Partly due to some personal travesties and travails, too many geo-wanderings [i.e., interstate and cross-country travels], and several wheelbarrows full of past-due writing and other deadlines, I have been somewhat "missing in action" in the blogosphere the past month or so, but Vellum’s post, "The Language That Locks Others Out," over at "Vaulting and Vellum," which Jeffrey links to here, pulls me back in with a certain urgency, and also frustration. My comments here, and I apologize in advance, will be less mild than what has already been expressed in Jeffrey’s response and the comments thread there, partly because I feel a sense of absolute exhaustion [and I’ll admit it: some anger] over this type of post, which seems to crop up every now and again here and there in the medievalist blogosphere and which seems to me to be rooted in a kind of curmudgeonly crankiness over how others compose their scholarship and the language with which they articulate that scholarship [and the key term here is “others”—because a lot of energy is expended in pointing out how others are doing something that is supposedly wrong or misguided or ineffecient, as opposed to simply sitting down and doing whatever it is you think might be better; id est: whatever it is you think should be done, just DO it: produce, produce, produce, and if it’s any good, don’t worry, you will thrive, because there really is, after all, room for everyone].
My frustration is, to a certain extent, related to something I've been thinking about for a while now--negative versus more positive forms of critique, by which I mean something like this: what is the point of the sort of critique that mainly points out what is [supposedly] lacking or egregious or wrong-headed or too-off-the-beaten-track or not-acceptable or misbegotten or poorly-executed, etc. in someone else's work? This is not to say that I do not think there should not be some push-and-pull, back-and-forth sorts of dialogue and dialectic tension between those of us who share a field and discipline and who want that field and discipline to move forward [i.e., progress] via the active tensions inherent in our thinking with each other [which is different than the sorts of tensions that occur when we actively think and work against each other—yes, yes, yes, I will always maintain, we can push each other to do our best work when we work harder to see ourselves as working in collaboration on humanist projects we have in common, even when we are very much separated by geography, institutions, subject and period interests, methodological approaches, etc.]. Additionally, given the fact that, as humanists, we are not, in fact, building rocket ships or devising new ways to undertake open-heart surgery, we might lighten up a bit as regards, let's say, the sort of offensive forays we might make against another scholar's work. It will appear I make a mountain out of a molehill here, or that I digress too far from what may seem like just a small criticism of just one part of a sentence that Jeffrey wrote [taken somewhat egregiously out of context, I might add], and perhaps I do. I'm afraid that, unlike Jeffrey, who is gracious to his very core, I do take some offense. Forgive me, but I do, and I actually think the stakes are higher in the humanities right now than even I imply in my comments above.
And the thing is: I just feel tired sometimes by all the ink that is occasionally spilled taking each other to task for not using the supposedly most "proper" or most "straightforward" or most "simplistic" and Occam's razor-like language in our work, as if our job, as Vellum implies, is to somehow be "efficient" with our words--that, moreover, the efficiency of the communication of our thoughts and scholarship is to be prized and valued over what we might contribute to the addition of what we don't even know yet and for which our language is struggling to keep up and on behalf of which we have to think more poetically, at the very least, more creatively. We don't just read and study languages, but are also making them up as we go along, and this is all to the good! And may I just also say, on a very personal level, that if you can say it in two pages, I can and will say it in ten, and I will enjoy saying it in ten, and if that doesn’t please you, or even pains you, you don’t have to read it. But in our profession, as in literature, there is as much room for a Dumas and a Richardson as there is for a Hemingway and a Raymond Carver.
And where does a dictionary come from, and how does it evolve? By which I mean: how does our language evolve? We are not born into a ready-made dictionary with all the words we could ever possibly need, in which case I would feel sorry for the poets and song-writers. And anyway: where did these words come from again, the ones we think we know so well and that apparently have directly-obvious and literal meanings? This is to speak, of course, of a supposedly “common” language, one in which we all share a supposedly common heritage and where we don’t have to worry too much [again, supposedly] about miscommunication, as long as we stick to the words we all supposedly know well enough to never guess at their direct, or even indirect meanings. Yes, there are many expressions—in English, let’s say—that are pretty direct and helpful and understandable by most everyone—“watch out, that tree is falling” is one such direct and helpful expression, although I think we all know there is also at least one person who will ignore or not fully comprehend the coordinates, and end up dead. And what about "I love you"? We've all said it countless times and barely know what it means from day to day. Such a phrase also has the potential to mislead, maybe even to kill, or as Oscar Wilde once wrote in "The Ballad of Reading Gaol": ". . . all men kill the thing they love, / By all let this be heard, / Some do it with a bitter look, / Some with a flattering word, / The coward does it with a kiss, / The brave man with a sword."
