Sounding Smart — or, Knowing Your Medium

Via  Lief Parsons
Via Lief Parsons 

This weekend marked my sixth visit to the Society for Cinema and Media Studies annual conference. I had the pleasure of enjoying a number of strong presentations on remarkably “synergistic” panels: the “Earth Sensing” panel with Janet Walker, Lisa Parks, Nicole Starosielski, and Eva Hayward; the Color TV panel with Jonathan Sterne, Dylan Melvin, and Sue Murray; and the Networked Media panel with Doron Galili, Max Dawson, and Patrick Jagoda were all exemplary (I missed quite a few presentations that, I heard, were equally fantastic). I’ve long been an admirer of Parks’s and Sterne’s work, but the conference reminded me again of what tremendous presenters they are. And in hearing Jagoda’s work performed live, I gained a new appreciation for the beauty of his written texts. The success of these particular presentations and panels made me wonder what it is, precisely, that makes for a good conference presentation.

I may have found a few clues in my own panel, which, if I may say so, was quite provocative, productive…and fun. I was delighted to be on a panel with three bright, energetic graduate students, with whom I explored various approaches to thinking and doing media archaeology. We delved into some deep theoretical territory, but we all seemed to take a similar approach to the task: everyone (I’m excluding myself here, since others are better equipped to say how well my presentation was received) clearly articulated nuanced arguments, conscientiously grounded their theorization in something concrete, and engagingly — even entertainingly —  made their cases. They exploited the distinctive capacities of the conference-panel-as-a-medium not only to advance their individual arguments, but also to explore what the four of us could create together, and in consultation with our audience, when we put our heads together. In short, the form and content of this panel seemed to coalesce tremendously well — which reminded me that, as much as I often dread going to conferences, especially the behemoths like SCMS, there are some things the conference panel — the discursive form in which a small group of folks, assuming a position of humility, share their works-in-progress, and use that work to incite a conversation with a room full of similarly-interested people — can do particularly well.

Just as the conference presentation possesses particular formal properties that we need to learn to exploit, so, too, does academic writing. The qualities of “good writing” have been equally on my mind lately, as I’ve reviewed a few manuscripts for various publishers and a batch of theses and proposals from potential advisees. For years, in my classes and on this site, I’ve discussed the tendency among some graduate students (and, not infrequently, among fellow faculty) to write in a way that, to their minds, sounds academic. They sometimes ape the bombast and evasiveness of our most obscurantist (and self-aggrandizing) theorists. I think the students are genuinely excited and inspired by the seemingly radical and experimental writing styles of these thinkers. It’s a phase most grad students go through — and I suppose we need to allow them this rite of passage. Still, I think it’s important to cultivate among our students an awareness of various discursive conventions, and to help students understand that there are ideologies and politics and economies beneath our discursive platforms, and even our writing styles. Style is far more than a personal aesthetic choice.

In the March issue of Artforum Julian Stallabrass reviews two recently published books on curating, both of which exemplify problematic conventions of curatorial discourse. These conventions aren’t unique to curation; they point to problems in academic writing, too. Of course Artforum itself is always ripe for analysis; it and its fellow perpetrators of “international art English” were subjected to a rather astute critique by Alix Rule and David Levine in triple canopy last year (I excerpted the article here on Pinboard).


Stallabrass identifies several verbal “tics” that he regards as “particular to curatorial language,” but which, again, I say are often present in academic language:

The word interrogates, for example, usually refers to something of which no particular questions will be asked; specific is almost always used to refer to something that will go unspecified. …[C]uratorial prose is often written in ‘almost statements’ that gesture at but fail to achieve meaning.

Rule and Levine acknowledge these same tics as part of their much deeper analysis of contemporary global art-speak’s distinctive vocabulary (coining such overwrought terms as “radical transversality,” “imbrication” and “globality”!), its grammatical characteristics (weighing heavily on paired terms and dependent clauses!), and its genealogy (which we can trace back to October and particularities of the French language). In increasingly widespread acts of “linguistic mimicry and one-upmanship,” art-speak seems to aim for a uniform global style: one that appears to be “written…by French interns imitating American interns imitating American academics imitating French academics.” That sounds an awful lot like a lot of academic papers, too.

