Simple problems, complex solutions

Eila’s class has had a visit from the school nurse, and we now have the 6-Step Guide to Hand Washing pasted up on the bathroom mirror.  The 6th step is “turn off the tap with a paper towel.”  I don’t know what to tell Eila about this, except maybe “not in this house, Missy.”  It’s not really an issue, though, because we don’t own any paper towels.

As often as it can, Arts and Letters Daily links to pieces criticizing academic jargon.  The most famous is Dennis Dutton’s devastation of Judith Butler from a few years back (to which she offered a surprisingly generous and unjargonly response).  Yesterday’s example, from Russell Jacoby, might not be as funny as Dutton’s, but is probably truer.  Jacoby rants away about the ubiquity of “problematization,” “recontextualization,” and “fragmentation,” however his point is not that the thinking behind the terminology is wrong, but rather that it’s mostly trite — we already all knew that the world was complicated and that important questions were best examined from many angles and on several levels.  I agree with him, and, hey, I should know – it’s my language.

Jacoby’s real bugbear is the claim, typical of recent scholarship from many disciplines, that we need to move beyond “binary oppositions.”  He suggests (recomplicating the question) that while some binary oppositions are indeed reductivist fuzzifications, others are

worth recognizing, if not celebrating: the distinction, let us say, between pregnant and not pregnant, or between life and death.  Others are at least worth noticing — for example, that between a red and a green light.  You either have $3.75 for a latte or you do not. Can that be “complicated”?

Wow.  Never have I come across a sentence more worthy of complication than “you either have $3.75 for a latte or you do not.”  For is it really a question of the amount of change in my pocket?  Is it not rather a question of whether I am alert or blind to the barefaced robbery perpetrated by multi-national corporations operating in a global economy rife with injustice?  Does any clearheaded individual, reflecting on planetary circumstances, have $3.75 for a latte?  Surely no one does.  And yet we all spend what we do not have; even the poorest among us shells out our $3.75 at the altar of the bean, prompting me to turn the matter around, to problematize the question once again, to ask:  is there any way I can assert myself against the zeitgeist, claiming that I do not have $3.75 for a latte?  Is there anywhere that is not a Starbucks?  And if so, why?

Eila’s other sheet from the nurse is instructions, complete with diagrams, on how to sneeze and cough into your sleeve.  The correct place for snot and hork is the sleeve.  So much for eternal verities!

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11 thoughts on “Simple problems, complex solutions

  1. I like Butler’s response because I am inclined to agree with her. But then again, John Ralston Saul makes an argument that much jargon (whether academic or not) feeds into secrecy and false expertise. Simply chopping up different human activities with different sets of “discourses” through jargon, just really isn’t helpful.

  2. What bothers me about responses to jargon is that generally within said responses is a latent resentment to a) leftist thought, b) feminist thought or c) so-called ethnic studies. To whit, the Jacoby piece begins by pointing at an ethnic studies scholar and then not taking up ethnic studies as a field (then why bother naming ES in the first place) and then b) blaming the use of the word “complicate” on multiculturalism:, as in “adding a half cup of poststructuralism to a pound of multiculturalism.” (As a food studies scholar I must note that a pound is heavier than a half cup which is only 4 oz.)

    It is my ongoing experience of the academy that scholars with an unconscious investment in the heterosexual, anglophilic, white supremacist history of the institution will come at minoritarian scholars with accusations of jargon use because actually they are having an aesthetic and affective response to the ideas themselves. The affect of course, is repulsion and disgust at the presence of bodies otherwise marked as abject claiming space in public discourse. The response is as to bodily ugliness or illness: “I have an allergy to jargon” or “poor grammar makes me sick.” Note that Jacoby’s metaphor for jargon is a food metaphor: the recipe, implying eating, and thus implying a bodily rejection of the formula.

