AMITAVA KUMAR: DENIS DUTTON IS DEAD
Subtitled “Theory vs. Academic writing”
A blog entry about good and bad writing. It begins by making the usual criticisms of writing from the field of literary criticism. It quotes some good examples of bad writing. But jargon is not the only academic sin. Every discipline has its own vocabulary. The idea that writers operating in say, Narrative theory, writing for their peers, should make immediate sense to casual readers unfamiliar with the discourse and lexicon of the field is baffling. The relevant question is not; “Is the passage difficult to understand?” but “Does it make sense to the intended audience?”
There are I think worse sins. And it’s interesting that in a discussion of good and bad writing so many of these sins are treated with approval.
There’s a good example in this piece. This paragraph is taken from a long quotation so it's not by the writer of the blogg:
Now the best academic writing knows what many different disciplines converged on around the beginning of the 20th century: the observer is an inseparable part of the system under observation. The yardstick and its wielder are part of the measurement; the speaker and what can be spoken are reciprocally joined. Great academic stylists embrace that fact, and they use it to turn the prison house of language into something more like a beachside cottage. They know that any rich attempt to represent the world “out there” participates in those same world processes, and their style reflects that rich reflexivity. Without forgoing their search for external or even objective facts, these writers foreground their own voice and the ways that their words strive to take the curse of inescapable linguistic mediation and make a blessing of it. As Bakhtin so beautifully puts it: Every act of depicting is itself a depiction. What we say speaks us, and we are part of the truths we can formulate.
Where to start? There is so much wrong with this elegant paragraph. “We are part of the truths we can formulate”. Does that mean anything more than we believe what we think is the truth? Does it mean that all “truths” are automatically equally invalid, or suspect?
Now the best academic writing knows what many different disciplines converged on around the beginning of the 20th century: the observer is an inseparable part of the system under observation.
There are three things happening here. A dogmatic value judgment “the best academic writing”, which blandly asserts what then becomes the defining quality of “the best”. The unnecessary personification which denies the human agency of writers, making conscious choices. And finally the casual assertion which avoids any kind of qualification “part of the system under observation”. All systems? With equal consequences?
This was the defining discovery of Quantum physics at the beginning of the twentieth century: measurement and observation affect the behavior of the sub atomic particles being observed and measured and therefore the measurement of a particular photon is unrepeatable Socio-linguistics and European Anthropologists realised much the same: enter the village to observe, interview the speaker, and you will affect their behaviors and speech. But the quantum rule doesn’t apply to macroscopic objects and academic disciplines like the latter two developed strategies to deal with the problem.
It is obviously not true of all systems. There are numerous things one can measure and observe without affecting the thing observed and being measured.
When academics in the field of literature went cherry picking in other disciplines to offset the fear of their own irrelevance and lack of “scientific rigor” they often failed to observe the qualifications, methodologies and contextual limitations of the disciplines they raided. Bad linguistics, bad history and sloppy philosophy suddenly became acceptable parts of literary discourse and the fact the historian, linguist and philosopher might object became irrelevant.
But a poem isn’t changed by the act of reading. Counting the words on the page doesn’t change them. I can read the book and pass it on to another reader and unless I vandalize the page the words remain the same. Being human, I may disagree with another reader over value and meaning, but that doesn’t change the words. Years ago Stanley Fish was claiming that because different critics disagreed about a poem’s meaning and used the same evidence to support their reading: there was something fundamentally flawed with literary criticism. But as his critics pointed out, what he willfully ignored was that readings of the same poem can be compared, because the words on the page don’t change and part of the task of criticism is to establish the criteria by which those different readings can be assessed. (Donald Davie picking Micheal Schmidt for thinking the Bull in Briggflatts is called ‘Rawthey’ is a small but interesting example that answers the question "can you misread a poem?")
The yardstick and its wielder are part of the measurement; the speaker and what can be spoken are reciprocally joined.
The beautifully balanced phrase uses the semi colon to conflate two separate issues and elevate the second clause to the status of scientific fact. The first part continues to slur the quantum physics argument to make it sound as though measuring anything is always going to be subjective, unrepeatable and unverifiable. The second clause is demonstrably wrong. What “can be spoken” does not rely on the individual speaker. What the individual speaker is capable of speaking relies on the individual speaker, but “what can be spoken” relies on the limits of a language at any given historical moment operating in a social and cultural context.
This academic characteristic, the habitual use of the fine sounding but empty phrase reaches its height:
Great academic stylists embrace that fact, and they use it to turn the prison house of language into something more like a beachside cottage.
Which “fact”? The 2 previous separate statements have become one “fact”. And while it’s a fine sounding sentence which the mind and eye glide over, what does the metaphor mean? Is it a good thing if you turn your prison into a beachside cottage? Are you still under house arrest; still limited and peripheral? And why a beachside cottage? Is that the kind of place most people live their daily lives? Or do these unnamed “great academic writers” use language as a comfy refuge on their weekends and holidays?
Exam question 1:
Is language a “prison house”? (Note to student: do not fall into the obvious trap of quoting either Wittengenstein or Benjamin Lee Whorf in your answer). If you could break out of "the prison house of language" where would you escape to?
Depending on how one counts “words” there are anything between a quarter of a million and three quarters of a million words in the OED. This doesn’t include “words from technical and regional vocabulary not covered by the OED, or words not yet added to the published dictionary. (http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/page/howmanywords). So the rich dialect and slang vocabularies of your own local world should be added to that number.
Exam question #2
What exactly is it you can’t say with that many words?
If it’s a prison, and I think the metaphor is inappropriate, it’s a bloody huge one.
And so on. There are worse things in the world than bad syntax and an overuse of technical vocabulary.