Tuesday, August 18, 2009

As Though It Were the Writer's Duty to Create Hope, But Out of What? A Response to "The Language That Locks Others Out"


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.
It is also true that I am not competent to restore it.
Neither is there candor, and here I may be of some use.

I am
at work, though I am silent.

The bland

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.
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.

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.


Anonymous said...

eloquent as always.

i find your sense of the spaciousness, the roominess, of the humanities to be fascinating. can i ask a question, though, truly from the heart: how does this jibe with the rather unspacious (in the relevant sense) MLA job listings? seems to me an awful small community, with not much room at all. that doesn't mean scholarship has to be crabbed, but it does mean that there are "efficiency" concerns. at least for those junior people --- who might, i'm just guessing here, be the ones who consider anonymity to be desirable!

Peter Buchanan said...


I find that many things in your post speak to me on a poetic level and call out for a response. Listing them point by point would be tedious and unnecessary, so let me just begin by quoting what seems to me the most important sentence: "We are trying to find our own voices."

Attacks on jargon often in effect call for a homogenization of language, even as the very poets we study struggle with the inadequacies of language to give expression to deep truths or joyfully play with the expressive possibilities of language. As we read, think, and write about these authors and texts -- whether it's 10th century hermeneutic authors raiding their Greek glossaries, H.D. struggling to read the palimpsest of past misadventure in order to bring self-out-of-self the pearl of great price, or Paul Celan expressing his alienation as a Jewish poet writing in German as linguistic resistance -- what ethical obligations do we owe to the soul of the text (if, indeed texts have a soul, but I see no reason to deny it them) and to the authors' manifest belief that form is inextricably intertwined with meaning? How do we make ourselves present to the work if we do not admit that neologisms and archaisms serve a useful purpose, if we do not try ourselves to both read and write the palimpsest of the past, and if we do not recognize that we can express our own alienation as resistance to linguistic codes.

This is not to say that clarity is not valuable in academic writing, but I question the proposition that the best audience is always the largest one. Certainly, many of the authors I study do not believe this, so why should I? It also seems fallacious to construct the humanities as a single discipline rather than a vast array of interlocking pockets of multi-disciplinarity, all of which may impinge on the other. However, I believe that we have the responsibility to make ourselves present to the work of others rather than expect them to make it facilely present to us. For example, I am extremely interested in rhetoric and its capacity to shape modes of thought. Consequently, I often find myself using words like ekphrasis, hyperbaton, paronomasia, and prolepsis, some pretty specialized vocabulary to say the least. While I define the concepts and try to explain why I think they are important, making them accessible to others is pointless if others are not willing to make themselves accessible to the concepts. Reading is not a passive activity but an active one, requiring that we change ourselves, and while words like geotemporality might be challenging (especially out of context), the work of understanding them (as made clear by JJC’s blog commentary) makes us more sensitive to the possibilities of scholarship.

Finally, we must ask ourselves what is the purpose of scholarly commentary upon literary work. Is it to make art clearer or is it to increase our appreciation of art? I would contend that it is to increase appreciation, and that rendering art clearer is but one means of expressing appreciation, but not necessarily the most valuable or enduring means. Walter Raleigh commented upon Marlowe’s “The Passionate Shepherd to His Love” with his own “The Nymph’s Reply to the Shepherd” and Ezra Pound forever altered how we read one of his favorite poets when he wrote, “Hang it all Robert Browning, there can be but the one Sordello.” Are these responses to literature less valid than dispassionate scholarly discourse because they are poetic responses to poetry? Does this make them more valid? Do we operate under an illusion if we imagine that we are not making ourselves objects of study? We dance together with the authors of the past, with now one, now the other leading.

(in support of non-anonymous blogging)
Peter Buchanan, U of Toronto grad student

Julie Orlemanski said...

Awesome post, Eileen! CREATIVITY is such an important element of what humanities scholarship contributes -- new and alternative ways of thinking, paradigms that realign the way one sees, unexpected conversation-partners, etc. Creativity doesn't happen outside of language, but in it. The comparison of scholarly to literary style is absolutely necessary -- because we scholars too are engaged in making legible different ways of seeing and saying the world, communicating not just information but relations and significances not recognized before.

One's own writing style is, I think, a worthy object of continual consideration, labor, and self[!]-critique, but within this process, no region of language need ever be strictly off-limits -- no obscure lexicon, no supposed infelicity. The energy and wonder of good thinking and surprising ideas has always been enough to motivate me, in literature or in scholarship, to do the work of reading.

A perennially disgruntled attitude vis-a-vis others' writing styles seems an unfortunate position from which to set out. Similarly to reading texts from the historical past, which are often difficult to comprehend at a glance -- I set out reading scholarship and literature from the assumption that the other person is writing from a location not coincident with mine -- different knowledge, different background, different competencies, different aims, different allegiances. Not completely different -- in which case no conversation would be possible -- but somewhat different and in a way that cannot be glossed over by "common" language or "common" sense. If something bores me, I certainly might lay it aside -- not for me (not yet, not now). But I do try to read and listen with generosity -- generosity for my interlocutor, as a uniquely determined intellectual and linguistic subject who is nonetheless striving to communicate, to make her perspective know, and generosity for myself, as a limited but curious thinker who can't yet know all she doesn't know -- but wants to hear more.

-- Julie Orlemanski

Vaulting said...

Very interesting post. I must say, this is the most excitement I've seen in the medieval blogosphere recently.

Regarding pseudo-anonymity, I'm happy to explain why both Vellum and I are not "out". We're both quite early in our careers, and the world is not a nice place. With so many milestones left before us and so many decisions left to individuals who may be swayed by the kind of posts we make, it's simply self-protection that keeps our names off the blog. We both maintain large internet presences, and this allows us to keep a modicum of control about what a Google search will turn up. (personally, as the curator of a non-medieval museum, I very much doubt my employers would appreciate what I do in my spare time, if only as evidence that my heart still belongs to the Middle Ages)

That said, I know Vellum in particular has no qualms about "outing" himself on an individual basis. We both appeared and introduced ourselves at the Kalamazoo meetup this year, and we plan to kick around long enough that eventually we'll either know everyone, or will be forced into outing ourselves. I'm sorry for the discomfort psuedoanonymity can create, but at least there is a reason behind it.

