In Which Exception Is Taken to Various Common Practices

Here is a quotation from a document I had to discuss with my academic colleagues today:

The school should continue moving forward in its attempt to formalize more structured processes for planning and the allocation of resources. It is important that a more structured planning process involve various constituencies, provide increased opportunities for collaboration across units, communication, and shared governance, and that it should integrate multiple programs and sites into a coherent whole.

I know all these words, but this is so vague that I have no idea what it actually refers to in our particular case. It is intentionally abstract, allowing for multiple interpretations, and in fact we made kind of a party game figuring out how various initiatives we’d already undertaken might fit into it and satisfy it. I’m sure it is left vague and in passive tense for legal reasons, lest we fail to comply with some directive and get sued for the deficiency. In fact, this paragraph isn’t an exact quote; I changed the order of several phrases for fear someone might Google it and locate where it came from, and I don’t want to get in legal trouble myself.

I take minutes for these meetings. If I report what anyone actually said, my colleagues jump all over me. I have finally learned that the purpose of my minutes is to conceal what we’re saying, not reveal it. After 25 years in the newspaper business, my trained instinct is to report what goes on, colorfully and in intelligent detail, and I have to forcibly squelch that impulse in my current administrative role. For a well-trained writer to intentionally write badly – obfuscatingly and in noncommittal terms and passive tense – is really painful.

We write evaluations of our colleagues. It used to be, the writer of an evaluation would construct a narrative pertinent to the facts of the file at hand, but now we are given a recipe for the evaluation, which specifies how many paragraphs it will contain and which issue each paragraph will address. The result reads like a transition-less child’s primer with all the small words replaced with long ones, but the fear is that someone suing the school might be able to prove that his or her evaluation was more or less thorough than someone else’s.

I read books and book proposals for academic publishers. It seems that every book I read lately at some point mentions Deleuze, Foucault, Derrida, or Lyotard, and then launches into a melange of special terminology. These terms all seem to stand for actions or processes that are entirely familiar to us all, but by packing them into proprietary formulae, the author can squeeze the argument into smaller, denser paragraphs in which every word stands for an entire phrase – as though paper were terribly dear, and meanings had to be expressed in the maximally efficient manner possible. It is amazing to me how often the author wants to prove his or her critical theory credentials in the first chapter, and how often I can simply skip that chapter and find the meat of the subject matter expressed more cogently in chapter 2.

And I watch my poor students, who know what they’re trying to say, stumble and stutter and search for the most abstract, most grandiose words, so that they’ll sound as pompous and abstract and authoritative as the models that are put in front of them every day. I’ll read some circuitous paragraph of five-syllable words they wrote, and ask “What are you trying to say here?,” and they’ll tell me in simple words, and I’ll ask, “Well why didn’t you just write THAT?”

ACADEMIA TRAINS YOUNG PEOPLE TO WRITE TURGIDLY AND VAGUELY. And not only young people. Readers of this blog sometimes get upset with me that I seem so anti-academic, that I am always denigrating university culture. I love certain aspects of college life, and I am extremely pro-education, but it has to be acknowledged that academia, as it stands, has a default tendency toward inculcating pomposity in writing and, most of all, a bureaucratic avoidance of personal responsibility. One shouldn’t need to reread George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” to realize this. Slate magazine recently had an article on how the SAT teaches high school kids to write badly. Young people, and young faculty, learn how to become part of the bureaucracy, and how to write in such a way that no one is ever personally implicated. It becomes a habit, and a grating one. I am a beautifully-trained, colorful, clear writer surrounded on all sides by execrable prose and forced to occasionally commit turbid paragraphs myself. That’s why I’ve been posting my own scholarly articles on this blog, because in the “peer”-review process my translucent sentences get edited into embarrassing mud. I am thrilled and honored to be in academia, especially given the horrible state of culture in the current outside world, but I have to harangue our students to resist the bureaucratic influences that the college surrounds them with. And the same foul brainwashing that turns students into bad writers turns them into bad composers as well. There’s really no alternative to being here – but some of us understand that we have to push back against the prevailing winds to stay intellectually and artistically honest. Anyone who’s offended by my saying that is part of the problem.

 

Comments

  1. mclaren says

    The purpose of that document clearly involves empowering the functionality of the organization is such a way as to maximize the actualization of potential as fully as possible. We need a more blue-sky approach to synchronized policy mobility, and this upgraded model offers 21st century digital innovation. An organization that believes in deconstructed transitional contingencies needs to lateralize the intercommunication between departments, and it’s crucial to effectuate a more contemporary reimagining of our responsive organisational programming — which, at base level, just comes down to quality strategic time-phases.

