Sunday, January 30, 2011

Obscurantist jargon

Nick Cohen takes academics to task for writing sentences like the following
The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony is bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.
The above sentence won the bad writing contest a few years ago. Cohen takes it as evidence of academia’s failure to engage with the public, and deduces that we academics are the architects of our own misfortune through this failure.

My first thought on reading Cohen’s article was: Has he ever seen the stuff that I come up with? Loads of complicated mathematical formulae couched in the definition-theorem-proof style, surely even worse than the above. My only excuse for writing that stuff is that I was not actually trying to impress the wider public, and I never thought the above quoted sentence was pitched at the man in the street, either. Like legalese, some other people are paid to read it and determine whether it's any good, and according the division-of-labour principle advertised on the twenty-pound note, I should get on with my own work and trust them to know what they are doing.

Scrolling through the comments, I found that I’ve already been outed by fellow computer-scientist Ross Anderson who wrote
The same sorts of criticism can be made of much academic writing even in "respectable" disciplines such as mathematics and computer science... Believe me; the median paper has a tiny idea (if any) dressed up in fifteen pages of stuff that looks like mathematics.
Damn. Mind you, I would hope that most mathematics papers would indeed look like mathematics, even if it’s unreadable to most people. And let’s admit that it’s hard to come up with a major idea in every paper.

However, I can’t possibly leave the topic of obscurantist jargon without complaining about cricket commentary. They’re endlessly dropping phrases like “403 for 3 not out” without explaining what those numbers refer to, and whether it represents good news or bad news for the team being discussed. After I left school and people stopped making me play cricket, I assumed that this sort of thing was now someone else’s problem, or alternatively that sooner or later, someone on the radio would have a spare minute or two to explain their jargon to the uninitiated. But it hasn't happened yet.

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