Thursday, February 23, 2017

over at The Baffler, a rebuttal to Rebecca Schuman's defense of academic jargon in the age of Trump, "The Accidental Elitst"

Every couple of years, some civic-minded pragmatist publishes a new article entreating contemporary academics to make their work more accessible to the general public, and to please, for the love of God, cool it already with all the fancy-pants jargon. There’s typically something in these articles that is particularly targeted at the humanities (and, to a large extent, the social sciences). No one in popular political media freaks out about academics in the hard sciences having their own impenetrable disciplinary languages, which are understood as necessary complements to demanding subject matter, at least as impenetrable to the lay reader as the fare at any humanities conference. “Well, guess what, America?” Slate columnist Rebecca Schuman writes in a defense of jargon. “The humanities are also full of difficult concepts . . . Difficult concepts sometimes call for big words.” On this point, Schuman is absolutely right, and she has been right many times before on questions relating to higher education. But there are two glaring absences in the rest of her defense of academic jargon.

First, the humanities rightfully pride themselves on their devotion to the study of the stuff of human life and culture and being, which, by definition, humans (academic or not) experience more intimately and have a more immediate claim to than, say, the aerodynamics of a Boeing 777.   If we want to be treated with the same kind of elite reverence as scientists, we have to accept it as part of our job to tell average people that we know more about the circumstances surrounding their humanity than they do. But even if we don’t necessarily agree with this approach, we still carry on as if we do, and this goes double for how we deal with politics. Academics in the humanities love thinking about politics in incredibly dense terms, while also considering our work itself as somehow “political”: “politics” appears in seventy two panel or paper titles at this conference; “political” in thirty four; “resistance,” twenty one; etc. It goes without saying we are implicitly celebrating a kind of technocratic anti-politics, though, when we contribute to making the discussion of politics intelligible only to a select few. If Trump’s election didn’t teach us that this kind of thing is a death wish, nothing will.

Seems unfortunately pretty safe to say nothing will, then, for academics on both the left and the right but ...

Second, in just about every takedown or defense of highfalutin academic jargon, it’s generally taken for granted that such jargon is just part of the job academics do, but when it comes to determining the role of “the academic” in society, things get messier. The arguments make it seem like the main choice facing academics involves determining to what degree they might deign to display some civic-mindedness and try to translate their findings into something that will somehow engage and benefit “the public.” But all such arguments tend to rest on unchallenged assumptions about academics in general, and these assumptions are often the biggest problem.    

There’s a huge difference, for instance, between defending academic jargon as such and defending academic jargon as the typical academic so often uses it. There’s likewise a huge difference between justifying jargon when it is absolutely necessary (when all other available terms simply do not account for the depth or specificity of the thing you’re addressing) and pretending that jargon is always justified when academics use it. And there’s a huge difference between jargon as a necessarily difficult tool required for the academic work of tackling difficult concepts, and jargon as something used by tools simply to prove they’re academics.

It’s not that things like specialized disciplinary jargon are inherently bad or unnecessary. They are bad, however, when they’ve traveled into that special category of identity markers, which so often allow people in contemporary academia to at least act like their primary purpose is to confirm their identity as academics.


If you, at any point, use your role in academia and your language derived from that academic role, as a way to put the unschooled in their place then, congratulations, you're part of a ruling elite.  :)  Thing is, there are no doubt scholars on the left and right who want to make sure this doesn't happen.  I don't take scholars as a whole to be elitists who think the world should be at their beck and call.  That historically a whole lot of academics have, in fact, had this kind of ruling caste entitlement complex doesn't mean they "all" have to be that way. :)  Since I found Schuman's defense of academic jargon in the age of Trump a disappointing set of bromides defending what seem to me, as a pessimistic moderately conservative sort, as a series of leftist dog whistles.  I'd rather neither the right nor left used dog whistle codes academic or otherwise ... but since I'm kinda worried about just how damned racist and bigoted EVERYONE will look if that happens ... maybe there's something to be said for jargon.

Which might be why it's even more dangerous to embrace it because as the author proposes, it can be a way of you using code words to hide the truth from yourself about where you're at.

