Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Logophilia and Lucidity

by J J Cohen

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.

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'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?

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.


  1. First, allow me to applaud your response to my tiny little blog. I'm actually quite flattered that you read it, and not only that, that you took my criticism so genuinuely and without offense.

    Second, you do have a very professional (even poetic) way with words, but the specific one you chose in your response is the one that was on the tip of my tongue the whole time I was writing my post: jargon.

    I suppose the real question I was trying (in a very roundabout way) to address was whether or not the Humanities, specifically Medieval Studies, needs its own jargon. I view jargon as at best a necessary evil in the Sciences, and wrote my post in the hope that we could limit its spread on our own home turf.

    I think the best part of your writing is not your vocabulary, but rather your rhetoric. Considering this, I think we may already have the solution to the problem of excessive jargon in the humanities: one may use the smallest words one can find, but if applied with the proper form, balance, and (dare I say it) finesse, one may sound the professional without sounding exceedingly technical.

    And of course, there will always be room for that special seasoning known as jargon; but I suppose we ought to treat it with respect, lest we spoil the dish.

    (And oh gosh I've gone all verbose again. Sorry for the long comment.)



  2. Wajih Ayed3:26 PM

    In principle, I agree that verbosity is undesirable and that we need different registers, each appropriate to a given audience.

    However, difficulty in the example cited does not appear to be intended by Professor Cohen. I believe that it is appropriate in the context where it was originally meant to be, that is, a scholarly article. The author's implied readers in this case are medievalists whose horizons of expectations to a great extent correspond to his own. I am inclined to believe that he would not have said the sentence in question in class.

    I think that the use of theory in medieval studies can be very productive, whether in classroom interactions or in more specialised conversations. However, one always runs the risk of falling under the spell of resonant jargon and the curse of unresponsive readers. It is my firm conviction that as long as a theory-imbued medievalist uses the right register and shuns ostentation, it is a risk to be taken.

  3. Just a minor observation: "original time and place" beats "originary geotemporality" by one space in fixed width font and has the added benefit of not triggering my spellcheck.

  4. Interesting conversation! I have been thinking a lot about jargon recently, medieval jargon rather than medievalist jargon, but nonetheless…. Here are a few sentences from a file I’ve been making notes in periodically:

    The philological path of “jargon” leads back to the Old French jargon, probably from an onomatopoeic base jarg-, garg-. The French word meant birdsong, and, by extension, “langage en général,” or noise: the matter of language deprived of sense and reference (Dictionnaire de l'ancienne langue française). Middle English and Middle Scots preserved an analogous spectrum of meanings: “jargon” might signify avian warbling as when “These briddis,” to cite Chaucer’s Romaunt, “Layes of love, ful wel sownyng,/ They songen in her jargonyng,” (715-6). However, it could also mark out a kind of noise contrasted against comprehensible acts of communication. In Confessio Amantis, Philomena, having her tongue cut out, cannot speak but can vocalize; Gower’s description foreshadows her eventual metamorphosis: “Sche with al no word mai soune/ Bot chitre and as a brid jargoune” (5.5700). The word’s earliest surviving attestation is perhaps closest to modern usage. Dindimus, king of the Brahmins, defines the knowledge he seeks against the empty babble of learning: “Swiche wordus of wise we wilnun to lere,/ Þere nis no iargoun, no iangle, ne iuggementis falce” (462).

    So, one of my thoughts about jargon is that is has strong ties to the materiality of language – to sound, noise, music, to those lyric energies that are being called upon in the beginning of The Romaunt of the Rose and in so many other medieval poems, in the form of warbling birds. In this way, jargon verges toward a creative wellspring of language that is not the same thing as language proper and that might be called noise. I feel this in the manic rhythms and energies of the The Canon Yeoman’s Prologue and Tale, a very jargon-y tale. So, Jeffrey, I think your reference to poetry is very apposite. Alternately, and we need not look beyond the Canon Yeoman of course, jargon’s other impulse draws me with the seductions of particularity, precise meanings, taxonomies, a way of speaking about the world finally finally adequate to it…. In other words, I think jargon is a symptom and a condensation of two of the great dreams of language – music and totalization, pure lyric and complete knowledge.

