If a tree falls in the forest …

by Annie Murphy on May 6, 2011

I wrote something potentially (academically) dangerous earlier: “If a professor speaks and if nobody listens, did the professor speak?” I didn’t intend this as a condemnation of professors; quite the opposite, I hoped pull in the common adage, “If a tree falls in a forest …” to illustrate the disconnection between the so-called ivory tower and the so-called “real world.” What I have realized since I wrote those words is that the ivory tower is not a building, but a mindset, and that the “reality” of the real world is just as present in the academy as it is elsewhere. In other words, connections matter, performance matters: it’s a game. Master the jargon, learn the complex sentence structures, become familiar with all of the major and some of the obscure theorists: you’ll “succeed,” at least in the short term.

That’s not to say that scholars don’t have enlightening things to say to us. How wonderful is it that people study so many different, specialized things ? (I mean that seriously.) Their contributions to society are endless. So, it’s not so much what they have to say, or write, that I take issue with. Instead, it’s how these ideas are expressed, and to whom. There is definitely value in learning for the sake of learning, and I’m grateful for the people who have dedicated their working lives to doing just that.

Yet so often, when scholars learn and publish, an abundance of jargon and references prevents a layperson from understanding that writer’s argument even at its most fundamental level. Without these characteristics, though, an academic manuscript is doomed to interminable manuscript-ness. (I’ve come across one particularly exceptional exception to this: the work of bell hooks.) It is thus the prevailing attitude among humanities scholars—which I cynically characterize as having a disdain for practicality, an aversion to application, and a fear of “praxis” (of merging theory and practice)—that startles me.

What if there were a way to get academics and politicians to speak to each other? Might they agree to a conference under these conditions: the academics would have to get rid of their jargon and explain what they mean in an intellectual, but not specialized, vocabulary, and the politicians would have to explain their dilemmas and decisions to the academics.

I do not suggest this in order to criticize individuals, but rather to critique the system and cultural values that have led to separation (and, dare I say, ostracizing) of two of the arguably most influential professions. Would it be so terribly hard for academics to share their understanding of great authors, theorists, and methodologies with politicians?

Professors I have studied under in the past two years have argued persuasively about (and, in the Saidian sense, “for”*) the following: the perils of the criminalization of tribes in India, the difficulties of living with the intersectional oppressions of being both black and female, and the struggles of immigrants for rights and citizenship. Focusing on the way language functi ons in literature and culture, these scholars illuminate much about the way our societies and cultures operate and interact. Although the lay reader may not understand the methods behind such interpretations, should this reader necessarily be excluded from understanding the conclusions of such rigorous and productive studies? Precisely because the scholars themselves cannot become activists—one only has so much time, after all—the implications of their work, I believe, ought to be both understandable and applicable. If scholars cannot implement their own ideas, perhaps “ordinary” people ought to be able to?

As I complete my graduate studies in English, I am as in love with language as I ever was, yet I am distraught by the actual practice of literature in the academy. Perhaps these two comments represent my ambivalence about my beloved object of study: one friend exclaims, “Beauty will save the world!” while another one asks sheepishly, “What are you going to do with that?”


*By “for” in the “Saidian sense,” I refer to Edward Said’s essay, “Nationalism, Human Rights, and Interpretation,” an essay he ends with a discussion of the role of the intellectual in interpreting human rights crises. He explains that those who “interpret” should do so “for” rather than “about” freedom, which I “interpret” as having an approach that examines multiple sides of issues and opens up possibilities, ra ther than analyzing one side of the issue at the expense of not only the other side but also any possible resolution of conflict.


Jeff McMahon May 6, 2011 at 11:55 am

Thank you for this great post, Annie. Do you think it could be a problem of audience? That academics, when they write for other academics, write in a way that’s clear and accessible to their limited community? For some of them, that may be only dozens or hundreds of people, working at the edge of the same field, where they share the same operative concepts. And many keep their focus there, and do not seem to aspire to write for the public.

I think of Slavoj Zizek as someone who writes with unfaltering complexity for his academic audience and admirable clarity for his public one.

