Sunday, November 15, 2009

Further thoughts on the Random Academic Sentence Generator

As envisaged, I spent most of yesterday afternoon playing with the toy linked to in the post before last, and from that ludic activity (see what I did there?) a number of things emerged, as is so often the case with play.

You need to have a little play with the Generator in order to understand what it's doing. Stephanie in the comments thread assumed that it was about simple dislike of academic language (and perhaps more specifically the academic language of the humanities, especially of social theory), but really it's far more about making fun of people who over- or mis-use that language, usually out of ineptitude. It's not a mockery of general academic style (if such a thing really exists; more about that later) but a far more specific holding up to ridicule of the automatic resort to the buzzword du jour. It's a resort that characterises many a postgrad conference paper -- often, sadly, a paper full of what might have been good ideas, if only said ideas had been allowed to emerge from the cloud of abstract diction employed not so much as to do full justice to the ideas as to signal (albeit semi-consciously) the paper-giver's cred to her or his peeps and peers.

Most of the people who express general irritation, dislike and scorn of the kind of words involved in this game are people who are unfamiliar with those words and therefore feel confronted and belittled when they see them being used by somebody else. It's a version of something a fellow-student once said to me, while in earnest in pursuit of her Honours degree in literature, about how T.S. Eliot really shouldn't have written bits of 'The Waste Land' in German and Sanskrit and what-all else, because he should have known that lots of people -- like her, for example -- wouldn't understand them.

But it's clear that the Sentence Generator game was invented by someone very familiar with the vocabulary of social theory, the sort of familiarity that is of necessity always the case with good parody. The Portsmouth Sinfonia

(there are at least two, possibly even three, quite good sopranos in there, which, as a discriminating observer points out in the comments thread, kinda ruins it)

or Alexander McCall Smith's Really Terrible Orchestra

(again, it's the sops who are a little bit too good to do this performance justice)

are well aware of the humour intrinsic to their bad playing of music they love (as the conductor of the Portsmouth Sinfonia once remarked, 'Somehow the closer we get, the funnier it is'), and anyone who was ever present at the legendary Parody Nights held at the annual conferences of the Association for the Study of Australian Literature will be likewise aware that effectively making fun of something can only be done out of a deep familiarity with your subject. I think the people who invented the Generator were having the same sort of in-joke as whoever wrote that wonderful faux-glossary that did the rounds some years ago, identifying the 'meaning' of the names of numerous philosophers and theorists. To this day I occasionally find myself thinking 'Ooh yuk, this omelette has gone all Merleau-Ponty.'

What the Random Academic Sentence Generator does (see examples in rainbow colours, in that last post but one) is produce sentences in the form of simple thesis statements or arguable propositions. The syntax of every sentence it produces is the same: 'The A of B Cs the D of E', where everything except C is an abstract noun or noun phrase. It's the kind of thing that Lewis Carroll would have loved, and that his weird creatures would have said all the time and probably have stretched to include direct paradox. The happiness of unhappiness reveals the mundanity of distinction. The profitability of loss resides in the rubberiness of exactitude.

Or you could do it -- with a vengeance -- with managerial language: the rationalisation of the organisation strategises the bendability of key-player identification. Or, to take an example closer to home, the magisteriality of felinitude underlies the performance of cathood.

Etc. Ask me to defend any one of those propositions and I will do so vigorously. It's not about the absence of logic or of truth; the more I played with the Generator the more astonished I became as I realised that almost every sentence it Generates can be defended as a logical proposition and quite possibly actually true as well. Abstract nouns are just like that.

To reiterate: what's being parodied and mocked by this game is not so much either the specific words or the general style, but rather the kind of use to which both are too often put. 'Academic language' is not a separate species; the academics who are also good writers (by which I mean here 'fully aware, thoughtful and discriminating about their word choices and their syntax') freely use the specialist vocabulary of their discipline, whatever that discipline may happen to be, as a way of identifying quite precise and specific things -- theories, concepts, ways of seeing -- but are able to use that vocabulary to clarify rather than to obfuscate, and to do so within a framework of accessible, engaging writing. 'Academic writing' doesn't occur inside a box, but along a spectrum of usage and style.

And I quite like specialist academic vocabularies, not least because I know that the thinkers who come up with them are almost always well-intentioned and benign. In a way it's the opposite effect from the one you get in the broad use of managerial language that Don Watson takes on in Bendable Learnings, and maybe this is partly because the purpose of so much managerial language is -- unlike the language of thinkers and scholars -- deliberate moral obfuscation. If you start out using 'rationalise' to skate over the fact that six hundred people have lost their jobs, or 'incentivise' to mean 'offer an indecent amount of money to one person who doesn't put in anywhere near as many hours as a truckie desperate to keep his job or the working mother of pre-school twins', it's an easy step from there to a whole managerial layer trained to say that the scale of the event potentiality is likely to negatively impact the outcomes, instead of 'Oh my God there's a monstrous unfightable fire headed your way in overdrive, get the hell out of there as fast as you can.'


Ann ODyne said...

I have just read Barry Humphries'
My Life As Me, and he flung these mystery words at me -
prognathism ... to send me to the dictionary. Bad Barry. we expect nothing less from him

Love the Portsmouth Sinfonia, originally released on Nat Joseph's Transatlantic label at the same time they put out Billy Connolly's first LP, and both sold very well in Melbourne.

Kerryn Goldsworthy said...

I know saurian, maculate (it's in TS Eliot somewhere -- 'maculate giraffe'), pullulated, deracinated and prognathism, but I wouldn't stake my life on being able to define any of the others correctly. Is saliromania a passion for saliva? I wouldn't put it past him.

naomi said...

Can you post the link to Kevin Rudd's random political sentence generator please?