Thursday, May 6, 2010

Academic Jargon

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.
                                                                                          - Judith Butler, “Further Reflections on the Conversations of Our Time.”

This sentence by the brilliant and famous Judith Butler won the firt prize at the Worst Writing Contest. The talented but mostly unreadable Homi Bhabha took second prize with the following monstrosity:
If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.

So why do these extremely gifted thinkers write in a way that makes their ideas almost completely inaccessible even to the readers who are pretty well-versed in the academic jargon? Do they care at all that a larger reading audience becomes completely inaccessible to them as a result of these convoluted sentence structures? To my huge surprise, I discovered a while ago that there is an actual purpose and a much-discussed ideology behind this use of language.

In their book Just Being Difficult?: Academic Writing in the Public Arena (Cultural Memory in the Present), Dr. Jonathan Culler and his colleagues defend the right of academics to employ extremely obscure language in their writing. They maintain that they have no interest in attracting the kind of readership that would be put off but endless sentences, confusing verbal structures, and abstruse vocabulary.

And that is where I have to disagree. Members of academia are the favorite object of derision that even the most liberal media love to ridicule. For the far right extremists, we are the most hateful group of people par excellence. In the US culture (just like in Franco's fascist Spain), intelligence, learning, bookishness, a dedication to intellectual endeavors are seen as silly, laughable, and pathetic. Whenever a college professor appears on a TV show or in an American movie, we immediately know that s/he will turn out to be either a monster or a freak. At the very best, they will be presented as pitiful. The message our students are getting on a regular basis is that knowledge is only needed insofar as it can help them find a better job. Reading for pleasure, cultivating oneself intellectually, pursuing knowledge for any reason other than ingratiating oneself with an employer are woefully out of vogue today. Can we truly afford to turn away those of our students who might be willing to learn, think, and enrich themselves intellectually but are unable to wade through convoluted sentences of some of our leading academics?

That is why I like Terry Eagleton so much. He writes in a way that any reasonably intelligent person will be able to read and enjoy. His writing is clear, funny, accessible but at the same time incisive, lucid, and profound.

In no way does this liteary critic and philosopher try to dumb down his ideas out of some misguided need to condescend to his readers. His ideas are so powerful and engaging in themselves that making them clear to others is not that hard.

For the longest time, I was convinced that the only acceptable way for an academic to write was to imitate Homi Bhabha, Judith Butler, and other masters of the inaccessible prose. I learned to construct preciously convoluted and painfully jargony sentences. To tell the truth, I actually enjoy writing a la Judith Butler. Something in me relishes the act of creating a sentence that runs for an entire page. Or even longer. However, after I started reading those academics who make clarity and precision the central goal of their writing, I realized that all I'd been doing with my complex and incomprehensible paragraphs was aimed at building a huge and impenetrable ivory tower around myself.

Of course, it's harder for us to make our ideas understood than for those who manipulate the public with facile slogans. It is harder to analyze things intellectually than to screech about "traditional values," "American freedoms," "big governments," and "accepting Jesus as your personal savior." But unless we make the effort to make our ideas known, these meaningless pronouncements will exist in an intellectual vacuum. Younger generations will buy into them simply because there is nothing else. We need to start offering an alternative. And we need to do it in a language that has the capacity of being understood.


Izgad said...

My philosophy is that if a college graduate (with a valid education) not from your field cannot understand what you are saying then you should be rethinking how you write.

Clarissa said...

Exactly! This is precisely the rule I try to follow in my writing.

That's why blogging is so useful. It helps me to school my writing in the direction of being clearer and more incisive. I hope.

Steve Hayes said...

I agree with what Stanislav Andreski says in his book Social sciences as sorcery: "The attraction of jargon and obfuscating convolutions can be fully explained by the normal striving of humans for emoluments and prestige at the least cost to
themselves, the cost in question consisting of the mental effort and danger of 'sticking one's neck out' or 'putting one's foot in it'. In addition to eliminating such risks, as well as the need to learn much, nebulous verbosity
opens a road to the most prestigious academic posts to people of small intelligence whose limitations would stand naked if they had to state what they
have to say clearly and succinctly."