I can more readily think of Continentals who write well for the public—Cixous, Barthes, Kristeva, Benjamin—and I wonder if cultural encouragement has to do with that, compared to anti-intellectualism in America. You’re right about bell hooks. I would also count, among Ameircan scholars who write well for the public, Susan Sontag, Stanley Fish, Louis Menand…

Annie Murphy May 6, 2011 at 12:39 pm

Jeff, thanks so much for your comment. I think you’re right about audience — it seems to me that many professors do write only for their colleagues. I wonder, though, why they write this way. Because they know they have to in order to get tenure? Because it’s the way they were trained and it’s easier to maintain than change the status quo? Because they only want certain other people to read it?

I also think there are some academics who are simply incomprehensible. Maybe these people are so entrenched in their scholarship that they can’t even think outside of it? Or maybe they purposefully try to be difficult? (I’ve heard something to the effect of “you can’t express complex ideas in simple sentences.”)

It’s interesting that you mention Zizek. I have just read two of his pieces, one that I could not decipher (“From Politics to Biopolitics and Back”) and one that I could (“Welcome to the Desert of the Real”). Thanks for pointing out that NYT article. I wasn’t aware that he had two registers of writing. Should we ask for that of intellectuals? I worry about the implications. Would they “dumb down” writing for the public? As I often say to students, “You already recognize the concepts and patterns, you just don’t know the name for it yet.” To that end, I would argue that the public can (and has a right to!) understand these complex ideas–even if, and also precisely because–they do not understand the associate jargon.

I wonder, too, if part of the problem stems from the influx of philosophy and “theory” into literature. People like me, who don’t have advanced training in philosophy, will inevitably struggle when philosophers and theorists are brought into discussions of literature. For example, Agamben’s “The Open” is, to me, unintelligible. In class this week, my professor (well-known and brilliant) confessed to not understanding him.

Just after I posted this I came across Michael Silverblatt’s interview of Marjorie Garber. She’s just published a book called “The Use and Abuse of Literature.” She posits that literature has value in itself, that it need not have any “application.” She thinks it’s important to immerse oneself in literature; I agree, but society doesn’t. She also claims that the best literary critics write clearly. I am not sure I agree. Silverblatt’s disagreements make for an interesting interview: http://www.kcrw.com/etc/programs/bw/bw110428marjorie_garber_the_

Jeff McMahon May 6, 2011 at 12:52 pm

I wonder, though, why they write this way. Because they know they have to in order to get tenure? Because it’s the way they were trained and it’s easier to maintain than change the status quo? Because they only want certain other people to read it?

Because they have to write that way in order to write efficiently for the limited academic audience taking part in a particular conversation. Requiring them to write every article efficiently for the public would undermine that effort. Let me see if I can give an example, using a fundamental concept in academia today: subjectivity.

When the general public reads “subjectivity” it is likely to denote, for them, something like emotiveness, the opposite of objectivity. But when a scholar in the humanities reads “subjectivity” it refers to a whole line of argument that has unfolded over the course of a century, having to do with the invisible makeup of what we usually think of as the self. To have to pause and explain that tradition of “subjectivity” in every article—imagine. It would be impossible.

They’re actually two different words with the same spelling. This is part of the reason, but only part, that academic writing frustrates non-academic readers.

I don’t mean to excuse academic obfuscation here, just to understand it. We could usefully think of academic language as another language. The public has a right to read works in another language, say Nerdocrombezian, but they have to learn Nerdocrombezian to do that. We don’t ask all speakers of Nerdocrombezian to write in English.

For students, we can either force them to learn Nerdocrombezian, or we can translate it for them or we can look for someone who already has done so.

Thank you for the Silverblatt link. I’ll go check it out.

Annie Murphy May 6, 2011 at 1:03 pm

Your “subjectivity” example makes a lot of sense. I agree with you on that point, that it’d be next to impossible to have to define this every time it’s used. I suppose my complaint, that I didn’t make clear, is about a scholar’s attitude. I think there’s a difference between someone who uses the jargon of a discipline to express a point and someone who uses it to to be obscure. A friend of mine often reminds me of something his professor used to say; it was something to the effect of “I try to write so that other people will want to read [and presumably, understand] it.”

Maybe we also need a good deal more translators of Nerdocrombezian? Silverblatt brings this up when he talks about literary scholars writing for the public.

Jeff McMahon May 6, 2011 at 1:07 pm

More translators for sure. You know who I think is ideal for that job? The vast armies of abused and underpaid adjuncts who, by keeping one foot by necessity in the public world and one in the academic, sort of routinely do academia the great service of bridging those worlds. This should not be taken as justification for the current treatment of adjuncts… but rather as justification for better treatment.

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