Professionalism as a Mask for Confusion

I liked what Nicholas Kristof wrote in the Times about academics using jargon to remove themselves from public relevance, and considered blogging it:

A related problem is that academics seeking tenure must encode their insights into turgid prose. As a double protection against public consumption, this gobbledygook is then sometimes hidden in obscure journals — or published by university presses whose reputations for soporifics keep readers at a distance.

Jill Lepore, a Harvard historian who writes for The New Yorker and is an exception to everything said here, noted the result: “a great, heaping mountain of exquisite knowledge surrounded by a vast moat of dreadful prose.”

But today on his blog Paul Krugman stepped in, upped the ante, and as usual got to the real point:

But it’s really important to step away from the math and drop the jargon every once in a while, and not just as a public service. Trying to explain what you’re doing intuitively isn’t just for the proles; it’s an important way to check on yourself, to be sure that your story is at least halfway plausible.

And again:

I once talked to a theorist… who said that his criterion for serious economics was stuff that you can’t explain to your mother. I would say that if you can’t explain it to your mother, or at least to your non-economist friends, there’s a good chance that you yourself don’t really know what you’re doing.

All musicologists who feel compelled to add several pages on Lacan or Deleuze to the first chapter of your book/dissertation when they’re not really germane to your subject matter, please keep this in mind.


  1. says

    I thought of you when I read Kristof yesterday and almost sent it to you, in case you hadn’t seen it. He mirrors exactly (as does Krugman) what you were saying some months ago about how you write, whether prose or music, and the importance of writing in a way that the audience understands and that brings them along with you – something Kristof, Krugman and you all do in spades!

  2. Nac says

    But, but, but then what if the audience talks back instead of being cowed into silence by your learnedness??

    I don’t know if you’ve ever heard of the literary critic/blogger DG Myers, but he chimed in on this a few years back; I’m afraid I don’t really have the experience in academia to agree or disagree with him, but I found it amusing:

    KG replies: Fabulous article, thanks. I love for my audience to be so impressed with my insight and articulateness that they burst into applause; when they are silent, I like to think either that my argument was so air-tight they’re still thinking about it, or else that there’s just not much interest in the subject matter; I would hate to think I’d ever cowed them into anything.

    UPDATE: Great blog, in fact, D.G. Myers. I’m enjoying his recent entries immensely.

  3. says

    Bravo, Kyle. As a non-academic I find a lot of academic writing tedious, especially when it’s hiding mediocre ideas. And why does there seem to be this need to hold these ideas hostage behind the hurdles of bad or over-elaborate writing. I think your work in the public sphere as a reviewer/reporter has tended to make your work more accessible even when you’re not writing for a newspaper. Perhaps some of your colleagues could do with a stint as a reporter with the job of communicating with a wider audience.

    KG replies: The newspaper world seemed like a detour at the time, but it’s the best thing that ever happened to me.

  4. mclaren says

    It’s not just academics. There’s a pervasive tendency in the arts and in music and contemporary literature to regard anything incomprehensible as de facto profound.

    Raising obscurantism to the level of a religion is now commonplace among composers, artists, and writers. All too many contemporary composers prefer to generate immensely convoluted musical structures instead of writing vividly memorable music. Obscurantism comes with a built-in escape hatch: if the audience doesn’t like an unnecessarily labyrinthine piece of music, the composer can fob it off as the result of their alleged lack of discernment, intelligence, taste, knowledge of contemporary music, etc.

    I’ll name names. Laurie Anderson’s lyrics make no sense and consequently have gained her a rep as a deep thinker. In reality, she’s just being obscure for the sake of being obscure, and it gets tiresome fast. (Peruse her lyrics for “O Superman” and tell me I’m wrong.) Brian Ferneyhough appears to write densely embedded tuplets with up to four successive levels for the sole purpose of generating scores so dense that no one can tell if they’re being performed accurately. Thomas Ades seems to revel in using time signatures like 4/6 not in order to produce catchy non-standard rhythms, but merely to wow the people who peruse his scores with the obscurity and exoticism of his metrical notation. Elliott Carter appears to have deployed complex metric modulations not in order to produce an audible musical effect, but to stun modernist critics with the sophistication of his musical processes. Karlheinz Stockhausen used bizarre one-of-a-kind scores not in order to produce novel musical effects, but to create the false impression that he was being musically creative when in fact he was just being capricious and trying to draw attention to himself with graphical showboating.

    The hallmark of Nobel laureate scientists and mathematicians? They write so simply and so clearly that even a six-year-old can understand it, as Erv Wilson liked to point out. The dead giveaway of the great science papers is they often take up only 2 or 3 pages. (Examples include Einstein’s special relativity paper and Watson & Crick’s paper on the structure of DNA.)

    Our K-12 education system has beaten students down so ruthlessly that most Americanos assume if they can’t understand something, it’s because they’re stupid. Thus the sad popularity of the “…For Dummies” series of books. But the reality is shockingly different. If the average person can’t understand something with effort and application, usually it’s because that something makes no sense. Turgidity isn’t the mark of sophistication: it’s a sign of incompetence.

