by Dana Hearne
Beware of good English, Renaissance scholar Margaret
Ferguson warned a Concordia audience, because behind it lies a history
of imperial expansionism as well as the policy of denouncing academics
for their use of jargon.
Ferguson, professor of English at the University of California, Davis,
gave the Lahey Lecture this year, an annual event hosted by the English
department to pay tribute to the late Gerald Francis Lahey, teacher and
former rector of Loyola College.
In her talk, Cultural Literacy and the Question of Jargon: An Historical
Perspective, Ferguson traced the history of the standardization
of the English language.
Great pains were taken to root out signs of barbarism in the use of language,
by provincials or foreigners for example, and solecisms (violations of
the rules of grammar). The purpose was political: to control readers who
lacked full literacy, for example women, the lower classes and immigrants,
and to extend the reach of empire in this case, the British Empire.
Ferguson linked this form of control to the current tendency of denouncing
academics for their use of jargon; bad English, convoluted language, and
In her view, jargon is the pejorative term used by people
who may be unwilling or even unable to make the effort required to understand
Jargon is a hot issue, Ferguson said. We all think we
know what that is. We all think its a bad signifier. But this is
not necessarily so.
Ferguson used law and ethics professor Martha Nussbaums
attack on literary critic Judith Butler, a superstar of 90s academia,
as an example of the tendency to project ones irritation with
stylistic difficulty as a negative moral judgment on the author of the
text in question.
Nussbaum implies that the use of clear language demonstrates a persons
goodness, that philosophy should be a discourse of equals who trade arguments
and counter-arguments without any obscurantist sleight of hand, Ferguson
Butler fails the goodness test because her language is ponderous
and obscure, dense with allusions to other theorists, drawn from a wide
range of theoretical traditions, half of them, in Nussbaums list,
from non-anglophone countries.
Nussbaum praises Scottish philosopher David Hume for his clarity and kindliness,
in the form of simplicity, towards his readers, but Ferguson argues that
this is a misreading of Hume, who, in fact, she suggests, joins Judith
Butler, Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin and Fredric Jameson, among others,
in pointing to the intellectual value of not being too kind to your readers.
Ferguson refers to Adornos scorn for what he called the ideologies
of lucidity, objectivity and concise precision; and to Benjamins
concept of writing against the grain.
The stylistic ideal of clarity is only partially understood, Ferguson
said, if it is associated chiefly with moral qualities such as kindness
to the reader. We need to ask, Which reader? Born where? How educated?
We should be asking why different readers may have different degrees of
tolerance for aspects of a texts language that seem alien, foreign,
unknown or, at least, hard to know without considerable expenditure of
time and energy.
Is criticism never justified? asked one member of the audience.
Yes, but its a transaction, Ferguson responded. There
are different communities of readers all with their own professional jargons.
Its a problem to assume some things are good (like Shakespeare)
and others bad (like Derrida). You have to make your case.
Rhetoric works with what the reader understands, she said. We cant
just denigrate certain interpretative communities. We have to ask who
will understand, and see what the audience picks up. Judith Butler
has a fanzine, for goodness sake! Discursive communities are not
In response to another question, Ferguson said that academics need to
reach out to a wider community. Writers should also make an effort within
their own discourse to define their terms and to imagine a reader.
Often, however, anti-jargon attacks are convenient displacement strategies
for what is in reality an effort to promote a different agenda
even a national agenda (as could be the case in the attack
by some American feminists against French feminism), or simply an inability
to understand the other discourse.