In his famous 1999 essay “Authority and American Usage,” writer David Foster Wallace meticulously examined the politics of the English language. Amid more obvious analyses of political correctness, White English and Black English, Wallace focused also on what he termed the “verbal cancer” of “Academic English.” For the American writer, Wallace proposed, Academic English was an extremely obscure and pretentious variant of Standard English, even worse than the English of government or business. Academic English was so terrible mainly because it disrupted what Wallace termed the “delicate rhetorical balance between language as a vector of meaning and language as a vector of the writer’s own résumé.” In other words, it was more about the writer than the writing. With a hint of gratuitous psychoanalysis, Wallace concluded that the “real purpose” of Academic English was “concealment and its real motivation fear.”

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David Foster Wallace

Three years before the publication of “Authority and American Usage,” physicist Alan Sokal pulled his memorable hoax on the academic journal Social Text; in an attempt to verify his general intuitions about the declining intellectual rigor of academic humanities, he set up the following experiment: “Would a leading North American journal of cultural studies […] publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions?” As it is widely known, the answer was a big “hell yeah!”

In the Social Text spring/summer 1996 issue, dedicated to so-called “Science Wars,” the article “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” by Alan Sokal was published. On the very day of its publication, the American physicist revealed his hoax in the magazine Lingua Franca to much following debate. It is evident that, despite Sokal’s own cautions, the scope of the hoax was broader than the mere demonstration of the lax editorial standards of a renowned academic journal. Indeed, what was at stake was the credibility of the most cutting-edge trends of academic humanities. What was questioned was their fashionable but non-intelligible language made of the “pretentious diction and opaque abstractions” that Wallace described.

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“Anyone who believes that the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment. (I live on the twenty-first floor.)” [Alan Sokal]

Some twenty years after, it seems that the situation has worsened. Over the past months, we have witnessed a hail of episodes that highlight once again all the difficulties of academic languages in the humanities.   

In May, the peer-reviewed journal Cogent Science published “The Penis as a Social Construct,” another academic hoax à la Alan Sokal perpetrated by scholars Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay. The title is self-explanatory in regards to the article’s main theoretical concern. In a long article for the magazine Skeptic, where they declare and explain their hoax, Boghossian and Lindsay wrote that their aim was to test the hypothesis that “flattery […] of the moral orthodoxy in gender studies […] is the overwhelming determiner of publication in an academic journal in the field.” As known, they first proposed the fraudulent article to the journal NORMA: International Journal for Masculinity Studies which rejected it, suggesting a possible alternative publication in Cogent Studies, a pay-to-publish, open-access journal closely partnered with Taylor & Francis, NORMA’s publisher. Thus, the two hoaxers claimed that the aim of their experiment was twofold: on one hand, they would demonstrate that gender studies departments suffer “an echo-chamber of morally driven fashionable nonsense” while, on the other, they would shed a light on the flaws of the publishing model of predatory open-access journals.

Clearly and openly, Boghossian and Lindsay were inspired by Alan Sokal; however, in my view, their “Penis” lacked the subtle satirical style that distinguished its 1996 progenitor. I believe the “Penis” revealed at best the inherent problems of pay-to-publish systems rather than cast any doubts on the validity of gender studies as a field.

However, over the same month the “Penis” was published, The Minnesota Review, a literary magazine published by Duke University Press, proposed in its new issue a paper called “Assembled Bodies: Reconfiguring Quantum Identities” by feminist scholar Whitney Stark. In a nutshell, the paper discussed how quantum physics can be combined with intersectionality for the benefits of marginalized people. As argued by biologist Jerry Coyne in an entry for his blog, it is difficult to determine whether Whitney Stark’s paper was a hoax or not; its jargon is undeniably Sokalesque and the whole argumentation is a premium instance of postmodern vagueness and obscurity. 

Thus, while I think “The Conceptual Penis” had its flaws as a hoax, if we factor in papers like “Quantum Identities,” I think it’s fair to say that similar papers and writing represent a problematic aspect of humanities scholarship. In this regard, another enlightening instance is surely the Hypatia transracialism controversy. As it is known by anyone who had liked a sufficient number of feminist or philosophy pages on Facebook, in April 2017, the journal Hypatia published the article “In Defense of Transracialism” in which untenured assistant professor of philosophy Rebecca Tuvel maintained that race was a social construct like gender. Moreover, she argued for an account of race also based on self-identification. In the days following the publication, Rebecca Tuvel was the target of an intense online shaming by (mostly) fellow philosophers who attacked her paper but especially her character. The kerfuffle quickly formalized into an open letter addressed to “Hypatia Editor, Sally Scholz, and the broader Hypatia community” in which the 830 signatories claimed that “In Defense of Transracialism” fell shorts of scholarly standards for various reasons.

