Language

JARGON. In critical writing, the function of jargon is not to illuminate but to suggest that its author is “verbally correct”; it is most likely to succeed with literate society’s underling-supplicants, such as students and untenured professors. So should you come across a piece of criticism filled with imposing terms (such as “ambiguity,” “tension,” and “metonomy” in days gone by; “dialectical,” “signifier,” “disruption,” “confrontation,” “contradiction,” “deconstruction,” “difference “ [sic], “logocentrism, “ “asymptotic, “ “indexical,” “decentering,” and the like nowadays), to all appearances used in unfathomable ways, do not worry and, most of all, don’t be intimidated (unless you’re a student or an untenured professor, whose function in the academic hierarchy is to be predisposed to intimidation). You’re not supposed to understand anything but merely be impressed by the author’s modish choice of lingo, much as, in other contexts, you might be awed by his or her choice of dress, shoes, car, or something else superficial.

It was the American sociologist Thorstein Veblen (1857‑1929) who pointed out a century ago that inefficient expression is meant to reflect “the industrial exemption of the speaker. The advantage of the accredited locutions lies in their reputability; they are reputable because they are cumberous and out of date, and therefore argue waste of time and exemption from the use and the need of direct and forcible speech.” That is to say, you must be economically comfortable to talk that way and, by doing so, are explicitly announcing that you are. The reason why leftish jargon amuses working people is that they know instantly, as a measure of their economic class, what its real purpose is.

—Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes (2000)

No matter what one thought of Edward Said’s politics or the question of fibs in his autobiography, this Columbia literature professor became an intellectual celebrity—a chaired academic who exploited his minority-moniker, in his case Arab-American, to command larger stages than his university classrooms, much as some African-American professors do and certain Jewish-American professors once did. Knowing that he became more prominent than nearly all other teachers of modern literature, he apparently felt that the slightest changes in his temper should be recorded and disseminated.

So it is scarcely surprising that, in a memoir published in the London Review of Books (7 May 1998), he wrote the following about the evolution of his literary style:

The net result in terms of my writing has been to attempt a greater transparency, to free myself from academic jargon, and not to hide behind euphemism and circumlocution where difficult issues have been concerned. I have given the name ‘worldliness’ to this voice, by which I do not mean the jaded savoir-faire of the man about town, but rather a knowing and unafraid attitude towards exploring the world we live in.

What should be made of such convoluted sentences whose style so egregiously undermines the purported thought of aspiring to write transparently? Is this the clumsy irony of someone who admonishes others “Never use a preposition to end a sentence with.” Consider its pomposity and witlessness (exemplified by “in terms of”), its mixing of high-falutin language (“euphemism,” “savoir-faire”) with financial lingo (“net result”), and even its colloquial prepositional conclusion. This passage reflects the mentality of a privileged intellectual professionally insulated from readers less servile than his students and yet smug enough not to heed his own advice. To the degree that he apparently thinks he is currently writing clearly—that he thinks he is demonstrating the change he desired for himself—Said in his own words reveals a capacity for self-deception. You can imagine him completing such sentences with the exclamation “akerue,” which is eureka spelled backwards.

You and I can’t write with so much affectation; no one would publish us. Nor can most professors write so badly about their wanting to write clearly, especially for journals whose circulation, like LRB’s, numbers more than a few hundred. Once you understand how such other-worldly sentences are written and, wonder of wonders, published (and sometimes even reprinted), you get a window into a privileged world and a reason to doubt Said’s claim to tell truths about himself.

—“Edward Said” (2004)