Karl Steel said...

Thanks for this post, Eileen. I agree with the first 75% of what you're doing here. I know I've often groused to myself about others' especially thick prose, but I also have reminded myself that I can just put the book or article down and read something else: there's always something else good to read. If this is true in print, it's all the more true online.

In terms of the "anonymity" thing, however, Just as we should assume good motives on the part of stylists, we should assume good motives on the part of the pseudonymous. I don't think we should presume to know their motives. We should also distinguish between anonymous bloggers/comments and pseudonymous, and we should interrogate the purportedly necessary connection between our legal name and the voice we own by putting a name to it. I think it's enough that a consistent name be attached to a voice.

I have to run out the door now, but let this just be a placeholder for wondering whether the anonymous or pseudonymous response to our writing simulates nicely the way our writing escapes us, carries on without us, outside the presence of our lives and mortality. We knows who is reading us? Who knows whether they like it or not? How they are misreading us, or insulting us, or even loving us? We are vulnerable in our written language, which feels wounds that we, having lost the written language, cannot feel. Such an odd thing! We should, I think, link some of this consideration to Derrida on the name.

Just in closing, I think we should remember situations lhe "anonymous" blogger argument has gone on a lot in the political blogging world (most recently, so far as I know, in Ed Whelan's outing of Publius). Here's what Publius said:

As I told Ed (to no avail), I have blogged under a pseudonym largely for private and professional reasons. Professionally, I’ve heard that pre-tenure blogging (particularly on politics) can cause problems. And before that, I was a lawyer with real clients. I also believe that the classroom should be as nonpolitical as possible – and I don’t want conservative students to feel uncomfortable before they take a single class based on my posts. So I don’t tell them about this blog. Also, I write and research on telecom policy – and I consider blogging and academic research separate endeavors. This, frankly, is a hobby.

Privately, I don’t write under my own name for family reasons. I’m from a conservative Southern family – and there are certain family members who I’d prefer not to know about this blog (thanks Ed). Also, I have family members who are well known in my home state who have had political jobs with Republicans, and I don’t want my posts to jeopardize anything for them (thanks again).

All of these things I would have told Ed, if he had asked. Instead, I told him that I have family and professional reasons for not publishing under my own name, and he wrote back and called me an “idiot” and a “coward.” (I’ve posted the email exchange below).

So there you have it – I’ve been successfully pseudonymous since the Iowa caucuses in 2004. During that time, I’ve criticized hundreds of people – and been criticized myself by hundreds more. But this has never happened.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

I am so, so happy that Vellum instigated this discussion.

And thank you, Peter, for your contribution. I love the invocation of poets on poets. Recently for a very practical reason (a renovated seminar room needs some artwork) I've been thinking about the visual arts as interlocutor with the linguistic ones, and the dialogue between painting and poetry as a kind of ongoing, creative commentary that often creates its visual and verbal vocabularies as it goes along.

Eileen and I disagree on anonymous blogging. I personally would not make that choice -- from the time I was a graduate student I contributing to heated debates on via electronic discussion lists in my own name. I know I angered some people and I know some disliked me for what I contributed, but that never bothered me all that much -- and to be honest I learned a great deal from the people with whom I had an often prickly e-relationship. But my nonchalant attitude isn't one I'd prescribe for others: it has to do with personal comfort level more than anything else.

Let me put this another way. We medievalists work in a cautious field. We come from a culture that often tells us that we can't release anything into the world until it is fully formed. We are told there will be a price to pay if we mistranslate our Latin or neglect a single exemplar. It would be disingenuous to suggest that there isn't some truth in this caveat to caution: there are scholars who for whatever impenetrable reasons delight in exposing the folly of others, who see their role as either boundary guardians or preservationists. I've written here before about the dark side of the field: I have experienced personally and witnessed through people who are very close to me how punitive we really can be to each other.

So if someone, especially a person early in his or her career, wants to blog anonymously, that is fine with me. Breaking into the academy and then getting a permanent job once you are there are difficult, to a degree inscrutable, and anxiety-provoking processes. Much seems out of one's control, so it makes sense that someone would want to control what little they can. Again, that hasn't been my own choice -- but I think we need to respect why others do choose that road. It's not enough to say "I would never want to work with those who judge me negatively for saying such things": sometimes you have to just get in the door, get some financial and institutional stability, so that you can actually have a conversation with that person, or at least find a semi-secure space from which to speak.

Of course, I don't understand why a senior scholar (for example) would be anonymous, even in blog comments. My own tendency on this blog is to ignore comments that are anonymous or pseudonymous unless I can trace that person back to someone I respect: Dr Virago, Vellum, Dame Eleanor, etc. Also, I will state for the record that using anonymity only to attack or critique the work of others is a coward's job. As Eileen wrote -- and I love this part of her post -- "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." Hear, hear.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

I speak as one of the frequently disgruntled, I have to say. It's one of the reasons I tend to avoid a lot of literary discussions. I think one of the issues is that of professional jargon itself. I admit to using words that are fairly obscure (enough so that Microsoft doesn't believe they exist, at least) to many people, but are very good words and mean something to my peers -- or at least some of them. For example, those people who work on Late Antiquity and/or the Early Middle Ages AND are historians AND read a lot of German scholarship can mostly be expected to know what prosopography and onomastics are. Hmmm ... now that I think of it, I seldom use 'onomastics' and instead use the German 'Personennamenkunde' and 'Ortsnamenkunde' rather than 'onomastics' and 'toponomastics'. Why? part of it is that I am more used to seeing those words in German, because Anglophone scholars in my field really haven't made a lot of those approaches in the past -- it's a German specialty. So the German words seem the ones that most of my peers will immediately recognize as the more common terms. Having said that, I realize that an awful lot of people might not know what I'm talking about, and will have to use a dictionary.

