Monday, March 28, 2005

Academic Instincts (III)

Although she begins with "bad writing" in general – a New York Times article about the infamous Bad Writing Contest, not the thing itself – Garber's final chapter is meant to have a narrower topic: jargon, or "terms of art". Philosophers are often accused of going in for such things in a bad way, and so I read the chapter for thoughts on a defence or critique of the practice, which would have to turn, I think, on the question: what philosophy (or Garber's métier, literary criticism) is for. Are its purposes undermined by technicality, and the kind of obscurity it brings in train?

Garber's answer to this question has a shifting quality, perhaps deliberately so. It is apt that her chapter on jargon and difficulty is notably harder to read than the others. And it is built around what she calls a "paradox":
The concept of jargon can be used to describe two equal and opposite tendencies in language: the overwrought, compact and highly technical (or "foreign"), and the overly familiar, flabby and banal. These are two radically opposing forms.
She thus proposes to contrast bad, lazy, jargon with the precise creativeness to which she and her colleagues aspire. But critics of jargon in literary studies are not confusing these things; they are accusing critics and "theorists" of pretending to employ as crisp technical terms, "invented to suit the particularity of the moment and the needs of thought", what are in fact no more than intellectual shells.

So, at any rate, I imagine the charge. Garber does not address it, in part because she takes it for granted that the technical terms of "theory" have been given a clear sense. As she nicely puts it,
Jargon marks the place where thinking has been. It becomes a kind of macro, to use a computer term: a way of storing a complicated sequence of thinking operations under a unique name.
Or, of course, a way of hiding one's failure to have gone through a necessary sequence of thought. I have no idea whether, or how often, this sort of charge is just, but I wished Garber had been sensitive to it.

On a second glance, perhaps she is. For beside her predominant picture of "theory" as demanding but precise, there runs a series of disingenuously disavowed comparisons with poetry.
It is not my purpose to compare the philosophical writing of Judith Butler [...] or Homi Bhahbha [...] with the plays of Shakespeare.
But you did! Or consider this mildly petulant aside:
We might note that when poets engage in such coinages and rearrangements of syntax, what they are said to produce is not "jargon" but "difficulty," something often valued rather than disparaged.
Or this:
A coiner of critical words can no more control the meanings and inflections those terms acquire elsewhere than the author of a poem can control the reader's interpretations.
I don't mind reading "theory" as poetry, which can sometimes make it more likeable. But it might be the real paradox of jargon that Garber (perhaps like other critics and theorists) wants to have it both ways: she wants to see neologism as the shocking and metaphorical expansion of thought, and as the mere reminder of an argument already worked through. That is a recipe for becoming clear about nothing.


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