Gary Day

February 27, 2004

'There's no greater way to win the respect of your peers than to write gobbledegook. The less they understand the more clever they think you are'

Humanities scholars seem to talk only to one another - to the neglect of a rich rhetorical tradition and wider society

Dr Johnson said that no one "but a blockhead ever wrote except for money". So what a quixotic lot we in the humanities must be. Despising Mammon, we produce densely written articles for learned journals on obscure topics, hopefully making our name if not our fortune.

Fat chance! The only people likely to read our groundbreaking essays are referees and the relevant research assessment exercise panel. I have nothing but admiration for the latter. How on earth do they manage to get through hundreds of publications with titles such as The Semiotics of Ruff Adjustment in the Elizabethan (Mad)rigal in just a few short weeks? It certainly puts the work of the Booker prize judges into perspective. If it were me, I'd be tempted to say: "Oh, here's Crispin's book. No need to read that. It's published by CUP. Must be top notch. His sister's a commissioning editor there, you know. Splendid girl. Just accepted a book of mine, as a matter of fact."

But you don't just acquire a reputation by snuffling out a topic that no one has ever heard of, you must also make it hard for your reader to know what you are talking about. There's no greater way to win the respect of your peers than to write gobbledegook. The less they understand the more clever they think you are.

"Under the double aspect of reciprocal determination and complete determination, however, it appears as if the limit coincides with the power itself." It was by producing sentences such as this that Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari were venerated by people with degrees from Oxbridge. The job of academics should be to clarify things, not to make them impenetrable, which is what they did in the 1980s and 1990s. And how! The prose in literary theory was so glutinous the pages were practically stuck together.

Derridean devotees stretched language on a rack, but couldn't force it to yield any sense. Why was it like this? Because a revolution had taken place. A French revolution in fact. Believe me when I say that if wasn't for the likes of Roland Barthes, we in Britain would still be oppressed by the idea that literature had something to do with life.

Thank goodness, then, for Gallic rigour. And, given the tendency of some literature departments to think that anything French is, ipso facto , much better than anything English, it wasn't long before we were looking at books as signifying systems or combinations of codes. This was all part of the attempt to model the humanities on the sciences, to make them yield real knowledge instead of supposed truths about human nature. What we got were mathematical formulae from Lacan about how the unconscious was formed.

But there were other theories. And they all had one thing in common, whether it was the cultural materialist's claim that literature simultaneously supported and subverted the status quo or the deconstructionist's declaration that the work contained the seeds of its own dissolution: the traditional view that art was a conflict between Apollo and Dionysus. Yes, believe it or not, there are continuities between the past and the present, and it's the recognition of that fact that gives the humanities their value. They do not, like the sciences, produce new knowledge, but they do provide a framework in which to assess its significance.

Of course, that framework is affected by new discoveries. Thanks to Freud we no longer see ourselves as primarily rational creatures, which, on the up side, means I don't have to worry too much about why I still support Leeds United. But the past 30 years have seen this framework dismantled.

Those responsible have argued that we should value difference in art and yet, at the same time, they have denied that there is any difference between its high and low forms. Such muddled thinking has weakened a rich rhetorical tradition that offered some resistance to the reductions of the market.

You won't find too many economists claiming that people come before profit.

Or, for that matter, too many humanities scholars. We have imbibed the spirit of Gradgrind. We talk more to each other than to the wider society, and subjects splinter into ever more tiny fragments.

Look at conferences, where there's an average audience of about 2.4 people for each paper in a plenary session. And one of them is asleep. It's a shame because, as Dr Johnson said, "The best part of an author is generally to be found in (their) book."

If only there were some way to get that "best" circulating in our wider culture, it might make a difference. To what? Your bank account, of course.

What else did you think I meant?

Gary Day is principal lecturer in English at De Montfort University.

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