The “Praxis” of Anti-Elitism

jargon, its content & its discontents.

Pablo Picasso. Guitar. Céret, spring 1913.

At first, one feels sympathetic to journalistic critiques of academic jargon. Jargon is mystifying, limiting, too specialized. It is stultifying. It signifies nothing. Hot air balloons. Wanky guitar solos of the ivy tower. All those fancy-schmancy words are just frilly brims on new hats, but the same old rabbits get pulled out.

Since accusations of elitism are once again the topic du jour in the political realm, however, these anti-elitist complaints seem more disturbing in cultural spaces. What is really going on here? In comments about the 2008 Experience Music Project Pop Conference, the same old academics vs. journalists debate rears its head again. Alfred Soto writes on his blog, Humanizing the Vacuum:

The decision to include more papers by academics injected an unwholesome amount of pedagogical oratory and jargon into several promising ideas (I never want to hear about “praxis,” “teleological,” and “heteronormative valences” in my presence again).

He continues by arguing that academics “care little about audience reactions” and “are taught to expunge their presentations of opinions.” Whereas, by implication, journalists focus on their audience and on expressing their tastes. What is troubling about this post is what is troubling about articles such as Roberta Smith’s reactionary screed against artists using the word “practice” to describe their working conditions, aims, and experiences (I usually love Roberta Smith’s articles and reviews, but found this one to be problematic). Both Soto and Smith rightfully point to moments when word choice and vocabularies from specialized fields of research are used poorly (in academia, one might say “deployed” poorly, to use the jargon). But Soto and Smith also confuse the poor contextualization and use of these words with their actual, worthwhile analytic power.

In the process, they move from efforts to make sense of (to “probe” in the jargon) the concepts to dismissals of academic approaches. The tone borders on rage and certainly expresses a kind  anti-intellectualism. You almost expect the next sentence in their writing to read: you latte-drinking, ivy-tower eggheads..stop being so out of touch and elite! These kinds of rants do not pause to consider that the same kinds of word choices and perspectives (“discourses” in academic jargon) are very much at work in art and music criticism.

The opinions that Alfred Soto bemoans vanishing from academic presentations at EMP and remaining in journalistic work are themselves grounded (embedded, in the jargon) in specialized trivia, subtle gestures, insider know-how, and compressed references to larger positions and tastes. Ever read a Robert Christgau review? You have to know your pop music history quite well and have your hipster meter on to glean the full meanings of this kind of supposedly non-academic, public writing. The point is that there’s a specialized way of communicating in pop music criticism, art criticism, and cultural criticism that is every bit as baffling to the outsider and every bit as intellectual (thank god) if you take the time to grapple with the ideas behind the words.

Here’s a different route to propose for academics and cultural critics alike.

Our task is in both academia and cultural criticism/journalism should not be to dismiss the appearance of jargon, but rather to crack open the codes of linguistic locks. Sure, jargon can block access to “opinions” (or arguments and interpretations as one might call them in academic settings). But one word can also serve as the access point to ideas trapped within. So, critique the confines of linguistic shorthand, if you will, but scale the walls anyway for what might hide behind the ivy-towering presence of jargon. Because a breakout is at stake. If we write right, we could be able to liberate a lot of intellectual substance from the prison house of language. There are important ideas lurking if you can turn the keywords right.

2 thoughts on “The “Praxis” of Anti-Elitism

  1. I agree with most of your points, but I’m hardly making a conservative critique of elitism, much less showing much rage or, wow, anti-intellectualism As an adjunct professor of English, I hardly think of myself as railing against an elite (it would surprise my colleagues to know I want to barnstorm a club in which I’m not sure they know they belong), especially since I’d be considered part of the elite by the media commentariat. I was very clear about what was troublesome about the presentations and approaches, most of which had to do with imprecision, linguistic tangles, and a lack of awareness of how pop music interacts with the audience. You’re right: if we write correctly, we can liberate a lot of intellectual substance from the prison house of language.

  2. Hi Alfred –

    I appreciate your thoughtful response! Let me say that I very much agree with your point that the jargon does often get in the way of communicating what actually might be going on with pop music. I have a better sense now of what you were musing on in your post about the EMP Pop Conference.

    What your comments made me think about was that I have noticed antagonisms between journalists and academics sometimes brimming below the surface at previous EMP Pop Conferences that I have attended. A lot of it had to do with the fact that the academics are forced, by trade, to try to make their methods more transparent. No easy task, and it often leads to the turn to jargon. For the academics find themselves writing about the way one should write about music. Whereas the journalists generally (with exceptions) stay within an assumed framework without considering how their own methods as carefully. That’s my sense of things.

    A few other thoughts: how come the “academics” all get lumped together? First, I always find this odd because musicologists, English folks, historians, folklorists, sociologists, they get lumped together at EMP even though there are serious debates among them as to how to approach and talk about music.

    Second, and more importantly, I was worrying in my post more broadly about the way in which the jargon gets criticized in place of addressing the ideas that might be lurking behind the jargon (not by you as much, but Roberta Smith does this in her article I think) . To me, this kind of critique can inadvertently slip into a superficial analysis that, to take a bit of a leap here, parallels the whole “Bittergate” affair surrounding Obama. Instead of addressing the content of Obama’s comments, which he himself attempted to do in subsequent remarks, the whole thing slipped into a focus on the surface rather than the substance. Suddenly it was all about the words instead of the ideas implicated by the words.

    It’s true that jargon can sometimes obfuscate no point at all, can be a “fake” that covers up having nothing to say at all. But I think more often (as you point out too, yes?) that jargon is a clunky first attempt to use the work of previous academics to grapple with really tricky topics such as how music interacts with audiences. What I’m feeling like is that policing the use of jargon might do more harm than good — that it might limit, restrain, contain, prevent the attempt to get at deeper connections if we don’t let people first try out using those kinds of words.

    Thanks for the conversation! Much appreciated.

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