    This short version was generated by the online business gobbledygook generator. I suggest that your university substitute that URL for its current memos as a time-saving device.

    KG replies (Monty Burns-style): Excellent.

  2. Gene says

    The passive is not used in the quotation.

    KG replies: “It is important that a more structured planning process involve various constituencies.” How should a process that wants to involve constituencies go about it, exactly?

    • Gene says

      That the means by which the process should involve various constituencies isn’t specified doesn’t make the sentence passive. The passive voice (not a tense, by the way) is merely a grammatical construction of a certain kind, not exhibited here. See http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/002926.html

      KG replies: Thank you for the language lesson. You clearly know far more about the subject than I do.

  3. says

    I also despair at academic obfuscation and evasive writing but as I have nothing to do with academia (I don’t even have a degree) I do not come across it that often in my work.
    However sometimes I get so worked-up at the continual double-speak and evasion. Someone I used to work with (in an education setting) decided not to go to work one day, even though she was letting them down others who had made considerable effort to get there. Instead of telling the truth – namely she was bone idle – she justified it by saying “I suddenly realised I had to prioritise where I needed to be for me”.
    Incidentally in the U.K. there was talk of introducing a computer programme for marking school essays. Various examples of great English writing were fed into it and as expected – failed. One exceptionaly speech by Churchil failed because he repeated a word! Shakespeare would obviously fail because of his use of grammar.

  4. says

    Are you required to tell a student when giving him/her a C on an exam that it’s because mistakes were made?

    KG replies: No, but every week I write, “The committee revisited the issue” and “more discussion is needed.”

  5. says

    An excellent and well-deserved critique. For me, the key is the lack of responsibility. My pet peeve is the need to cite other people to support every point you make, as if you can’t stand behind your own views. I’ve been fortunate to avoid submission to peer-reviewed journals for many years. I’ve written a couple of things by invitation and have gotten away with prose that doesn’t fit the academic profile. By the time they get the piece delivered, space has already been allotted for it and it’s too late to reject. Posting directly to your blog is also a great option. I mean, if you have tenure already, I see almost nothing but problems with publishing through scholarly journals: bad style, low circulation, delayed release, poor access for people outside of university libraries.

  6. Bob Gilmore says

    Yep, here too. Deleuze, Foucault, Derrida, and Lyotard (especially Deleuze) have absolutely conquered musical academia. They’re referred to far more often than any musicologist, possibly apart from Adorno. I’ve read bits of all of them, some in detail, but for the life of me I can’t understand why people think they’re so urgently important. Some good and important ideas, of course, but plenty of at best arguable, unsubstantiated and/or irrelevant assertions, as well. And the influence of their ideas in general has been to pull the discussion of music as far away as possible from the actual dots, as though looking in detail at scores was an irrelevant anachronism. In my experience, especially when read in English, the primary effect of much Deleuze-speak has been to baffle and intimidate. That seems to be a large part of the appeal of this stuff.

  7. says

    Composers in Chicago LOVE Deleuze. One of my history professors claimed that when he submitted his dissertation proposal one of the committee members actually said, starkly, “But what about Foucault?” His response, to us: “I wanted to say, f*#% Foucault!”

  8. Arthur says

    The point about bad writing is well taken, but, otherwise, the post and some of the responses are another typical, annoying complaint from those who think that, somehow, plain language and direct speaking is plain and direct and that, somehow, complicated issues in institutional contexts can be addressed in simple, reductive prose. There is nonsuch thing as neutral writing. Behind every simple and direct sentence in say, The New York Post or People Magazine, there is a load of politics, predisposition and obfuscation. Even tweets can be obtuse. There is no universal communicative use of language. Style choice is a form of meaning. Unfortunately, Orwell’s type of lucidity can equally be used by freedom fighters and demagogues. A lot of speechmaking in the recent moronic government shutdown was clear as a bell. And, at the same time, a total offense to any conception of truth, validity, and honesty one may have.

    To “report what goes on, and colorfully and in intelligent detail,” is what Kyle did brilliantly for all the years I read his Voice columns, but that very criteria is not for the New York Times editors and readers. One reader’s sense of “colorful” is another’s example of ambiguity. It should go without saying a great amount of “traditional” writing about music is not very colorful and dense with technical jargon, indirect assumptions, allusions to theory and sources commonly known by specialists. (Musical notation can be, incidentally, pretty ambiguous itself.)

