Here’s a sentence for you:

“If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.”

This ‘gem’, if you want to call it that, was penned by the illustrious hand of Homi K. Bhabha, an eminent literary scholar, and has the dubious honour of winning an award in the 1998 Bad Writing Contest. Unfortunately, for my degree I have been forced to read a substantial portion of the book from whence it came, The Location of Culture. I still have vivid memories of myself as a bewildered fresher, scanning through pages and pages of such writing and despairing. I thought I was stupid – it was a relief to find that nobody else seemed to be able to understand what Professor Bhabha was on about either.

Groucho-Marx-Professor
(Courtesy of ActiveLearning.com)

Dense, unreadable prose in the field of literary criticism is unfortunately not limited to The Location of Culture – it can often appear endemic. During my time as an undergraduate, I’ve read essays and heard lectures on the “Locus of Imagination”, “Othering”, “Modality”, and enough “Problematising” to make me fall to my knees and weep. While I don’t like to single out my cousins across the pond, it also seems that this sort of language is particularly prevalent amongst American critics; why, I don’t know. Academic jargon is something I’ve never really been able to get on with, even after over two years of studying Literature. It seems needlessly wasteful and pretentious to make your criticism as hard-to-read as possible; very rarely is it ever justified, at least in my experience. I tend to get so frustrated with overly-wordy prose that these days I rarely bother reading it any more – I do not tend to find such criticism useful and the time taken to navigate through the jargon is rarely justified when I could be doing something else more productive. Instead, I appreciate criticism that is interesting, clearly-written, and makes some solid points that genuinely try and glean something useful out of the text.

Call me naïve, but I always thought that the point of non-fictional prose was to be as clear and accessible as possible. Poetry and artistic writing can of course be complex – though it by no means has to be – but when you are trying to convey factual or semi-factual information, surely being simple and direct is better than being abstract and obtuse. This seems to be a bit of a modern curse at times, at least in modern literary criticism. Though it is a bit outdated now, I do love to read the old criticism from the pre-war era. While they are often quite ‘chummy’, the earlier critics often seem to display a genuine love for the literature they read and a desire to write interesting articles, rather than just trying to dissect texts with irritating buzzwords. It is a generalisation, but not an entirely unfair one, I think.

The problem is that I can often understand the reasons behind such language. Academics and students write for their peers, not for a general audience. The world of academia is often one where such language seems to be held in high regard – I won’t lie, I’ve occasionally thrown jargon into my essays because I know so-and-so tutor appreciates it, despite my own views on the subject. More than one of my weekly essays has been sprinkled with “Loci”, “Problematising” and “Liminal spaces”. In order to do well at the game you occasionally have to play by the rules, after all.

From my (albeit limited) interning experiences, I’ve come to realise meaningless or irritating jargon is not just limited to academia, but seems to pervade business life as well. I’ve “reached out” and had discussions over how to “leverage core competencies” to achieve “optimal employee engagement” and make it a part of the “unique fabric” of the company. Nothing necessarily wrong with the idea being discussed– it’s just the jargon involved and meaningless buzzwords that are annoying.

Indeed, everywhere you go in daily life you seem to be hit by walls of buzzwords. Thousands of books are described as “rip-roaring”, “page-turners”, “funny….moving”, or “seat-of-your-pants stuff”. Every corporate product or company is now “passionate” and “innovative” – indeed, apparently there is even a company called Passionate Innovation. I couldn’t tell if it was supposed to be a spoof or not.

For some reason, human beings seem to love making language either needlessly complicated or overusing phrases until they become irrelevant. I guess you could call it somewhat ‘memetic’: somebody authoritative thinks up a new word or phrase, their peers and underlings see it and copy it, and suddenly it is spread everywhere, until it is used completely out of context and becomes meaningless. Whichever reviewer first described a book as a ‘page-turner’ probably seemed impressive and stood out from the crowd – now that every book is a ‘page-turner’, the phrase is hollow and fairly useless.

George-orwell-BBC
Orwell had the right idea (image courtesy of Wikimedia)

Without trying to dig myself deeper into amateur sociology, I guess I should probably try to get to my point. I think that most people prefer simple, clear language for description, and are not impressed by tired slogans and jargon. Indeed, evidence suggests that this is true, and that such irritating language can be alienating and actually make the speaker seem less secure and intelligent. Like most people who share this view, I try to subscribe to George Orwell’s views on language. I will admit that I am not always successful – I certainly can be a little flowery when writing – but in spirit at least I try to make my prose as clear and fluent as possible; I hope regular readers would agree.

Because, paradoxically, deconstructing the multi-faceted modality of post-modernity on occasion requires a less-liminal discourse more centred on normative signifiers, in order to de-obfuscate information and avoid a zenith of ennunciatory disjunction.