Out of the fog

I am a big fan of clarity. Even though I define myself as belonging to the dark variety of cultural research in the borderlands between social science and the humanities, where namedropping French theorists, and stating things in the most obscure and convoluted ways possible, is seen by some as a virtue. (The length of that last sentence sort of gave it away, didn’t it? I confess, I am damaged).

I certainly have sinned. Especially when you are new in a field, and impressed by more experienced peers who seem to know it all. And maybe they do. But in most cases it is my experience that not enough is done in the academic world to say things in a straightforward way.

To some, it seems, it is important that we say things in overly complicated ways in order to maintain the legitimacy of academic research. If anyone can understand it, they appear to think, then what is the profession of understanding things good for?

Surely, some things that us researchers work with in our respective specialities may be hard to explain to someone without insight into the area. Sometimes, the words provided by everyday language are not enough. But I think that when specialist vocabulary is introduced, we could make more of an effort in making the things we say understandable to a wider public. That is a pedagogic challenge.

Indeed, this also has to do with the context where one is writing or speaking. Communicating with peers may (sometimes) take less of an effort in explaining technicalities and specificities. But I still feel, that many times, we also try to overtrump each other with flashy and super complex language, that in the end just makes things foggy.

I am definitely not saying this from the perspective that cultural research — research that deals with theoretical issues of a different character than for example mathematics or physics — needs to ”straighten up” and become more like the natural sciences, or simply get out. As for example in the cheesy Sokal affair.

Of course, we need to use specialist words sometimes, and the way we write can vary depending on the audience. But we have a lot to learn from these excellent words of advice from author Kurt Vonnegut (sorry, I namedropped):

— Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.

— Start as close to the end as possible.

— Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

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