Stop Problematizing Academic Jargon

It’s easy to mock specialized vocabulary. In these anti-intellectual times, we need it more than ever.

Natalie Matthews-Ramo

You don’t need to be a Lyotard scholar to recognize the différend in the current American political and social climate. Yes, that particular word and so many others that vaguely register as human Earth language but strangle the tongue on their way out—performativity, focalizer, intermodal, becoming as a noun—make up contemporary academic jargon, ever the punching bag of those who seek to mock, harangue, and threaten into silence any feckless scholar unwise enough to criticize dominant institutions and power structures using highfalutin’ prose.

The latest nibble unto this low-hanging fruit comes courtesy of noted academia-lover George Will, who in a recent Washington Post column kindly reanimated the corpse of a 20-year-old hoax in order to get in some slow-motion pot shots at the near-extinct profession of professing. In 1996, a physicist named Alan Sokal submitted a fake, nonsense paper, composed entirely in jargon, to the journal Social Text—which accepted it enthusiastically. Sokal wanted to show that the humanities and humanistic social sciences had become, as he told the Chronicle of Higher Education in a recent retrospective on his hoax, “ingrained and self-referential,” and so “disdained critiques from outsiders … that an ordinary type of intellectual critique was precluded.”

You’d think that the damn Feminazis and ethnics would somehow to be to blame for contemporary academic irrelevance—but the fault actually lies with a bona fide Aryan: Friedrich Nietzsche, who, according to Will, wrote that “there are no facts, only interpretations … shortly before going mad at age 44.” (If later descents into mental illness negate great work, I eagerly await Will’s denunciation of Mr. Gorbachev, tear down that wall.)

Yes, yes, Nietzsche and his successors, Heidegger and Foucault and Derrida: They’re fer’ners who’ve begat hundreds of thousands of gibberish-spewing offspring who’ll use the word reproblematize to obliterate your guns and freedom. I get it. Jargon is fun to make fun of. I myself have taken a swipe or two at the pendulous plums weighing down the proverbial tree of overintellectualization.

But now that we’ve just watched a sociopath with a fifth-grade vocabulary take the oath of office, I wonder: Is academic jargon verily so problematical vis-à-vis its labyrinthine potentialities qua trans-resistive reactionings? (Yep, four years out of the professoriate, and I still got it.) Yes, today, Phenomenology of the Spirit help me, I have no choice but to come to jargon’s defense. Don’t worry: I’ll do it using small words.

Sure, the primary vilification of academese comes courtesy of good old anti-intellectualism, and its practitioners aren’t exactly jumping to read an unapologetically intellectual defense such as this. But Alan Sokal is hardly an anti-intellectual—and, egad, neither, really, is George Will. They do have a point that words (or quasi-words) like performativity are alienating, and perhaps intentionally so. Also, here’s a dirty little secret of the intellectual class: Sometimes people use jargon because it’s actually easier to talk that way—in a sort of shorthand, where deterritorialization can call up an entire philosopher’s corpus and all of the nuances contained therein—than it is to explain something clearly. (Just ask Wittgenstein.)

Still, though, nobody begrudges Sokal and other “hard” scientists their vocabulary. (Ooh, a mass spectrometer! Somebody thinks he’s better than me!) Nobody ever demands that the winner of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry dumb down his vocabulary so as not to seem snooty. Because humanities fields are often dismissed and derided as useless, their specialized language doesn’t get the benefit of the doubt.

Well, guess what, America? The humanities are also full of difficult concepts—insignificant crap, like the meaning of life—which is why we should acknowledge their need for specialized vocabulary. Difficult concepts sometimes call for big words. Deconstruction is hard. Heidegger is hard. Nietzsche, bless his giant moustache, is hard.

Speaking of which: Alas, Will’s excoriation of lieber Friedrich’s influence is also technically correct, if by accident. In the somewhat obscure, posthumously published essay “On Truth and Lie in the Extra-Moral Sense,” Nietzsche attacks the concept of “truth” as “a mobile army of metaphors, metonyms and anthromorphisms”—before himself launching into several apt metaphors that illustrate why this is the case. A century and change later, Nietzsche’s radical skepticism creeps around the edges of slightly kookier-sounding versions of the same problem, such as when NYU philosophy professor Avital Ronell chides a documentarian for introducing the concept of “meaning” without acknowledging its “fascistoid nonprogressive edges.” But that doesn’t mean Nietzsche didn’t have a point. When, as he said, I write “the stone is hard,” how am I to know that anyone reading is going to conjure the “correct” concepts of “stone” or “hard” in their big fat noggins? I can’t. (Language skepticism. BOOM.) And even if you don’t believe that “meaning” has fascistoid nonprogressive edges—which I don’t, at least I don’t think I do—it’s interesting to talk about why people think it does.

So where, then, does that leave the perpetually maligned users of the term resurgently normative as we transition from the most unabashedly intellectual president in modern history to his satsuma-tinted polar opposite? To demonstrate a utopia under a new class of real intellectuals who properly worship the Western canon without all of that pesky big wordage, one must look no further than that nonofficial inauguration poem you may have seen, which itself may or may not be another fun hoax:

Academe now lies dead, the old order rots,
No longer policing our words and our thoughts;
Its ignorant hirelings pretending to teach
Are backward in vision, sophomoric in speech.
Now we learnèd of mind add ourselves to the crowd
That cheers on the Domhnall, the best of MacLeod!

Just in case you were wondering what its author, the (possibly nonexistent) self-published American poet Joseph Charles McKenzie, thinks of academic jargon, the work helpfully dispenses with such hogwash literary devices as allusion, symbolism, allegory, or any evocative language whatsoever. If this was an intentional demonstration of the state of the American university under Trump, it’s a brilliant sendup of a terrifying reality of watch lists and witch hunts; if it’s sincere, then, great; it is that terrifying reality. No more “policing” of words and thoughts—unless, of course, those words and thoughts are remotely critical of President Trump’s new Anglo-Celtic word order, in which case whoever said or thought them should be fired.

Perhaps the answer moving forward, then, is not to join in the mockery of jargon, but to double down on it. Scholars of Yiddish studies are happy to tell you the thousand-year-old language developed as a kind of secret code so that its speakers could talk freely under the noses of their oppressors (and, yes, sometimes mock them). Perhaps academic jargon could serve a similar purpose. Yes, perhaps the last hope to problematize fascistoid nonprogressive edges, so to speak, is to reterritorialize the oppositional vernaculars. But perhaps that was the point all along, and jargon has been lying patiently and usefully in wait for all this time, a secret code in search of a foolish tyrant.