Among the examples I’ve provided, there is one aspect which is particularly significant for my analysis: Rebecca Tuvel was accused by this readily assembled academic Holy Inquisition of using “vocabulary and frameworks not recognized, accepted, or adopted by the conventions of the relevant subfields” and of engaging in “deadnaming a trans woman.” Luckily, the fierce tone of this highbrow witch-hunt was cushioned by the pro-Tuvel interventions of many established scholars like Suzanna Danuta Walters, Sally Haslanger and Rogers Brubakers. But it was too late to cancel an ugly page in the history of the humanities, an episode that confirmed once again that this field of knowledge has yet to effectively address the fundamental problem of its language.

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A witch-hunt

Specifically, I believe that all these examples show how the language of humanities disciplines increasingly resembles that of advertising. The language of advertising is gimmicky, based on catchphrases, and rhetorical tricks. It works as long as it attracts attention. Along the same lines, the humanities scholar has become like an advertiser who has to pitch their material in a constant act of re-branding due to the “publish or perish” system.

In this regard, Noam Chomsky has already noted how postmodern philosophers had to keep doing something new in order to hold the focus of public attention on them. But since it was not always possible to churn out new, provocative ideas, they had to come up with “crazy stuff.” However, there are crucial differences between the situation described by Chomsky (or Wallace and Sokal) and the current state of academic language in the humanities. At the time of Chomsky’s comments, humanities scholars still retained an aura of public authority (Chomsky refers to the “star system” of French philosophers that gravitated around the newspaper Le Monde) — whereas nowadays they’re mainly confined to their esoteric departments. They don’t need new ideas to get media attention, they need them to survive in a jungle of shrinking funds. Actually, they don’t even need ideas, what they really crave is new terms. Indeed, I think that nowadays humanities scholarship is foremost a matter of terminology. In this, its language becomes the twin of advertising.

Examples proliferate; think of Judith Butler, the high priestess of feminism, that recently re-branded the concept of “vulnerability.” It’s difficult to grasp what exactly she means with this term, the same way it was almost impossible to moor “performativity,” her previous household notion, to an unambiguous definition. Nonetheless, her whole theoretical discussion is based on the employment of this term. It is a discussion that requires much further debate but it almost seems that what is advanced is a paradoxical view of language that it is based on the fixity and prominence of terms and names but at the same time a postulation of their anti-essentiality and relativism.

It’s evident that a similar language can’t last in the long run because unbearable paradoxes arise. For instance, in the case of the Hypatia controversy, Rebecca Tuvel was dogmatically accused of not using the right names and terms. In this bastard field of knowledge, language is nothing less than the method of research. The postmodern assumption that “all is discourse and text” (quoted also by Sokal in a pejorative way) might be extended to most of the humanities, not at the level of content but surely at the level of methodology.

As it is probably already clear, what I’m writing is less about answering questions than about opening up cans of doubtful worms. Clarity of expression, that Ortega Y Gasset defined as the philosopher’s courtesy, is more relevant than ever. Similarly, humanities scholars should try to open their paradoxically gated communities to the public, killing the “tremendous dragon of terminology” (again Ortega Y Gasset). In relation, I don’t think Boghossian and Lindsay’s hoax said much about gender studies as a field but the reception of the hoax by mainstream media outlets certainly demonstrated how the discipline is often presented as abstruse and jargon-filled.

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Judith Butler as Don Draper of feminism…why not?

As a graduate student in media studies, I’ve often struggled myself with the obligation of cranking out new papers on a regular basis. Having to do so in a language that is not my mother tongue incentivizes a formulaic style and an opposite tendency to balance it with the same kind of advertising-like style that I have described. In addition, media studies, a fairly bastard and indefinable discipline, is increasingly adopting mixed methodologies mainly in the direction of digital humanities. It seems the more complicated and difficult to follow I try and make my writing, the more success I have. You decide if that’s a good or bad thing.

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