Sunday, February 28, 2010

"Quite Obviously a Man of the Academy"

Joshua Clover's 1989 has finally been given some well-deserved ink in the New York Times, where it gets about a 300-word treatment from Marc Tracy in an omnibus review of books on music. Tracy is insightful and sympathetic, but he doesn't have enough space to do more than give the book a nod, note that it explains the popular music of 1989 in terms of material and economic conditions, and mention a few examples in passing. He does manage to wedge in a brief mention of Clover's prose style, though, saying Clover is "quite obviously a man of the academy — those allergic to jargon should stay away."

Clover is, of course, a man of the academy — in fact, like the present humble blogger he is a second-generation academic, a faculty brat who never got away (he nailed the nature of the experience, too, when he said in an interview with Ray Bianchi that he'd spent much of his life "with access to the the splendors of the cultural elite, but not the money that so often comes with it"). But for all of Clover's bred-in-the-bone academicism, something about Tracy's observation bothered me just a little. It wasn't that Tracy was wrong to put his caveat in the review: there are, after all, plenty of music fans who'd be put off by Clover's style, and Tracy's right to let them know what they're in for if they dial up a copy from What got to me, I suppose, was that Tracy treated academe as a single, undifferentiated bolus, and that's not quite right (though understandable, given the limits of the format). Prose style in the academy varies across disciplines, but even in the cultural studies and English department world there are significant variations. I think it would be more fair to say that Clover's prose style marks him not simply as a man of the academy, but a man of his particular academic generation.

Clover was born in Berkeley in 1962, got his B.A. from Boston in 1987, and his Iowa M.F.A. four years later. He doesn't have a doctorate, but I'm awarding him one right now, from The Autonomous University of Archambeau—Chicago, since it's pretty clear that his hanging around in coffee joints talking and reading has given him more than the equivalent of the standard humanities doctorate. But it's not the degrees that matter so much as the dates: Clover had his foundational academic experiences at exactly the moment when a half-dozen or so theoretical trends in academe (deconstruction, feminism, Marxism, psychoanalysis, postmodernism, social constructionism) were either radically on the rise or actually peaking.

We do have something approaching actual, legitimate data on this. Consider the following charts, from the Gene Expression blog. They show the use of certain keywords over time in articles indexed by the academic research search engine JSTOR. The Gene Expression site gives you a note on the methodology, which is admittedly a bit rough-and-ready, but valid enough to be revealing. The site also has a definite slant on the rise and fall of certain theoretical trends — the entry in question is called "Graphs on the death of Marxism, postmodernism, and other stupid academic fads." It's not the slant I'd take, but I don't think the glee the writer feels has an effect on the data, which shows a pretty clear trend about the rise and fall of some kinds of cultural theory.

Here, for starters, is a graph showing the use of the keywords "Marxist" and "Marxism" in journals indexed by JSTOR from the 1880s to the early 21st century:

No surprises, really: the collapse of the Berlin Wall and other events of 1989 — events that fascinate Clover — seem to have led to a precipitous drop in interest in Marxism, which peaked as an academic interest at exactly the moment Clover was in graduate school.

Here's another graph, this one indicating the use of the term "hegemony" in academic articles:

The term, associated with Gramscian Marxism, peaks at about the same time as the term "Marxism" peaks, corroborating the hypothesis that Marxian thinking in the academy peaked (in terms of quantity, if nothing else) during Clover's grad-school years.

Turning to a different brand of theory often associated with jargony prose, here's a graph indicating the rise and fall of the use of the term "postmodernism" in academic articles:

There's no big event like the fall of the Berlin Wall to explain the decline of the term, and the peak here comes later than the peak for interest in Marxism and hegemony — "postmodernism" peaks around 1999, when Clover held the post of Holloway poet-in-residence at the University of California—Berkeley. But there's a clear drop in the new millennium.

Perhaps it's not surprising to find the term "social construction" — a mainstay of both Marxian and postmodernist thinking — plateauing somewhere between the peak of Marxism and the peak of postmodernism, as it clearly does:

Other theoretical trends also peaked in popularity the early and mid-nineties, as these graphs on the use of the terms "feminism," "psychoanalysis/psychoanalytic" and "deconstruction" indicate:

There's more of this sort of thing over at the Gene Expression site, but I think the trend clear enough: Clover came of age as an academic at a point in time when there was a perfect storm of theory in academe: several kinds of theory were flourishing at once, and (with the partial exception of feminism) these were the kinds of theory we most closely associate with a difficult or jargon-laden kind of prose.