Here is where I think my jargon is qualitatively different than the obscurantist type: if one looks any of these words up, the explanations are pretty damned clear and simple. They are jargon in the sense of short words that refer to bigger concepts, but concepts that almost anybody can understand. Onomastics is only jargon to the extent that numismatics or philately are jargon.


I would argue that much of what you are talking about is not easily explicable by using a dictionary. Writing that is heavily informed by theory, and uses the jargon of theory, is often obscure and I understand how many people feel that it is deliberately so. I accept that the writer may not see that -- zie is writing for hir peers, who are also part of an in-group. But going to the dictionary is seldom as helpful as you make out. In my experience, many of those words can require an awful lot of unpacking, as the definitions themselves often include words that only people with a firm grounding in theory have already internalized.

In both cases, yours and mine, a word is short-hand for something bigger, it's a distillation of a concept. However, where the one is short-hand that many people will get, the other is short-hand that can still feel like keeping others out, because the concepts behind them are ones that are not particularly generally accessible and really are specialized. When the audience is people who are used to reading specialized -- or perhaps specialist -- language, and they find it so difficult that they need to sit with dictionaries at the ready, I think there's a problem, or perhaps a legitimate complaint. Perhaps it is just me, but if I try to read an article in English, and find myself spending much more time trying to figure out what it means than I would an article in French (which I read sloooowly) or German, I get cranky. Now, I do have to say that the example Vellum uses is not so difficult for me, although I admit that I'd have to think twice reading it because I *like* talking about the context of time and place, and wouldn't use geotemporal -- but my objection would be on style, rather than on clarity :-)

Another Damned Medievalist said...

As for the anonymity thing (or pseudonymity) ... yeah, we need more beer for that. I will never be changing my habit of posting under what is much more a nom de blog than anything else these days. I don't and don't want to advertise my real name, but that is in part because I really do want to be able to write on issues without people assuming I'm talking about particular people or places. Sometimes I am -- I blog about conference papers, after all. But when I'm talking about teaching, collegiality, etc., I am synthesizing my own experiences with those of my friends and colleagues, and would rather have the freedom to be taken as speaking in generalities.

Having said that, I don't hide my blog identity anymore. If someone asks if I am ADM, I answer honestly. If someone asks me which blog is mine, I may or may not tell them, depending on whether I get a feeling that I'm talking to someone who likes to troll or who will then act as if they 'know' me because they read my blog. I wish you'd been at the blog panel at Kalamazoo, though -- we talked a lot about the dynamics of blogging and how types of blogs and gender interacted and often seemed to dictate whether people blogged under their own names or not.

Oh! (this is disjointed, I know - probably low blood sugar and lack of caffeine) Also, I wanted to say that the internet makes things funny -- an awful lot of people know ADM, and have a better idea of her as a scholar and colleague than do many of my peers and colleagues when it comes to the RL me, because I just haven't been on the conference and publishing circuit that long...!

One last thought, which goes back to what I said at the beginning. We tend to write and think in our fields, and because of that, I think we often forget how specialized we are. When we talk about our work, we tend to talk most to the people who get us. When we write, though, whether it is blogging (a very broad audience) or for an academic journal, our audience is likely to be broader even than we expect. So I'm not sure that it's a bad thing to constantly look for a balance between the language of our fields and the an audience who may be in related fields, i.e., specialists in our period, but with different backgrounds and academic dialects of their own. I used a couple of readers (ones that took excerpts from seminal scholarly books and articles) for my Ren/Ref class last Spring, and the Renaissance one had a lot of terminology used in lit theory and philosophy -- but the authors tended to explain those theories as they went along, not explicitly, but through analogy and example. As someone who has to remember that even words like Merovingian and Carolingian are incredibly obscure to my Americanist and non-history colleagues, I found those articles to be models of how to write to a broader audience.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

Should have had ADM on that list I just gave as well, and she gives a good example of what anonymity can enable, especially post-tenure (the prevention of every post from seeming a roman a clef about one's home institution). And it is not as if she is all that secretive about her ID: like Dr Virago, she is quite comfortable revealing it, but on her own terms.

I should also point out that Vellum wrote me an email this morning in which he revealed a bit about himself as well -- and I do appreciate that gesture.

Holly Crocker said...

Hi all,

I think I lost my earlier comment somewhere (I’m seriously having a Wednesday like a Monday), but I’ll try to re-post/re-create: I really think this discussion is terrific—I deeply appreciate the thoughtful and serious comments from Jeffrey, Eileen, cb, Julie, Karl, and others who have posted since I made a muddle of what I had to say.

My puzzlement is about the assumption that the primary purpose of language is to convey information in objective terms. Others have argued against this notion, I think very effectively for the humanities. But why do we act like the language of science is wholly transparent and completely objective? When scientists create neologisms, they seek to bring clarity to discrete objects, certainly. But often these names carry more than empirical information. They often express the excitement, creativity, or even hubris of the researchers themselves (and this is not a bad thing—I think cosmic things named after people are amazing!). They establish relations, and construct networks of meaning. For these reasons, scientific language is often “poetic,” and frequently implements one of the most important (and most old-fashioned) writing lessons I ever learned: invention is a dynamic and concrete practice, open to creative possibility, attuned to material effects. I don’t know why we treat scientific language as if it is completely empirical in its expression, and fully justified in its difficulty. If I thought the language of science was both dull *and* hard (like a rock, I might have said, before Jeffrey’s new project), I would have far less to wonder about in scientific writings, modern or medieval.

cheers, all, and thanks for the debate, h

Mary Kate Hurley said...

A quick note here, as I've yet to do my required writing for the day (hence will follow-up later). I have two things I'd want to respond with, Eileen:

First that I think the operative words in Vellum's statement about seeming worldly by being wordy is precisely that: "seeming", rather than being. That's a tough line to draw with any degree of accuracy, but as a graduate student who remembers the days when she thought she knew something fairly well -- I think there's a moment where one has to step back and use language as clearly as possible, not as homage to another thinker (I'm thinking here of my own early work with Judith Butler and the Wanderer. *shudder*). As a graduate student, though, I think there's a lot to be said for embracing the "jargon" and then -- hit with an ungenerous review of that jargon -- realize what it does, which is limit the audience and receptiveness. It should be used judiciously, and never with disregard for what the effects are (whether poetic or comprehension-based in nature). Which I think is what you were saying with your point about finding our own voices, and making space in which to do our own kinds of work (whatever htey are), in which I second Jeffrey's "Hear, Hear!"