Let me then also back up for a minute and recall us to at least reconsider what we think we mean when we say we work in the "humanities" or think of ourselves as "humanists." Vellum very purposefully, and I would say fairly gracefully, delineates what he sees as the need of scientists to invent jargon, or specialized vocabularies [although he also refers to this as a “necessary evil”], in order to explain what they do—both to each other, but also to those outside their disciplines—and while Vellum admits that humanists certainly have need of specialized vocabularies, too, his implication, or opinion, seems to be that some humanists purposefully choose overly-technical language out of a “desire to seem more worldly, more learned, or more intelligent.” Furthermore, “Language should not be used to shut others out deliberately.” First, a desire to be more worldly has always been admirable in my book; given the current state of world affairs and the high speed at which all of our relations with everyone in this world are changing on a daily basis, while also putting all of us into closer proximity with each other, and with the gradual dissolution of nation-states and the liquid movement of transnational capital, being worldly, or wanting to be worldly, or cosmopolitan, can only be a good thing. Personally, I would like to look over the hedges every now and again. Second, I would like to call, if I could, for a moratorium on assuming bad-faith motives on the part of scholars and writers whose work you may not like, and you certainly don’t have to like it, but if you think someone’s prose is obscurantist or overly-technical [and to no good end that you can discern], can you please pause to consider that this language was not crafted with the intent of looking [i.e., posing] like something or of shutting others’ out [and really: out of what, exactly?], and maybe assume instead that most of us who work in this under-compensated profession called the humanities are simply striving the best way we know how to communicate the ideas that we really feel are important, and that we feel matter somehow [maybe even just to us--I will always defend everyone's right to do work that is only for themselves, in which case effective communication might not be the point at all; rather, something like self-sustenance]. We are trying to find our own voices. We are trying to advance knowledge, if only incrementally and sometimes haltingly and with some humility. We are not posing as anything other than ourselves, and if we fail sometimes, we hopefully fail in good faith, and without rancor or regret.
The motives of others—whether in scholarship, love, and even death—are rarely as malevolent, self-serving, or even as pre-meditated as some often make them out to be. We are just trying—trying to say something, maybe even something beautiful, or truthful, or to cadge from the poet Louise Gluck, from Section V of her gorgeous poem “October”:
It is true the there is not enough beauty in the world.As humanists, we have some hope that a life devoted to reading, reflection, and letters has some bearing upon the shape of the world, and upon the lives lived in that world. We love language, so much so that, as scholars [and perhaps this is just my personal conviction], we have some faith in ourselves, not just as critics of certain traditions, but as sharers in them. We do not aim for “efficiency” of communication, so much as we aim for a certain bright and elegant honesty in the articulation of our investment in ideas, especially the idea that language is a living *body*--one that we help form and extend into the future when we have the courage to invent new words, new ways of seeing that require new ways of saying.
It is also true that I am not competent to restore it.
Neither is there candor, and here I may be of some use.
at work, though I am silent.
misery of the world
bounds us on either side, an ally
lined with trees; we are
companions here, not speaking,
each with his own thoughts;
behind the trees, iron
gates of the private houses,
the shuttered rooms
somehow deserted, abandoned,
as though it were the artist’s
duty to create
hope, but out of what? What?
The word itself
false, a device to refute
perception -- At the intersection,
ornamental lights of the season.
I was young here. Riding
the subway with my small book
as though to defend myself against
this same world:
you are not alone,
the poem said,
in the dark tunnel.
Speaking of courage, I wonder if I can be allowed to also conclude here by saying that, over time, I have found fewer and fewer good reasons to defend the practice of anonymous blogging. Before everyone jumps all over me, let me first say that I have lost pretty much every argument on this topic when I have been engaged on the subject at various bar tables, etc. [for the most part, I just give in when very well-meaning persons who I very much admire strive to convince me of their good reasons for blogging anonymously], but increasingly, I remain unconvinced that this is a good, ethical practice, especially when we are talking about the academic blogosphere, no less, for is the university not the last safe haven of the free and open exchange of ideas—or at the very least, should we not commit ourselves to this idea even when it is not always the actual state of affairs? On this point, refer to Derrida’s essay “The University Without Conditions.” If there is any job or promotion or some person’s regard you are afraid you might lose as a result of something you say in print, or out loud at a conference, then in my opinion it was never a job or promotion or regard worth having.
Although we have often differed and gone head to head on many subjects, I will always admire Jonathan Jarrett at A Corner of Tenth-Century Europe for blogging under his name, and the fact that he is a graduate student at the University of Cambridge is not inconsequential to this point. Over at “Vaulting and Vellum,” Jonathan signaled his agreement with Vellum’s post, tagging himself as “tenthmedieval,” but a quick hop via the hyperlink tells you immediately that Jonathan is the commenter. Jonathan himself has written more than one cranky post [sorry, Jonathan] in a similar vein to Vellum’s here, but again, under his own name, and with a willingness to engage in spirited and polite dialogue. I am not saying that Vellum would not be willing to engage in a spirited and polite dialogue—after all, he has commented here already—I just don’t know who he is.
Until I start hearing stories about opinionated bloggers being assassinated and, similar to Cicero, having their heads and hands nailed to rostrums, I continue to find the practice of anonymous blogging a mainly indefensible practice, especially when the blogger in question wants to launch critiques against the ideas and writing of others. For those of you who blog anonymously and with no real intention of calling the work of others into question, I have no beef with you, and please don’t be offended by my comments here. I do not mean to be insensitive to all of the myriad [and perhaps good] reasons some blog anonymously, so much as I simply don’t know, most days, what everyone is so afraid of. I just honestly believe, too, that if you cannot put your name to your ideas and your writing, in whatever forum, then those ideas just can’t hold water—further, they can’t be defended, and they are not worth having, nor expressing. But if they really are worth expressing, and if anything is at stake, then at least be willing to risk something on their behalf. In this sense, words matter a great deal.