Nuance is a hell of a drug

Nuance is a hell of a drug. It starts harmlessly enough at university, with the suggestion that life is more complicated than it first appears. Left at this, most people will dabble in nuance, even producing some interesting insights.

But for a vulnerable few, nuance is a slippery slope.

Before you know it, you can’t talk about something like gender or nationality without mentioning semiotics, de-centred subjects and normativity. Instead of disagreeing, you “problematise”. Concepts start to fragment into dozens of other concepts, none of which hold up any more than the first.

Suppose you are interested in economics. But then you realise every economic structure also has a cultural, legal, political, gendered, racial, linguistic (and so on) aspect. No structure exists without human subjects. Unless you want to fall into “essentialism” – one of the least nuanced things possible – you have to account for the multiple facets of the subject, including identity, imagination, the unconscious, language (and so on.) Then you have to historicise it all. History implies an ontology. Ontology raises epistemological questions.

Next thing you know, you wake up at a conference on “Hermeneutics, bio-politics and performativity”. You look in the mirror and see a PhD student in year five of a three-year candidacy. Despite your secret self-loathing, you sneer at simple-minded folk who can’t comprehend the vast array of abstractions, details and caveats that you can. The only other people you know who are as nuanced as yourself can be counted on one hand. You are no fun at parties.

It’s mostly academia that produces these broken souls. There is an implicit ideology in academia, one that is usually unspoken. Articulating it renders it ridiculous. The idea is that by producing highly specialised academic research, one contributes to something called “Universal Human Knowledge”. Your right to contribute towards Universal Human Knowledge depends on originality. So does securing a job – because to get a job you need to be published, which again requires originality. Nuance is the cheapest way to be original.

Indeed, nuance can be a power trip. Kieran Healy, associate professor of sociology at Duke University in the US, points this out in an excellent paper, appropriately titled “Fuck Nuance”. Anyone who suggests that a certain topic is perhaps more nuanced than initially suggested is, he says, also suggesting that perhaps they are a much more perceptive and intelligent person. If only everyone could be nuanced, maybe we wouldn’t be in this mess.

One might be tempted to respond to this in a decidedly un-nuanced way. Yet Healy suggests that instead of letting nuance dominate us, we must master it. After all, if you want to answer difficult questions, you are going to need nuance at some point. And that is fine. The problem arises when nuance gets in the way of understanding essential truths clearly.

There is a lovely story in John Reed’s account of the Russian Revolution, Ten days that shook the world. It recounts an argument between an intellectual “Marxian student” and a soldier, the latter recently politicised and embarrassed about his own lack of learning. The Marxian student browbeats the soldier, informing him that the October revolution was premature and that Russia isn’t ready for socialism.

The worker can respond only by saying, “But it seems to me there are only two classes, the bourgeoisie and the proletariat … and whoever isn’t on one side is on the other”. The soldier might be wrong on the specifics, but he has grasped the essential truth of the situation. It is better to be crude and right than sophisticated and wrong.

But we can’t leave it there. To paraphrase Marx, if the truth were immediately apparent, there would be no need for theory. Common sense, by disavowing abstraction and complexity, accepts the world as it seems. But the appearance of the world is where it is most abstract.

Take a simple example: money. Everyone knows how to use money, how to get money and why it is so important. And yet it is one of the most abstract things you can think of. Money isn’t comparable to any single thing, but is a means to almost everything. As well as a universal means, it becomes a universal end: accumulation as the insatiable goal of capitalist competition. One of the most readily available objects we can think of is also one of the most abstract and complex. To comprehend the abstract nature of money concretely, you have to use theory. This is what Marx’s Capital is about.

So the answer to nuance addiction is not crude common sense. The answer to crude common sense is not an impenetrable forest of detail. Rather, we need the right concepts and the right details.

To understand anything, you have to grasp what is essential about it. This means privileging concepts. Marxists privilege class. Class is more essential to how capitalism works than concepts like nationality, gender and language. Clearly, we shouldn’t exclude these other concepts from the picture. But a nuance addict who insists that the real world is always “more complex” is covertly reinforcing the common sense picture of the world: that it is unintelligible and should be accepted as it is.