I’m Sorry, WHAT?

Could you explain that again? Maybe slower? And I’d be happy to eat a rawhide bone while I listen…

I used to lead a summer writing retreat for science faculty at a small Eastern university. I’d done fine in physics, never taken chemistry, and didn’t remember much biology, so I wasn’t an obvious choice by discipline… but I knew how to craft an argument, how to marshal evidence, and how to read and respond to reviewers’ notes, and that was sufficient to make me helpful enough to be brought back for ten years. I used to tell them that I didn’t understand any of the nouns, but that I could help them organize the verbs, and that was enough.

Any writing is aimed at an audience, and all audiences differ in what they know, what they’re interested in, and the language they use to describe it all. That’s a lay description of what’s professionally known as a “community of discourse,” that label already marking itself as outside our everyday language—another noun that not every reader will know.

According to linguist John Sayles, a discourse community has six common features. Because you’re (probably) not linguists, I’ll paraphrase.

  1. A discourse community has common goals.
  2. A discourse community has ways for its members to communicate.
  3. A discourse community communicates in order to present information and to give and receive feedback: it’s two-directional.
  4. A discourse community uses a particular genre (a blend of topic and structure) to pursue its goals.
  5. A discourse community also owns a particular vocabulary.
  6. Because of those first five characteristics, there’s a certain level of expertise required in order to participate in the discourse.

This isn’t unique to academia by any means. Nora has introduced me to a vast discourse community in fiber spinning, and I’ve (gradually and incompletely) learned some vocabulary, some genre, and some of the community goals. I mean, if I can tell you the difference between maidens and the mother-of-all (neither of which have anything to do with people), I’ve developed some credibility, right?

So, this morning, I got a note from a colleague on LinkedIn about his new publication, and went to see the abstract of it, which—although outside my field of interest—looks like a reasonable contribution to the historical understanding of 20th-century literature. But then, in the related-articles field down at the bottom, I clicked on a different article, and fell completely through the portal into another dimension of discourse. Here’s the abstract of the article “Fractured Feminine Selves, Autospecular Affect, and Global Modernity: Meena Alexander and the Postcolonial Artist as a Woman,” by Parvinder Mehta, as published in The Journal of Foreign Languages and Cultures, 4:1, June 2020.

This essay takes up the modernist tradition of representing fractured feminine selves in the work of contemporary Asian-American author Meena Alexander (1951–2018), examining her representation of the postcolonial artist through a critical exploration of autospecular affect. Drawing on modernist impulses—the breakdown of human communication, the inefficacy of language, as well as experiences of alienation—Alexander depicts the creative act for the postcolonial artist as suffused with an autospecular desire to connect fragmented, displaced psyches through a reassessment of subjectivities. She delineates possibilities of moving past Eurocentric modernism through her articulation of the struggles of the postcolonial artist dealing with global modernity. Drawing from theories of specularity within affective paradigms, I trace the phenomenological process of self-other engagement in Alexander’s references to the autospecular subject looking in the mirror to understand herself and others around her. I also highlight how modernist writers such as Joyce, Eliot, and Woolf offer Alexander a metaphorical mirror wherein she sees the anxieties of the postcolonial artist and reflects them through renderings of their creative challenges. The essay concludes with a theoretical interpretation of Alexander’s autoscopic experiences in terms of Jacques Lacan’s “mirror stage theory” to understand subject formation in her work.

This is what happens when you eavesdrop on someone else’s discourse community: you don’t understand what’s being said, because you haven’t developed the threshold-level expertise necessary to participate. Just as is true in biochemistry, this simple abstract is filled with nouns that we have no access to.

Let’s just look at one single word there: specularity. I don’t know what that word means, and because it represents the core concept of the entire article, I have no access to any level of its argument. So we know, because of the -ity suffix, that specularity means “the condition of something specular.” And we know, because of the -ar suffix, that specular means “characteristic of a speculum.” (Any word composed with two suffixes is a great indicator of a specific sort of vocabulary, right?) So what’s a speculum? What noun are we dealing with?

  • in medicine: a metal or plastic instrument that is used to dilate an orifice or canal in the body to allow inspection. Probably not.
  • in ornithology: A bright patch of plumage on the wings of certain birds, especially a strip of metallic sheen on the secondary flight feathers of many ducks. Probably not that one either.
  • archaic use (from the original Latin): A mirror or reflector of glass or metal, especially (formerly) a metallic mirror in a reflecting telescope. Aha, that’s probably the one.

So specular would be “reflective,” and autospecular would be “looking at oneself in the mirror.” And autospecular affect would be one’s emotional response to what one sees in that mirror. (And of course, no contemporary work would be complete without reference to Lacan.)

I could go on—and in order to learn to read this article, I’d have to. That 200-word abstract has all kinds of language that clearly mark it as an act of participation in a particular discourse community, and that equally mark the rest of us as not being members. And that’s the work that I think is most interesting here: the clear message that civilians are not welcome, that this piece of work is appropriately read by maybe two hundred people worldwide.

Why do that? Why declare one’s work only of interest to a tiny, tiny community? If we were deeply enthused about something, why wouldn’t we want to expand the number of people who were also interested?

I think we do far too much of that in academia. We draw the fence in tighter and tighter, stop sharing and start hoarding. Higher education has become a culture of scarcity—not enough time, not enough jobs, not enough support—and I think it’s making us less generous, as we fear for our collective and individual futures. Just as Dr. Mehta has identified a particular kind of “postcolonial” work being done in the poetry of Meena Alexander, I would identify a particular kind of “postacademic” work being done by so many articles like this one. Not ‘postintellectual:” this is meaningful intellectual work. I mean specifically “after the fact of the academy,” or after the era of the stable community of teaching and learning. We have moved away from the idea of a teaching and learning community, and declare our primary allegiance to a widespread land of scattered specialists, just as our students have declared their allegiance not to learning but to survival on the career marketplace. That’s neither inevitable nor inarguably a good thing: it’s a decision, made in the face of contexts and conditions.

There’s a lot of blather about “why academics write so badly.” And I don’t think that’s the case. I think instead that we often write very well indeed—to our specific community and no others.

When I was an undergraduate at Berkeley, architecture was described by one faculty member as “an art practiced by a few dozen for an audience of a few thousand.” The notion that architecture encompassed social responsibilities and social opportunities, the simple fact of even a simple building being a multi-million dollar investment and not just a twenty-dollar watercolor notebook… all left behind, deemed common. Architecture, as practiced by a certain body of architects, was a very particular discourse community that purposefully excluded almost everybody. The conversation that mattered was the conversation in the right magazines, read equally by a few people in New York and a few people in Los Angeles and a few people in London and a few people in Hong Kong…

I’m struggling right now with the cultural question of what value the “local” has. I’ve argued for a long time that place matters, that our ideas and our work and our importance in the world is rooted in community. But I’ve increasingly felt as though “local” is too often “provincial,” exclusionary, isolationist. I’m really torn about what matters in being local, and about what’s lost.

More tomorrow.

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