Friday, January 02, 2004

Literary Jargon

Modern scholarship on literature is often criticized for its seeming preoccupation with trendy postmodernist jargon. I used to find such criticisms appealing. But lately I've started to be more ambivalent. Lots of fields have their own jargon that is impenetrable to outsiders. If I write in an academic paper that "The TELRIC cost model for UNE prices should no longer be based on a scorched-earth assumption," hardly anyone would understand it, except for people who know something about telecommunications cost models, and they would find it perfectly clear. If I asked, "Must the industry cost function be subadditive in order for regulators to use the Vogelsang-Finsinger mechanism to achieve Ramsey pricing," hardly anyone would understand the question, except for people who are familiar with the regulatory economics literature, who would understand it quite well. If I write that a particular piece of music ends by taking a Neapolitan 6 chord, moving to a V-7 chord in second inversion, and then resolving to I by employing a passing note to a Picardy third, trained musicians will understand what I've said, but no one else will.

So maybe the jargon in literary scholarship is perfectly clear to people who read that sort of thing all the time. Or maybe it's not -- maybe all the jargon really is meant to be obfuscatory, or to gloss over the lack of any real substance. I don't know. The mere fact that the scholarship is difficult for outsiders to understand doesn't tell me all that much about whether there is something there worth understanding.


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