Thin skins and the muddled mess of academic Jargon

Thin skins and the muddled mess of academic Jargon October 3, 2016
Image by Karen White (CC BY 2.0)

A longstanding pet hate of mine is just how rife the arts and humanities have become with a particular brand of obscurantist (postmodern inspired) academic jargon. Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont did an admirable job of skewering some of these tendencies as they related to the (mis)use of mathematics by French post modern intellectuals in their book Fashionable Nonsense (1997). Sadly a decade later not much has improved.

This brings me to an article published back in July this year by Zachary Foster at the Times Higher Education Supplement titled ‘How not to write: 14 tips for aspiring humanities academics‘. I would advise everyone to read the full article, which is actually quite brief, but below are a selection of some of my favourite excerpts:

Verbs. Use verbs along with their passives in the same sentence as often as possible, as in “I will address the spatial and temporal re-mapping of these two distinct traumatic memories as they shape and are shaped by one another.” … This signals you have mastered the passive tense, and that the passive tense has been mastered by you.

The re-prefix. You should repeat and re-repeat verbs as often as possible with a re-prefix. Aim to frame and re-frame, imagine and re-imagine, inscribe and re-inscribe. This signals and re-signals to your readers that you are in command of revisionism.

Trends. Nothing is stable or monolithic. Everything is fluid, fragmented, hybrid, multi-directional and unsusceptible to articulation. There are multiple modernities. Memory is polymorphous. Nothing is spatially fixed or geography-bound. The line between words and things is permeable. Binary oppositions are evil. Decentre everything. Blur boundaries.

As the article itself successfully lampoons the dominant trends in arts & humanities writing the comments under the article are dominated by po-faced acolytes of this style of writing who appear to have bristled at every point raised by the author, whom several emphasis is but a mere PhD candidate:

ciriak: “Why is this graduate student so publicly devaluing the work of his field’s superiors? If you don’t see the value in some of these concepts, perhaps you need a refresher course, not a public forum to air your grievances.”

godard: “i find this grad student’s mocking attitude rather troubling… mr. foster is working towards taking his petulance and sense of entitlement to his first academic job.”

The criticism in the article which is presented with tongue-firmly-in-cheek seems to have hit a little too close to home for some but certainly not close enough that it might motivate self reflection. Nope, instead most critical commentators focus on Zachary’s position in the academic hierarchy and infer that he is a defender of Eurocentrism, a ‘perfect’ candidate for Trump’s team, and perhaps even a Zionist (based on googling/misreading a paper he published on historical usage of the term Palestine)!

every1991: The author is a perfect candidate for a cabinet level position in the Trump administration. I’m sure he’s a pleasure to have in seminars.

I didn’t see anything in the piece that would supports such assertions but it is increasingly commonplace for those who do not endorse a particular set of far-left academic, social and political views to be demonised by their critics as being advocates of some monolithic neocon Western imperialist project. This is nonsense, of course, since the world doesn’t fall so neatly into binary ideological camps. Moreover, there is no need to endorse relativist obscurantism in order to oppose imperialism or present a compelling case for people and groups who are marginalised or discriminated against to receive attention and respect. Indeed, it is likely that using clearer language and making arguments coherently would actually help in communicating such messages more effectively.

Some also take Zachary to task for being guilty in his own writing of replicating some of the sins he highlights. I’m sure he is since it is almost impossible to be involved with academia and not fall into certain widespread conventions. But I didn’t see anything in the piece to imply that he was claiming to be immune to everything he was criticising, rather the article just humorously highlights some lamentable but remarkably widespread writing conventions in the arts and humanities that serve to obfuscate meaning usually in the service of uncritically signalling adherence to a particular academic tribe.

There is a deep irony in those that like to lay claim to be convention smashing and iconoclastic displaying such slavish devotion and reactionary defensiveness about jargon filled, obscurantist writing which owes a large debt to various elite French intellectuals. But unfortunately it seems that such ironies remain lost on those that would benefit most from recognising them.

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