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January 2, 2003

Brad De Long uses ski boots to elegantly illustrate what he calls “a common pattern in human affairs: authority over some realm of human activity is delegated to a community of experts; the experts then follow the (internal) logic of that particular realm rather than the (external) logic of what the realm is for; and it ends badly for all.”

Which seemed to me a perfect sidebar to this article in the New York Observer about the crisis in modern English Studies. [08:14 AM]

Welcome to Electrolite's comments section.
Hard-Hitting Moderator: Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

Comments on Brad De Long:

Myke ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2003, 09:39 AM:

One thing Mr. De Long missed in his ski boot essay: ski boots are necessarily tight and rigid, because this prevents you from breaking your ankle if you take a spill and your bindings don't kick like they should (this is a frequent problem among more aggressive skiers, who dial in their bindings nice and tight). I also don't quite agree with his statement that "Beginning and intermediate skiers do not need to have expert-level control over their skies." Well, sure, but don't they need to start getting comfortable with the conditions necessary to improve?

The larger point about logic is excellent, as is the article about MLA. I remember you once said something to the effect of "writers need to remember that they are in the entertainment business" (that's not an exact quote). I'm not sure if you meant to apply that to writing in general or just genre writing, but it resonated with me, and I feel that it's applicable pretty much across the board (with the exception of good journalistic reporting).

Randolph Fritz ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2003, 03:33 PM:

Oh, god, Brad is right. The two fields I know best--computing and architecture--are both subject to this criticism. And yet genuine improvements in design are often realized by engagement with the actual users of design.

Neel Krishnaswami ::: (view all by) ::: January 02, 2003, 04:04 PM:

In the corner of the computing world I know about -- programming language design -- the problem isn't that the experts have taken over. It's that the experts and the average practitioners don't know even how to talk to each other. Pretty much everyone, theorist and practitioner alike, agrees that the pointy-headed theorists have great ideas. Getting those cool ideas into production just doesn't seem to be happening, though, which makes them less than helpful. Note that this persists despite the fact that everyone knows that this is the core problem in the field. Communication is just an absurdly really hard problem.

Stefanie Murray ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2003, 11:00 PM:

A bit of irony emerges from the (generally interesting and spot-on) Observer article:
--
Mr. Germano, who has just finished work on Marjorie Garber92s latest and is currently editing books by Judith Butler and bell hooks, said that he "wanted the pleasure to come back."

"I think there is pleasure in reading intellectual stuff, but the page has to be on the side of the reader," Mr. Germano added.
--
bell hooks is famously readable, and Garber, while she does get called out by some reviewers, is also witty and accessible. But for pete's sake! Judith Butler just won the 2002 Bad Writing Contest sponsored by "Philosophy and Literature." A sample:

"The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure. . . . "

Homi Babha, who sat on the panel about writing for more general audiences, got runner-up with this:

"If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to 'normalize' formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality."

I say this not to bash Butler or Babha. Both of these passages are actually quite understandable if you get the jargon and understand the intentions of the articles.

Obviously part of what is going on in this dense prose is territorial: everything is larded with signals. 'I went to school here, I've read these other works, here's why you should take me seriously.' As such, it's laborious to read. But it serves its function....

And they were published in academic journals, not Cosmo or even Harper's, so the 'know-your-audience' rule on page 1 of Basic Composition texts certainly applies here. But this gets to the crux of the dilemma, as I see it: the problem as defined ('wider audience') misses the purpose of much academic writing. It is *intended* for that narrow group of people who know, or care, about, say, the evolution of the modern self-aware narrator through Cervantes's "Don Quixote" and Byron's "Don Juan."

Which brings in Mr. Greenblatt's excellent point: no one expects chemists to write for non-chemists, or physicians not to write for other physicians--most certainly not in academic journals. It would be ridiculous, pointless, *not* to assume that the basic vocab is established. Why, then, are the humanities (especially theory and rhetoric) singled out so?

So this is a more nuanced issue: part of it is sheer money, but (I think) part of it is also enmeshed in the culture wars and American disdain for the intellectual.

(sorry this is so long)

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2003, 11:19 PM:

Yes but. Is literature chemistry?

It seems to me that a lot of this stuff is rooted in bad analogies. In order to hold on to the perceived status of the sciences, advanced literary studies have copied the superficial literary style of science: technical, abstruse, dense with specialized terms. What they haven't copied is the experimental rigor and replicability. Because literature isn't, in fact, chemistry.

Of course there are legitimate ways to analyse literary texts with a kind of dispassionate rigor. (Hello, rhetoric.) But I think those of us outside the modern academy, including even those of us who have managed to make sense of a lot of advanced literary criticism, can be forgiven for wondering why art that was supposed to be so universalising has become the occasion for a discourse that's so hermetic.

