Poisonous academics and their claptrap of exclusion

I first came across this article after reading The Age of the Warrior by Robert Fisk, my favourite journalist stationed in Beirut, Lebanon. This book is full of highly opinionated readings concerning both domestic and international politics in the Middle East. Anyone interested in the modern political or historical situation of this region should definitely pick up this book.

I’m posting this blog in lieu of the discussion we had this past week, about coded academic language relative to public discourse. In his article titled ‘Poisonous Academics and Their Claptrap of Exclusion’ he speaks about academic jargon as a means to marginalize the public from social scientific writing. Singling out anthropology specifically, while attending a lecture, he writes:

“… all very fascinating. But once questions were invited from the floor, Gilsenan was asked about ‘matrilineal’ issues in colonial Singapore. I closed my eyes. ‘Matrilineal’ doesn’t exist in my dictionary. Nor is it likely to. It is part of a secret language of academe – especially of anthropology – and it is a turn-off. We poor dunces should keep our noses out of this high-falutin’ stuff. That, I think, is the message. I recall a student raging to me about her anthropology professor who constantly used words like ‘emic’ and ‘etic’ – to this day, I have no idea what they mean; readers are invited to reply – in an attempt to mystify her discipline.”

He concludes this article by asserting that public intellectuals refrain from using coded, conceptual language. In the last paragraph of this article, he states:

“No, I’m not saying that all teachers speak like this. There is no secret language in the work of Edward Said or Avi Shlaim or Martin Gilbert or Noam Chomsky (* the latter of which I disagree with to some extent *). But it’s growing and it’s getting worse, and I suspect only students can now rebel against it. The merest hint of ‘emics’ and ‘constructs’ or ‘hermeneutic possibilities’ and they should walk out of class, shouting Winston Churchill’s famous retort: This is English up with which I will not put.”

Although I have my reservations about his analysis, I do think he has some important points about how we conceptualize and code our writing, if only to be understood by a select few. I’m not saying that words like ‘emic’ or ‘etic’ should be removed from the theoretical cannons of cultural anthropology, I’m only concerned with how the public engages with our writing. If this is indeed the how the public views our language and style, then perhaps when communicating our findings to a greater audience we should be keep these things in mind. Your thoughts?

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2 thoughts on “Poisonous academics and their claptrap of exclusion

  1. Hi Matt,

    Thanks for an interesting post! I have strong but very mixed feelings about the Poisonous Academics article.

    My first reaction is one of anger and frustration. Both Fisk’s tone (“high-falutin'”, really? Way to parsimoniously diss/dismiss an entire type of speech, and the people who produce it!) and the things he says rile me. Many of the words and expressions he derides are, to my mind, both analytically useful and simple enough to understand. The words ’emic’ and “etic” allow us to efficiently draw a clear distinction between different ways of understanding linguistic, social or cultural phenomena. Lacking an exact equivalent in regular English, these words could only be replaced by clumsy and possibly confusing circumlocutions. If you mention ’emic’ in passing, once, in a speech about something else, you can replace with something else easily enough. If you are actually using the idea of “emicity” as a tool to think about a complex situation, you pretty much need to use the word (although it’s a good idea to define it early on to make sure that your readers understand what you mean when you use it!).

    Fisk’s saying that he’s uninterested in ever adding the word ‘matrilineal’ to his vocabulary is akin, to me, to his saying that the relationship between gender and family/genealogy/descent isn’t worth thinking about or analyzing.

    Part of the (admittedly unwarranted, but what else can you expect from a “lady student”) vehemence of my feelings about the article stems from the its echoing of arguments currently being made by many (*cough* Harper government *cough*) portraying social phenomena as common sense things that do not warrant special analysis or research. Considering the nature of his work, I’m sure that this is what Fisk is arguing. But I do suspect that he would not be equally angry at people using technical language to write about carpentry techniques or theoretical physics. This has something to do with ideas about what the social science and humanities are and what they should do. In that sense, some of the underpinnings of his arguments are similar to the underpinnings of arguments about how we don’t need to study social and cultural phenomena.

    (As an asides, I would add that Churchill’s quote is catchy, in large part, because it uses a structure that isn’t common in oral English. The syntactical complexity that makes it interesting also makes it inaccessible to many people – people who aren’t big readers, people for whom English isn’t a first language, people who aren’t used Churchill’s somewhat antiquated tone, and so on. That sort of linguistic elaboration is also exclusionary; it just happens not to exclude Fisk.)

    When I hold off on the vitriol, though, I have to admit that like you say, what matters in the end is that:

    “If this is indeed the how the public views our language and style, then perhaps when communicating our findings to a greater audience we should keep these things in mind.”

    The whole point is to make our research accessible, and to take in, respect, and consider the thoughts of people coming from a wide range of backgrounds. Whether our writing is genuinely unintelligible to non-specialists or even to anyone (and admittedly this is something that I really have difficulty doing, and really need to learn to do) or is unfairly dismissed by people who lose all interest at the first sight of a technical term, the end result is the same. So where do we go from here?

  2. Hello, thank you so much for sharing this; I am sorry that I missed it when you first posted it. I have not yet had the pleasure of reading that article, but the points that you bring up are definitely ones I have considered. I have often felt in classes that I was ‘out of place’ or showed up to the wrong class because of my unfamiliarity with the jargon being used. I attributed it to my strong science background and switching into the anthropology major late in the game. I admit I tried to immerse myself into the language more so as to not feel out of place, but there are still authors or concepts that I trip up on. It’s often made me concerned about the accessibility of my work as well as others within the discipline. I particularly find that this is the case in a lot of theory work, not just because they are working out a theory, but because it is so specific to one aspect of the discipline that you need to have the write equipment to even step into the ring they’ve created. Do you think it might be a catch-22 in some instances though? We create new ways of looking at aspects of our work, which is then used by others. We bicker over semantics or come up with terminology that works more than others, thus confusing not only ourselves, but those outside of the discipline. I am unsure of how to overcome it, as this terminology is important to us, but the question is how important is it really? Thanks for the food for thought!

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