Anonymous blogging -- well, speaking as the formerly pseudonymous (oh, Anhaga, how I miss you!) -- I think pseudonymity/anonymity (but not the attack-oriented kind, which is what the internet seems to generate all too often) can often allow precisely what you're asking for space for in the humanities -- finding a voice. I am, frankly, still somewhat stymied by worry when it comes to blogging (and it took me a long time to decide to admit this, much less to admit it publicly). Criticism hurts, and we are in a field, as Jeffrey points out, where the stakes are supposedly (and I think somewhat artificially) high: mess up your Latin and die, mistranslate and die, make a mistake and die! Or at least be ever after marred, in a scholarly sense.

Is that silly? Somewhat, yes -- and as someone who hopes to be a student her entire life (a student of both her colleagues and her students), I think it's counterproductive, as making mistakes and being corrected is often the best way to learn. But having work out here, in public, with readers -- that's scary. Particularly when the goals and ramifications of academic blogging are still open, still being debated.

That said, Julie hits the nail on the head. Generosity. I've often quoted my undergrad advisor on her advice to me, and that advice was to "be generous." Sometimes that means looking up a word, or inferencing its meaning from context clues (I was paying attention in fourth grade, apparently -- haven't thought of those reading exercises in years) -- and sometimes it means responding with questions rather than with harsh criticism. Sometimes it means, as Karl says, putting something down and reading something else.

And then there is Holly's comment, which she posted just before I was about to post: "If I thought the language of science was both dull *and* hard (like a rock, I might have said, before Jeffrey’s new project), I would have far less to wonder about in scientific writings, modern or medieval." Hear, hear to that as well. One of the most eye-opening reads of my life was Bruno Latour on precisely the point that science is anything but cold and hard and finished -- but an active process in which humans as actors observe, influence, describe the world around them. That words must be invented for that -- of course. But, to close with Holly's words (so eloquent!) : invention is a dynamic and concrete practice, open to creative possibility, attuned to material effects.

So too, I would say, is writing.

Mary Kate Hurley said...

I should also say: that not everyone thinks the stakes are as high as I've implied -- I was being a bit dramatic with my "...and DIE!" scenario. But I think that often, the smaller points are taken as "proof" that someone's basics are not "good enough" and therefore they can't possibly have any insight into a given topic or subject.

It's good to strive to be as accurate as possible in terms of description/translation/[insert your favorite empirical/concrete trait of scholarship here]. But I think sometimes that leeway should be allowed -- and response would, in those instances, be in correction and aid to make the work stronger, not dismissal.

The best teachers and scholars do just that, in my experience. I hope I remember to, as I get older in these academic geardum.

Vellum said...

If all my post succeeded in doing was to encourage you to post more, then it was, I think, a good post. While I may not agree with everything you've said in yours, please understand that nothing I said was meant as a personal attack on Jeffrey or yourself.

Also, in one instance when you quoted me I think you misunderstood:"desire to seem more worldly, more learned, or more intelligent" -- the key word for me in that phrase was 'seem'. I'm all for actually 'being'.

I will be the first to admit that part of my frustration with this highly specialized form of writing is that I have so much trouble understanding it -- and that a good part of that is my own failing.

Nevertheless I still maintain that the main point of academic writing is to work with others to reach the common end of greater knowledge for all. Scholarship is about working together, and language's key role in scholarship is to facilitate that. But scholarship is also about new ideas, and as such we will on occasion need new words (and ways) to express them.

Perhaps there is some grey area between the metaphorical ten pages and two where both schools of thought can reasonably meet?

Eileen Joy said...

Just some comments here to re-clarify some of the points I made in my original post, thanks to the wonderful and incisive comments made here:

1. I would never, ever be in favor of "outing" anonymous bloggers [I find that practice just as heinous as the practice of magazines like "The Advocate" outing gay celebrities, etc.], especially for the reasons Karl shares by way of the political commentator who was outed. Also, ADM's reasons for blogging anonymously echo reasons I have heard from other bloggers such as Dr. Virago--and the safety zone that really ought to be maintained between professors and students is one that I can get behind. My main concern with anonymous bloggers is when they adopt what might be called a kind of attack posture against someone else's thought and work--which person is always NAMED or referenced in such a way that is easily locatable--yet the person launching the critique remains anonymous. That simply isn't fair play by anyone's rule book. Vellum's critique, I must admit, was extremely mild compared to a lot of other anonymous and vituperative critiques I have run across in the academic blogosphere, and he wrote in mainly broad and general terms [with the exception of using Jeffrey's writing as an "example"], but this is a point I wish to re-emphasize--that anonymous critical attacks are, at the very least, not committed to a fair exchange of points and counter-points within what I would call the open-air online agora of ideas.

[to be continued]

Eileen Joy said...


2. Speaking of the open air, this also recalls me to what may seem a niggling point, but I think it is one worth considering in relation to the reasons [judicious and seemingly sensible reasons, moreover] given by anonymous bloggers for why they choose that mode: since weblogging is an inherently PUBLIC speech act, I am struck by how many of the reasons anonymous bloggers give for their anonymity are similar to the reasons upon which we found our right to certain PRIVATE speech acts. For example, I may have certain opinions that I fear will make my students uncomfortable or impede their ability to form their own opinions and voice, so I choose to not air those opinions in class but I certainly air them when I am in other, more private forums [at the dinner table with family and friends, or around a faculty conference table, or at a conference with my peers, etc.], but when we choose an online forum for these opinions, and in an anonymous voice, it seems to me that we are wanting two, somewhat paradoxical things simultaneously: we want a PUBLIC forum but we want our thoughts at the same time to be somewhat cloaked--i.e., PRIVATE, or perhaps a better way of putting this might be: if you have a desire to make your opinions known to a more broad and public audience, while also wanting to maintain your privacy, the two desires, although not entirely incompatible, do tug a little bit at each other's seams. It is, as ADM astutely points out, a somewhat delicate balancing act and eventually, the public exposure [which also includes conference panels on blogging] entails various moments of over-exposure that ultimately lead to most of us knowing who the anonymous bloggers are, anyway.

