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Thursday, November 30, 2006

It's Conservative Academic Silly Season Again

(Update: Kline has responded to this post, and, refusing to be outdone by a subscriber to Cigar Afficionado magazine, BtR has re-responded here)

Consider this a preparatory post for our upcoming MLA conference blogging. Academics like us know that the end of the Thanksgiving holiday and the flipping of November into December means two things: 1) schools start calling prospective hires to arrange interviews at MLA; and 2) conservatives start writing columns talking about the absolutely craaazy (crazy, I tell you!) papers that Marxofascist academics will be delivering at the MLA. The advent of online MLA programs will surely increase the number of these columns.

I found this golden oldie about the 2005 convention online; at least this pundit actually waited until after the convention to write his report, and he seems to have actually attended the conference. Nonetheless, it's a classic of its form, but before I get to the piece itself, I have to share with you (in case you don't click) the author's photo that accompanies it. Ladies and gents, I give you Malcolm A. Kline:

I mean, how can you not trust him? He has a bow tie and a cigar, people! He knows what he's talking about.

Anyway, Mr. Totally-Non-Homoerotic-Cigar begins thusly:
In at least one aspect, the Modern Language Association is true to its name: When I went to the annual MLA convention late last year, I heard words being invented right on the spot. [what is the joke here? yes, the word Language is in the name of the organization ... does that mean that words will be invented at its annual convention? --H]
One of these inventions was the word “textuality.” ... Imagine my surprise when I looked up the word in Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary and found no matches. “The word you’ve entered isn’t in the dictionary,” Merriam-Webster’s helpfully informed me. “Click on a spelling suggestion below or try using the box to the right.” No luck there, either.
Now, first of all, if Mr. I'm-Telling-You-It's-Just-a-Cigar had bothered to consult the OED, he'd have found textuality. Two definitions, in fact, one dating back to the nineteenth century ("Strict adherence to the text"), the other dating from 1970 and meaning "the result of the transformation of the common language of a given type of civilization into the language of a work of literature belonging to that type of civilization." (It's the second definition that has a later quotation from Spivak's translation of Derrida, and no doubt the conferee meant something along those lines.) What a strange word to choose. Of all the ridiculous jargon that academics deploy, why did Mr. Stop-Talking-About-My-Cigar pick this completely innocuous and readily understandable term? Because he's so unfamiliar with academic discourse that he can't tell the difference between true jargon--that is, words that are designed to exclude non-initiates and to display one's own elite insider status (insert your own favorite example here)--and words that are simply terms of art in a given field and are understood by virtually everyone in the field. This latter category shouldn't be considered jargon, because it's not performing the social function of jargon. Would it make sense to write a column about the latest conference of the Radiological Society of North America complaining about their use of craaazy "invented" words like cytotoxicity.

Choice of illustrative word aside, I also love how Mr. Kline (surprised you that time, didn't I?) thinks about dictionaries. It's straight out of the bad freshman comp paper. Whatever the Dictionary says must be true: as they say on The Simpsons, "Webster's defines a contract as an agreement that is unbreakable. Unbreakable!" If it's not in Merriam-Webster's online dictionary, then it ain't a word. This is the linguistic version of John Dean's "conservative authoritarian"; today's Right likes to have Big Daddy (or Big Dictionary) tell them what to believe. Language for the Right is prescriptive, so the OED is never consulted.

Truly delightful thing about this article #3: right after learning of this one example of an invented (sic) word, we are told that "Most of the words and phrases employed at the MLA’s annual meeting are real, no matter how awkward the context in which they are used." Ah, so there was one word that you couldn't find in Webster's; the rest are words you thought were invented but then you later checked and discovered you just didn't know them. Imagine your surprise.

The first example of these bizarre and mindlessly repeated words that make up the "MLA Lexicon" (with no "awkward ... context" provided, naturally):
  • shibboleth
Seriously, this is the word you lead off with, a word with a precise meaning and a Biblical origin? Weird. Even a godless liberal like me knows that one (Judges 12:6 if you're scoring at home). Another example:
  • intersection
Ok, when you use intersection as part of your list of "hard words" (as the early moderns would say), you've pretty much revealed yourself as a bow-tie-wearing, cigar-chomping dumbass. Hey, you know when you're driving along and suddenly another street appears perpendicular to yours, and you have to stop and wait because there are other cars on that other street that, you know, kind of crosses the street you're on? You know what I mean? They should have a word for that.

Sigh. Let the madness begin again.

P.S. Yes, textuality does, in fact, appear in Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary. The final indignity.

  • At 12/01/2006 03:28:00 AM, Blogger bdh wrote…

    Why are the pretty ones always so dumb?


  • At 12/01/2006 08:41:00 AM, Blogger dhawhee wrote…

    whatta cryerbater


  • At 12/01/2006 11:41:00 AM, Blogger Greenwit wrote…

    or even, dare we say, a windfucker?

    that's some seriously good posting, H.


  • At 12/01/2006 04:21:00 PM, Blogger Adam wrote…

    impressive hair line, though. the stoat or spaniel that seems to have mounted his head is clearly inching forward, perhaps in pursuit of the smugness that dangles from his lips.

    his posting is entirely devoid of (i) wit, and (ii) intelligence.

    Malcolm A. Kline is the executive director of Accuracy in Academia.

    Malcolm A. Kline is a prize spanner.


  • At 12/05/2006 07:47:00 AM, Blogger Simplicius wrote…

    More about textuality: if he is sincerely confused by this word, then Cigar Kline would also necessarily boggle at the adjective "textual." Logically, therefore, we can assume he'd have problems with any adjective formed by adding "-ual" or "-al" to a noun (like "logical" or "intellectual"), and any noun formed by adding "-ity" to an adjective ending in "-ual" (like "sexuality" or "sensuality"). We're talking about gross deficiencies in language comprehension here. A person like Kline, someone unable to grasp the meaning of "textuality," is someone who would be utterly flummoxed by phrases like "the duality of sexuality" or "a logical argument" or "the intellectual sensuality of William Empson."


  • At 12/05/2006 09:56:00 AM, Blogger Hieronimo wrote…

    A couple thoughts in response to Simplicius' comment:

    1) no one who puts that author photo up next to his article--with that glorious hair and that big cigar--is unfamiliar with sensuality, let's get real;

    2) Simplicius emerges briefly from the Cave of Grading Despair.


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