(Swans - April 23, 2012) Occasionally when I review my students' papers, I discover phrases and terms culled from popular discourse that should not belong in a formal academic paper. In fact, in reviewing papers today (yes, Sundays are my days for evaluating papers before the work week begins), I have found a number of sundry expressions and colloquialisms that more properly belong on an Internet message board or an ESPN teleprompter:
- "for the win"
- "back on track"
- "from scratch"
- "for the most part"
- "rock bottom"
- "bright or brighter future"
- "set the pace"
- "coast to coast"
- "leaps and bounds"
- "a turning point"
I cannot blame my students entirely for the use of such flat expressions because they watch a lot of television and peruse Web pages daily (as do I) and there is a tendency among regular television viewers and Internet viewers to absorb hackneyed expressions professional writers and public speakers regularly use! But my job, in addition to teaching history, is to instruct students to be creative with their language (while maintaining the norms of grammar) and resisting the urge to rely upon stale sentence or phrase formations. Some single words, such as "transparent," which is a color word, have now (at least since President Obama took office) come to describe a desirable type of government: one that does not keep secrets from its people or hide information that would otherwise bring scrutiny to its practices. Unfortunately, we know all too well that even in the case of democratically-elected governments, information is still suppressed and hidden from citizens, and staying with the Obama administration and its policies as an example, we also know that we have lost the opportunity to learn more about the previous (Bush) administration's shenanigans and the full extent of its abuses of power.
Nevertheless, "transparent government" or "transparency in government" still has not lost its cash value in journalistic circles despite being utterly meaningless -- no doubt a consequence of its repeated use. "Transparency" merely refers to what government believes it can disclose to citizens without conjuring any public scrutiny.
So I wanted to discuss a few academic formulations that have saturated the mainstream media. Notwithstanding the notion that academic terms, ideas, or arguments tend to lack any substantive worth, let's look at some terms and phrases that are still used in popular writing that are problematic. "Paradigm" or "paradigm shift." I "googled" "paradigm shift" and "New York Times" and found an exhaustive list of articles either containing "paradigm" or "paradigm shift" in the body or title of articles. People educated in some of the historiographical issues of science might recall historian and philosopher of science Thomas Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, published in the 1960s, which characterized scientists as a community whose knowledge and practices are governed by paradigms: beliefs about the nature of reality, the accepted rules of proof or justification, the language of the community, or even the preferred tools of that community.
According to Kuhn, a scientific community will be confronted by an anomaly that may prove problematic for the existing paradigm to explain or accommodate and rival scientific communities may invoke an alternative set of rules, beliefs, or practices to better explain or accommodate the anomaly. Eventually, adherents of the established paradigm will die out and the rival community's paradigm will emerge as the dominant paradigm. This explanation of science is completely at odds with the model put forth by historians and philosophers such as Karl Popper, who have rejected the idea that science produces knowledge through communal assent and practices but instead tests whether statements about reality (physical reality) are true by determining if they observe the laws of logic or correspond to a state of affairs that can be publicly observable and testable (replicated).
Popperians, thus, would claim that the apple is red not simply because the sense datum that is observed meets the color criteria of a community of scientific observers, but the sense datum corresponds to a numerical value on the electromagnetic spectrum. The language, practices, and beliefs of the community are irrelevant for truth confirmation; instead, a rigorous process that uses sound logical rules, techniques of hypothesis testing, and bare observation are the means of falsification of an assumption, and when those means have been exhausted and the assumption cannot be falsified, then it must therefore be true.
But "paradigm shift" has come to apply to many different areas of life that are unscientific or do not relate to the history of science. In a recent New York Times article on oil policy and gas prices by Stephen Kelly, the writer invokes "paradigm shift" and "paradigm" to refer to the fact that domestic oil production in the United States has increased in places like the Dakotas and Texas and that foreign countries such as Japan and China have become increasingly reliant upon Middle Eastern oil sources. Thus, contrary to the old story that the United States consumes most of the world's oil supply found in the Middle East, the United States supplements its Middle Eastern oil imports with its own domestic supply while other industrialized nations have taken the United States' place as the primary consumers of Middle Eastern oil. Kelly refers to this change in consumption, oil production, and the politics of setting gas prices as a "geopolitical paradigm shift" but the terms "paradigm shift" here is utterly meaningless. Instead, he could have simply said that patterns of international oil consumption have changed. For these patterns or shift in patterns to be "paradigms" seems to invoke a piece of academic terminology that confuses the issue. Shifting patterns of phenomena are just that: aspects of observation or variables that have different values at different intervals.
Another academic term used frequently in popular language is "postmodern," and we have perhaps observed that "post postmodern" has already had its heyday in various literary magazines, like The New Yorker or Harper's, that seem to think that academics really have issues of substance to share with the public. The story of "postmodern" largely took place in the 1980s and '90s: a story that brought to fore an academic left that challenged the traditional canons of literature ("Down with Shakespeare!") because such canons privileged white, male, English-speaking authors while damning or excluding minority and women authors from consideration as exemplary works of literature. A subplot in that story was the rise of "political correctness" (another academic term whose stench has permeated popular literature but it is nevertheless a term invented by the academic right) and draconian campus speech codes created by the academic left to create a respectful atmosphere for minorities and women.
