The Distinctions of Complex Language

I should be thinking about Mankiw, I suppose, and the couple hundred pages of macroeconomics I’ve managed to skim through. I’m frustrated, though, because I’ve been following and participating in the discussion about complex language at Kairosnews and its branches elsewhere, and my voice is very much in the minority — as in, what feels like a minority of one.

The consistent thread that I find myself arguing against is the refrain, “Why can’t literary theorists use simpler language? Why does it have to be so difficult?” I’ve already disagreed, at Kairosnews, with the statement’s presumption that language is merely the dress of thought, to be changed plain or fancy at a whim, and I’m disappointed that — after asking twice — I’ve still not heard why people are happy to take English Studies to task for using challenging modes of expression, but would never dare to ask why the language of law, or economics, or theoretical physics has to be so difficult. Part of me suspects that it may, in fact, be class-bound: people see law, economics, and physics as “useful” professions, professions that do powerful work in the world; English and its associated studies are either pleasure reading or memoranda-writing.

I think of the often-told anecdote of the writer who is asked, “So when are you going to get a real job?” and its corollary in the cocktail-party response to the revelation that one is an English teacher: “Oh, I guess I’d better watch my grammar around you, ha-ha.” English, apparently, is the profession of self-indulgent providers of paperback entertainment and the world’s red-pen paper-checkers. I’m sorry: non serviam, motherfucker.

So let’s get some stuff straight: I’m a PhD candidate who teaches and writes and thinks about teaching. I love my work. I’m passionate about my work. My work is hard. And I’m not stupid. So I take strong exception to those who dismiss difficult theory as intellectual emptiness wrapped in a hard veneer of jargon. Admission of guilt: I’ve got Of Grammatology and Writing and Difference on my bookshelf, along with Language, Counter-Memory, Practice and The Order of Things, and other texts that I’ve seen dismissed as the obfuscation of theory, sometimes by folks who fully admitted that they hadn’t read them. (It seems incredible to me: would these same people, were Kant or Gadamer to more fully filter into English studies, feel as comfortable calling it nonsense?) As best as I can tell, there are three major motivations for such dismissals: (1) it’s too difficult, (2) it’s irrelevant to my experience, (3) it’s overly and overtly ideological. I’ve already brought up (4) it’s nonsense, and I won’t further dignify with a response the intellectual arrogance that blithely supposes scholars who’ve spent years translating and interpreting texts fail to see that those texts are meaningless. I think (4) is an overcompensating way of stating (2).

I think some definitions are in order, so we know what we’re talking about here. From Jonathan Culler, Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction: “A theory must be more than a hypothesis: it can’t be obvious; it involves complex relationships of a systematic kind among a number of factors; and it is not easily confirmed or disproved. . . the nickname theory. . . has come to designate works that succeed in challenging and reorienting thinking in fields other than those to which they apparently belong. . . Theory is often a pugnacious critique of common-sense notions, and further, an attempt to show that what we take for granted as ‘common sense’ is in fact a historical construction, a particular theory that has come to seem so natural to us that we don’t even see it as a theory” (3-4). So, again, no, it’s not simple ideas in fancy clothes, and commonsense language — as demonstrated quite aptly by the Bush administration — is eminently useful for conserving the status quo.

To argue against the complexity of theoretical language using argument (1), “It’s too difficult,” is to tell the world that English studies is or should be easy. That teaching writing is a nice hobby and anyone can do it. That literary criticism and pedagogical theory are just a lot of fancy talk and all you have to do is pay attention when you read something and you’ll understand what it means and that’s the only endeavor that matters in the study of literature, and all you have to do when you write is pay attention to the grammar because good writing is free of ideology and will always be sufficiently transparent to let the ideas shine through.

To argue against the complexity of theoretical language using argument (3), “It’s overly and overtly ideological,” is to presume that there is some position that is free of ideology. If you’re making this argument, I can only assume that the ideology-free position in question is, in fact, yours. (Or at least yours and Maxine Hairston’s.) Good for you, Bucky. If only we were all right like you, the world would be a better place.

The sticker is argument (2), “It’s irrelevant to my experience,” because — well — I’m not gonna dispute you there, except if you’re an English teacher, in which case please see my reponses to (1) and (3). But I hardly expect the students in my courses — writing or literature — to become English majors or English teachers, and to do so would be unfair of me. And while I have some reservations about the definitions in Julie Lindquist’s article, she does point out quite rightly that modes of argumentation important in one culture are less so in others. Certainly, I’ll agree with the points made in the thread at Kairosnews that some people in composition and in English studies use theory talk as a way of belonging to their discipline (but, yet again, for God’s sake how are other disciplines any different?), of furthering their own professionalization: in short, using it as a class marker, and I won’t demand that students in my classes use it as a class marker in that manner.

