From: IN%"[log in to unmask]" "Larry Howe" 14-APR-1998 10:05:11.41
To: IN%"[log in to unmask]"
Subj: RE: Twain and Academic Jargon
MT Forum members--
I have to object to the latest turn of rhetorical events. One the one
hand, I'm not surprised that some number of the forum have such a jaundiced
view of intellectual discourse. This isn't the first time that
anti-intellectualism has raised its head in the ongoing conversation. No
small measure of narrow-minded rancor oozed on-line last year in response
to Andrew Hoffman's book. So it seems consistent that this latest flap
began with the word "homosocial" and has coined a new
On the other hand, I'm troubled not by any particular word or the
reactions it generates but with a general chuckleheadeness about theory.
I'm prompted in particular by Siva's recent caricature of deconstruction.
(Since I wrote this, Wes Britton has added another form of caricature, even
less informed.) With all due respect to Siva, I have to question his
sources. Yes, deconstruction, along with a number of other post-structural
lines of inquiry, has teased out the problems that those too confident of
their stake in truth have been willing to ignore. To practice this
critical skepticism is not to judge all communication "futile" but to be
self-conscious about the complexity and difficulty of producing and
interpreting language that approximates the substance of ideas, and to
encourage others to be so self-conscious.
The fact that the big demon deconstruction is even being dragged to the
scaffold here is a measure both of the misunderstanding that attends it and
of the residual influence it has had on the discourse that has succeeded
it. Oppostions like "evil, jargon-ridden felons" (them) and "good,
plain-speaking humanists" (us) are rather stunning performances of
precisely what contemporary critical theory has helped to highlight.
Indeed, as some have alluded, Twain was himself concerned with the facile
assumptions they represent.
In light of all the stress on consensus in a number of postings, the
proponderance of the term "unreadble" in these latest diatribes against
theory and the silent chorus of nodding heads glaring at their monitors is
rather curious. Not simply because Twain was alert to the same concerns as
these "jargon-ridden theorists," but also because this perception of
contemporary theory is far from unanimous. In other words, those who
confidently believe that their distrust of theory represents a consensus
may have constructed another fantasy. Many others prefer to think of such
texts not as unreadable but as challenging. What is it about challenging
texts that so offends some people presumably interested in the complexity
of language? (This is not a rhetorical question, so I'm likely to get more
than a few replies telling me how it ain't much fun. Let's go beyond
that.) Siva makes an appeal based on marketplace logic. There's some
credence to his warning. But why is it that the humanities are in trouble
when the public doesn't understand the terms of the inquiry, but no one
wonders about the unreadability of theoretical physics, or its jargon?
Of course, no one is obligated to take up the challenge of complex
theoretical texts. But if one chooses not to make the effort, lobbing
verbal grenades like "jargon" and "unreadable" begins to look more like a
mask for one's own insecurities--or, in debates about the NEH, political
grandstanding--than a serious critique.