    Word of the day: “discourse.” It means that for every community of speakers or writers, there are presumptions, implied values, specialized usages, contextual references, political overtones, accepted stylizations and idiosyncratic uses. The quotation above seems to me the opening sentences about a subject and context the intended readers know well. It is probably the result of some other conversations or exchanges about the same subject and meant to elicit specific responses to the topic. It vagueness opens up a space for particulars.

    As for writers like Foucault, about forty years ago the work (sometimes called post-structuralist) emerged and they intentionally engaging in a type of extended, complex, highly coded philosophically aestheticized discourse in order to overturn the dominant institutional writing/language of the day which, though it might have been totally “clear” on the surface, was implicitly dismissive, authoritarian and intellectually muddled, not to mention sexist, racist and derived from dubious sources. More or less, borrowing from Foucault, a number of music scholars (sic) demonstrated the shortcomings of canonical music writing.

    The writers mentioned – Foucault, Lyotard, Deleuze – are theorists or what Anglo-Americans call philosophers and their intent, generally, is to elaborate an aesthetics which includes the arts and music. They inevitably use some inventive approaches and novel terminology (by analogy, think of Freudian concepts). That they are ineptly read and taught and held up as models for writing is not their problem. They – an others – would not even be taken seriously if they did not have something to say.

    KG replies: Well, of course this is not to criticize Foucault, Lyotard, and Deleuze. I haven’t read the latter two at all. I’ve read come critical theory by Foucault and Eco, and found it interesting, but also thought that they were mainly coming up with terminologies for phenomena of whose existence no artistically sensitive person was already in doubt. Even so, I wouldn’t criticize them on that account. But what I find in most scholarly music writing is that these writers are tucked into the edges of the discourse, almost as add-ons, and what the writer is actually trying to say would be so much clearer without all the special terminology. I think the difference between necessarily difficult and subtle writing on one hand, and pompous or bureaucratic writing, is always clear. And I’ve always been inspired by Buckminster Fuller’s contention that the principles of quantum mechanics could be explained in terms understandable by a six-year-old.

    • Arthur says

      Some key phrases here are ” tucked into the edges of the discourse and “pompous or bureaucratic writing,” which essentially say the writers in question are not able to convey their meaning or appear to not be sufficiently clear about their use of sources. Agreed. But, the issues regarding certain thinkers who write about music, use “special terminology” and attempt explanations to six year olds needs to be clarified. Unlike you, I have no idea what “artistically sensitive” persons know, doubt, desire or chose to read. But there is a long history of philosophers writing on music and aesthetics. Hegel, Schopenhauer and Adorno are among them and, in each case they employ certain terms and concepts to convey their ideas and systematically developed theoretical positions. Sometimes the terms are superceded as history evolves (tradegy and comedy are rarely used today). There is also a tradition of writing about music that derives from religious studies, anthropology, physics, psychology and, recently, the cognitive sciences. Often, terminology is borrowed by writers on music. Lawrence Kramer, who you have mentioned several times, wrote books based on with psychoanalytic concepts and, what I guess some of your respondents would call “Freudian jargon.” So, I see no reason why everything written about music (or anything else) has to conform to some homespun dictum about the presumed totalizing efficiency of everyday speech. Complex thinking requires complex use of language. So do complex subjects and from what I have heard, there is a lot of complicated music out there. As for Buckminster Fuller – great choice – I imagine six year olds can look up the words he uses, but I defy them to actually read his hyper-paratactic, convoluted, typographically jumbled, rhetorically florid texts, which, dare I say, are about as postmodern as you can get.

      KG replies: As the alleged coiner of “totalism,” “postminimalism,” and “convergence point,” not to mention a former avid reader, in my youth, of Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, Husserl, Adorno, and Heidegger, I do know a thing or two about invented terminology. You’re not telling me anything new. And I know that if your terminology doesn’t catch on in the wider culture, you have to keep defining it forever if you don’t want to limit your readership to a tiny clique. And at the end of my philosophical travels, I rather came to rest among the common language philosophers such as John Wisdom and (arguably) Richard Rorty. I do ultimately believe that you can introduce what terms you can, and if they don’t catch on you keep trying through other means, and I even believe that if you absolutely need special terminology, then you just keep using it and hope for the best. But it was my experience with the deconstructionists that they kept creating terms for experiences that were entirely common, and could easily have been written about in other, more readable ways. I am not an absolutist in anything, and I would always make exceptions. But I do fully agree with Ian that *most of the young musicologists* who have introduced deconstructionist discourse into their books without fully integrating it throughout the text have made their books nearly unreadable without any conceivable gain other than their recognized membership in an elite brotherhood. (As for whom I mention, I think you’ve confused Lawrence Kramer with the very un-Freudian Jonathan Kramer, whom I quote frequently.)

