E is for Etiological

Last month Greg Allen (of greg.org) posted some good comments in response to my commentary on the obscuring impacts of postmodern language (and general academic jargon) in trendy art writing. I apologize for not realizing these comments were there until yesterday, which is of fortunate timing as I have had some similar thoughts on the topic since the original postings.

Greg said:

"Sometimes uncommon terms ARE required, to talk about specific things in a nuanced or particular way. Or because they carry with them the weight and association of the school of thought which brought them to prominence."

First, yes, I agree with the association aspect. New terminology is developed within fields for specific purposes, often due to developments in research, technological innovations, etc., and ultimately the circulation and reproduction of this language serves a role in the self-legitimation of the field. A certain amount of value that translates to cultural capital for the speaker/writer using the word is also embedded in the transmission of this language from sender to receiver. Last month I gave a presentation on this to my former policy research team that included a pictorial representation based on the notion of protein binding (I won’t go into all of that here, but this is a picture that generally represents the concept). Basically, for the language to stick and the data to transfer successfully, there must be similar value systems encoded within the individuals during the chain of communication. So, if I’m reading an article that uses the word, "etiological" (Greg’s choice example), and I don’t understand its application to the topic at hand (even if I know the definition of the word), its placement within the essay or article and any additional symbolic weight its sender intended is lost; the word did not bind to my receptors. Whew. Enough Biology this morning!

Second, I definitely agree that “sometimes uncommon terms ARE required” for they themselves allow access and insight into a topic that maybe shouldn’t be addressed in overtly simplified, pedestrian language. I began to address this topic on 2/28 when I wrote (briefly) in frustration about the relationship between writing poetry and writing about art. I had a conversation about this the other day with a friend who also writes poetry. The observation is that perhaps any writing, when not just transmitting data, can always be considered somewhat deliberately clandestine. Depending on the purpose of the sender, the concealed nature of the writing may be to elicit a physical response, emotional reaction, or otherwise different sensory engagement with the transmitted text. Unpacking the meaning becomes a playful a treasure hunt with the reward at the end of the rainbow unknown and perhaps different for each receiver, or as Greg said,

“And ultimately, converting everything into instantly comprehensible terms would diminish the effort/reward that comes with discovery and learning.”

I like this notion of “discovery and learning”…Instant access to an inherently nuanced subject – art – seems like a drive-through, commercial-speed approach to criticism, education, etc. on the topic (is it really possible anyway?). However, writers do run the risk of isolating their audiences by engaging forms of writing and vocabulary that is too removed from their experience. I end, again, with admission of my own guilt in this arena; if graduate programs are going to indoctrinate students with a postmodern dictionary of vocabulary, then it should also come with a users manual.

Thanks, Greg, for your comments!

No comments: