Sunday, 18 July 2010

Discourse vs rhetoric

Over the past few months, I've attended a small handful of academic events at the University of Warwick: a workshop on gender, social reproduction and depletion; a graduate Security Studies conference; and the third annual Film-Philosophy conference. And now that FPIII, which I helped to organise, has been and gone, I have a little more time to write about some thoughts that these events have provoked. It was the Security Studies conference that got me thinking about the topic that gives this blog its title, but that topic is an important one for academia (particularly, I think, the humanities and social sciences) in general. It is also a topic that overlaps with the cover feature of this week's THE: 'scholarly writing'.

In 2008, there occurred in UK higher education the Research Assessment Exercise, in which academic departments of UK universities and their research 'outputs' were evaluated, with the results influencing the distribution of funding. The RAE has been replaced by the REF (Research Excellence Framework). The new UK government has postponed the REF until some kind of agreement can be reached about a controversial element which, it is proposed, ought to influence how departments are evaluated - and, therefore, funded. That element is 'impact': the reach of university research beyond the academy.

I have written about this in passing on this blog before, and linked to Stefan Collini's excellent article on the subject. For the purposes of this particular entry, the initial point that this prologue leads me to is that consideration of, and worries about, the extent to which what academics write is or should be accessible to non-specialists is nothing new.

When non-specialists are confronted with the technical language of an academic discipline, it is often dismissed as jargon. As Terry Eagleton has noted, the use of such language is often felt to be particularly scandalous when the object of study is something that it is assumed can be understood without the need for study: films, novels, music, newspapers. (As a Film Studies person, I was interested to stumble across this piece recently.)

I think any academic discipline, whatever its object of study, is entitled to and probably requires its own specialist language. However, I do think distinctions can be made concerning the ways in which such language is used.

The danger of a specialist vocabulary is that it can become a substitute for thought. It can become, as David Bordwell has put it, the one hammer that makes every problem look like a nail. The speaker/writer's language becomes a reified, dead 'thing'.

In the 1988 introduction to Hitchcock's Films Revisited, Robin Wood writes of returning to academic Film Studies in the UK after a few years away to find a significantly changed intellectual landscape, in which a supposedly scientific language had displaced and discredited, and left no room for, the individual critical voice:
If criticism is scientific, then it has fixed rules, which anyone with a sufficient IQ (something very different from Leavis' 'intelligence') can master; having mastered them, you can write criticism. The notion of an individual voice becomes not only irrelevant, it becomes anathema. [...] Unlike Leavis, semiologists are not elitist. If there is the small problem that only a tiny group of intitiates can understand them, that is because everyone else is too lazy to learn the rules (or master the jargon). If we bothered to write the rules we could all write like that, indistinguishably. So democratic.
Wood identifies Stephen Heath as a person with the methodological commitments of the group he is critiquing, but whom Wood nevertheless admires, because Heath distinguishes himself through his personal style and intelligence, which demonstrate commitment and understanding.

In my terms, Wood is praising writers who employ rhetoric rather than simply using an available discourse. For such writers, writing is an act of discovery and communication - and, we should add, joy and love. It is not a more elaborate form of painting by numbers.

At the Film-Philosophy conference, I had several conversations with people at various career stages about where we find ourselves now. A discussion with an older academic about how things were when his career started (I asked whether there was the same imperative for him to slog across the conference circuit, presenting 20 minute papers on small topics to small audiences; the answer was no) reminded me of something Charles Barr said in his Guardian obituary for Robin Wood:
While film studies, the discipline he had helped to establish, inexorably followed a familiar academic trajectory, becoming staidly respectable, a field for careers based on narrow specialisms, he remained the best kind of generalist, continuing, as he had from the start, to engage equally with classical and contemporary cinema, and with films from many countries, and to place them in a wider cultural context, informed by his expertise in literature and music.
For those of us who want a career and an intellectual life similar to our old Film Studies idols, the big names who established the discipline, it is sad to ponder that the nature of academic Film Studies today makes such a thing much more difficult.

And 'specialist language' might appear to be the natural companion of 'narrow specialisms', but I would still want to insist that any piece of academic writing, however 'large' or 'small' its topic, need not dispense with such language, but must simply not use it mechanically, or unthinkingly. To repeat, language should communicate and clarify thought, not substitute for it.

(I apologise if this entry has not gone very far. It is not quite the entry I thought it would be when I set about composing it an hour or so ago, but it has gotten across some of what I have been thinking about whilst engaged in the events mentioned above, and on the eve of the publication of a newly relaunched journal in which some of my writing appears - a journal which has always valued the individual critical voice, and exhibited a healthy suspicion of, to use the terms of the above, mere discourse.)

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