3. Here I may a beat dead horse, but even after I listen to, and with great sympathy and understanding, I might add, some of the reasons for anonymous blogging,

--not wanting one's family, who may be unsympathetic to the nth degree, to know your opinions and intellectual and other whereabouts

--not wanting your students or colleagues, and sometimes peers, to be made uncomfortable by your commentary

--wanting to protect one's job prospects, job, career

--wanting to protect the subjects (which may be persons and particular events in particular places) of one's posts from unfair and possibly embarrassing exposure

--not wanting to jeopardize, by association, family members and/or colleagues and friends who don't share your opinions and who could be, let's say, "smeared" in the process

Is it just me, or are all of these reasons, at some level, always already evacuated by our Constitution, by the democracy within which we live [and which, even if it is not perfect and often abused, we can only defend and uphold through the liberal use of energetic free speech], and by what I would call the ethical obligation to be willing to stand behind one's ideas, regardless of the possible consequences? Of course, I don't include hate speech in this and saying things in which nothing much is really at stake and yet which could hurt others, is never good practice, I agree. It's just that, I think those of us who work within the university, and especially within the humanities, should take a harder look at what it is we think we do for a living and ask ourselves if the considerations we take into account when choosing to blog anonymously are in harmony with the principles and values inherent in the idea of the university as the place [perhaps, the *last* place] which constitutes, as Derrida has written,

"the principal right to say everything, even if it be under the heading of fiction and the experimentation of knowledge, and the right to say it publicly, to publish it."

It is not, my friends, a question of the *realities* within which we live and work [what *could* happen to us, and what often *does* happen to us], but rather, what are we willing to risk for the profession we have chosen.

Karl Steel said...

MKH, thanks for these comments.


Anonymous blogging -- well, speaking as the formerly pseudonymous (oh, Anhaga, how I miss you!) -- I think pseudonymity/anonymity (but not the attack-oriented kind, which is what the internet seems to generate all too often) can often allow precisely what you're asking for space for in the humanities -- finding a voice.

Exactly. My first years of commenting on blogs (2003-2005, roughly, up through being Karl the Grouchy Medievalist) were all done pseudonymously. I was finding a voice, and learning the limits of the medium.


In terms of 'jargon,' I'm finding it odd that I haven't seen any examples. And not all jargon is about creativity and brilliance; often it's about efficiency (too). Can we do the concepts expressed in 'saying' vs. 'said' more efficiently than Levinas did in using this terminology? What about Derrida's hostipitality or l'animot (words much on my mind over the past few years)?

Karl Steel said...

Quick comment here, first a correction: okay, there has been an example, the notorious 'geotemporality' (which I wonder about not because it's jargon, but because of the 'geo').

Then a quick response to Eileen. I'm sympathetic to what you're saying, but I wonder about the 'dinner party' analogy: well, that analogy can be expanded, particularly for academics who live in small towns (i.e., smaller than NYC). Surely they want to have those private conversations in a 'public' of friends, but there just aren't enough people around for them in 'real life' for them to have that large a peer group. The internet solves that problem by creating, as it were, a larger dinner table. Granted, it's an odd kind of dinner, more of a masked ball....

Eileen Joy said...

I also wanted to briefly comment here on Anonymous's concern regarding the job market--a concern, moreover, which, almost every time I get on subjects like these [here online but also at conference sessions], is raised for me with a certain anxiety [on the part of the person voicing the concern]. It will always be the concern of the more junior members of our field [both graduate students but also assistant professors, untenured instructors seeking professorships, and the like] to worry and have some anxiety over gaining a foothold in a profession which seems to be growing in some places yet shrinking in others and always under threat of erasure, and within which the available jobs has always been greatly below the number of prospective and highly trained and smart and talented applicants. These are all givens from the outset and anyone entering graduate school knows the parameters from the outset. It's a tough and rightly worrying situation, and yet I can only ever argue that no profession is worth having within which you feel your voice and personal choice of subject matter and methodologies is threatened by those who would censure you merely for the delight of getting away with it, or because they [fallaciously] believe the world is a better place for their stern and conservative and ungenerous gatekeeping.

Yes, I understand the realities, as Jeffrey has well outlined them here and in other posts [i.e., "The Dark Side of the Discipline"], and I know--even personally--some who have paid the ultimate cost for maintaining and defending their right to do the work that *they* determined was worth doing even when no one else wanted it. I am one of those persons and only just received tenure at the age of 46. And yet, I would also give this job up and forsake it entirely if keeping it meant compromising myself. But as I have also told my graduate students: do not follow my example, for I have always been foolish and stubborn this way. It has caused me much misery over the years and financial hardship to boot, but I will never have it any other way. But what I think we can all do together, and I have written about this in a variety of other posts having to do with academic publishing, scholarly collectives, and the like, is we can try to collaborate more effectively on reforming our institutions, our disciplines, and our publishing venues in order to maximize the spaces available for a greater and more broadly conceived scholarship to be accomplished and with maximum benefits to the greatest number of persons possible. A little utopian, of course, but a vision I stand behind and work for every day, not on *my* behalf [for I am now fairly secure], but on *yours*. And that is partly why I did not like Vellum's post, because I want to see us spend more time working together to open up more venues for more ways of thinking & writing and stop telling each other what we shouldn't or can't be doing. And in the meantime, sure, we can help each other to be more "clear"--whatever our personal projects might be.

Another Damned Medievalist said...

Karl -- YES! it is that sort of weird public/private grey area.

