Fisk’s List, Jargon, and Conceptual Brevity

Sharon Howard has a great response to Robert Fisk’s raving about academic jargon.

I can only echo it. I’m very friendly to the regular complaint that scholars in the humanities and the social sciences use unnecessary jargon and communicate poorly in their writing. I think it’s a fair charge in many instances. I don’t think that this lack of clarity even stems from anything as straightforward as science envy, or the desire to have a specialized language that keeps non-initiates at arm’s length. I think sometimes it’s just a way to add words and pages and simulated novelty to scholarship that would otherwise seem to be banally reiterating arguments made by others–a response to the pressure to produce. I think sometimes it’s also a form of simulation–a largely unconscious attempt to read like highly valued works, without understanding why or how those works were written in the manner that they were written.

But Fisk shows clearly where you can go too far, where this kind of anti-academic critique slides easily and comfortably into anti-intellectual sloth, the lazy man’s justification for certain forms of sustained ignorance.

Let’s take the first term that Howard notes is on Fisk’s hit list of ridiculous jargon: “matrilineal”. If you’re going to talk about kinship in human societies, surely a topic that anyone could concede to be empirically important, not some postmodermist theoretical conceit, you’re going to want to talk about the empirical phenemonon described by the word matrilineal. (A word, by the way, which is in the dictionary, my dear Mr. Fisk.) Now I could, when writing or speaking, say each and every time, “a line of descent from a female ancestor to a descendant which may govern property rights, inheritance, or mere tranmission of lineage identity”. It’s a coherent, concrete, discrete phenomena: why on earth shouldn’t I have a single word or term to describe it? Sure, I have to define it for people who haven’t encountered it before, but that’s what education is about.

Most of the words on Fisk’s list are comparably concrete. Some are more dispensible, or have drifted from their original use. “Problematize”, for example, is now just a big-word, somewhat jargony way to say that you want to complicate an issue. The original theoretical idea of a “problematic” in Marxist thought was much more specific, but even at its origins arguably not particularly necessary or discrete. At the very least you had to be pretty deep into a particular theoretical conversation to get much specific mileage out of it. So it’s not as if Fisk’s complaint is completely invalid. But he does a pretty good job of outlining the dangers involved in lazy anti-intellectual or anti-academic rhetoric (dangers well in evidence elsewhere): legitimate gripes slide very easily into blanket ignorance, and the deep persistent value of scholarship gets tossed out the window along with its baroque exterior.

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