When scientists have esoteric conversations among themselves that I can't understand, it seems to often result in inventions or discoveries that matter to me. As far as I can tell, that's not true of abstruse literary studies. Where are the great advances in literature, rhetoric, human understanding that emerge from this fevered hothouse discourse? Until I get a satisfactory answer to that question, I'm unlikely to be impressed by the "hey, scientists get to have specialized jargon" argument.

Stefanie Murray ::: (view all by) ::: January 03, 2003, 11:59 PM:

I agree with you, actually. I think the thrust here is that academic disciplines generally operate with 2 facets: the theoretical and the practical. Chemistry's practical face (to continue beating this poor dead horse) penetrates everyday life and generates money and PR.

It's hard to argue that the same can be said for literary theory, at least in a way that can be linked back to the discipline. Some grads of these programs have gone on to make piles of money and influence people dramatically...but in advertising, not so much literature.

So that gap definitely exists, and must be bridged. I guess I was just saying that Judith Butler and Homi Babha are funny folx to put in the vanguard.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2003, 12:35 AM:

I would be interested in the evolution of the modern self-aware narrator through Cervantes's Don Quixote and Byron's Don Juan, just like I'd be interested Blake's printing methods, Swinburne's narcolepsy, Andrew Marvell's peculiar relations with trees, the dating of Thomas of Erceldoune's poetry, the hairsbreadth rescue of Thomas Traherne's work from obscurity, why none of the important entrances and exits in Wuthering Heights are made through doors, the influence of Nonconformist diaries on 17th C. English prose style, a Joycean analysis of S. J. Perelman's language, the taxonomy of variant pirate editions of a briefly popular cavalier poet's works, a demonstration of how The Hunting of the Snark functions as a blank allegory, a dense&intense analysis of how Tolkien built Middle Earth from the language up, or an almost gossipy summary of major ongoing bunfights in Keats scholarship and who's throwing them; and a darned good read they all were, too.

I genuinely love good litcrit. I've read many cubic yards of it. What I can't see is the need to discuss the fine strong language and accessible meanings of literature in academic language so knotty and abstruse that it can only be decoded, not read.

Why do so many academics use analytical language that in no way resembles the language being analyzed? It should. Language isn't a machine, unresponsive to the material it handles.

And how is it that they find meanings in every writer that are so foreign to our normal patterns of understanding that they can only be conveyed in this tortuously misprised language? Surely statistical probability should turn up a few authors about whom there's nothing to say that can't be said in standard English.

Stefanie Murray ::: (view all by) ::: January 04, 2003, 01:57 AM:

Well. I should say that while I am not an academic I have friends and family in the field, so I speak about this from observation but not personal experience. But never one to let that stop me, I do have a wee theory.

First, Foucault's translators have a lot to answer for.

Second, I think ya gotta think about what this kind of heavily theoretical writing is really doing, what it's truly intended for. The territorial function of the work should not be discounted. It does get in the way of grace or clarity, but within the hierarchical milieu of academe (I used milieu! Maybe I *am* an academic!), publishing also is a way of carving out respect by showing that you know the big words, have read the big names, and fit in with them somehow. Picture Aragorn in the new Two Towers movie (ooooh, Viggo......um, sorry), striding around that tufty battleground, discerning the hobbits' trails. Looked like plain ol' grass to me, but to a trained tracker the signs were plain and vital. (Not in *any way* to imply that theoretical writing is a giant weedy field full of dead orcs....)

So in some ways the very impenetrability serves as a self-perpetuating demarcation and ranking system for The Cognoscenti, who obviously deserve jobs (and then tenure). But...like I said, that's part of the function that the work serves, so if you look at it in that way, it's ably fulfilling its mandate.

That said, I will go to bat for jargon. It's vital in intraprofessional discourse, no matter the profession. Not knowing the particular jargon of plumbing, say, I don't hold plumbers responsible when I stumble over some references in Plumbers Weekly. But I knew that would happen when I picked it up. Taking away jargon (from academic publication, where the audience is other people who all have the decoder rings) is like outlawing pronouns.

Stephanie Zvan ::: (view all by) ::: January 05, 2003, 01:13 PM:

My husband had a math professor in college. Well, actually, he had several, because he wanted to pursue a double engineering degree. But this was his last math professor, because this was the fellow who, when asked to explain how one got from one step to another on the board, answered, "It's magic."

This was a research-oriented school, and I'm quite certain that this fellow was a brilliant theoretical mathematician. However, he didn't belong at an institution that required him to teach anyone other than brilliant theoretical mathematicians. He simply couldn't communicate with them.

Jargon and obscure references are grand things in dissertations. They have their place in academic writings. But I am all for any change that requires potential _teachers_ to demonstrate the abiity to communicate with people who don't already have their background.

The smart ones will see this as an opportunity to double (or more) their output. Take the scholarly article you've just written and adapt a piece of it for more popular consumption. Not only do you have two articles (or whatever) for the work of one, but there is now an accessible piece of work out there that could draw a student into your field. After all, there do have to be students in order for there to be teaching jobs, no?