Eileen, I totally get what you are saying about that, and think that this is the heart of the matter, and may relate directly to the panels that Celia Chazelle and Felice Lifshitz, et al., have put together at AHA and K'zoo in recent years. These panels concentrate on our roles, or even duties, to use our expertise in the public sphere. Matt Gabriele has also blogged a bit about this, and I think it's really one of the purposes that drives Modern Medieval and Unlocked Wordhoard.

Me, I'm not particularly comfortable with connecting my professional self with some of the comments I make online, not because they aren't part of me, but because I don't think that the fact that I'm a professional medieval historian *is* connected to my beliefs in a single-payer health-care system or that Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck are malicious toads. That is, just because I am an expert (for values of expert) in one field, I don't expect that my readers should translate that to a more valid opinion about current events, if that makes sense.

On the other hand, I have to review a novel on my blog very soon, and I'm happy to be a public intellectual when it comes to historical novels. If that makes sense :-)

Holly Crocker said...

Apologies: I just realized that in my madhouse reconstruction of my original comment, I inadvertently left out my thanks to Vellum for initiating this discussion: I'm sorry about that. Thanks for the post, and for your generous willingness to engage. cheers, h

Eileen Joy said...

Vellum: thanks for your clarification regarding what you intended with "seeming worldly," which is indeed not the same things as *being* worldly, which you are all for, as you say. I stand corrected on that, but my larger concern *was* with your use of "seeming"--i.e., with the presupposition that those who use "jargon," let's say, are purposefully *posing* as something, which implies a disingenuousness on their part, which I do not think is a fair characterization. A better argument, which I think you were also making, is that we should all strive to be better communicators of our ideas, which should be as clear as possible to the widest possible audiences. And if you think some are failing in this endeavor, maybe take as a first assumption that they are not purposefully throwing fog around the room in order to look like something they may not actually be [i.e., worldly].

As to your question,

"Perhaps there is some grey area between the metaphorical ten pages and two where both schools of thought can reasonably meet?"

--I would say this is certainly a grey area within which many, many conversations can still take place that draw all of us closer together, if not in absolute agreement over certain points of subject matter, at least in the desire to want to hear each other better and thereby expand our understanding of others' thought and ideas.

dan remein said...

To bring this back, for a moment to a thought on the form of writing only, leaving aside for a moment anonymity et. al. I would like to address just very briefly here the issue of clarity--raised both by Eileen's post and then with more force by Julie and then by MKH. Although Jeffrey's last post had me thinking about it already, I just wasn't sure what to say yet. MK and I have a longstanding discussion concerning this, because I'm just not super interesting in communicating or expressing anything with language, as a poet or as a critic. I remain devoted to what I would like to think is a sometimes almost conversational manifestation of lucidity. I distrust the notion of being 'clear' though, because I just think that clarity seems to be proper to the work of communication, or expression. And, as I said, I don't see criticism as having the purpose of communication--although I think something like 'scholarship' perhaps is what needs to communicate.

Rigorously, I see the critique of the so-called correspondence theory of truth and the understanding of language as representation (in Heidegger and Derrida) as still needful and salient. Criticism in the humanities, as not a science, as gladly unconcerned with empirical proof and packets of communicable information, might better function by provoking, but asking, by confusing, by opening--by functioning on the level of history and ontology and not the level of the pyschologized or that of the 'subject' with a communicable interior/exterior.

I don't think this is just the poet in me talking either. I think its actually the most 'rigorous' part of my life as a scholar, which would take its cues not from traditions of communication in criticism (which we get in the US I think from Emerson through the debacle of Lionel Trilling and R Niebuhr) but rather from the tradition of critique from Nietzsche to Heidegger to Derrida, whose prose is famously knotty and difficult, but productively so.

I guess perhaps I'm just more of a critic than a scholar, less concerned with learning and teaching information than with producing, opening, and allowing certain kinds of historically salient experiences/events of language. And this is perhaps then my only other concern with Eileen's post: that I need to remained committed to the tradition of negative critique. That is to say, sometimes we need to perform a kind of critical destruction on the work of other critics. But, if and only if we can do with a certain generosity. What I do not mean, is critique that is negative because it attacks the clarity of one's prose, but critique that opens up certain ideological assumptions covered over by a use of language that is in a particular way unexamined. For example, in medieval studies, Dinshaw is famous for performing a certain operation on the language of postcolonial critics to show how their language covers the operation of producing a 'groovy' modernity at the expense of the middle ages. This was not only needful and productive, but negative. And it was productive, I think, because it had the freedom to be, for a moment, purely negative. Dinshaw would not like this suggestion, but I think we need to be able to suspend or forget about futural orientations sometimes in our criticism for negative critique to function, in the end productively. Its needs to be free to be negative totally a-futural for a moment to do its work.

Now, that said--and this brings us back to the private/public grey areas of blogging, one needs to avoid something like personal attack. Dinshaw's issue with certain critics of modernity is political. That the personal is political and vis versa is then where its tricky to do this kind of critique.

However, the spirit of such a negative critique must be concerned not with whether or not one's language clearly expresses or communicates, but whether it does authentic work in the production of needful history, whether it help us imagine alternatives to the current regimes of thought and imagination.

dtkline said...

I wonder what everyone thinks of these analogies below. Do they hold? A question I often discuss with students goes something like this:

*puts on Evil Dan hat*

If you were reading the professional work of theoretical physicists, would you expect their essays to be laced with addition and subtraction, let alone multiplication and division? Or would you expect something complex, probably far beyond your ability to understand?

Why then do you expect the professional work of academic literary critics to be so easily comprehensible?


You can (probably) balance your checkbook, but that doesn't make you a professional mathematician, right?

What makes you think that when you read a text you're going to understand it like a professional literary critic does?

*takes off Evil Dan hat*

Of course, that ol' sense of context matters, and audience.

But reading can be hard, demanding work, and writing even moreso. The best amongst us can be fluid, lucid, and theoretically dense. And here I'm thinking of Jeffrey, Paul Strohm, David Wallace, Carolyn Dinshaw. You know, the usual suspects! :-)

I often find that I strain just to get the ideas down when I'm making an argument, and if I have time and energy, I try to move in my revisions toward clarity and simplicity. English 101 still applies, I think, even for us folks who try to publish:

--subject + verb + other stuff (check)
--clear thesis and paragraph structure (check)
--transitional sentences and paragraphs (check)
--and all the rest.