  5. Arthur says

    How about if all mathematicians and economists give up all that formula stuff they always get into? And how about if all those great 3-page scientists give up the thousands of pages of peer reviewed analysis and all the internal discussions they had to submit before reaching conclusions that they could distill into something for the public to digest? And how about if music scholars (and composers) stop using all these words esoteric like “quartel harmony” and “just intonation”? And how about if they quit “analyzing” Beethoven, as KG will be doing in a new course? I mean, I bet that will be full of obscenely refined terminology accessible only to graduate students in musicology.
    Who is kidding who in this discussion? Technical language, complex theoretical debates and expert language are necessary for exploring ideas among peers. Not to mention that some subjects and experiences – including musical ones – are complex in and of themselves. That some thinkers are capable of communicating to a larger audiences is all to the good. But, they do the work that allows them to be clear with like minded thinkers. Kant, for one, wrote for general publications, but what he said would not have mattered if he had not written the long, dense philosophical books on which his thought is based.
    I have my problems with academic prose, but I am willing to put up with it for the research and systematic review that academics undergo in publishing their work. In the public culture and the domain of the “market place,” where economics and politics and forms of social mediation prevail, there is little regulation of thought and opinion. When I am sometimes asked to distinguish between journalism and academic writing, my answer is simple: “footnotes.”
    The key phrase in Krugman’s remarks is, “every once in a while.” Just as I do not want my doctor to just say, ‘you are sick,’ I do not want people with specialized knowledge to be patronizing by talking differently to the masses. I would also add, that there can be – and often is – a hostile repression of intelligent discussion by ‘make it clear’ partisans who reject what they consider to be too “sophisticated” or “specialized.”

    KG replies: Oh, Arthur, Krugman defends technical terms, and I will too. But I could go grab any number of musicology books and copy out a sentence that you’d have to read three times to “get” it, even if you knew the meaning of every word in it, and I won’t bother, because you could do the same thing yourself. And I will say that, aside from the occasional technical term I’ve had to invent and explain ad hoc (like “convergence point” for Nancarrow), I’ve gone through a musicological career very rarely ever using a term that I wouldn’t expect my students to know by the end of first-year theory. I suppose one could cite aleatory, stochastic, and combinatorial, which are all quickly explained and extremely historically limited.

  6. Arthur says

    Kyle, you are one of the great clarifiers and we are all the better for that. But, ordinary language is full of its own limitations, traps and obfuscations. Then, there is what is not said between the lines. So, I don’t mind reading sentences three times, just as I don’t mind re-hearing music – which I often do not get the first time around. I think the issue that needs to be addressed (though it often is) is what the relationships are (and were, should, could, etc.) between writing/language and music, musical material, events, and all the rest. (Of course, you have written about this many times over the years). The major objection I hear from your respondents has to do with “bad” writing and the use of theory or terminology which they seem not to know. So, I accept that all bad or ineffective writing is bad. But, then, what is to be said about the use of Lacan, Badiou or any other theory in relation to music? In good hands, do we learn more, even if we have to study a bit?

    As for Krugman and Kristof, they want academics in the social and political sciences to step up and say something about the world. And they are damn right about that.

    KG replies: Well, I don’t know, Arthur, I’ll have to take your word for it. Every time I have struggled my way through some deconstructionist digression to the point that I felt certain I had understood it, the insights gained seemed to me so obvious and redundant as to not in the least justify the effort required. I read Foucault’s The Order of Things and Eco’s The Role of the Reader and found them beautifully written, and about almost nothing. One young scholar, in a book proposal analyzing Feldman’s music, spent pages and pages snaking through Deleuze or somebody to prove that analyzing music was a worthwhile activity, which I had been willing to concede before picking up the book. Similarly, I dutifully plowed through the deconstructioning first chapter of Gary Tomlinson’s Music in Renaissance Magic and found that it contributed nothing to the more fascinating rest of the book. I’m left with the reluctant conclusion that there’s something there that people like you can get and I can’t.

  7. Arthur says

    I could agree with you about many studies, not to mention what you, me and your readers have heard sonically over recent decades. I essentially think we have had the gift of living through one of the most expansive periods in intellectual and creative history and so much scholarship and new music itself seems familiar or rehearses what we (at our age) already know; or angles into our knowledge with little impact. I read the index and bibliography of most books first and usually skim first chapters.
    Speaking for myself, I find that ‘thinking’ or theorizing music from multiple perspectives challenges the very ‘concept’ of music and music/sound experience and meaning, both for individuals and in history/culture. Of course, in part, I am following the lead of artists and building on ‘philosophies’ of music from Schopenhaur, Nietzsche and Adorno. E.g., an early paper of mine was on “Cage and Writers.” If he were around today, instead of Norman O. Brown, McCluhan, Mao, Joyce and the rest, I would not be surprised if he wouldn’t be referencing Derrida, Badiou – maybe even Heidegger. To that we would probably say, to use Ashley’s phrase, “oh boy.”