Exceptional Language

My friend Joan called to my attention a post by Paul Brians on the William James & Company blog. Brians takes as his subject the sometimes cavalier use of words by academics. Actually, that’s not quite fair and it’s worth reading the whole thing if only to check that my take away is right.

Brians notes some infamous examples of the language used in literary criticism.  He cites recent usage where the words chosen by academics have negative connotations in translation or in a broader historical context. Sometimes this is a problem of translation–Jacques Derrida wants critical readers to ‘interrogate’ the text which probably works better in French than English.

Other mishaps include use of Stalinist era terms without understanding they had a past. So there’s formalism and, for the advocates of the post-colonial world, cosmopolitan. Brians notes the implicit anti-Semitism of the latter yet skips the evolutionary step whereby rootless was dropped as the required adjective for cosmopolitan.

Brians has a problem with ‘problematic,’ which I think he should, especially when it’s used as many academics do to indicate they find something unpalatable in what they are discussing. And he winds up with American exceptionalism which he notes was a phrase coined by Communists to explain the slow to no growth of a socialist movement in the United States.

I get the sense that there’s something galling to Brians, and maybe my friend, about this last one. Why, though? To have a term co-opted by folks with diametrically opposed views shouldn’t surprise anyone who’s read Orwell. Or Fried. Who’s Fried you ask? Well, go to the Wikipedia entry for American Exceptionalism and footnote 3 is attributed to Albert Fried’s Communism in America: A History in Documents. I studied with Al Fried–took more classes with him than any other faculty member–and I can assure you this is the sort of thing he always called attention to.

Much as I love and respect Al Fried, though, nothing on earth is truly original and Tocqueville spoke of America as an exceptional country more than half a century before the American Communist Party, ahem, co-opted the idea. And the idea goes right back to John Winthrop (lovely etching above, no?) with his vision of New England being a “city on a hill, the eyes of all people upon us.” Call it narcissism. Call it ego. Call it what you will it’s been here from the start. I’d rather understand how that informs our national character than be galled by it.

The bigger point made by Brians, though, this idea that language is borrowed with nary a thought to origin or consequence should also not strike anyone as unusual. A colleague and near contemporary of Derrida’s, Pierre Bourdieu, wrote at length about how groups use language as a form of cultural capital. They create a language unknown to outsiders that helps draw the distinction between group members and the others.

It is, in short, how the dispossessed–intellectually and otherwise–set about redefining the terms of what constitutes the elite. So over time the Trillings are replaced by the Fishes. In marketing we do the same thing. The term of art is redefining the category and it’s what you do when you can’t beat the leader at their own game.

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