If'n, however, I'm looking to do something different, something evocative and experiential, something more personal--writing I'm drawn toward more and more--then the writing process as well as communicative ends I find are quite different and provide a different kind of reward.

Anonymity? Good for a whistle blower, perhaps, but not good, methinks in blogging or public discourse--but I separate anonymity from using a handle or avatar as many academic bloggers do.

If one will not take responsibility for one's words by attaching your name to them, one ought not be writing them--something we spend a good deal of time on at the ethics panel at K'zoo last May. And if you do have something critical to say or write, in my view at least, you should (and I try not to use that word 'should' too often) convey them in such a way as they can be heard and accepted positively.

It's just too damn easy these days to throw an anonymous discursive firebomb into someone's life and then run and hide to watch the destruction. We've too many discursive arsonists around these days.

NB - I initially wrote that earlier sentence like this: "If you will not take responsibility for you words by attaching your name to them, you ought not be writing them."

The difference a pronoun makes.

Rick Godden said...

Dtkline, I'm in agreement with much of what you wrote there, particularly where you put on your pedagogical hat (which you label as *evil Dan*). Context and audience is important when it comes to Jargon. And I disagree with one of Vellum's earlier points, that the move toward jargon suggests an envy of the dialects of science. Rather, I think the presence of such specialized vocabularies indicate conversations. Instead of excluding people. these vocabularies demonstrate the conversations that medieval studies has and can have with politics, philosophy, aesthetics, etc. But good academic work not only defines but explores, justifies, and interrogates the vocabulary it is employing. (And I think dtkline's list of scholars do that)

I think medieval studies can be big enough for all of these conversations. And just because we write to certain discourse communities, it does not mean we are trying to keep others out.

prehensel said...

I have been lurking a bit because I'm working on my orals exam reading, but I thought I'd weigh in with an under-developed opinion on locking others out with language: no one can lock another out with language because--as has been pointed out here already--language demands an other (imagined or real...but vernacular uses of those words, not Lacan's).

Jargon-heavy language can make understanding more difficult (try to find a solid definition of jouissance even though most would say they know what it means). But it does not follow that this difficulty is a bad thing (also something that's been said here). An example: everyone remembers Einstein's E=mc^2, but no one remembers Rμν = 0 from his field equations...no one but physicists. Even in a thinker like Einstein who labored for simplicity in all his scientific thinking there is complexity that shuts out the lay person. The answer to my mind is: stop being a lay person. You want to know what Rμν = 0 means? Find out. Passive learning isn't really learning at all, it seems to me.

The work we're doing (in the case of most of the posters here) or want to do (in my case) is, in the main, cutting edge stuff. It is as new and different as anything Einstein or Planck ever thought up. So it's only reasonable to expect that the language won't--we might say can't--be undergraduate-level.

I say this all with the knowledge that I won't stop writing the way I do. Unlike Dan R., I'm an explainer, a teacher--and that's how I view my writing. I see conference papers and articles (when/if they're published) as a chance for me to explain what I've learned to other people who might be interested. It seems logical that if they're interested in monsters and community formation in Beowulf and Chretien or queer personifications in RR, they'll probably already have a lot of the vocabulary needed to understand what it is I'm saying. Nevertheless, I work hard to make concepts and definitions easily understandable when I write because I don't want to be skipped (as Eileen and Karl rightly suggest the appropriate response to an intelligible article would be). But also, it's harder. It's easy to drop terms like jouissance or even monster and personification without knowing exactly what you mean by them; it's much harder to interrogate those terms. (I mean, what's the difference between a marvelous creature and a monster? or a "flat" character and a personification? Those answers are hard!)

In the end, I think clarity in language is like a Cartesian hyperbola. You can (and I think should) work toward clarity, and you can always approach it, but you will never fully reach it. I see no problem in that.

Take that for what it's worth.

Unknown said...

Prehensel, you raise a good point. If you don't understand what a word (or for that matter, equation) means, you probably should go learn. But the response (brought up by the fact that not everyone can wrap her or his mind around every equation) is another question: if it is possible to say the same thing in a way that a) loses nothing (or very very little) in terms of meaning or brevity and b)reaches more people, is that not the way to go?

Obviously when we get into high-level analytical discussions there is going to be a need for more complex words. Sometimes it just isn't possible to say it an "easier" way without losing something. But there have also got to be times when it is. I'm not advocating a return to third-grade vocabulary levels -- those are only necessary in presidential speeches -- but I think it's something that we should consider. Just because language requires an other doesn't mean that it can't also lock out other others.

Or perhaps lock is the wrong word. Language can create such great impediments that it can deter even interested and well-meaning people to such a degree as to seem to lock them out. If a lock is too solid a metaphor, perhaps a hay maze would be a better one: language creates hay mazes that can dissuade and discourage and cause genuinely interested people to become lost before they ever reach the point. And if people want to engage us about our topics, shouldn't we do our best to help them?

Also, Eileen, you're right: looking at what I wrote, I do seem to have assumed deliberate obfuscation as the major source of this language, when in all probability it is not. I do apologise on that regard.

Jeffrey Cohen said...

When was the last time we had 27 comments for a post? What an energizing discussion: we're obviously wrestling with something of importance to a great many.

In a worst case scenario difficult writing becomes a series of shibboleths: invoke jouissance or aporia or agon or caritas or what have you, or declare yourself a loser. Early in my career I was acutely aware of that possibility, mainly because so many of the elders in the field insisted that people were using such words without knowing what they meant (I should add that I seldom found this to be the case: people in graduate school or who have completed graduate school are in general much smarter than others in graduate school or who have completed graduate school give them credit for being). Anyway, when I wrote _Of Giants_ I wanted the book not to seem like the product of someone who had been initiated into the mysteries of Lacan and Deleuze, now speaking from the other side of the haze with vague messages of imaginary identification and lines of flight. I wanted to be clear with my readers, as an act of generosity, about how I understood the terms I was using, where they came from, what they enable. I kind of wanted the book to be a primer as well as something that could push scholarship somewhere new, and present ancient texts in nontraditional light. I did this in some ways as a reaction against the exclusivity I perceived in the field in the early 1990s. Because I felt like I did not fit in, I thought it would be kind of stupid to write something that made its readers feel like some wall was being erected between them and the writer, or that the writer belonged to a members-only club.