      • Arthur says

        It is not a matter of merely using terminology, but of a developing a systematic theoretical or philosophical framework within which the terms are employed. While I value your writing and knowledge, I do not think you are primarily interested in developing a theoretical position or a system of ideas. You are probably suspicious of such approaches. In any case, “totalism” was meant ironically, no? As for “postminimalism,” that was spot on. (Thanks.)

        In the end, it might all come down to the issue of how, for this discussion, a theoretical or philosophical approach to music and aesthetics is valuable or suggestive, provocative or enlightening – regardless if it includes difficult language referencing conceptual categories.

        Finally, my substitution of Lawrence for Jonathan Kramer was likely, to use a term from an elaborate, terminology laden, systematic theory of mind, culture and aesthetics, a Freudian slip. Such an error might signify “confusion,” on my part, but I am certain that the trope from psychoanalytic discourse is more accurate.

  9. says

    “The point about bad writing is well taken, but, otherwise, the post and some of the responses are another typical, annoying complaint from those who think that, somehow, plain language and direct speaking is plain and direct and that, somehow, complicated issues in institutional contexts can be addressed in simple, reductive prose.”

    Your comments Arthur seem to be pure post-modernist writing, you even go on to mention sexism and racism, (which along with sexuality) are the obsessions of post-modernists. If an idea cannot be explained in plain English it is a muddled idea and even the most intelligent people I know find post-second world war philosophy unreadable.
    Post-modernism and post-structuralism have done untold damage to classical music. When pages and pages of unreadable, jargon filled, programme notes are required to explain a new composition something is wrong. I once heard a 25 minute talk to explain a 20 minute premiere of a new work. It was at that point I realised that classical music was in danger of becoming irrelevant to our culture. And for the record the talk was considerably more interesting than the music. Why not follow the conceptual art precedent, instead of listening to the music, just read the programme notes. In fact it would make a good concert, someone reads the programme notes then there is a post-modern analysis of what was not heard.
    No wonder classical music is disappearing, whereas Rihanna and Metallica play to millions. Everything is the fashion business, and Derrida et al are the flares and platform boots of philosophy. It is just that the fashion industry is honest about what it does.

  10. Arthur says

    See some of my remarked above. All I add is that plain English has it limits. Also, there is an argument to be made that “classical music” is doing pretty well around the world. But, more intriguingly, as some recent discussions prompted by Kyle have shown, there is a lot of new music around today that, if not “classical” just may need newer terminology to describe it!

  11. says

    The problem with any terminolgy though Arthur is that once it comes into common usage its meaning invariably becomes different, or even unrelated, to the original concept. This occurs in basic terminolgy, such as calling the British flag the “Union Jack”. It is the “Union Flag”, it is only a jack when it is being flown from a jack staff. – i.e. the bow of a Royal Naval ship. This has happened to the concept of deconstructionism. In the U.K., the BBC new music programme (which seems to consider itself at the forefront of contemporary music and thought) played a Nyman work which sounded like, or used a theme by (I can’t remember), Mozart. The presenter referred to the work as “deconstructed Mozart”. This has always confused me. Did she mean that Nyman had removed the opposition in Mozart, e.g. the tonic dominant opposition that was so much part of the classical period; or was she just referring to it being re-contexturalised? If the former I think she is wrong, if the latter then it is no different than the various rock groups who played Classical pieces over a rock beat. Or maybe even earlier jazz groups that played Classical themes. Also if she was a fan of Derrida, did she possibly mean that Nyman had taken a work that was created in a rigid class society and superimposed it on a popular, and classless, musical form?
    My feeling is that the presenter thought deconstruct was the opposite of construct, namely Mozart constructed a theme and Nyman took it to bits and used certain phrases in a different way. However the use of a post-modernist term has made that statement unitelligible, plain English would have been better – although as you said earlier, you can not necessily blame the original writers for their ideas being misinterpreted.

  12. Arthur says

    Yes, misuse of terminology is inevitable. Use of expanded discourses, concepts, theories and all the references, etc. is something else. Program notes are just that, notes, and what you say is accurate concerning the music, you should have written them.

  13. says

    Thanks for this and for the blog generally, which I read often and always enjoy. I would add only that the same thing tends to happen with “analytic” philosophers who “do aesthetics.” In that case it is facility with logic (the more symbolization the better) and a dry, bureaucratic, style that one learns in graduate school that takes over for more direct speech. This style can become at least as turgid and unhelpful for the analytic philosopher as are obligatory tips of the hat to Agamben or Delueze for those of a more continental mind.