Over at Vaulting and Vellum, a sentence I wrote as part of an essay on Inapposite Art is quoted as an example of humanist envy of scientific dialects, leading to poor academic writing. The sentence in question is
"art is intractably enmeshed within its originary geotemporality"
I wrote a brief response at V&V this morning:
As the person who wrote those words ... hmmm. On the one had you are completely correct: there is a more lucid way of stating that point, which is that art partakes of its time and place. On the other, the phrase does try to enter into a conversation on aesthetics and historicism that has some precise terms -- jargon, the language of specialists.I'm still mulling over this issue, because I take its point, and the point kind of hurts: what can be worse for teacher than a failure to communicate? what writer who cares about his craft (and I care passionately about mine) wants his sentence held up as an example of what is wrong with academic writing?
Here is my continued weakness as a scholarly writer: I love language so much that I am often finding inventive ways of phrasing things rather than simple ones. That can veer towards poetry -- or towards the pedantic. Who wants to talk to someone who loves the dictionary so much?
Well, I do ... but I realize that my ardor for super lengthy greek and latin derived words is not the best way to make an immediately clear statement. I fight with that all the time -- because as a blogger my goal is more people accessing my work, not readers feeling excluded. At all.
I brought up blogging at the end of my comment (above) because I wanted to emphasize that my Big Goal as a blogger is to bring my work and that of medievalists and theorists and scholars from many time periods and disciplines into as wide and as public a conversation as possible. Yes, ITM is specialized; but it is read by quite a cross section of academics and non-academics, medievalists and non-medievalists. I wouldn't post things here at ITM and around the net were I not seeking wide ranging conversation above career advancement: the profession rewards scholarly monographs and articles, after all, not blog posts.
Then again, that overly verbose sentence isn't from a blog post per se, but from an article I was composing on inhuman art for an edited, peer-reviewed collection. I'd placed it on the blog for feedback -- and let me state that such posting of essay drafts has been extraordinarily valuable to me for the critique such posts generate. The finished product is much the better for the public process. I'm certain, though, that I write differently for a forum like this one than I do for a blog post. Although I try to experiment, try not to be stuck in such ways of speaking, I definitely possess a "scholar voice" as opposed to a blog voice. The essay in question was about intractability and meshworks or networks or reticulations that combine the human and the inhuman ... but I do understand why that sounds like science speak. The conversation I was staging there unfolds among theorists of aesthetics, historicism, and writers like Manuel De Landa, Bruno Latour, Michel Serres, and Roger Caiollois, none of whom are humanists in the traditional sense. Geotemporality is a word I began to use when at work on The Postcolonial Middle Ages, because I wanted to insist that time be always thought together with place ... but I can also see how such a phrasing seems a little affected. Here is the judgment of V&V:
What I believe the writer is trying to say is that art is, by its very nature, part and parcel of the time and place from which it comes. Or that art cannot be separated from its time and place of origin. Phrases like "intractably enmeshed" and "originary geotemporality" make up the worst kind of academic writing in the Humanities: they needlessly confuse, obfuscate, enshroud, or (to put it simply) hide the writer's meaning, all in what appears to be an attempt to keep others out of one's chosen field of study.This is the language that locks others out; this is what needs to stop.It was never my intention to lock anyone out from my meaning: what kind of scholar would I be were that my aim? But I do admit that particular essay on inhuman art was written for an audience not likely to feel excluded when I use such words.
What I really like about having a blog -- and having so many other fellow travelers who blog, and who comment on your posts -- is that this initial, small audience can grow vastly, and place what we write in larger conversations. For me this episode has been a reminder that much of what I do is highly specialized, but that my "in-house" writing needs to go hand in hand with less specialized, less exclusionary modes of presentation. And as to improving my prose style to yield greater lucidity: well, that is my lifelong quest. When I stop trying to become a better writer, please someone, kill me. With a dictionary blow to the head.