Confused? Just ask.


Some weeks back in response to a trio of articles in the Irish Times [sub req’d] about Tara the paper published a couple of letters in response.

One in particular caught my eye and here is the full text:

Madam, – I read last Saturday’s articles on the Tara debate in search of enlightenment. I enjoyed and agreed with Gabriel Cooney’s contribution. I was absorbed by Pat Cooke’s treatise until he sprinkled his last few paragraphs with words such as “reify”, “a priori” and “palimpsest”. But for academic pomposity, Ian Russell’s lengthy, rambling and obscure sentences would take some beating. This confirms my impression that some academics live on a lofty plain from which they are reluctant to descend to communicate effectively with the less erudite. – Yours, etc,

Funnily enough I knew as soon as I read it that there would be some sort of complaint [and full disclosure, Ian Russell and I were on the same panel at a conference earlier this Summer, the only time we’ve met]. And I sent a text to someone indicating that I suspected that the complaint would centre on the language. If a piece of writing is considered ‘academic pomposity’ simply because it appears ‘obscure’, perhaps that simply indicates that an issue is a bit more complex than first apparent.

It’s not that am I uncynical about academic language, particularly in that nexus of the arts and other disciplines as dealt with here. Ill-digested jargon is an annoyance and usually irrelevant. Largely futile efforts to crush theoretical constructs to fit the theory du jour does no one any favours. There is indeed a pompous and self-regarding tone to much academic endeavour.

However the term ‘negotiate’ used in the offending articles is I suggest extremely appropriate to any discussion about the relationship between humans and place. “Perform”…well, perhaps or perhaps not. The term has a certain cachet in certain academic circles at this point in time, and academia is no more or less immune than any other area to the vagaries of fashion.

But. So what?

This isn’t a conceptual Armageddon. It’s not the Sokal or Bogdanov affairs. One reads it, one sees that this is a complex issue. One notes the salient points and moves on.

I guess because I regularly use such terms as “reify” I am perhaps overly sensitive to such charges. But, this is 2007. The Irish Times is a quality newspaper. A discussion on an issue such as Tara, which is in itself truly interdisciplinary, demands a broad range of submissions and responses.

And what is the complaint really? That “a priori” is now somehow beyond the pale of civilised discourse? That “Palimpsest” is a bit too weighty a word for general use? Where does this end? We start to cut down on syllables? We jettison what vestiges of Latin or other languages remain within the language? Perhaps the word “erudite” is a bit… you know…overly intellectual?

I’m always a bit wary about complaints about failing standards, about poor use of language and so on. There can be an elitist tone to them. But… simply because something is more difficult to read doesn’t mean that it is impossible to read. Nor does it immediately cast suspicion upon the thoughts of the person making the case. Nor is it a bad thing in and of itself. And contrast with truly (albeit understandably) jargon filled areas such as economics, or perhaps by way of a more appropriate comparison is the indefatigable and highly entertaining Slavoj Žižek (who has a fine and reasonably jargon free column in the London Review of Books), and we begin to see just how tame these articles are.

I wonder is that because we live in a society where for many any hint of the academic, of the complex is likely to evoke a Pavlovian response of that runs along the lines of “…some academics live on a lofty plain from which they are reluctant to descend to communicate effectively with the less erudite”?

That in the view of the person who wrote the letter everything is reductionist, everything should and can be summed up like the old joke about former Taoiseach Albert Reynolds being a ‘one page man’. Well, perhaps that’s possible when you run a government, although I doubt it. I also doubt that such a canny operator as Reynolds was as portrayed.

The point is that there is a middle way between charges of ‘academic pomposity’ and academic obfuscation. We have no choice but to engage with theoretical concepts if we want to gain some level of understanding about visual or material culture. The range of concepts will differ or vary depending to some degree upon taste. But in a context where marketing has appropriated concepts of ‘branding’ situated directly in the visual almost wholesale where visual communicators should have been well positioned to mediate same the necessity for a serious critical approach is self-evident.

But this also works both ways. Without an engagement by others beyond it academia can retreat behind the barricades, can enter into solipsistic discourse which has little or no relation to the real world. And the implications of this for areas such as design research are clear. Academy and practice draw apart. Theory overshadows, or simply ignores, implementation. Beyond that an aversion develops to critical engagement on either side. Analysis is necessary. Sometimes jargon is also necessary and with that comes at least some potential for misunderstanding.

There are straightforward strategies to deal with this. When questions arise over interpretation or over differing viewpoints or even over a confusion as to what is being written about then there’s no problem in just asking for clarification. No term, no approach is beyond criticism or analysis. The basic question ‘what did he or she mean by that?’ deserves an answer. And that holds for this site as well.

And when all else fails there is the traditional solution. As someone said to me recently, “You don’t know the word? Just get a dictionary”.

Ciarán Swan


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