously only speaking to each other, and therefore of no political or public relevance. Why can't they just exercise common sense using the English vernacular? Well, at least two reasons spring to mind.
Firstly, the object of social science, unlike natural science, already has a linguistic account of itself. If sociology were to stick faithfully to lingua franca, it would simply duplicate society's existing narrative. Maybe the Orwellians would like this, but then how would the linguistic politics (that Orwellians claim to be in touch with) be highlighted and deconstructed? I agree that it is sometimes irritating when sociologists constantly distance themselves from their own constructions in favour of new ones, but how much worse is it (as Orwell saw) to assert ones constructions into the status of unambivalent reality?
Secondly, the linguistic account that society already has of itself is far from perfect. The lingua franca can be racist, sexist, class-ridden and so on. When Marx 'named' capital, he was providing a language that deliberately defied a liberal vocabulary which could only conceptualise, say, an immigrant being exploited at the bottom end (or black end) of the labour market using the language of 'choice', 'freedom' and 'incentives'. Moreover, Tony Wright et al may believe that they uphold higher standards of linguistic transparency than sociologists, but you don't hear sociologists referring to each other as 'the right honourable gentleman'.
So there we have Orwellian culture in all its ambiguity. The closest the British establishment can get to cultural sociology, but still terrified of cultural sociology. I suspect Michel Foucault would have approved of George Orwell, but, if the latter's fanclub are to be believed, the reverse could scarcely have been further from the case. A slight shame, I think.