ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Said, Mills and Jargon

The transformation of insightful ideas into opaque, indecipherable sentences through the compulsive deployment of tortuous jargon is obviously not a new phenomenon. The emergence and popularity of fields such as certain strands of “postcolonial theory” and “cultural studies” have only injected a new life force to a chronic affl iction. Over half a century ago the debate over “bad writing” was addressed directly by the great American sociologist C Wright Mills. In addition to mercilessly lampooning jargon and providing “translations” from complex to plain English, he also offered a diagnosis of the institutional and social psychological factors that contributed to and sustained it.

The year 2013 marked the 10th anniversary of the passing away of Edward Said. Over 25 years ago, while attending a course he offered as a visiting professor at the University of Toronto, I was lucky enough to savour his seemingly effortless eloquence, sharp wit and familiarity with a wide range of languages. In addition to his substantive contributions to multiple academic fields and his activism, he also stood out for his commitment to discussing complex and complicated issues with an enviable lucidity. His critics – and there were many – could not in good faith accuse him of pre-empting critique through the wilful deployment of opaque, incomprehensible jargon.

Said was one of those intellectuals who, presumably because of a measure of clarity about his own position and a commitment to communicating it to his readers, had no need for jargon-laced obfuscation. This can hardly be said about a number of his fellow travellers and acolytes. He was apparently not too happy at being anointed by some as one of the founders of “postcolonial theory” and one can only guess what he might have said about intellectuals for whom the deployment of tortuous and tortured jargon appeared to be the overriding goal. Committed as he was to clear writing as a form of democratic practice it is quite possible that a certain politics of solidarity prevented him from criticising some of his colleagues who through their opaque formulations exuded and continue to exude contempt for their potential readers.

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