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May 07 2012

Peculiar insularity

What is the source of the peculiar insularity of literary “theorists”?

What do I mean by “peculiar insularity”? It’s that people in other fields know that the jargon of their fields is jargon. They know it has to be translated for people not in their fields, and that most people are not in their fields, and that it seldom makes sense to assume a random pool of strangers will be all or mostly people in their fields. What is it about literary “theorists” that causes them to fail to know that, or, worse, to fail to act on it despite knowing it?

As far as I’ve ever been able to figure out, it’s just a form of vanity, but why it’s so peculiar to that one segment of the university, I don’t have even a guess.

27 comments

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  1. 1
    Bernard Hurley

    Could it be the inherent inauthenticity of their ability to deconstruct the mauvias fois implicit in the linguistic conventions vis-à-vis this area of discourse?

  2. 2
    SAWells

    I think it’s because, if they attempted to translate into comprehensible language, it would become obvious that they had nothing to say that was not either banal or false. Comprehensibility is not their friend.

  3. 3
    Comradde PhysioProffe

    Maybe this really is a bigger problem for literary theorists, but my experience is that this is more a personal issue, and that all fields (and subfields) have some practitioners who just absolutely sucke at placing themselves in the shoes of someone not in the field (or subfield) and explaining their shitte comprehensibly. But they all also have some practitioners who are fucken awesome at explaining their shitte comprehensibly to non-field (or non-subfield) peeps.

    Or maybe it really is a special problem with literary theory. I’m no expert on literary theory, but is it possible that some (most?) of their jargon actually doesn’t mean something specific and tangible and operationally definable, and so it is impossible to translate comprehensibly? Because in the sciences, all of the jargon we use can be defined absolutely unambiguously in terms that ultimately reduce down to operationally definable entities.

  4. 4
    Bernard Hurley

    But why try to make it comprehensible? Isn’t one way of understanding it as good as any other?

  5. 5
    eric

    Was there a particular article or example that caused this post? It might be helpful to know more.

    I tend to agree with both @2 and @3 – in most cases they may be hiding banality, but at the same time, I’m somewhat unwilling to paint an entire field with this brush.

  6. 6
    Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    Why not try to make it comprehensible? B/c lit theory/lit crit is all about epistemology. If you believe the foundational epistemology then writing that seems clear to most seems fought with epistemological questions that can only be clarified through careful use of specific terms that have both denotation and connotation … No synonym will have exactly the same connotations even if it carries the same denotatio(s). Likewise for replacement phrases.

    In other words, they assume you’re going to misunderstand them unless you know their lingo, so why try to translate when translations never have the same meaning and would then prevent even other lit crit types from understanding?

    For them the act of translation removes one audience without adding another. Still they publish in popular fora to reach lit crit types that don’t read exactly the same journals…and, not incidentally, to pad the cv.

  7. 7
    SAWells

    @6: it sounds as if you have more faith than I do that there is some “there” there. If there’s anything to it, there must be a process by which lit-crit terms are related to something other than more lit-crit terms – if only during the learning process which produces more lit-crit people! If there is such a link, it can be deployed to produce a translation which, even if inexact, will be better than the guaranteed misunderstanding caused by no translating at all. If there isn’t such a link, then the whole field is meaningless, a syntactic game with no link to anything outside itself.

  8. 8
    Your Name's not Bruce?

    Not that I’m a literary scholar, but I’m thinking that if lit-crit jargon actually meant something or referred to real somethings there could never have been a Sokal hoax.

  9. 9
    [email protected]

    @2 SA Wells: I agree. They are essentially post-modernists; if you strip away the verbiage there is nothing underneath. It takes me back to McLuhan – the medium is the message

  10. 10
    bspiken

    @ Crip

    But then why use terms which add nothing to the epistemology meaning or conversation, the whole “bodies” instead of people example was a clear example of this, in which way does it changes it? Or what new meaning is intended by this?

    One might be tempted to mistake that for vanity.