Why such “opacity and vacuity” — in both the gallery and the academy? Stallabrass first offers an oft-rehearsed explanation: “One obvious answer involves self-preservation. As in so many fields, the linguistic posture is defensive, a specialist language that protects the elite schooled in its thought from too much outside interference.” A recent article by Stephen Walt in Foreign Policyechoes this explanation:

[J]argon is a way for professional academics to remind ordinary people that they are part of a guild with specialized knowledge that outsiders lack, and younger scholars often fear that if they don’t sound like a professional scholar, then readers won’t believe what they are saying no matter how solid their arguments and evidence are.

I find that students often seek to align themselves with the “masters” of the guild, populating their bibliographies with “Big Man” theorists, regardless of whether or not they’ve actually cited those masters in their work, or whether the “capital-T Theory” is even relevant or useful in their particular projects. Meanwhile, these junior scholars often ignore plenty of smart, useful resources that, while perhaps more modest in scale, or perhaps written by folks with less name recognition, are much more pertinent to, and useful for, the projects at hand.

We can’t ignore the role of ego. The same ego that drives us to associate with alpha males also sometimes compels us to develop rhetorical defense mechanisms. Walt writes, “[M]any academics (and especially younger ones) tend to confuse incomprehensibility with profundity. If they write long and ponderous sentences and throw in lots of jargon, they assume that readers will be dazzled by their erudition and more likely to accept whatever it is they are saying uncritically.” (Of course what some dismiss as “jargon,” others regard as useful specialized language.) Obscurantism brings with it some degree of immunity to critique. If others don’t know what you’re getting at, it’s harder to challenge your argument. Opaque and vacuous writing, Walt argues, are often the product of “a fear of being wrong.”

If your prose is clear and your arguments are easy to follow, then readers can figure out what you are saying and they can hold you to account. If you are making forecasts (or if the theory you are advancing has implications for the future), then you will look bad if your predictions are clearly stated and then fail. If your argument has obvious testable implications, others can run the tests and see how well your claims stand up. But if your prose is muddy and obscure or your arguments are hedged in every conceivable direction, then readers may not be able to figure out what you’re really saying and you can always dodge criticism by claiming to have been misunderstood.

Timing — particularly, where one is in the lifecycle of a project — might have something to do with how her writing takes shape, too. Curatorial statements — much like conference abstracts, thesis proposals, book prospectuses, etc. — are written well before we have a concrete sense of what forms these projects will take. In such “speculative” genres of writing,

…vagueness and complexity may be a register of uncertainty: Such thinking tries to lay out the effects of grouping objects and activities together without the benefit of actually having yet done so. Hence the insistent feeling, in reading curatorial prose, that meanings are being strung together and groped toward rather than grasped, and in that groping, showers of familiar and closely related terms are emitted, each hard on the heels of the other…. (Stallabrass)

We need to reflect on what our discursive conventions and stylistic choices say not only about us as individuals, but also about the ideologies underlying our disciplines, and the academy in general. Stallabrass points out that what are often touted as assets of art’s “new model” — “mobility, flexibility, multiplicity, portability”– are actually “attributes of older curatorial ideals, and indeed of art itself since the Conceptual turn in the late 1960s.” More importantly, these terms have also been central to “business writing as it mutated in response to the revolts of 1968. Thomas Frank, Luc Boltanski, and Eve Chiapello have all famously analyzed how these corporate practices brought management and art closer together in the celebration of mandatory creativity and nonconformity.”

In short, we need to think about the politics and economics of our discursive forms, the ideologies underlying our presentation and writing styles, our dominant theoretical models, our methods, etc. Critical theory and critical discourse — on the page, the conference panel, the screen, etc. — could benefit from a little more critical theorization of their own.

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