    Further, the response to jargon always disguises itself as common sense, or the plain-speak of the common man. As Jacoby says, shouldn’t scholarship aim to simplify? But you only have to look at Fox news to understand the regressive uses of common sense, or of the performance of populist, folksy wisdom. And you only have to look at the history of populism in the United States to understand its deep links to nativist white supremacy.

    What I really like about Butler’s article is that she points to the regressive politics of such responses. To those sufferers of jargon-allergy I would like to refer the pretty extensive literature on the history and political uses of Standard Received English in the colonies. Patrolling the language is a way to keep the undesired out, whether you do it in print, or at the dinner table, while never listening to a thing that the undesired have to say.

  3. I *was* kinda trying to say something with all that snot, hork, and washing: thanks for noticing!

    Sean, yes, Butler’s response was good, though Kyla’s was better.

    Kyla I need time to think through everything you’ve said. The analysis of the rhetoric seems very good — next week when I’m not swamped and flying to Ca I’ll work it out point by point. Right now I have to say only that there’s a sense in which I’m of two minds here. I really do use, in my work, every buzzword he’s attacking, including the dismissal of binary oppositions, which, if I may say so, I pwn. However, when I come across someone making this argument, I always consider myself duty-bound to take it seriously — precisely because it’s me he’s talking about. I have to be *more* generous than my critics, and think carefully about whether they have a point. In this case we have a guy who actually does give us some ground, arguing not that we’re wrong, but that there might be simpler ways of saying the true things we say. Might there not, often? Anyway he gives us some ground, and I’ll give him some.

    But not too much. I still think the coffee example is perfect to show his blindnesses. He’s deliberately ignoring complications here in order to continue producing bombast.

  4. But isn’t jargon also a response of rejection? In an attempt to defend the “unconscious investment in the heterosexual, anglophilic, white supremacist history of the institution”, it would appear to me, scholars sometimes employ jargon in order to disqualify minority voices and defend their elite status: exclusive, secretive discourse. Isn’t the leftist, feminist vs conservative, institutional, not so much about the *use* of jargon, but over ownership and power of the words/jargon?

    this information is *classified*.

  5. Oona, you are, of course, right, and my irritation at the latent racism in the editorial didn’t let me give space to what is of value in Jacoby’s piece. It is entirely correct to not let our use of academic language go unexamined. But I do feel as though he is mischaracterizing the kind of work that aims to, as he says, “complicate” etc. Actually, it is worth digging at the archive (and digging at archive-use) to “complicate.” Because actually it is the job of reactionary common sense logic/much journalism to simplify. [I actually just respelled that last word because what I first wrote was “complify” — but actually we may need to put the word “complify” int action. To complify: to elegantly complicate an idea in such a way that defamiliarizes what is reductive. I might think of complification as reading something that clarifies something I always already knew, but didn’t know I knew. In fact, that is what Butler’s work does for me.] But my point is it is not just that we are haphazardly complicating here, there and everywhere. This is not some de-centered relativistic complication project that he points to but actually fields that are doing the ethical work of restoring particular stories and problems to visibility and thus, yes, complicating the majoritarian versions that have dominated discourse to this day. Complication is a minoritarian project generally, and it has particular ethical goals. And I just wonder if it is those ethical goals that he is aesthetically uncomfortable with, not just “complication” itself.

    Sean, I am of two minds in the elitist/jargon argument. On the one hand I think that we, like every other trade, deserve a technical language. No-one tells mechanical engineers to stop using jargon, and we too, are after all, a trade and a profession. Also, I think that if people find, say theory, hard to read, they need to work harder. It’s a different kind of writing, it is attempting to reach beyond what we understand, why should it be easy? The question of the elitism of theory comes up in my theory classes all the time and I just say: if you think it’s elite, go out and translate it, or put it into practice. In the meantime, work harder. Spare me the bitching.