Another subplot of the same story was largely philosophical and chronicled the academic left's infatuation with French authors such as Foucault and Derrida -- authors who challenged artistic, philosophical, and scientific realism while either promoting relativism or suggesting that the literal meaning of a work of art or "text" is variable and not fixed. This is the "postmodern" philosophy or "mindset": a time in which the rule is that there are no rules and that the only "real" "phenomenon" is "interpretation."
If I have not said this before, then I will say it here: the academic infatuation with distinctions between objective and subjective reality is simply the instance of minds helpless to address the social concerns of our times: about what constitutes a good society and government. While writers such have Richard Rorty have claimed that reality, as an object of speculation, is a philosophic construct, I diagnose here perhaps one of the major neuroses of academics who think that they are somehow hip for invoking Foucault, Derrida, and the like. These are academics who are unwilling and incapable of adequately addressing the persistence of human suffering and making insightful suggestions about how to improve society and individual freedom. But just as we have academic terms parlayed about in the media that are empty, we can simply expect that they would only point to the utter meaninglessness that to a large extent plagues life in a corporatized society of atomic individuals, where people are only out for themselves in the life and death pursuit of the almighty dollar -- owing no benevolence to his or her fellow human or society.
Other academic terms that have poisoned the popular vernacular:
"Intertextuality": (see notes). This term seems to refer to the relation that texts have to each other or the relation the elements of a text (i.e., "subtexts") have to each other. At best, this is an abstract idea. A search of the UK Guardian yielded 130 results and 63 in The New York Times.
"Subtext": (see notes and "intertextuality" above)
"contextual" or "contextualism": (see notes and "intertextuality" and "subtext" above).
"hypertextuality": (see above)
"epistemological": 51 search results in The New Yorker. "Epistemology" is the study of knowledge and its foundations.
"information age": Historian Robert Darnton recently penned an essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education bemoaning the use of this term: as if times preceding the internet revolution were not times in which peoples experienced and contributed to the growth and spread of information. There were over 29, 000 search results alone returned for "information age" from the Richmond Times-Dispatch search engine.
"digital age": (see "information age" above). The idea that information can be reduced to numbers or numerical sequences is not new, especially to anyone familiar with Morse code.
"intellectual": the person of intellect or who lives the life of the mind. But what person never uses his or her mind? We now have trite terms such as "public intellectual" that has come to signify individuals in the pundit universe who have PhDs in history or some new branch of cultural or ethnic studies who have their own political talk shows or guaranteed column in The New York Times, Harpers, Dissent, The New Republic, American Prospect, etc. Their job is not really so much as to provide practical solutions to social and political issues but to subject such issues to ideological analysis or use such issues to confirm the biases that they already have.
"product of culture": We have to be careful about claiming such things as "Shakespeare was a product of Elizabethan culture" or "Easy Rider was a product of hippie culture." This is one example where it is often academics in the human disciplines who expose a fundamental confusion about cause and effect. Culture does not have any causal power: the term merely signifies a relation or relations that individuals share with each other, such as language, religion, country or land, practices, etc.
How is it possible in our age for the proper name of a corporate entity to morph into a verb? Yes, I can "google" search terms. But why can't I "yahoo" them? Or "bing" them? The reader can review Kuhn's The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and The Road Since Structure and Popper's The Logic of Scientific Discovery to see these writers' contrasting views of the nature of science and its proper objectives.
Notes and References
http://www.nytimes.com/2012/03/21/opinion/oil-under-our-noses.html (last accessed March 25, 2012)
A Harper's site search revealed 199 instances of the term "postmodern" going back to 1985. A search of The New Yorker's site revealed 344 instances. On more popular sites such as USA Today that appeal to general audiences, the term appeared 148 instances in the search results for its site.
Finally, "postmodern" appeared 8,740 times in the search results of The New York Times articles. Sadly, The Wall Street Journal's search engine froze when I tried to search its articles for appearances of the term "postmodern."
"Text" is another academic term that has long lost its practical use thanks to relativist academics who insist on claiming that ordinary, physical objects are "texts": subjects of interpretation. The grand error of such academics is that they have postulated interpretation as the basic elements of analysis or the only things that truly exist. But once we tread down the path of declaring what exists and what does not exist, we are simply engaging in metaphysical banter. Once all things can be called an "interpretation," we cannot make any meaningful distinctions between them.
"Phenomena" or "phenomenon" was a term of Greek origin popularized by academics in the 1970s and '80s who had discovered or rediscovered philosopher Immanuel Kant's critical philosophy and its relation to deconstruction.
http://chronicle.com/article/5-Myths-About-the-Information/127105/ (last accessed March 25, 2012).
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About the Author
Harvey E. Whitney, Jr. is a doctoral candidate in history at Florida State University and teaches medieval and modern global history at Howard Community College in Maryland. To learn more, please visit his Web site at http://hewhitney.com/. (back)