That wonderful compliment was originally meant as an insult. I earned the soubriquet a few years ago for my penchant for reducing reducible jargon to sentences your average bloke could understand. “It is more complex than that,” always seemed to follow these famous condensations, as if all the ornament that surrounds an idea necessarily reflects a morsel of reality. Later, the epithet came to include more and more of my discourse, not just my translations from English to English. Think about it, not just vulgar, but a vulgarizer. Herein lies the threat. To be simply vulgar gives your audience a chance to dismiss you on aesthetic grounds, the great distinction of Bourdieu, but to dare refract the great pretentions of the so-called sophisticated in such a way that their core ideas undress before the world, now there is a transgression. No need here to go into the origins of the word vulgar or any discussions about elitism. It would be more rewarding for now to look at the possibility of vulgarizing as a form of dissent.
For a long time during my bookish journey, I used my familiarity with the world of words to distinguish myself from those around me. No one has to sell me on the pleasures of arrogance. I know the appeal of weaving language and knowledge around the heads of others. Changing gears came perhaps in a few stages, a few episodes. God knows, coming from Santo Domingo I received a sound education in vulgarity at an early age, and this was what my books were there to counteract. For many years while I read and read and read, I grew farther and farther apart from this world, until a form of solitude set in. A few important episodes came while I was an undergrad at FIU to maneuver me in the opposite direction. One day while chatting about poetry with my first real mentor, Philip Marcus, I made some disparaging comments about poetry.com, to which he quickly responded with that kind of endearing scorn that only true mentors can muster, “at least they are writing poems, Alex.” The glace began to melt on my pretentions. In the office next door, on a similar afternoon and surrounded by countless books, Butler Waugh famously declared in his unforgettable hoarse voice, “in this world there are only three things I like: I like to read, I like to drink and I like to fuck.” A confession which took me many more years to appreciate; these frank words are now a kind of a mantra for me.
By the time I came to graduate school, you could already see inklings of the great vulgarizations of the future. In those days you could probably ascribe my controversial statements to the pleasures of shock, an early form of resistance, not to hypocrisy, but to timidity. Soon it became apparent that a certain form of Puritanism was the order of the day and that I was being remonstrated not for intimidating the timid, but for breaking certain unspoken laws of discourse. My first official assignment came back with an F grade. It was one of those things you write and email everybody in class for review. The subject was Eugene O’neill’s “Desire Under the Elms.” My essay —entitled “Desire Under Her Elms”— argued rather convincingly that the play functioned like a penis, limp at first, slowly becoming erect, eventually ejaculating all over the audience: F + 2 weeks worth of hate-mail from other students, one of which called me the “most offensive person she had ever met.” Knowing very well that my analysis of the play was not too shabby, and considering everyone chose to go after the shell rather than engage with the argument per say, I realized right away that I was on to something.
What exactly then does a vulgarizer resist? The answer should be apparent by now: Hypocrisy, whether it is unconscious, such as the divide between theory and practice, the rational and the irrational; pre-conscious, such as literary pretensions or sexual mores; or conscious, such as political wriggling or the neo-liberal gospel. To vulgarize is to inflate cultural capital so that it gradually loses its value. Do not despair if you can’t understand this last paragraph, I will vulgarize it for you in postings to come.