Sunday, December 11, 2011

Contempt for post-modern babble

I enjoy reading a persuasive essay or an intellectual argument that is well-articulated and easy to follow. I understand its points and they compel me to think further about the subject, which is a pleasure of the mind. Unfortunately, the attributes of clarity and a well-presented argument cannot be applied to most of the critical theorists I suffered to read while in graduate school.
Jargon alone is not the problem. Every field generates its own jargon, which can (and must) be acquired by the serious students of that field. The problem that infuriates me is twofold: 1) bad writing and 2) pretentious theorizing.
First, I'll address the overly abstract and dense writing. I often found myself reading four or five pages of an essay and concluding that the author could have conveyed the same insight more clearly, vividly, and precisely in four or five paragraphs. Stephen Hunter, the movie critic for the Baltimore Sun newspaper, earned the Pulitzer Prize for commentary last year for his excellent film reviews. Hunter is a fine critic (and Richard Corliss of TIME magazine can be added to the list) who is able to comprehensively review a movie—analyzing its plot, characters, themes, tone, originality, cultural relevance, et cetera—all in about 4,000 words, without alienating the reader with obscurantist language.
Perhaps one can blame my education as a journalist that I find “crit-speak” so pretentious. Mark Twain, who also began as a newspaper writer, said, "Never use a 50-cent word when a 25-cent word will do." Mr. Clemens was not inviting us to be tongue-tied and inarticulate. He was asking us to find the most SIMPLE and CLEAR way to express our thoughts. The mantra of good writing could well be "Write to COMMUNICATE, not to impress." 
I admire prose writers like John McPhee, and fiction writers like Kurt Vonnegut, who are able to illuminate complex characters and subjects with sharpness and color, while writing in plain (yet powerful) English. Jargon would not be a problem if it appeared within the context of concise, vivid writing. But I’m griping that, too often, even after the specialized terms are learned, the overall writing remains clumsy and obscure.
Next, let me address the showy theorizing of the post-modern academic world, what Robert Fulford calls “pomo-babble.” Fulford noted that “When moviemakers changed James Bond's brand of vodka, Aaron Jaffe of the University of Louisville wrote that this ‘carries a metaphorical chain of deterritorialized signifiers, repackaged up and down a paradigmatic axis of associations.’”
I am simply unable to read that kind of comment without a reflexive rolling of my eyes. Part of my reaction is that I belong to the camp of Susan Sontag: I think critics often err on the side of over-reading a film (or any artwork); that is, inventing more meanings and associations than the writer or director intended. This easily becomes grotesque, as in the above example. Is there really that much significance embedded in the vodka brand? Did the critic honestly think he was contributing something important to his readers? Or did he subconsciously recognize (as so many college term-paper authors do) that he was skating the edge between quasi-bullshit and pure bullshit? Nonsense, even when robed in erudite language, is still nonsense. Put another way: the idea—once disrobed from its heavy padding of jargon—turns out to be butt-ass stupid.

As a last note, I'll share with you an anecdote. I wrote a novel about a Neanderthal girl that was published in 1997 in ten languages. (Ember from the Sun) I carefully read the reviews that came in from the domestic and international press. I saw, firsthand, how several of the critics generated “mind-stuff” that had nothing to do with the actual story and my process of creating it. Additionally, I saw that criticism is ultimately subjective. Two of the critics came to opposite views of the novel's qualities: One said the plot was rather contrived, but the characters were wonderfully-drawn, alive and memorable; the other said the characters were like cardboard cut-outs, but the plot leaped forward like a forest fire. Go figure!

There may long be an ivory venue for the rarified discourse of critical theorists within academia. However, for myself, as with Twain and Vonnegut, I remain a populist. I simply want to communicate the importance of film, literature, art, philosophy—the Humanities—to ordinary minds, like my own, and get us lil' ol' plain folk to pay attention to and converse about culture so that we can be awake to its influence in our lives.

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