CTR Home Internal  Relations and Communications Home About CTR Publication Schedule CTR Archives

September 12, 2002 Fighting words on academic jargon: annual Lahey lecture



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 inaccessibility.

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 difficult language.

“Jargon is a hot issue,” Ferguson said. “We all think we know what that is. We all think it’s a bad signifier. But this is not necessarily so.”

Moral judgment

Ferguson used law and ethics professor Martha Nussbaum’s attack on literary critic Judith Butler, a superstar of ’90s academia, as an example of the tendency “to project one’s 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 person’s goodness, that philosophy should be a discourse of equals who trade arguments and counter-arguments without any obscurantist sleight of hand, Ferguson said.

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 Nussbaum’s 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 Adorno’s scorn for what he called the ideologies of “lucidity, objectivity and concise precision;” and to Benjamin’s 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 text’s 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 it’s a transaction,” Ferguson responded. “There are different communities of readers all with their own professional jargons. It’s 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 can’t 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 hermetically sealed.

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.