One of the bugbears of musicology and music theory can seem to be jargon.  Who uses what term in what way and why gets sticky.  One of the more common complaints I've seen leveled at Hepokoski and Darcy's Elements of Sonata Theory is how pedantic they are about the claim that Type 2 sonatas do NOT have a recapitulation because of their commitment to "rotation".  I think the danger that may accrue in such scholarly debates isn't that we can't have a variety of terms and meanings--no, I think that we can forget that scholarship about music of the past should in some way be pertinent to the options available to us in composing music NOW.  If coming to amore accurate assessment of how felixible the sonata script was for Haydn gives us a way to compose sonata forms in vernacular/popular idioms then I'm all for it.  If the scholarship is used to further cement class distinctions that may go unacknowledged by academics because they're hiding from the reality of whether or not they're helping non-scholars that's a problem.  For all his gadfly activity I can appreciate that Taruskin tries to have a practical consideration for what he brings up and why.  I can see why people have issues with him, too, but that's not the point of this particular post.

As with the priests of yore it can be too easy for the priesthood to forget that the ideal is they serve the people and not just the people serving them.  It can be done, however awkward it may be. 

Pertinent to the earlier post about the closure of an arts space in the wake of protests against gentrification, the theme of concern tonight might just be that those with liberal/left leanings not forget that progressive arts and academics can end up serving ruling elites by way of ruling elites.  Cardew was pretty over the top in his condemnation of Cage and Stockhausen for doing that, as he understood it, but he called it as he saw it and he wrote it in the plainest possible language.  Since I can't really count myself as being particularly Marxist I'm not necessarily sure I'd endorse all the stuff Cardew wrote ... but his clarity was admirable.

Folks over at The American Conservative had a piece called "two cheers for Howard Zinn" a couple of years back.  The two cheers were as follows 1) he came by his socialism and pacificism honestly by dint of his war service and seeing the collateral damage caused by what he was involved with and 2) he wrote in sentences clear and concise and communicative enough that you wanted to read them so that if you agreed or disagreed it was because he was speaking as clearly as possible.  I.e. Zinn's not Zizek, to e a little bit deliberately mean about it.  If you're going to read just one of those two ... .

Anyway, since the inauguration I've wondered whether or not some of the old left and old right could ... maybe set aside some historic differences.  If there's burgeoning concern about where federal power may go in the next eight years the old presumed coalitions of the left and right may no longer work.  If they had ... would we be here? 

And defending alienating academic jargon is probably not the best way to go here whether your political convictions lean left, right or to whatever now passes for center. 


Cal P said...

I went to a lecture by a Roman historian, and he opened with classic dry humor. He quoted 2-3 academics who wrote, in a relieved disgust, of how people can hardly understand the barbarity of Roman gladiatorial games, that they were so foreign. As he was reading the quotes, his powerpoint slide kept pulling up images of UFC, NFL, NHL, rugby, boxing, nascar racers on fire etc. The lecture was on gladiatorial combat, and how it was more sporting than one assumed, but his initial point was that a number of academics were too dense to popular culture that they could hardly understand how stupid they sounded.

I think about this in regards to the physicality of how we live and how we think. Isn't it a bit silly that people will write about the poor, yet live in the suburbs with anthropological excursions into texts or controlled interviews? This was the genius of Pierre Bourdieu in his initial insight that any serious anthropologist or sociologist ought to appreciate his own life and work in the same categories he assigns to his subjects. Academics can wall themselves off from their own sense of being in the world. They don't realize they are a propagandist or a ruling elite because their focus of study has taken their ability to understand themselves.

And the celebration of Zinn is funny. Why does one have to sin in order to prove his credential of understanding the degradation of sin? Do we have to pay obeisance to the Leviathan to purchase our ability to criticize? Tongue-in-cheek, my friend said working at K-Mart has made him a Leninist, because working people would never get any serious change on their own. Would they give him the same cheer?

I understand what they're trying to say, but its based on stupid logic. In fact, it's the same sentimentalist reasoning that one sees in the parading of conservative pastors who, once having a gay son/daughter, go soft or change their position. Perhaps, right and left, we are too weak to withstand the tidal wave of experience; we do not reason in light of it.

Wenatchee the Hatchet said...

I can't help but playfully reformulate your question about Zinn with a parallel question about Jane Austen. Do we just never read Jane Austen novels because her having never married meant she didn't really understand how marriage worked? Or was her dying unmarried; having lived a life unable to pass the status tests to get married in her time and place to the kind of man she liked; while also being unwilling to marry just to be married; give her an opportunity to lampoon the pitiless status-vetting processes people went through in order to get married?