Monday night, Sigma Iota Rho, the International & Area Studies honorary, hosted four panelists presenting different stories around the theme “South America: Untold Stories.” Professor Gustafson, the only academic on the panel, opened his speech-the last of the four-explaining the similarities between academia and journalism. The one difference, he suggested jokingly, is that as an academic, he gets paid to turn facts into gibberish for a much smaller audience.
Humor works by blowing up truth to make fun of it; the crowd at the speech roared. A cute self-deprecation, the one-liner is much truer than the laughter suggests. The social “sciences” and the humanities-the disciplines which do not deploy mathematics to reach conclusions-are categorized by an arms race of verbosity and jargon technicality which obfuscates the argument an author makes. This has two negative effects: first, making a thesis less clear counteracts the purpose of technical language, which is to clarify ambiguity; second, it further restricts one’s appeal to an incestuous audience, limiting the impact of the author’s points. Academic language, far from being elucidating, often obscures the author’s thesis.
Moreover, this seems to be a relatively recent phenomenon, at least in the social sciences. Comparing the turn of the century luminaries-Weber, Durkheim, Veblen, Boas, Mead-and those from mid-century-Hayek, Schumpeter, Galbraith, Geertz, White-to contemporaries, one is struck by the (relative) clarity of their language. Gayatri Spivak, a comparative literature professor at Columbia University, exemplifies this problem (though she is by no means the only offender). Her most famous article, “Can the Subaltern Speak?” is nearly incomprehensible the first time through: her meandering, disjointed prose is interspersed with jargon sentences such as: “This parasubjective matrix, cross-hatched with heterogeneity, ushers in the unnamed Subject [.] The race for the ‘last instance’ is now between economics and power.” The article concludes with a clear answer: “The subaltern cannot speak.” For some reason, this requires forty-six pages of dense wanderings which, as far as my classmates and I can tell, may be tangentially relevant. Professors often kvetch about writing for small audiences, but language like Spivak’s above, which is only slightly more elaborate than her peers’, is self-limiting. When language obscures rather than illuminates, only those with a vested interest in the author’s message will devote the time and frustration to understand the author.
My cursory hypothesis is that this jargon-filled meandering, so complex so as to be understood only by a select few (and maybe even just by the author himself), reflects an academic arms race: in an increasingly competitive job market, the ability to deploy a wide-range theory and its related vocabulary sets one apart from other tenure-chasers, often regardless of the clarity of the resulting prose. Though this seems most prevalent in critical theory because it comes across as an attempt to apply independently verifiable analytical rigor (akin to that of the hard sciences) to fields which resist, by the ambiguity of qualitative description, such approaches, it is also a problem in fields such as economics and political science which rely on mathematics as the differentiating barometer. Nonetheless, the qualitative disciplines-anthropology, history, English, philosophy, parts of political science-suffer the most from this jargon arms race. Instead of competing on clarity, most academics have surged in the other direction, differentiating themselves based on the complexity of their explanations. While this might be good for tenure, it reduces the overall reach (impact) of professors’ often important insights.
Zachary is a senior in Arts & Sciences he can be reached via e-mail at [email protected].
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