Academia is awash with fifty dollar words that few can buy. Those terms, spoken in a certain style, presented in papers, at conferences, 4:30 lectures, were once music to my ears. Now all I hear is the caustic evasion of responsibility.
Theoretical jargon has become the equivalent of fancy clothes, specialized watches, and fashionable parties in the Humanities. It is yet another mark of class that separates those “in the know” from the riff-raff. I’m a member of the in-group, but I’ve become a class traitor.
Opaque stylized speech is often a cover for ignorance. A few years ago, a physicist, Alan Sokal, submitted a paper to the high-theory journal SocialText which asserted in postmodern language that gravity was a social construction. SocialText published it without comment, and Sokal later revealed that it was a nonsensical article, submitted to show the intellectual flimsiness of the theory-heads. It was quite the scandal! Not all Theory is nonsense, but if someone can’t “translate” their claims into the language of non-theory heads, it’s a good sign they don’t know what they’re talking about. (Google “the postmodern generator” and you’ll see what I mean.)
Several weeks ago, a noted professor of Anthropology from Berkeley delivered a lecture “The Operation as Political Form: Transplantation, Sterilization, Cataract Removal, and Transgender Surgery in the Constitution of As-If Modernity.\” If I was grading his presentation I would have given him a C. There are too many subjects in his title, not to mention the barrage of half-thoughts, crony name-droppings, and unidentified flying references in his 40 minute oral delivery. Perhaps technical terms like “gift-giving”, “‘as if’ modernity”, unneeded citations like Susan Buck-Morris’s reading of some obscure Russian philosophers, etc. might make sense to the Comp Literati, but they were lost on most of the audience. Theory so dense, not even meaning escaped. Sadly, there were a number of undergraduates who left, scratching their heads. Worse, the professors went on ahead with their in-group questions “as if” the lecture was just for them, not the non-specialist audience, concerned with the bioethical issues raised.
Dear readers, this nutty professor got a Soros Foundation grant to study the phenomenon of illegal organ donations in India (cf. the movie Pretty Dirty Things). Though the ethnography was no doubt thorough, I can’t imagine how the collection of impenetrable sentences he read would be of any use to anyone outside of the academy. But more immediately, I was shaking with rage because of the disrespect this professor was showing to us, and more importantly, to the victims of poverty he studied on someone else’s dime in India. Dropping names and references like these is akin to citing punchlines of inside jokes. For those on the outside, you don’t get to laugh, you just have to wonder in confusion. Screw that!
Now I don’t expect Anthropology to be comprised of simple-minded “travelers’ tales”. Anthropology contributes much to our understanding of ourselves and of other cultures by demonstrating the way people make meaning of their lives, yada, yada, yada. However, with a subject matter that has ethical and political import, to shroud the discussion in the most specialized language possible is nothing short of sublimated egotism and institutionalized elitism.
By running from plain speech, we confirm to ourselves that we are special, that we can use big words, and speak in the same cool manner as the charming hip professors. Parts of the academy are addicted to this, encouraging articles and books to be as difficult as possible. Not that difficulty is always bad. Working one’s way through the idiosyncratic prose of Heidegger or Derrida may be worth the effort, but life is too short to try and figure out what it is these middling academic knock-offs are saying.
Am I a philistine? I read and use much of the same Continental theory, and my work has been profoundly shaped by “postmodern” texts. Yet at some point I noticed that the more I studied Theory, the further I was pushed from connecting with everyday life and everyday people. The gulf between the insights of theory, their elite short-hand expression, and the way non-academics think and talk is not absolute. Living in a country where I had to explain my academic work to my non-native English-speaking friends taught me that ideas can be conveyed simply and without too many specialized terms. It’s true: anything that can be said, can be said clearly.
When I’m speaking to non-specialists, to mixed audiences, or to my mother, I don’t drop terms, names, and concepts. This is the opposite of trying to be understood. If you Intellectuals want to talk about fiction in fancy-schmancy lingo, go ahead, peacock around with your pontificating plumage. But speaking about poverty, exploitation, cruelty and other urgent matters is too important to drown in the goo of jargon.
Certainly, disciplines are entitled to their specialized terms. The Humanities are often criticized for being incredibly promiscuous with our patented dialect, and because the subject matter is often of general interest, more outsiders are curious about what we do. I think the overuse is especially noticeable because academics usually make no effort to translate, say, a complex written paper to the oral medium. When one speaks, one has to address real people with a range of competencies; It is ego to assume that what you have to convey can only be said in the highly specialized form of the expert. A doctor who gives a presentation on new developments in cancer detection at a conference of peers is going to use a different sort of language than when he’s explaining a diagnosis to a patient. Of course, we should all be learning more academic ‘languages’. The point is to be multi-lingual when the occasion calls.
Many problems in the world come from an inability to communicate, from romantic relationships, to warring language-using ethnic groups and all the undiplomatic moments in between. I hope that my generation of academics will dissolve the elitism and egoism of the past, and attempt to speak to more than a handful of scholars and specialists. Its fun talking in code, but it separates us from the rest of the world, and the world might benefit from what we have to say.