  11. 11
    John Horstman

    *Sigh*
    There is plenty of literary criticism that is utter bullshit. There is also plenty that isn’t. Also, re: #9, postmodern analytical theory is incredibly useful in many applications, for analyzing the impacts of context where universal epistemology and positionality (positionality is a jargon word – it means where one is positioned relative to cultural structures of power and marginalization; for example, White, male, cisgendered, heterosexual, English-speaking, Spanish-speaking, overweight, high IQ, college-educated, employed, minimally-physically-disabled, type 2 bipolar disorder are all aspects of my positionality) have been assumed.

    Part of the assumption of familiarity with jargon may have to do with the fact that most academic disciplines have adopted postmodern models to a greater or lesser extent. Part of it might be a sort of reverse-elitism pushing back against the marginalization within academia of ‘soft’ sciences by the ‘hard’ science crowd. In some cases, it may be employed to obfuscate a lack of content. Without knowing about what you are specifically talking, I can’t be sure. I also can’t know whether the text (‘text’ is another jargon term – it refers to a work in any semiotic medium, that is anything that can store and transmit encoded information) in question is intended for a general audience.

    ‘Discourse’ is another common jargon term. It means an ongoing conversation within a cultural space (The USA, the FtB network, the planet, a given church membership, a town, a school, a softball team, etc.) about a given topic that constructs the meaning of that topic. For example, “the gay rights discourse” refers to the sum total of texts (again, these can be anything that can encode meaning, and don’t need to be persistent – a conversation that is not recorded is a text) within a given cultural space (however one defines it – the boundaries of a discourse are frequently contested; for example, some FtM transsexual/transgendered individuals who have sex with men might consider themselves ‘gay’, while some might not; some men who have sex with men consider themselves ‘gay’, while some do not; you may have people resisting or advocating identification with a given discourse on the basis of nationality or cultural background – some Amerindian men who have sex with men might consider themselves gay, while some might view the concept of ‘gayness’ to be specific to an American-European cultural space with which they do not identify and the categories of which they resist being applied to them) on (implicitly) the definition of gayness, its nature, its meaning, and its implications for social relationships, and (explicitly) the legal rights of gay persons.

    Part of the reason might be that to explain the jargon terms completely requires a LOT of writing, and is in part impossible because terms had to be invented to describe new concepts (challenge: describe the umami flavor profile without using jargon) – one can provide examples and analogies, but perhaps not complete explanations if the concept didn’t exist in the culture responsible for the language one is using to describe the concept (other challenge: explain neutrino flavors so that any random person off the street can understand the concept without using other jargon that must then be explained, etc.).

    I’m hopeful that the concept of ‘bodies’ (that to which I think this post is referring) makes sense, as does the reasoning for needing a jargon term for the concept (so one does not need to go into a long-winded, detailed explanation every time one wants to refer to the term), and that this will allow you to see why jargon that initially seems intentionally dense or obfuscating is in fact a necessary shorthand.

  12. 12
    John Horstman

    @10: ‘Bodies’ is used specifically because one ISN’T talking about people – that is, the physical construct (‘body’) integrated with a consciousness that generates agency (‘person’; also, agency, another jargon term with which some might be unfamiliar, is the ability to make a decision about how to act based not on direct response to a stimulus, but based on a reasoned analysis of the likely outcomes of various possibilities for action using abstracted models, like math or logic or neo-Classical Economic Theory) – but is in fact just talking about the meat-stuff. It’s used to bring attention to the fact that the person is not being considered a person at all, that the person’s agency is being denied, and is simply being treated as a lump of flesh, a body. Because language is a constantly-contested, dynamic medium for communicating information, specificity of language is extremely important, especially when one takes the view that language constructs meaning. Ultimately, saying ‘person’ when one is actually only talking about a body is inaccurate, and is therefore avoided. For example, mandating a binary system for biological gender (aka ‘sex’) regulates bodies, not people (laws about ‘sex’ don’t say anything about the consciousness of the person in question, only the body – they frequently fail to recognize that the bodies in question actually are people).

  13. 13
    John Horstman

    Finally, I feel like I should point out that unless you have convincing evidence that this insularity is particular to “literary ‘theorists’”, your observation could simply be the result of any number of cognitive biases.

