Tue, Feb 26, 2013 - Page 12 News List

Book review: Stylish Academic Writing

By Bradley Winterton  /  Contributing reporter

But wait a minute, some academics will say, what you call jargon is often the deployment in shorthand of concepts already familiar to other specialists in the field. We aren’t trying to talk to the general public — we’re professionals talking to each other.

On the surface this looks like a valid argument. But there are two problems with it. The first is that in the humanities these days such technical language often embodies highly controversial political positions, frequently taken direct from the thought of Michel Foucault, that the writers would rather were not re-examined. We all agree on these things, they’re in fact saying, and despite our high salaries we all agree on the need to overthrow the state and subvert the universities we’re teaching in. Let’s not waste time going into all that stuff all over again. Let’s, instead, look at Thomas Hardy or Charles Dickens and see if we can find evidence that they supported us.

The second objection to the use of technical jargon in the humanities is that it’s an attempt to imitate science. Science has authority because it’s dealing with things that are demonstrably true. Someone who discovers something new about, say, fruit-flies, is adding to our understanding of the world and how it works. The humanities, by contrast, can’t claim any comparable objectivity. In the worlds of literature or history, conflicting viewpoints are possible and frequently taken. But, the jargon-users implicitly argue, if we secretly agree on a revolutionary program, we can appear to be as unified and as objective as our scientific colleagues.

It may be unfair to bring up again the case of Alan Sokal who in the 1990s had a parody of such jargon-filled discourse accepted as the genuine thing by a cultural studies periodical. But surely it’s time to declare war on terms such as postsemioticist, flip-flop gates and feature theory, terms Orwell would surely have included under his definition of obscurity as a cuttlefish defensively spurting out ink.

Anyway, let’s hope this excellent new book is a sign that things are about to change. Don’t, though, expect anything remotely approaching Hunter S Thompson from the groves of academe any time soon.

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