Last week I got into an Internet fight. This is what happens when a blog turns into a comment, which turns into another comment, which results in a spiral of all out virtual snarkiness and derision. As often happens with web boxing, the subject of the battle was far removed from the subject of the original post. The blog had something to do with Islam and feminism, but the comments had derailed into a hornet´s nest centered around some esoteric interpretation of postmodern philosophy. The fight was between myself and another pseudonymous user. Long sentences, peppered with “ality” words – positionality, relationality, governmentality – acted as thinly veiled chest-thumping, attempting to intimidate the other into intellectual submission.
At its peak, a third commentator chimed in: “um, what does this have to do with Islam and feminism?”
The RSS feeds went quiet.
Two things impress me as I reflect on this story: First, how infuriated we both were. Even for the internet, the nastiness in our accusations was unrelenting. He used `epistemology´ when he really meant `ontology´! The Fool! They should rescind his graduate school admissions and publicly shame him in the pages of Diacritics!
Second, no one else in the discussion seemed to care, which only made our fury and passionate more palpable. Couldn´t they see what was at stake?
Apparently not. And the two us battling it out were not much help. I was amazed by my own impotence, paralyzed by the request to relate my passionate claims about postmodern epistemology to the actual issue at hand. It seemed so natural to move from a broad discussion about women and religion to the specific interrogation of what Foucault meant by that sentence on page 87. But reversing the discourse was much more difficult. How did I find myself here? Where did those bread crumbs and sign posts go? What the hell am I talking about and why I am worked up about it?
There´s nothing quite like explaining what you do to someone who can´t tell their Lukács from Lacans – i.e. people will real jobs. To see the reaction of family and friends – or strangers on the internet – when you defend the relevance of semiotics and subjectivity incites not only frustration over realization they just don´t seem to get it, but also foolishness over the realization that they just don´t seem to care.
I´m not saying all humanists are bad at explaining what they do to non-humanists. But I am, and that inspires me to reflect on why that might be. Personal weaknesses account for part of it. But what I´m really interested in is disciplinary training. As I gain expertise and skills in theoretical approaches, I seem to lose the ability to speak outside the confines of my particular discipline. I am trading English for Academese.
A couple weeks ago fellow correspondent Steven discussed clear writing and its necessity to the very survival of the Humanities. I want to elaborate on this point because I think its key not only to the relationship between the Humanities and the University writ large, but also the socializing mechanism that graduate students experience in their departments.
Humanists, literary critics, and post-(modern, colonial, structuralist) philosophers are notorious for their thick and elusive style of writing. But the question of style goes beyond the frustrated graduate student to the core of disciplinary legitimacy itself, and has generated heated debates. For instance, when the University of Cambridge considered awarding Jacques Derrida an honorary degree, nineteen analytic philosophers protested the decision, citing that Derrida´s style of writing “defies comprehension” and served to distract from his actual claims. Similar scandals have surrounded such respected scholars as Judith Butler, Fredric Jameson, and Gayatri Spivak. Various displays of mockery have followed, though most (e.g. “Feminist Ryan Gosling” ) are in good fun and are really practical devices used to protect graduate students´ sanity as they study for the qualifying exams.
These works are not easy reads. But if these episodes have taught us anything, it is that style is a not just a tactical issue but a philosophical one, one that often reflects epistemic commitments and is vital to argumentation. This is not to say that scholarship in the humanities remains confined within the Ivory tower; indeed, thousands of artists, activists, and “ordinary” folk have taken inspiration from these works, and especially from those contributing to leftist criticism. But to view jargon and demanding style to be simply a symptom of “bad writing” I think misses the point: as Humanists, the text is the object of inquiry, not just its canvas.
Thus one could argue: to demand that critical theory or literary analysis be accessible to non-experts is unreasonable at best, and condescending at worst. We do not expect the average person to grasp the complexities of physics, chemistry, or molecular biology; why then do we expect humanists and philosophers to eschew their jargon and speak in a way that everybody can understand?
I used to buy this argument. Then I saw Brian Greene´s NOVA special on the Fabric of the Cosmos.
If you haven´t seen the NOVA miniseries, I suggest you do so immediately. You will then realize, if you didn´t already, that physics is (in technical speak) totally awesome, even for those of us who never went past their freshman year science-for-poets class.
It wasn´t just that the series did a remarkable job of “dumbing things down”. More importantly, Brian Greene left me so dazzled and awed that I was left utterly convinced not only of physics´ importance as a discipline, but also that – yes! – that billion-dollar particle accelerator in Switzerland is, indeed, indispensible. Perhaps it was a propaganda campaign. But it was a propaganda campaign that boasted remarkable success for the physics department.
I wonder: if theoretical physicists can do it, why can´t we? That is, what keeps us from engaging in a public communication campaign aimed at demonstrating the intricacies, wonder, and – dare I say it – relevance of the humanities in the world today?
I am not the first to reflect on these issues, nor am I the most eloquent in proposing the following conclusions: that jargon and demanding prose are as necessary in the Humanities as it is in any area of technical expertise – perhaps more so given humanists´ direct concern with the relationship between language, knowledge, and power. But there is no reason why we should let our style stand in the way of public engagement.
Surely some will argue that this proposal is yet another bourgeois attempt to totalize and assimilate critical thought into the neoliberal fold, to crack away at the integrity of the academy in order to commoditize and sell it in the market-driven landscape of public education today. I counter: boloney. Instead, we should ask: Is such opposition rooted in genuine concern over the vitality of the Humanities? Or rather is it an excuse for the laziness that arises when one appreciates the tremendous difficulty of the task at hand?
While we should always be skeptical of “ordinary language” and “common sense”, I see nothing stopping us from communicating bits of our work for public access, enjoyment, and engagement. Indeed, some of the most sophisticated thinkers in our University are also known for their clear and dynamic writing and lecturing on contemporary issues.
More importantly, such an engagement would, I believe, provide disciplinary training to combat the “internet fight” dilemma – i.e. providing scholars with the skills needed to tie their work with the big and pressing issues of our day, to be fluent in both the vernacular as well as Academese, and be ready to defend the Humanities in the mist of a changing University.