    Not to argue that jargon is always the way to go! Information theory starts out from the common-sense principle that the potential for information and for noise in a system increase together: messages drawing from a 1000-word lexicon are able to say more AND are more likely to be misunderstood than those drawing from a 100-word lexicon. Consideration of audience, occasion, and purpose does and should affect one’s courting of noise. However, I do think it’s important (at least, it’s important for me) to acknowledge the creative work of jargon. By invoking different scientific, religious, philosophic, national, regional, or sub-cultural idioms, we’re trying out other ways of naming and systematizing the world, distinct ways of organizing knowledge. Communication is the ultimate goal, but clarity should not be narrowly understood; I’d think “claritas” rather than transparency – the overall vividness, brightness, distinctness of one’s message.

    -Julie Orlemanski

    PS Marge Garber has a great essay in her book Academic Instincts that touches on some of these questions; the essay is called "Terms of Art."

  5. Alf Siewers5:55 PM

    "Time and place" puts the emphasis on two different categories, though. "Geotemporality" emphasizes more an inter-weaving of the two with the art, which expresses the meaning more fully. It's not a bad thing, I think, to shape words more complexly so form and content entwine more effectively. Take Finegans Wake and Ulysses, not to mention long ago the Faerie Queene or even Old English kennings: they do that, and often get criticized for obscure vocabulary. But there's a reason...

  6. I have nothing to add to this except to voice my agreement with Julie's wonderful comment (brilliant in all senses), and to second Alf's vote for 'geotemporality.' So long as it's explained when it's first used, and so long as you've considered why the neologism instead of the more straightforward 'time and place,' well, then you've done your work.

    Now, the big question here might be the bad fit between 'geo' and 'topos.' Stone is not the same as place, since place is many things other than stone (and, as we see from your post below, stone too is many things other than stone). Topotemporality is perhaps not as euphonic, but it might be more accurate.

  7. i'm wholly on vellum's side on this. i'm supposedly an expert in this field and i regularly am befuddled by what is going on in scholarly writing in my own field, mostly when the writing is by theory people -- whose intellectual, professional, and even political commitments i broadly share. i am young, and i was raised reading the "canonical" theory texts, and loving them; but the scholarship that supposedly carries that ball forward doesn't seem, to me, worth the candle (i.e., even if i could hack my way through the verbiage to an actual, articulable "thought," it would simply require too much, when there is so much else to be read and done....)

    i should note that while i have never met any of the bloggers on this website, they seem like well-meaning folks who i think have a lot of amazingly interesting things to say, and who approach the academic life with a morally admirable perspective. and JJC's willingness to take on this criticism relatively non-defensively impresses. (it really does: i'm certain i would not do as well.)

    that said, i wonder that it doesn' more regularly strike "theory" types of folks that they are very much alienating potential allies and students (meaning people like me who want very much to learn from their remarkable intellects) by writing with an aggressive opacity. it's like they either have never read -- or simply think they're above -- the basic instructions in writing that we all received as students. just pragmatically, it seems like a bad strategy, if you want to convince people, rather than just preaching to the choir.

    i totally understand that something is lost in writing clearly: something self-expressive, something poetic, something insightful. it hurts. we've all felt the pain inflicted by the red pen of a well-meaning editor.

    but this is reality. writing isn't about perfection: you can't do it all. we are, for better or for worse, limited. as are our audiences, and our language. there's almost a sense in which it's an immaturity, an unwillingness to accept limitations that drives much "theory talk." and it ultimately comes across as extremely arrogant, alienating, posturing. (by the way, this is by no means limited to blog v. published writing -- if anything ITM is actually easier to read than much scholarship.)

    i write this because i regularly read this blog and wonder why more people don't say the sort of thing that vellum here said.

    i genuinely hope this is not un-civil; i do wish to learn, and i would be curious to know if there's an answer here, or if maybe this is just an irreconcilable difference of opinions deriving from different intellectual/aesthetic temperaments or something like that....

