Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Start with Die Hard, Pass Through Jargon, and End Up at Reading: A Rant with Mention of Two Corollary Rants

One line of trochaic tetrameter? You go it.
Let's begin with a thought experiment. Imagine that, instead of a willing suspension of disbelief, you approached every silly action movie with the assumption that the writer/director thinks the average movie goer is too stupid to realize how ridiculous the movie is. In fact, you assume the only reason a movie like Die Hard was made was so the movie makers could prove the stupidity of the public by convincing it to pay for such absolute nonsense. How many goofy action movies would you enjoy? Just keep that in mind.

There are about four reasons why jargon comes into existence. (This is the “Pass Through Jargon” part) The first is that whoever comes up with the jargon hasn't put enough effort into what they are trying to express to discover the words, terms, and ideas that already exist to express what they are trying to express. The second is a more sinister take on the first; the jargonner is actively trying to convince us the idea is new even though it's not (See: The Entire World of Advertising). The third is that the jargonner wants to somehow exclude other people from the form of expression, as happens in clubs, frats, secret societies etc to strengthen the sense of community, or as happens in legal documents and fine print to facilitate horrible corporations totally screwing you. And the fourth and final source of jargon is when someone actually has a new idea/discovery/concept to express and must invent a term to help them express it. To focus this a little more on books and reading, if you encounter jargon in an essay or book, it could be poor communication and writing skills, but it could also express a relatively new idea that doesn't have a word or term in our daily lexicon. But how can you tell the difference?
It's not jargon. It's German.

Considered from another angle. If you happened upon an issue of say, The Lancet, or whatever magazine all the cool astrophysicists are reading these days and tried and failed to comprehend even a single paragraph of a single article because it was essentially a word mash of Latin or an equation with no numbers, would you accuse that article's author of being willfully obtuse, of blatantly demonstrating her own intellect (which if they're writing for The Lancet or are an astrophysicist is probably pretty fucking huge) by purposefully writing something he knew most people would be unable to understand? Probably not. You would understand that the author of The Lancet article is expressing highly complex, highly specialized ideas for which an entire second language was developed, not because she is being a pretentious dick, but because it is the best way for him to express her ideas about heart disease. Heart disease is complex and complex ideas sometimes require jargon to be expressed accurately. We would naturally assume that the doctor or physicist is trying to communicate, and though we probably wouldn't feel communicated to, we also probably wouldn't blog about how its author spent hours and hours writing it for the sole purpose of showing us how dumb we are.

Of course, an author doesn't have to use jargon to be accused of writing for the sole purpose of showing us how dumb we are. (Now to “End Up at Reading.”) In the “humanities” and even more so in “literature,” all an author has to do to be accused of writing to stroke her own ego is use atypical diction, long sentences, complicated syntax, and idiosyncratic narrative structure. Maybe throw in some direct examination of art, philosophy, and/or science just to be sure. (To my way of thinking, writing with the assumption that her reader is just as smart as she is, but that is a corollary rant.) Just like jargon, complicated, difficult literature sometimes is created by poor communication skills and sometimes is created as an honest and efficient effort to communicate a complex idea or event. (And given how complicated the decision between, say, organic tomatoes grown in Chile or conventional tomatoes hothouse grown in Massachusetts is in terms of carbon foot print, social economics, taste, and health, literature does need to confront complex ideas and events to be relevant to contemporary society, but, that's another corollary rant. I mean, fuckin' A, have you tried to vote recently?) But how do you tell the difference?
Yes sir, you are way smarter than the idiots watching this movie. Over.

Back to Die Hard. If we are willing to employ a suspension of disbelief for works of entertainment, or, rather, if we are faulted for NOT suspending our disbelief and critiquing works of entertainment with standards of scientific realism, why don't we also employ an assumption of communication for difficult literature? Just like not holding works of entertainment to high standards of realism to facilitate our enjoyment of them, why not approach difficult literature under the assumption that the author is not trying to exclude or show off, but to communicate something difficult and complex, in order to facilitate our enjoyment of those works. Sure, some of those difficult works will not support that assumption and, though you give it your all, will feel willfully, exclusively, obtuse, but, in the exact same way that the entertainment so ludicrous you can't enjoy it no matter how much disbelief you suspend doesn't invalidate the act of willing suspension of disbelief in itself, the books that don't reward the assumption of communication don't invalidate the assumption itself.

Back to our Die Hard thought experiment and all those silly action movies you would now hate. Assuming every difficult, jargon-filled, syntactically complex, stylistically unfamiliar work of writing is designed to show off the author's intellect and exclude those the author looks down on is exactly like assuming every action movie director/writer is too lazy to research the physics of explosions while assuming movie goers are too stupid to realize how much the movie relies on wild coincidence and preposterous physics. If we went into action movies assuming the movie makers tell a story in which a million shots are fire and not a single one so much as grazes the hero because they don't think we are smart enough to wonder about the statistical likelihood of a particular individual surviving a million shot rocket launcher grenade filled fire fight, pretty much all action movies would be unwatchable. Of course reading a difficult book is going to suck if you approach it assuming the author is a pretentious asshole who spent years and years of her life pouring his soul into a book she wants no one to understand. (Another topic for another time is how so many people end up with the assumption.)

Furthermore, the willing suspension of disbelief is not a pity party for the movie maker, it is a technique for extracting as much joy as possible from the movie for yourself. The same applies for the assumption of communication. We would hold that assumption not to give the author something, but to help ensure we get something. In fact, I'd argue that committing yourself to being communicated to, will 93% of the time, create some communication. Not every time, but enough that it might change your perspective on “difficult” or “obtuse” literature. If we can forgive Die Hard for being preposterous in its efforts to entertain, we can forgive difficult literature for its difficultly in its efforts to communicate.

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