  14. 14
    SAWells

    @11: I put it to you that the claim “most academic disciplines have adopted postmodern models to a greater or lesser extent” is either banal or false. If “to a greater or lesser extent” includes near-zero extent — as in “prices reduced by up to 90%” — then, well, of course. If it means to some appreciable extent, then, well, in the physical and biological sciences we rub along quite nicely with models that aren’t noticeably postmodern.

    In any case, using jargon without saying you’re doing so is never good practice. Rather like sending an article on “flavour” to a cookery journal without specifying that you were talking about neutrino flavour.

  15. 15
    Ophelia Benson

    John Horstman -

    There is plenty of literary criticism that is utter bullshit. There is also plenty that isn’t.

    Oh but I’m not talking about literary criticism. Far from it. I know there’s plenty of lit crit that isn’t utter bullshit. I’ve read a fair bit of it and like it. I’m talking about Theory, which is a very different animal.

    …the fact that most academic disciplines have adopted postmodern models to a greater or lesser extent.

    What? Is that a fact? I don’t think it is. As far as I know that’s not a fact at all about the natural sciences, and that’s a big chunk of academic disciplines. Also as far as I know most philosophers despise “postmodern models.” I think in their case it’s not that they’ve adopted them but that postmodernists have helped themselves to one or another philosophical claim and pasted the label “postmodernist” (or Theory, or both) on it.

  16. 16
    Ophelia Benson

    Oh shucks, SA Wells anticipated me. Or rather, oh good, SA Wells anticipated me. But anyway I was typing what I typed while SA Wells was hitting Submit.

  17. 17
    Bernard Hurley

    John Horstman, if your inane rambling word salad is intended as a defense of postmodernism then I have to inform you that it is a spectacular failure. It boils down to the trivial observation that different people use language differently, the incoherent suggestion the language creates meaning and the patently false assertion that most academic disciplines have adopted “postmodern models”, whatever they are supposed to be. You don’t even bother to explain how a “discourse” which according to you “constructs meaning”, whatever that is supposed to mean, can refer to a sum total of “texts” that “encode meaning.” But there is so much in your posts that is, to say the least, obscure that it is surprising to me that you bothered to write it. What, for instance, is meant by saying a “context” has an “impact”? What is it to assume “universal epistemology”?

    There is a place for deliberate misuse of language, for instance in poetry or in comedy. But in serious discussion, as the “body” example shows, it can be confusing, misleading and lead to an incredible amount of wasted time. Used as a deliberate policy it shows utter contempt for one’s audience.

    Charlie Chaplain once said to Einstein “They come to see me because they understand me; they come to see you because they do not understand you.” Literary “theorists” and postmodernists in general strike me as a group of pseudo-intellectuals with pathological Einstein-envy – they actually want to be admired for the incomprehensibility.

  18. 18
    Ian MacDougall

    John Horstman @ # 11:

    “Part of the assumption of familiarity with jargon may have to do with the fact that most academic disciplines have adopted postmodern models to a greater or lesser extent. [They haven't. The Sokal hoax arose out of attempts to frame physics and other natural sciences in terms of pomo, and was a valid and widely applauded reaction to this.] Part of it might be a sort of reverse-elitism pushing back against the marginalization within academia of ‘soft’ sciences by the ‘hard’ science crowd. [Quite so. Nothing is more impressive or incomprehesible to the outsider as the non-hollow, non-trite, non-banal, non-pseudoprofound jargon of say, nuclear physics. Understandably, and if only for this reason, theorists in the humanities wanted part of the action, ie to make their disciplines more apparently profound by reducing comprehensibility via a confected jargon.] In some cases, it may be employed to obfuscate a lack of content. [True. But I put it to you that this is far harder to get away with in the natural sciences.] Without knowing about what you are specifically talking, I can’t be sure. I also can’t know whether the text (‘text’ is another jargon term – it refers to a work in any semiotic medium, that is anything that can store and transmit encoded information) in question is intended for a general audience.

    ‘Pomo’ is Postmodernism. The text in [square brackets] is mine, not John Horstman’s.

