Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Something Thoughtful

Nicholas Reid reflects in essay form on general matters and ideas related to literature, history, popular culture and the arts. You are free to agree or disagree with him. 

Alas, it has bothered me long and it still bothers me. Depending on my mood it angers me, or I laugh at it. But it is still a major problem.
Why is critical language, as used by members of tertiary English Departments in refereed academic journals, so impenetrable? Why does it appear to be written in a code that is accessible only to the initiated?
I am not being a total barbarian when I make this complaint. I know that specialisations require a specialised vocabulary. I do not expect to understand an academic paper in Medicine or Cognitive Neuroscience or Astrophysics, because these are all fields which I have never studied and in which I have no expertise. I also appreciate that, just occasionally, academic criticism will have to use words not in common currency. When analysing the provenance, structure, prose or poetic style, imagery or vocabulary of a work of literature, there will inevitably be a few words that necessitate resort to the dictionary. I understand this fully. But the coded in-group language of academic literary publications has become a positive plague. This I say as I ostentatiously wave about my two Masters degrees and my Doctorate in humanities fields, refer to a career as reader, critic and reviewer of literature, and once again affirm that I am neither philistine nor barbarian. 
Of course I have sour suspicions about the situation. Could it be, I wonder, that an element of mystification is at work when young Eng Lit. postdoc puts finger to word-processor to grind out an article?  A Mandarin vocabulary is employed to establish boundaries – to give the illusion that something is being discussed which only experts in the field can understand. Or perhaps to reassure postdoc that he/she really is a professional.
I further suspect that Postmodernism, Poststructuralism and other highly perishable influences have had a profoundly negative effect. Those seeking to earn research points, by writing in publish-or-perish academic literary periodicals, are encouraged to produce a prose overladen with subordinate and concessive clauses, qualification and reference. Perhaps this is the outcome of systems of thought that do not believe in quality or merit, that reduce all things to data, and that therefore have to thrash around justifying themselves. But I will not go too far in developing this suspicion, or I will be accused of being an out-of-touch Old Fart as well as a philistine. Somebody who doesn’t know the norms of current lit crit discourse. 
Let me make it clear that, after much unpleasant straining and grunting, I can usually make out what young impenetrably-prosing academic critic is driving at (often enough it is something quite limited and hardly worth saying). Let me also make it clear that advanced literary criticism does not have to be like this.
Within the last couple of years I have read with pleasure and enlightenment volumes of literary essays by David Lodge (Consciousness and the Novel), C.K.Stead (Book-Self), J.M.Coetzee (Inner Workings) and others. I have not agreed with every word they write, but I have noted (a.) that they all discuss and analyse literature at a high level of sophistication; and (b.) that I can understand what they are saying without straining through their verbiage. In other words, no exclusive Mandarin vocabulary is employed. Point (c.) might also be all three of these critics are distinguished novelists and/or poets in their own right, know their craft from the inside and have less need to assert their importance or to mystify their readers. And a final point (d.) could add that the average contributor to refereed journals is likely to be less experienced than such big names – in other words, more immature and less capable of good prose.
The heretic in me asserts that, on the whole, literary criticism does not require an exclusive “professional” vocabulary. There need be little in it that the intelligent, literate adult reader (in other words, me) cannot readily understand. But this view really is a modern heresy. It has been labelled the “Bookman” approach and solemnly anathemised in learned journal and conference paper by Dr Verdant Foucault Green. Us dumb yokels just don’t seem to understand that academic lit crit isn’t meant to be understood.

Footnote – You will note that in the above, I have not quoted one specific example of the thing I am attacking. This really is lousy critical practice. In mitigation I plead (a.) that I have no desire to pillory a few individuals for what is a general malaise; and (b.) I do not want Dr Verdant Foucault Green, in any of his or her incarnations, to waste time penning an unreadable riposte.

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