Tuesday, July 26, 2011

An Academy of Dunces

[don't you dare, you dirty little beast, you rat bastard sonofabitch]

Geoff Dyer had a fantastic piece in the New York Times last week on the tendency of academics to roll up their writing into "a kind of zero-sum perfection" in which "the theatricality of the flamboyant, future-oriented sign-posting is matched by all the retrospection."  The piece is hilarious, contains more than a hint of truth, and is a recommended read.  

As Ian Bogost noted, the criticism is so damning because the author appropriates the same rhetorical tricks and assumes the same snide tone that he is accusing a particular art historian of (and personally because we are guilty of it).  Bogost terms this "academic mumblespeak"; the tendency of academics in the arts and humanities (including designers) to craft phrases like "In this paper I will argue that the thermal gradation relating to lignin-based material products; "lumber", is decidedly less trans-locational than that of ferrous tensile members...  (two sentences later)... as I have previously noted (lather, rinse, repeat)."  How frequently is the interesting nugget in an academic paper so thoroughly tossed into a gigantic, bland word salad that you lose all hope of ever discovering it?

This practice is similar to that which Timothy Morton has dubbed "Everything You Can do I can do Meta" and commonly referred to in our field as "design speak".  This is not to say that all academic design writing is this way; in fact some of it is compelling, technical, and very clear.  But it occurs with enough frequency to merit addressing.  One of our initial posts lamented the metaphor fixation of contemporary design criticism, and we have been critical of the practice of "technophilic obfuscation" while optimistically hoping to goad more good design writers into engaging in popular discourse.  Whether any of that is true or it is all misguided, the recent writings by Bogost and Dyer suggest that these tendencies come from a place of fear and a desire to intimidate, rather than resulting from a curious and honest investigation and analysis of reality.  David Foster Wallace says it best:

It probably isn't the whole explanation, but, as with the voguish hypocrisy of PCE, the obscurity and pretension of Academic English can be attributed in part to a disruption in the delicate rhetorical balance between language as a vector of meaning and language as a vector of the writer's own resume. In other words, it is when a scholar's vanity/insecurity leads him to write primarily to communicate and reinforce his own status as an Intellectual that his English is deformed by pleonasm and pretentious diction (whose function is to signal the writer's erudition) and by opaque abstraction (whose function is to keep anybody from pinning the writer down to a definite assertion that can maybe be refuted or shown to be silly). The latter characteristic, a level of obscurity that often makes it just about impossible to figure out what an AE sentence is really saying, so closely resembles political and corporate doublespeak ("revenue enhancement," "downsizing," pre-owned," "proactive resource-allocation restructuring") that it's tempting to think AE's real purpose is concealment and its real motivation fear.
--Harper's Magazine, April, 2001

Or, in the decidedly less intelligent words of our very own DRDLM:  Write more better.  Write more.  Better.

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