Academic language and the problem of meaninglessness
Nathan J. Robinson
It’s so easy to lose track of the meaning of words. Say any word enough times and it becomes a mere sound, its semantic content steadily evaporating with each additional usage (“anthill…anthill…anthill…”) Some words, such as “democracy,” “justice,” and “fascism,” can eventually turn into little more than empty praise or pejorative, essentially the equivalent of declaring “Hooray for this thing!” or “Boo to that thing.”
But, and this should go without saying, if people are actually trying to communicate with one another their words need to have meaning, and we need to have relatively fixed and identifiable definitions for concepts and actions. That’s always going to be elusive, because the usages of words will change over time and vary among users, so it will be impossible for any definition to stay truly stable and universally agreed. Yet while their boundaries can be fuzzy and contested, words ultimately need to be something more than meaningless mouth-noises. When nobody agrees on the definition of a word, when it contains so many possible connotations that it’s impossible to know what anyone who uses it actually means by it, the word is no longer able to effectively communicate.
The use of words without fixed or clear meanings is a major part of what makes academic writing so terrible. People often complain that academic writing is “obscure” or overly convoluted and complex. But there’s nothing inherently wrong with either complexity or obscurity in themselves; research papers in the sciences have to be complex and technical, and introducing people to obscure and unfamiliar words or concepts can be a key part of developing human knowledge. The problem largely comes when words are vague and unclear, admitting of many possible interpretations. Infamous academic terms like “phenomenological,” “intersubjectivity,” “embeddedness,” “hermeneutical,” and “discursive” are not bad because they describe complicated concepts, but because it’s often not clear just what an author means by them. It’s not that they’re meaningless, necessarily, but that they could mean lots of things, and people don’t seem to have a very precise shared idea of how to interpret them. (That’s one reason why Current Affairs mostly shies away from using the word “neoliberalism.” It’s not that it has no meaning, it’s that because people mean different things by it, it ends up being somewhat ineffective as a tool for communication.)
Consider the following abstract from an academic article printed in the journal Human Studies:
This article elaborates a relational phenomenology of violence. Firstly, it explores the constitution of all sense in its intrinsic relation with our embodiment and intercorporality. Secondly, it shows how this relational conception of sense and constitution paves the path for an integrative understanding of the bodily and symbolic constituents of violence. Thirdly, the author addresses the overall consequences of these reflections, thereby identifying the main characteristics of a relational phenomenology of violence. In the final part, the paper provides an exemplification of the outlined conception with regard to a concrete phenomenon of violence, i.e., slapping, and a concluding reflection upon its overall significance for research on violence.
We could almost play a game called “spot the intelligible word” with a passage like this. (It’s “slapping.”) A lot of it, however, is somewhat shaggy. There are, of course, the classic attempts to use complicated words to describe a simple things. Nobody should use “exemplification of the outlined conception” instead of “example of the idea,” and “embodiment” always seems to refer to little more than the fact that we have bodies. But we’re also in for one of those articles filled with abstract terms that don’t necessarily convey very much, or that function more like poetic verses, where readers can interpret whatever meaning they choose rather than the author actually clearly wishing to communicate any clear and obvious meaning of their own.
Now judging an article by its abstract might be thought somewhat unfair, akin to judging a book by its cover (although, in fact, books can usually be judged pretty well by their covers). But the body text of the Human Studies article is just more of the same:
[It is] of utmost importance to examine the various faces of violence in their intrinsic relationality. To unveil their relational character, I will attempt to substantially broaden the phenomenological concept of sense. By sense, I propose not only to examine the immanent accomplishments of the subject’s engagement in and with the world, but, first and foremost, a relation that unfolds in-between the one and the other. Sense, in other words, unfolds in the subject’s relation with those it encounters in this world, who can make this world appear to it, dysappear, [sic] or, finally, disappear, and accordingly shape its self-understanding, self-conception, and agency.
The problem here is that so many of the words being used are distant from the world of concrete things, and because the author always defines abstract terms by using other abstract terms, we never actually get a good sense of what we’re really talking about underneath it all. We are trapped in a world in which vague words with multiple meanings refer only to other vague words with multiple meanings. If, for example, we want to know what the author means by talking about violence as something “relational,” we are told the following:
The discussion of violence in terms of a relational phenomenon or interphenomenon requires emphasis on two matters in particular: firstly, that the lived sense of violence cannot be extracted from just one perspective or viewed against the background of an unshakeable ‘‘reciprocity of perspectives’’ (Schutz), a foundational (e.g., cosmological) order, a teleological order (epitomized by reason’s historical tendency to self-realization), or a procedural (e.g., legal) order… Secondly, the discussion of violence as a relational phenomenon is testament to the fact that we have grown used to understand violence as an exception to our intrinsic sociality (or, at the very least, sociability) and communicative competence.
Just that word “relational” then, leads us to a dozen more words with unclear meanings; now we must figure out how teleology, reciprocity, extraction, sociality (and the distinction between sociality and sociability), and communicative competence. Now, the usual defense here is that to people within the scholar’s subfield, these words do mean something clear. But this is false. Try asking them. See if they give you the same definitions, and if those definitions are ever particularly clear, or always include yet more abstractions.
With articles like this, we are stuck: is what the author means by “unfold” the same thing as what I understand? With conceptual terms, it’s very hard to know. It’s different with something like the word “mirror.” Here, we can probably tell if we’re talking about the same thing kind of thing or not. Of course, there may be differences in what we each mean by the term. The other person may be thinking of a different kind of mirror, possibly the mirror from his great-aunt’s boudoir from when he was a little boy, while I may be thinking of the enormous curvy mirror I keep in a storage unit in Massachusetts. But we will both be thinking of something reflective, probably made of glass. But when we get into ideas like “subjectivity,” “agency,” “relational phenomenology,” it’s more difficult.
