Rene — Fisk — Let us rebel against poisonous academics and their preposterous

Topic(s): Ethics.Politics | Comments Off on Rene — Fisk — Let us rebel against poisonous academics and their preposterous

Ed. Note: This is a difficult article for me to agree with and his relation to language is not my own. But having posted and circulated his texts in the past, I thought it would be interesting to connect those with his position as it pertains to language in this text. Also I think it offers a plausible point of view within the debates that already exist among politically orientaed cultural workers, on the how’s, inclusivity/exclusivity/, …. -rg
Let us rebel against poisonous academics and their preposterous
claptrap of exclusion
The Independent – United Kingdom
May 14, 2005
That great anthropological sage Michael Gilsenan ” whose Lords of the
Lebanese Marshes once almost started a small civil war in northern
Lebanon ” turned up this week to lecture at that equally great bastion
of learning, the American University of Beirut, founded, as it
happens, by Quakers during the 19th-century Lebanese Christian-Druze
Gilsenan’s subject was abstruse enough: Arab migration to what our
Foreign Office still calls ‘the Far East’. Most of these migrants, it
transpired, came from Arabia, especially the mountainous Hadramaut
district of Yemen. Under British rule, they prospered, bought land,
left inheritances and, once established, wealthy Arab women also took
their place in this new world, even involving themselves in legal
All very fascinating. But once questions were invited from the floor,
Gilsenan was asked about ‘matrilineal’ issues in colonial Singapore. I
closed my eyes. ‘Matrilineal’ doesn’t exist in my dictionary. Nor is
it likely to. It is part of the secret language of academe ”
especially of anthropology ” and it is a turn-off. We poor dunces
should keep our noses out of this high-falutin’ stuff. That, I think,
is the message. I recall a student raging to me about her anthropology
professor who constantly used words like ’emic’ and ‘etic’ ” to this
day, I have no idea what they mean; readers are invited to reply ” in
an attempt to mystify her discipline.
Keep Out, these words say to us. This Is Something You Are Not Clever
Enough to Understand. A French professor put it to me quite bluntly
this week. ‘If we don’t dress up what we want to say in this silly
language,’ she announced, ‘we are told we are being journalists.’
Well, well, I can quite see the problem. It’s good against evil, us or
them, university scholarship or dirty journalism.
It’s a new and dangerous phenomenon I’m talking about, a language of
exclusion that must have grown up in universities over the past 20
years; after all, any non-university-educated man or woman can pick up
an academic treatise or PhD thesis written in the 1920s or ’30s and ”
however Hegelian the subject ” fully understand its meaning. No
About three years ago, I received a good example of this from Marc
Gopin, visiting associate professor of international diplomacy at the
Fletcher School of Tufts University and a visiting scholar in the
programme on negotiation at Harvard. I received his latest book for
review, a tome called Holy War, Holy Peace: How Religion Can Bring
Peace to the Middle East. A promising title, you might think. Well,
think again.
For within pages, I was being bushwhacked by ‘metaphorical constructs’
and ‘universalist mythic constructs’ and ‘romanticised, amoral
constructs of culture’ and ‘fundamental dialogic immediacy’ and
‘prosocial tendencies’.
Here is another cracker: ‘The Abrahamic myth of a loving Patriarch and
a loving God who care for a special people has created a home and a
meaning system for millions of human beings.’ Come again? Meaning
system? The author grew up, he says, ‘in a self-consciously exilic
He talks abut the ‘interplay’ of ‘political and mythic
interdependencies’ and the ‘ubiquitous human psychological process of
othering’. He wants to ‘problematize’ intervention at ‘elite’
levels. A rabbi ” whom I immediately felt sorry for ” was ‘awash in
paradoxicality’, which apparently proved that ‘cognitive dissonance is
good for intractable conflicts’. Well, you could have fooled me.
There was more: ‘dialogic injuries’, ‘cultural envelope’, ‘family
psychodynamics’, ‘the rich texture of hermeneutic possibility’,
‘porous barriers of spiritual identity’ and, of course, my old
favourite, ‘social intercourse’. ‘Dialectic apologetics’ makes an
appearance, alongside ‘persecutorial othering’ and lots of other
‘otherings’, including a reference to ‘pious transformation of old
cognitive constructs as an end to othering: remythification’.
What is interesting is that when Professor Gopin chose to send a
letter to President Clinton, which he prints in his book, he wrote in
perfectly comprehensible English ” indeed, he even got a reply from
the old scallywag. The good professor was suggesting that private
meetings between Jewish and Islamic leaders should become public under
Clinton’s leadership and produce ‘a powerful new force for pursuing
peace’. No ‘constructs’ here, you note. No ‘otherings’ or ‘meaning
systems’ or ‘paradoxicalities’. Because Gopin obviously knew that his
academic claptrap wouldn’t have got much further than the White House
mail room.
So why this preposterous academic language? There’s a clue when Gopin
compares ‘dress and behaviour codes in the Pentagon’ to ‘very complex
speech and behaviour codes in academia’. Yes, university folk have to
be complex, don’t they. They have to speak in a language which others
” journalists, perhaps? ” simply would not understand. To enter this
unique circle of brain-heavy men and women, all must learn its secret
language lest interlopers manage to sneak through the door.
It may be that all this came about as a protective shield against
political interference in academe, an attempt to make teaching so
impenetrable that no MP, congressman or senator could ever make
accusations of political bias in class ” on the grounds that they
wouldn’t have the slightest idea what the lecturer was talking about.
But I think it is about snobbishness. I recall a lady professor at
George Mason University, complaining that ‘most people’ ” she was
referring to truck drivers, Amtrak crews, bellhops and anyone else who
didn’t oppose the Iraq war ” ‘had so little information’. Well, I
wasn’t surprised. University teachers ” especially in the States ” are
great at networking each other but hopeless at communicating with most
of the rest of the world, including those who collect their rubbish,
deliver their laundry and serve up their hash browns.
After lecturing at another university in the States, I was asked by a
member of the audience how universities could have more influence in
the community. I said that they must stop using what I called ‘the
poisonous language of academia’. At which there was an outburst of
clapping from the students and total silence from the university staff
who were present and who greeted this remark with scowls.
No, I’m not saying all teachers speak like this. There is no secret
language in the work of Edward Said or Avi Shlaim or Martin Gilbert or
Noam Chomsky. But it’s growing and it’s getting worse, and I suspect
only students can now rebel against it. The merest hint of ’emics’ and
‘constructs’ or ‘hermeneutic possibilities’ and they should walk out
of class, shouting Winston Churchill’s famous retort: ‘This is English
up with which I will not put.’