And, to be honest, the same with the blog: I will have botched my contribution to the project if it seems like a club where you have to deploy certain terms to be heard. I cherish these 27 comments!

Eileen Joy said...

Dan R: thanks much for recalling me to the obviously very good and sane reasons we will always need some form of what, I guess, we can call negative critique. To be frank, you could have provided even more strong and compelling examples of what I realize now I kind of egregiously overlooked: hate rhetoric, for example, or the kinds of rhetorically fallacious writings that promulgate things like racism, violence against specific Others, etc. Yes, it's true, as your example of Dinshaw's critique of Homi Bhaba-style post-colonial critique demonstrates: when the writing and scholarship of others suppresses or neglects other points of view, when it [purposefully or unconsciously] narrows the field of ideational play, when it offers a less-than-capacious historical view, etc., then negative critique can be an efficacious corrective, even, at times, a moral corrective [moral in the sense of attempting, in some cases, to expose rhetoric or fallacious argumentation and/or "evidence" that might lead to harm, psychic and otherwise]. So all of your points are very well-taken as regards the necessity of negative critique. I think what I was mainly aiming at was a way to open up a field within which we might approach each other's work with some sort of deference and respect regarding what we can hope are *good* or at least honest motives and intentions, and also with some awareness of how much hard work and uncompensated labor goes into all of this, and thereby offer critiques aimed at helping each writer-scholar to accomplish as much as possible relative to what I would call their *personal* life-work projects. And also simply to *advance* thought, to keep it in a kind of tension that helps it to maintain what I would call its jumpiness, or laxity, or plasticity, or pliability: in short, to work toward the establishment of conditions whereby nothing solidifies or hardens into absolute, unchanging statements, yet, at the same time, to help others to better articulate whatever it is they believe at any given moment. This is why I love what you wrote here:

"I guess perhaps I'm just more of a critic than a scholar, less concerned with learning and teaching information than with producing, opening, and allowing certain kinds of historically salient experiences/events of language."

Yes, yes, yes.

Nicola Masciandaro said...

Language is the house of being--houses need locks.

Cf. Trobar clus.

Prynne's "Resistance and Difficulty", available here, also comes to mind.

Plus, a recently glossed ghazal.

Malta anyone?

Nicola Masciandaro said...

p.s. x.

Anonymous said...

Arriving late and not staying long, because I have to rewrite a job application—if only I blogged pseudonymously ha ha—I just wanted to make two points. Firstly, and mildly defensively, the tenthmedieval tag that covers my name here is a Blogger only problem. When Blogger accepts an OpenID it uses the OpenID address local name as the poster's identity. Routines exist to gather this information from the site that's authenticating me, Wordpress in this instance, but Blogger isn't using them. So I happily identify myself elsewhere; but on Blogger, if I'm to be identified as tenthmedieval by the OpenID, and therefore authentically me, I have to use something other than my name. Ironic, isn't it?

Secondly, I think the actual argument here, in which my side as Eileen mentions is well-documented, crystallises around audience. If we're trying to tell people outside our field that our work is important, worth supporting, and can enrich them, then speaking a language that lets them in is essential surely. If we're only addressing our peers, which at our most mercenary is all we need to do to meet the victory conditions of the profession, then we can be as exclusive and demonstratively clever as we like I guess, but, surely missing something. And yes, of course we should enjoy it. But if you're really only aiming for people who already speak your discourse, well, doesn't that say something about how important you think your work is? Wasn't it worth communicating beyond that range?


prehensel said...

In re anonymous blogging: http://www.cnn.com/2009/TECH/08/21/outing.anonymous.bloggers/index.html

Shannon said...

Hello all,

First of all, it's been a while since i've been a *silent* reader of this (and other interlaced) blogs. As a practicing poet, grad student,queer theorist, budding medievalist, interloper with an investment in words that equates to wonder, these posts have unearthed many relevant rhysomic threads in an ongoing interface I've had with the accadamy, creativity, cyberspace and books. I feel compelled to *reveal* myself, both as a reader and as a voice. Having recently (wednesday) outed myself as an interloper at a linguistics conference at u of Toronto (which I found stimulating-- and hey, if linguists use poetic texts as data for their work, why as a poet am I seemingly not free to do the reverse without dirty looks?) to an embarassed silence similar to that described by Mikko Tuhkanen in "Queer Hybridity" (Chrysathi Nigianni and Merl Storr: 2009) as a typical greeting by 21C queer theoriests to Gloria Anzaldua's insistance upon both spirit AND evolution in her metaphysicis of interconnectedness. In short, i am fully in support of Eileen Joy's insistance upon the notion of abundance in scholarly writing (as in all other types of writing). Indeed, there IS room for everyone, and we can only form ad hock, provisional affinities so that all utterance is necessary, singular, and perhaps affective. This is not a utopic framing of the semantic feild but an ontological necessity (to reference Canadian poet Pricilla Uppal). I am a strong advocate of plentitude, generosity and abundance in writing. I agree that creativity is contingent upon failure and that it is only through dialogic exprimentation and feedom of speech that the marvelous can perculate in whatever feild(s) one might work in. I think it's very important to balance the critical and the open mind as readers and writers. And ethically, the one leads to the other.

Anonymous said...

Intellectually there is room for everyone but in a world of limited resources the pursuit of the humanities remains a luxury to be funded by other means. This means paymasters who expect some kind of return, and that means justification to non-experts. I have never been able to agree with Eileen that there's 'room for us all', as might be expected from someone who's repeatedly been knocked back for funding or salaries. This is the core of most of our arguments, indeed. In this respect we're back to the first comment, full circle.