    [sigh]

  19. 19
    Josh, Official SpokesGay

    Finally, I feel like I should point out that unless you have convincing evidence that this insularity is particular to “literary ‘theorists’”, your observation could simply be the result of any number of cognitive biases.

    It’s nice that you feel that way, but putting scare quotes around certain words doesn’t excuse the sin. Literary theorists are shit writers almost uniformly. That means their intended meaning is also shit (read: dark-brown opaque) because no one can be certain what the hell they mean through all that murk.

    I was an undergrad at Sarah Lawrence College in the mid-90s, the last gasp of Po-Mo-Lit-Crit’s domination of the humanities. I trained in that language, I used that language, I wrote in that language.

    It’s shit.

    Ideas need to be conveyed. One cannot convey them if one’s writing is obsessed with sticking up I’m Part Of Your Academic Tribe™ flags.

    There is much that is interesting and worth chewing over and arguing about in critical theory. Most of it is never so chewed over or argued about, however, because the discussants have their hands in their linguistic crotches the whole time.

    There’s no excuse for this. There’s no redeeming quality to it.

    The concepts they think they’re discussing simply aren’t that complicated (indeed, they’re not necessarily even interesting). And if they were one certainly wouldn’t want to further obscure them with syntactically insane bafflegab.

  20. 20
    dirigible

    Theory is, like Star Trek or Monty Python fandom, like revolutionary politics, a complex but disconnected body of knowledge that gives a limbic rush for its mastery while buffering its adherents from reality.

    There are evolutionary psychology and cognitive science explanations for it, but the simple fact is that some people are better at mastering jargon and pointless facts than they are at opening doors.

    And before anyone asks, I’ve found the trick is to look for the hinges.

  21. 21
    Stewart

    Well, SAWells at #2 is, I think, true, but is not the reason (or, at least, it’s secondary enough that it never even comes to it). The reason is that the field has become the jargon. It’s connected to the lack of meaning; it’s the reason the Po-Mo generator works. So, yes, if they tried to write clearly it would betray the fact that there is no real meaning or that it’s one so obvious or pointless that it is not in need of expression. But it never comes to that because the jargon is the point. There’s no more use in asking them to do without it than there would be in asking a conjurer to do without all the diversions that stop us from seeing how he’s tricking us.

  22. 22
    Ophelia Benson

    I didn’t know that about you, Josh! Or if I did I’d forgotten it. I’m so glad you got over it.

  23. 23
    Fin

    I personally think it’s due to hero worship. All the big people in that field are people who wrote both very floridly and in French. Most of the translations of their works are more transliteration than translation, making them exceptionally difficult to read in English (Lacan is a good example).

    What I see a lot of “po-mo” authors who write in English doing is attempting to emulate a style (because of hero worship) that is simply not native to their language. So it tends to be jargon heavy and densely written to the point of breaking the language. Which might be hiding banal points or falsehoods, but it very well may not.

    To be fair, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with hero worship, and I am well aware that I unconsciously emulate the writing of authors I admire (largely because people hit me over the head with it, whenever they read something of mine). It’s just that if you’re going to emulate these guys, write it in French (or German even), it doesn’t work in English.

  24. 24
    Ophelia Benson

    Very good point.

    I do think there’s something wrong with hero-worship. Admiration, no, but worship, yes. The slavish quality is something that’s always bugged me about the theory craze (or pomo or whatever one wants to call it). It’s bizarre. It’s creepy. It’s (again) insular.

  25. 25
    gh

    John Horstman: I think the reason it seems familiar to everybody is that everybody produces and interprets texts. Lit.th. uses ordinary words for its concepts, so it seems you can understand it (and judge it) without knowing the body of thought behind it, while with, let’s say, physics, it’s evident you don’t (ergo maybe lit.th. should replace words with formulae).
    Example: The struggle with understanding the reason for the use of the word ‘body’…

  26. 26
    Fin

    Whoops, thanks for picking me up on that. I meant to make that distinction, that hero-worship is admiration taken to an unhealthy extreme and that it is Bad.

  27. 27
    sailor1031

    I call Poe on John Horstmann. If not he has certainly made Ophelia’s case – in spades.

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