This problem is not nearly so strong in the hard sciences, because the subject matter under discussion can be reduced from its complexities into intelligible units. For example, if I open the Journal of Molecular Biology, and look at an article called “Biogenesis of the Flagellar Switch Complex in “Escherichia coli,” I might have no idea what it is about. But it’s pretty easy to figure out, by breaking the terms into parts and then looking them up. Escherichia coli is otherwise known as E. Coli. It’s a bacterium. I can go and look at it under a microscope, and read books with diagrams showing me precisely what a bacterium is. “Biogenesis” is the process by which a living thing originates. And a “flagellar switch complex” is a set of proteins that control the movement of the “flagella” (little dangly bits) that control how the bacterium swims. So I’m learning about the origins of the little thing that governs bacterial swimming behavior. Easy enough to decipher. There are specialized terms, and the article is complex, but if I spend enough time with it I can break it down into distinct parts, each of which will have a very clear meaning. There won’t be much room for misinterpretation.
This is not so with writing in the humanities and some of the social sciences (such as sociology and anthropology). There, it’s impossible to get this level of clarity no matter how much time you spend trying to understand a term. This kind of academic writing will always, at best, leave us thinking “Oh, hm, yes, that sounds like something I kind of understand” without truly knowing whether I am gleaning what the author intended me to understand, or whether the author meant anything specific at all. Of course, when we are talking about concepts it’s always going to be inherently more difficult to convey what we mean than when we are talking about the flagella on bacteria, and we can’t escape having discussions using terms whose meanings people don’t necessarily agree on, like love, justice, or even neoliberalism. But if I don’t know what the author of an article means by a term like “relationality,” and the author has failed to actually give a clear set of examples that will help me know that I have understood the intended meaning, the piece of writing is a failure.
I tend to think people go after academic writing for the wrong reason, condemning its prolixity or complicatedness. This allows academics like Judith Butler to retort that intellectual work is complicated, thus it requires “difficult” prose, just like an ordinary person could not understand an article in a molecular biology journal. But there’s a fundamental difference between two kinds of difficulty. The one kind of difficulty exists because I am unfamiliar with the terms, but if I looked them up, the difficulty would disappear. The other kind of difficulty is actually an impossibility. It’s impossible to understand what certain abstract academic terms mean, because there actually is no clear and agreed-upon meaning. For the reader, that makes the work meaningless, and therefore incapable of transmitting knowledge or understanding.
It’s important to recognize, though, that this is not just a problem of particular vague “big words.” A lack of clarity can occur even by using simple, single-syllable words. Consider this passage:
The ‘‘ethical epoché ’’ seeks to approach the ‘‘wild’’ space of experience that becomes visible where the taken-for-grantedness of factual normative orders has turned brittle or collapses (which is the case with violence in particular). In this pre-normative (though not lawless) space, one is confronted with the claims of the other, which are not valid in a legal sense, but confront us with her unavoidable “ethical appeal.” As experiential excesses that run counter to our will, they do not allow us to simply turn away and to return to the everyday state of things with sanctioned moralities that tell us how to cope with whatever happens.
Now, here there’s only a single word I don’t understand (epoché); it’s the reverse of the problem in the first passage I cited. But words are still being used in the same way: with it sounding like they have meaning, but without me able to reach a very high level of confidence that I understand what they mean. This isn’t, therefore, a question of academics needing to “talk in simple language”; it’s about talking in clear language, meaning language where what the author means by each word is conveyed very precisely and in a way that doesn’t admit of misinterpretation. That problem becomes especially acute with abstract terms, where meanings are at their most difficult to convey, so if I talk about, say “dominance” in social relations I need to make sure I make clear what would constitute an example of dominance and what wouldn’t (and what social relations are and aren’t). But even writing using high-school vocabulary can produce meaningless texts (as anyone who has had to grade a stack of high-school essays knows).
Vagueness allows an escape from responsibility. I can never be “wrong” about anything, because I can always claim to have been misinterpreted. (This is how Slavoj Zizek always defends himself.) If you ask me my prediction for what will happen in 2018, and I say “the state of California will break off and fall into the ocean,” it is fairly easy for my proposition to be either proven or disproven. But if I say “the people of California will develop a greater sense of their own intersubjectivity,” almost nothing that happens can clearly disprove my assertion, because it could mean many things.
I’ve written before about the peculiar tendency of academics to write articles with the title “Taking ___ Seriously.” It’s very strange: there are all kinds of pieces with titles like Taking Justice Seriously or Taking Temporality Seriously. (My personal favorite is Taking Love Seriously in Human-Plant Relations in Mozambique.) I think this happens for two reasons. First, the professional necessity to produce novel arguments means that there is an incentive toward suggesting that nobody has previously taken a thing seriously, but finally you are about to. Second, “taking seriously” is a term that could mean many things, but doesn’t clearly mean any one particular thing. What does it mean to “take something seriously” as opposed to taking it non-seriously? It’s almost beautiful in its vagueness. The more vague you are, the less people can hold you accountable for anything you say; how can anyone ever prove that I haven’t taken the thing more seriously than anyone has previously taken it?
Clarity is not necessarily simplicity. It’s not always possible to use simple language, because sometimes you’re trying to get something rather complicated across. But if you’re not using clear language, then you’re not really communicating, because clarity refers to the accessibility of a term’s meaning. If a word could mean anything or nothing, it’s not really helping anyone reach understanding. “Perfect communication” is impossible to achieve, but better communication is always to be aspired to.
Nathan J. Robinson is a PhD student at Harvard University and a recent graduate of Yale Law School. He writes children’s books, such as “The Man Who Accidentally Wore His Cravat to a Gymnasium.”