  8. i cannot resist one little other comment: surely you think that your use of geotemporalities could seem more than "a little" affected, which is all you concede.

    come on: at least own it, if you're going to do it!

  9. Thanks, everyone. Julie, thanks especially for the medieval link -- and Alf, for the reminder of context.

    There is so much food for thought here. In the end I am going to say that geotemporality fits the tone, audience, and interlocutors of the scholarly essay in which it appeared: that piece of writing has a specific and no doubt smaller audience than this blog does. That essay, too, isn't as "gracious" (if you will) as a blog post, the audience for which is often impossible to determine in advance -- and for that reason, blog posts are a bit more exciting for me at this point in my career, because of that inherent unpredictability. Don't get me wrong, I love the precision that a scholarly essay demands (that's why I keep writing them), but I also would not want to give up on the invitation to creativity that a blog offers. The downside, of course, is that work posted here is more patently unfinished, in process, provisional than anything that appears in a carefully vetted, traditional forum.

  10. PS Jargon as the warbling of birds, as the inhuman sound alongside the human meanings is really sticking with me, Julie. Robert Glück does an amazing artistic job with activating the nonhuman linguistic outpourings that haunt Margery Kempe in his book of that title: the reveries he narrates are constantly haunted by birdsong, just as Kempe is haunted by the sonority of storms (and maybe music? Can music, like art, be nonhuman?)

    Anyway, given that the essay in question is about inhuman art, I very much appreciate your linking jargon back to the subject, Julie.

  11. First of all, I'm glad it stings—and you should be too, as it demonstrates you have a commitment to being a stronger stylist. If it caused you to retrench reflexively into the disciplinary defense that Culler and Lamb forwarded in Just Being Difficult—about which, much, much, much more here—that would demonstrate a set of commitments that are careerist, at best, and obscurantist at worst. I think that's where the criticism of your overwrought sentence, as well as the bad prose of humanists generally, comes from: the belief that these articles are written by and for members of a professional coterie. There's nothing wrong with coteries per se, but the post-theory version of the professional coterie that grew and blossomed in the '70s, '80s and '90s has been replaced, among younger scholars, with a larger and more diverse notion of a social community. (So says the Americanist commenting on a medieval blog.) Prose that bears the signature of the old ways seems, to many now, that much more dated—deliberately, if not spitefully, anachronistic—and as such the only purpose seems to be to exclude younger scholars from the conversation.

    All of which is only to say, there's a reason why you write on your blog, read by thousands, one way and in a professional journal, read by—let me see now, how many fingers do I have on this hand?—read by very few, another.

    That said, this is not where I intended this comment to go: I meant to simply acknowledge that if you're not horrified by something you wrote last week, ur doin it wrong. Not that one can't ever be proud of this transition or that turned phrase, only that if you've written something in which you're proud of every transition and every turned phrase, you haven't challenged yourself as a writer—you've written something somewhat thoughtlessly, without intellectual effort, which means that you are, in all probability, repeating yourself.*

    Still, that particular fragment only jars the ear when taken out of context: the long history of describing narrative and narrative histories as textitles means "enmeshed" works as a verb; and given that you're talking about the relationship of history and place to aesthetic production, "originary geotemporality" works, although it's a wee clunky. But! Like I said, occasional clunkiness is better than perpetual mellifluousness (which tends to lull people to sleep anyway).

    *Of course, actually repeating yourself, i.e. a dedicated revision, is another matter entirely: it's always painful, because it's devoted to the prose.

  12. Jeffrey--thanks for commenting on my post. I've weighed in on this matter over at http://littlenemoadventures.blogspot.com, which I've recently got off the ground (again).

    [Incidentally, Jeffrey, we've actually met briefly when you gave a wonderful talk at the Kelly Writers House at UPenn, which I was in charge of recording, and which introduced me to your work.]

  13. Thanks, Nemo, for your post, for your blog, and for not reporting that at the Kelly House presentation I threw a hissy fit because the bottle ed water was Fuji rather than Volvic. I really appreciate you keeping that between us because it was not my finest hour.


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