Thursday, 31 January 2013

Pretentious, Moi?

'A User's guide to Artspeak' in The Guardian on Monday discussed an essay written by an artist and a critic, on what they describe as 'International Art English.'  In brief, this is the sort of wordy, imitative and pretentious language that you too often come across in writing on art (although you might also add cultural studies and philosophy too).  To paraphrase a sentence from the essay, it is language that asks for more than to be understood - it demands to be recognised.

The original essay is very interesting on the possible genealogy of this language, its peculiar lexicon, syntax and use.  And for anyone who has ever struggled with this stuff (and haven't we all?) it's pretty funny too.

By coincidence, this Monday's Start the Week programme on Radio 4 was a special on Political Writing, which took George Orwell's essay 'Politics and the English Language' as its starting point.  Orwell famously offered the following six rules:
  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous. 
However, it is two sentences from his conclusion that I'm most impressed by:
If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself.
As Alix Rule and David Levine suggest in the essay referred to above, a certain kind of academic writing can be more about showing that you belong to particular tribe, than it is about communicating something original about a topic.  It is this sort of posing that one should try to avoid.

Consider, for example, Mathew Reisz writing last year about scholarly work on his father - Karel Reisz:

Some of the analysis seems overly elaborate or to miss the point. Even stranger is the stuff I simply can't understand. While there are vast amounts of academic writing in technical or specialist areas I obviously can't follow, it seems peculiar not to be able to decipher what someone is saying about my own father and his films.
It is possible to write lucid and incisive academic work, which gives proper weight to the complexity of any given topic.  There is lots of good writing out there (as well as bad), so why would anyone bother with the boringly pretentious?

Helen Sword, whose book Stylish academic writing was published last year, identified a number of myths which seemed to be preventing academics writing better.  These include: 'Academic writing has to be difficult,' and 'Academic writing has to be dense' (there is more on this here).  So, it's no wonder that some academic writing is both dense and difficult.

Since writing this post, I have been sent a link to the publisher's page for Helen Sword's book.  It includes links to some of the interviews etc which she did last year, and also to the interesting video about 'nominalizations' below.  I have to confess I have never heard of nominalizations before, but I will be on the look out for them now.  I can think of one particularly irritating example already.