I will demand, however, that students think about how such language, and any language, can be used as a class marker, as a marker of distinction. In doing so, I might theorize my pedagogy via the contention that such social purposes — the uses of distinction — are hardly the sole or original purpose of such discourse, and that the challenging language of theory — the language of abstraction — can foster a move beyond the simple understanding of academia as a vocational ladder to higher wages, towards an understanding of the hierarchy within which that vocational ladder operates. In other words, I want the work that students do in my class to go beyond wage-slave indoctrination in correct prose and determinate meanings; I want to help them write papers that pose problems rather than deliver pat answers; that engage in “a pugnacious critique of common-sense notions.” This is why I value the difficult language of theory, and this is why it distresses me when people take shelter in those “common-sense notions” about the easy transparency of language and the absence of ideology.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream rewards multiple readings. So does The Archaeology of Knowledge. And so do student papers that acknowledge and celebrate complex language and challenging ideas.

The Distinctions of Complex Language

4 thoughts on “The Distinctions of Complex Language

  • June 25, 2003 at 9:03 am

    Hi Mike,

    The difficult/clear language-contrast is wonderfully complicated. The assumptions behind the “clear, direct language” movement–that there is a steady, unbiased observer and that there is a steady, material reality out there–are just the assumptions that the poststructuralists deny. The “clear English” movement, however, has long roots in the past. In the recent past, Orwell’s “Politics & the English Language,” which is, I belive, the most-anthologized piece in first-year writing texts (see this week’s NYT Book Review), argues that unclear language (doublespeak) leads to a populace unable to distinguish between “freedom” and “slavery” and hence to a Fascist dictatorship (PEL written just post-WWII).

    Interesting stuff—

  • June 25, 2003 at 4:45 pm

    When faced with complex phenomena, only complex language will do. Look at the natural sciences–and you don’t have to reach for the abstruse or arcane fields: freshman calculus will do fine, thank you. The study of literature, which not only draws on other fields, but includes its own history, certainly qualifies as a study of complex phenomena.

    I do think that there is a steady, material reality out there and that a steady, unbiased account (note I did not say observer) is, if not immediately available, still something worth striving for. On the other hand, the existence of a steady, material reality and the possibility of a steady, unbiased account do NOT necessarily entail that "clear, direct language" (so called) is adequate for the steady, unbiased account.

    Against those who asserted the reality of universals, William of Occam said one should not multiply entities unnecessarily. Against the enemies of theoretical thought and discourse, I think we need to say that one must not neglect entities arbitrarily.

  • June 28, 2003 at 8:09 pm

    I had to laugh at the “cocktail” analogy; the historian’s equivalent is to have someone then pipe up, “So, do you know the name of Woodrow Wilson’s second wife?” No joke — I was actually asked this once, by someone I believe was serious.

    On the matters of theory and clarity; I agree that some theory is simply _difficult_ and _complex_ and thus often impossible to explain in all its nuances using Dick-and-Jane sentence structures. As a user and developer of relatively abstruse models by my field’s standards, I feel the burden of negotiating nuance and clarity keenly.

    On the other hand, I do think that some writers are unnecessarily opaque. I recall, for example, one author of an “introductory” text on social constructionism who quoted a French passage without translation in notes or elsewhere in order to simply say “Different groups think differently.” That, in my opinion, is simply showing off, to no good purpose.

    That said, I think it was good for the students to work through the text; it taught them a lot about audience and that there’s more to scholarship than the pap they were fed in high school.

  • June 29, 2003 at 12:58 pm

    Rana — I think your anecdote beats mine hands down for sheer annoying-ness of the interlocutor. 🙂 Do people always construct other disciplines by their most abstruse esoterica, or is this just a humanities thing? (“Ah, you’re a statistician, eh? How ’bout those. . . uh. . . derivatives?”)

    And, yeah, there’s definitely an abundance of opaque language in academia; what bothers me is the blanket condemnation of all such language, frequently in the service of a rhetorically reductive “this issue is black and white; you’re either with us or against us” argument, or else in the service of a political argument, as frequently happens with the complexities of multiculturalism: the issues that come up when cultures intersect are tough ones, but it’s wonderfully convenient to say “This theoretical language is nonsense” and so completely avoid having to engage in any reasoned discussion of the issues themselves.

    Which is precisely what you were getting at with your final sentence, Curtiss, with which I can’t agree enough. Right on, and thanks for putting it so elegantly.

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