A Worthy Distinction

It’s been a long time, but back in olden days readers used to tax me (as the representative of the category “postmodernists”) for the impenetrable language that “postmodernists” deploy. I used to respond that complicated, counter-intuitive ideas usually require more laborious communication. If the ideas were that obvious, we’d have noticed before; when we use very plain, lucid language, readers typically assume that we mean something essentially similar to what they already expect. As a result, in order to express what-you’re-not-expecting, we “postmodernists” write difficult prose.
I’m not saying my response constitutes the best, most convincing apologia for postmodern obscurity, but it’s my story and I’m sticking to it. Terry Eagleton, however, has a different riposte to both the populist advocates of clarity and the pomo advocates of unreadability (quoting here from Scott McLemee’s recommendation of a book of interviews with Eagleton):

Eagleton calls it “particularly scandalous that people engaged in what is basically a democratic enterprise should write in such an obscurantist way. But to say that one shouldn’t write in a deliberate and willfully obscure way isn’t of course to say that one should always be easy to read.”
Nobody expects an engineering textbook to require anything but diligent attention. This is not a matter of the intrinsic elitism of engineers. “And just as in engineering, there is a specific set of skills and languages to be learnt in literary theory in order to understand it. What I’m saying is that populism need not be the only opposition to elitism.”

And what I’m saying is, “Amen.”

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One Response to A Worthy Distinction

  1. We all have languages. Certainly the languages of Christianity, especially of the older mainline varieties can be pretty arcane when it comes to ritual and ceremony and theology, and even for me, who at one point was heading into the Ministry, I still have to look things up.

    All communities have their languages, and populism has nothing to do with it. The irony I think is that a well established technical language makes it possible for people to communicate well, collaborate and be a part of a community. For many centuries if you wanted to be a scientist, you needed to know Latin. That wasn’t to weed out dilettantes – it was to bind a community of inquiry together with a language that transcended culture so that they could work together. “Jargon” can seem intimidating to outsiders, but it makes collaboration possible for insiders. I learned the language of post-modern philosophy and critical theory by reading a few hours a week over the better part of nine months and by hanging around with others who were interested in that world. The only barrier to communities bound together by technical language is effort, and surprisingly little effort is required to gain entry to fascinating worlds with established networks, relationships and inquiries, whether these are theorists, physicists, new age crystal healers or dungeons and dragons players.

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