Ideas are hermaphroditic and can breed all by themselves, like tapeworms; but the resulting bastards can aspire to legitimacy only upon cross-pollination by other ideas. Thus it is that theories beget theories, and books beget books, and the entire intellectual industry self-perpetuates, always traceable back to some bastard or the other.
Without meaning that the way it sounds, we are increasingly suffocating in hot air. The more carefully descriptive a term, the more education you need to use it, and thus it is that jargon dooms good ideas by making them less, rather than more, accessible. This is inevitable; theoretical activity, devoted to the ceaseless refinement of ideas, is always snagging on the fabric of language, which stands between a thought and its expression. One can’t blame theorists for hissing at each other like adders over the exactitude of a word: it has to be second nature in their line. They would have argued with God about The Word, had they been around early enough.
Still: a rosy-cheeked little idea flies out into the world for the first time, whistling a merry tune. Suddenly, a band of roving thinkers leaps out from nowhere and proceeds to love it — not wisely, but too well. After the dust settles, the poor bedraggled thing picks itself up, clanking under the well-meaning weight of a hundred clauses, parentheses, corollaries, caveats, appendices, red marks, and Post-It notes. It limps home sounding like:
“Sontag’s brand of formalism is radical in the sense that it attempts to focus on the ‘surface’ of the text—its sensual appearance—which is compromised by the archaeological approach of the essentialist search for meaning. In doing so, Sontag abandons almost wholesale the notion of any kind of basic essentialist meaning at all, but does not question, although it implies, the essential serarch and need for meaning, which even the ‘erotics of art’ that Sontag advocates, would have.”
I regret to say that this horrible example was written by someone close to me. Very close. Okay—by me, in an end-of-term college paper for a class portentously called The Play of Interpretation. I haven’t the faintest clue anymore what any of it means. I can only say, in my defence, that this is how we were supposed to write; and I suspect that we threw in all the names and labels we could, in the hope that the professor wouldn’t immediately realise that we’d spent all term playing Trivial Pursuit.
People love jargon. It makes them sound learned and mysterious and exciting. In the economy of power, information is the trump currency, and exclusive information the key to success. The result is that hundreds of millions of students around the world are being drilled in the use of a hundred different sets of jargon, none of which they necessarily understand, and none of which they will use for a day after they leave the ivied cloisters.
The jargon of postmodern theory, in particular, flies around with a lot more energy than understanding. “Mightn’t there be a point where space is at once intimacy and exteriority, a space which, outside, would in itself be spiritual intimacy? An intimacy which, in us, would be the reality of the outdoors, such that there we would be within ourselves outside in the intimacy and in the intimate vastness of that outside?” asks Maurice Blanchot in The Space of Literature. Thus is a point asphyxiated in the attempt to make it.
All it really takes for a term to become a ‘term’, is a pair of quotation marks. That annoying little hooked V-sign hand action means “the entire history of what this means, which I know, don’t you?” It is best answered with the economical use of a single finger, meaning “I don’t really care, do you?”