Taking Exception to Scholarly Language

There are many contexts in which special uses of various terms can lead to confusion or irritation. The fields of literary criticism and theory abound in such terms.

Beginning college students are often puzzled when their literature teachers tell them to read “criticism” of a work they are assigned. After all, if the book is worth reading in class, wouldn’t writing in praise of it be more useful than writing critical of it?

They swiftly learn that the term “criticism” embraces positive, mixed, and objective analyses as well as negative commentary (see p. 57 of Common Errors).

Students are also often baffled by the fact that “romantic” literature is filled with terror, rage, violence, and death. Where have all the hearts and flowers gone? (See p. 200 of Common Errors.)

These are elementary confusions. More of a problem is the plethora of obscure terms that was introduced into literary theory in the last third of the 20th century. For several decades it became fashionable to write about literature in language so difficult that it effectively barred outsiders from the discussion and attracted widespread ridicule from language commentators.

One odd usage that still prevails is the use of the term “interrogate.” Introduced by the French philosopher Jacques Derrida in 1967 (as interroger), it has the unobvious meaning of challenging, analyzing in a critical (that is, negative) way a text, concept, or institution.

Used almost exclusively by left-of-center academics, it is meant to convey an image of the fearless intellectual taking on powerful establishment forces, struggling to make clear the oppressive power exercised by well-established forces in society.

The problem is that in English at least, “interrogate” is more likely to conjure up in readers’ minds brutal officials torturing powerless victims.

This is only one example of many in which critical language seems horribly tone-deaf. Often painful clashes are caused when terms with a despicable past are used without any seeming awareness of their history.

One example is “formalism,” which was first invented as a term criticizing certain writers in post-revolutionary Russia. It developed into a truly noxious term Stalinist critics used to label writers who were considered too complex or insufficiently social-minded. It became associated with censorship and was frequently used to condemn foreign experimental art of all kinds.

Few academic leftists know much about the Stalinist era, and blithely sling the term around as a neutral one without any recognition of its noxious past.

More troubling is “cosmopolitan.” The term is often used in “postcolonial” criticism to label Western analyses of Asian literature which lack a profound understanding of the roots of the works under discussion.

But “cosmopolitan” was used routinely by Stalinists as a code word for “Jewish,” beginning with the anti-Semitic campaign of 1948-1953.

Of course the word has a more positive common meaning: sophistication derived from wide international experience. The postcolonialists seem utterly clueless about the word’s repugnant past.

(See my analysis of “postcolonial”).

Another term I find annoying is “problematic.” It is applied not only to texts that are baffling, but more often to texts that the scholar disagrees with politically. It is a evasive way of saying “politically incorrect.” It tries to make what is essentially a political bias into objective fact by implying that not only does the critic have a problem with the text, the text somehow necessarily presents a problem that all thoughtful readers must come to grips with.

To me it functions very much the way “improper” did in Victorian language. If critics think a writer is racist, sexist, or otherwise objectionable they should say so (see p. 183 of Common Errors).

In the discipline of history, “American exceptionalism” has a tangled past. It was first used by Marxists to analyze the American failure to develop a strong socialist movement. It was used in various ways thereafter, but most commonly since the 1960s by leftist social critics to label what they take to be delusions on the part of Americans that their nation is superior to all others in unique ways. In recent decades it has normally been used in this negative sense.

But recently conservative politicians have seized on the term and used it to criticize liberals who they consider too prone to internationalism, compromise, or peaceful solutions to problems. To gain their approve you must declare your belief in American exceptionalism.

Of course the inhabitants of every nation believe that their country is unique and superior in some regard or other, but it is annoying to many people to hear a truly powerful domineering nation trumpeting its historical superiority.

Are these conservative politicians wittily appropriating the term by making it a positive value in the way that early Americans transformed “Yankee” from an insult to a proud boast? I see no sign of this. I think they just like the sound of phrase and think it describes a self-evident truth: that not all nations are created equal.

Richard Cohen has written an excellent analysis of this recent usage.

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