    Anyway, no difficult-to-read political critique was ever interested in stopping at critique. The point is action; and many theorists are political actors. People who think that theory is elitist or self-enclosed would do well to remember that Bowers v. Hardwick was struck down, the lawyers used and referred to Foucault’s History of Sexuality. That after 9/11 conversations about the Patriot Act on the senate floor cited Said’s Orientalism as the progenitor of a dangerous pro-Islam school of American thought. And would the queer/transgendered movement have the same impetus without queer theory? Which by the way happens to be the genre of academic writing that gets picked up by non-academics more than any other?

    On the other hand, I do think it is the work of people who deal with theory to be better public intellectuals, to be at the service of whatever public we choose to be. And that is where the work of translation takes place.

    Blah, blah, blah. I really need a non food blog again I think.

  6. I have no idea what any of that was about. Maybe that was why I majored in math. At least, the jargon was recognized as jargon and they taught us the vocabulary. None of it was assumed knowledge.

    BTW, pay close attention to the hand-washing instructions. When I was diagnosed with primary immune deficiency, my immunologist taught me a great deal about how germs are passed. No, not drinking fountains or toilet seats. Look at that doorknob or the pen the cashier hands you to sign the credit card slip.

    Make sure you teach your kid how to thoroughly wash her hands, and to do it frequently. My continued survival depends upon it.

  7. Kyla-

    My problem isn’t so much with elitism, or really at all I don’t think. There’s a difference between having a common language and splitting the language in two. I am sympathetic to having our own technical language (we should have one too!), but if we spoke a common language (scholars and non-scholars) it would still be apparent that the elite, lets say the scholars, utilize that language way more effectively etc etc etc better, than non-scholars, the elitism is still there, but it’s somewhat of an accessible or at least understandable elitism.

    I agree wholeheartedly in the deservedness of the words we, as scholars, create to go beyond what is normally understood or expressible, but in that case, we are somewhat attempting to create non-translatable texts.

    I think Kyla, we’re disagreeing on some basic assumptions. I don’t view Ethnic Studies, Religious Studies, Philosophy, Political Science etc as professions or trades. The profession or trade, you are taking up when studying ethnic studies, philosophy, political science, IS that of public intellectual. The trade or profession is public intellectual and therefore the discourse that one may claim ownership to is that one, not necessarily one specific to each and every thing you attempt to study. Certainly, everything is hard, and we always can work harder, but now, as a public intellectual, one should learn, French, German etc (to get some background) but then know Political English, Engineering English, Biological English, Philosophical English, Ethnic Studies English, Religious English. And then, as a public intellectual my trade is social critique and since we don’t stop at critique but act, we have the requirement of translation. But what I have studied are texts that, at the very least, resist translation.

    Perhaps there’s no way around it, but with the increasing proliferation of ‘specializations’ it seems the profession of public intellectual will become increasingly difficult to perform well.

  8. haha, my apologies grace. absolutely! In fact, what comes to mind for me often when I think about things I need to know but don’t, is more complicated science, and certainly math. Specifically, I think about technology, but another dose of physics wouldn’t hurt me. So in my opinion, YES!

  9. I’m back! Thanks so much to all three for taking care of this so nicely in my absence.

    I agree with everyone — that is to say I think everyone is posing profound and insoluble problems — and will be in future more careful about hand-washing, and more reflective in my consideration of technical language.

    I will only say, to Sean, that I do not actually think you are at odds with Kyla — despite her use of the word “trade,” which, after all, is only a word — and a pretty non-jargony one at that. The concern here is to avoid the kind of jargon which doesn’t actually say anything once it’s translated. We all know that intellectuals spout a lot of jargony rubbish that sounds meaningful but isn’t. I need to watch myself, since the philosophy I work on is so much a matter of the gesture and the trope. Sometimes I think the problems I’m grappling with all the time aren’t real at all. That having been said, we all agree that some jargon is necessary; and when students and lay-people complain about it — “why didn’t he just say what he meant?” — it can be irritating. The problem of inter-disciplinarity and the public intellectual is a whole new kettle of fish.

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