Clarissa said...

Thank you for this great quote, Steve Hayes!! It will go on the door of my office.

Pagan Topologist said...

I do not agree at all. I think that many people willfully refuse to understand my field, but even if they did not do so, it would take more effort than most non-mathematicians are willing to devote to read one of my research papers.

Clarissa said...

We are talking about the Humanities, of course. Obviously, mathematics is different. But if you can't talk about Dickens, Picasso, or the American Constitution in a way that is comprehensible to reasonably educated people, something must be wrong.

Pagan Topologist said...

"if you can't talk about Dickens, Picasso, or the American Constitution in a way that is comprehensible to reasonably educated people, something must be wrong."

Certainly that is true. But, even there, some subtle ideas may be impossible to discuss without some technical terminology.

Khephra said...

Style of writing can be a rather intimate form of expression and people can grow quite concretized in their modes of transaction. For these reasons and more, discussing someone's style of writing can get rather contentious. Not all messages are meant for all ears. For example, have you ever read any Gurdjieff? Or how about Francis Bacon?

However, I do agree that clarity fosters understanding far better than circumlocuity. Butler, and others of her ilk, write for a specific audience. As a result, their ideas remain largely compartmentalized within their circles of association. I don't see this as an especially constructive strategy.

Have you read Fuller's 'The Intellectual'? He's very critical of Butler and others like her... You can find a review for it @ my blog.

Izgad said...

"if you can't talk about Dickens, Picasso, or the American Constitution in a way that is comprehensible to reasonably educated people, something must be wrong."
I would insist that any discussion of the Constitution be conducted with an awareness of classical thinkers like Cicero and Aristotle, who were so critical for the Founding Fathers. This would invalidate most of our modern day discourse on the Constitution.

Steve Hayes said...

Clarissa, there's a lot more where that came from. I like Andreski because he demystifies his own field, even though I don't agree with everything he writes about his own field (he ascribed the Great European Witchhunt to the spread of syphilis, for example.

For Pagan Topologist: Andreski recommends certain books on the philosophy of science, which he says are complex texts, but not written in obfuscating jargon. If you read those and can't understand them, then you will do well to avoid books with high-powered abstractions. But if you can understand them, then any convoluted academic jargon-filled writing that you can't understand is probably bullshit.

You might enjoy this, as well:

"One of the manifestations (unimportant in itself but very revealing) of the timorous but disingenuous humility characteristic of a burrowing apparatchik is the taboo on the word `I'. `One still shudders at the arrogance of the author in
his repetitive use of the first singular concerning complex issues' - says a reviewer of one of my books, who for all I know may be the only creature in whom
this obscene word can induce actual shudders, although by saying `one' instead of `I' he implies that most of his readers suffer from this allergy. I doubt
whether the reviewer in question favours the majestic first plural normal among the older French writers, and still common among their successors, but which in
England is reserved for the Queen. Presumably he prefers the anonymous `it', and likes to see an expression like `I think that ...' replaced by `it is hypothesized ...', which, apart from expurgating the dirty word `to think') ministers to the bureaucratic underling's predilection for submissive anonymity combined with oracular authority. I do not see why declaring that I - a mortal and fallible man but entitled to express his opinions - hold this or that view should be more arrogant than pretending to be the Voice of Science"

NancyP said...

There's nothing wrong about using technical terminology when such terms are defined and used in a consistent manner in professional / technical / specialist-directed papers and books.

There are two reading audiences, specialist and non-specialist, and it is OK to address only one of them in any given article/paper/book.

NancyP said...

re: Andreski

Orwell's article, "Politics and the English Language", makes a similar point about jargon.

~5,500 words. Assign this essay in any class in which students write essays in English.