Why these forms of theory are associated with jargon is an interesting question, which would take me way, way beyond the scope of a blog entry I'm trying to finish before my Sunday morning coffee buzz comes to an end. The usual explanations — a post-New Critical anxiety about professional status, an urge to justify cultural and literary studies as legitimate academic disciplines, the need in a tight job market to seem cutting edge, and the sheer excitement of new ideas pouring into the American academy — all have some validity, but many of those conditions still pertain, so I don't know that they give a sufficient explanation for what happened to academic prose in the 1980s and early 1990s. In the case of Marxism, the lack of an American mass movement didn't do much to encourage a plain language — Marxism in America almost never makes an appearance on the street. It's more of a seminar-room thing. And the converse might be said of feminism: I don't think it is a coincidence that feminism both connected theory with a mass movement and always had a plain style (Kate Millet/Sandra Gilbert) to go along with its more technical style (Julia Kristeva/Helene Cixous).

Since some embers of the old Theory Wars still burn, I feel I should pause here and say that I, unlike the compilers of the data, am interested in and sympathetic to much of the theory in question, though I try in my fumbling way to write in a manner that can carry the insights of this kind of theory into a less jargon-ridden prose. This may be connected to the fact that I'm from a slightly later academic generation than Clover, and came of age as the trends mentioned above began to decline. But there's probably more to it than that. I should probably also be clear about the fact that I find much to admire in Clover's work, though I'm sure neither of us wants to write in the other's preferred prose style.

Anyway. Tracy is right to say Clover is "quite obviously a man of the academy," but it would be more accurate to say that he is "quite obviously a man formed by the academy circa 1991." As to why the language of the academy began to shift, and where it is likely to go in the dawning Age of the Adjunct — well, those are bigger questions. And, like Marxism, postmodernism, and social construction, my caffeine buzz is starting to fade.


  1. What a fun post.

    But I noticed that the Marxism and Hegemony graphs seem to end ca. 2005? Seems like in past five years one's been hearing of a bit more interest in Marxism, though that could just be ringing in my bad ears. In any case, you don't have to be a Marxist to agree that "things change" in times of crisis. And we're sort of in one, aren't we, and it may turn out fine for Capital, or it may turn out really bad... So who knows, there might be a surprisingly strong revival of interest in Marxist thought, depending how things go (whatever Marxist exactly means-- Marx once delightfully said: "I, for one, am not a Marxist").

    For example, in the early 30s, Marxists were leading major labor struggles in Minneapolis, Toledo, the West Coast, and a bunch of other places, and this was key to the formation of the CIO, which changed things in big and obvious ways, as in weekends, and such. Then the Marxist movement more or less went into hiding during WWII and aftermath, until its second breath in the sixties and early seventies (for instance, the major mobilizations against the Vietnam war wouldn't have had the scale they did without the leadership role played behind the scenes by the Socialist Workers Party, which partly but importantly involved arguing down the press-hungry Maoists and yuppies who wanted to turn it all into an NLF flag-waving party. That's probably news to some, but it's actually the history). Point is that Marxism in America is not only a phenomenon of the academy. There are Kondratiev waves, maybe, when it comes to left politics. I wouldn't count Marxism out, entirely, albeit its expressions will take very different forms should those graphs go up in the future.

    Also, it's worth noting that there are a number of younger poets for whom Marxism is very important and who are applying its categories of analysis to very *non*-academic work. Rodrigo Toscano and Mark Nowak come to mind, right off the top. And there seems to be a growing anarchist-leaning movement not totally outside a Marxist bent of thought, though true that Marxism and anarchism are like oil and water, historically speaking. But some of these younger groups (my son is member of one of them in Chicago) are doing very active, vibrant community and cultural work that more or less laughs at the pretenses of "Radical Left" academics (though not that they should, but the young will be young). So it's more complicated than you seem to be painting it, that Marxism/ radical Left politics is an Academic phenomenon.

    (Also, it's worth noting that Marxism is far from dead in other industrialized or in many up-and-coming nations: In France, the major left party is now led by the Trotskyists, and they have a substantial and growing base among the working class. And check out Latin America, lately... I don't think it's entirely out of the question that it might begin to clearly dawn on lots more people here that the Democratic Party is one of the two parties of the ruling class. Obama's helping things along, in that regard. Things *can* change, and often in the most unexpected ways.)

    One thing for sure, I think: If and when "Marxism" has a resurgence, Language poetry won't be playing a role! Nor will the post-avant poets at the AWP, either, probably.

  2. Hey there Kent,

    As a fan of anything from the Charles H. Kerr press (a Wobbly-founded venture devoted in large measure to labor history) I should have said Marxism is more a phenomenon of the seminar than the streets in America lately — say, the last 25 or 30 years. I think that's a fair statement of fact. I agree about how it remains a force elsewhere, though I don't think I denied this.

    I don't offer the graphs as a prediction of any future trend. I offer them only to point out that the period of Clover's initial academic formation coincided with certain trends.

    Thanks for introducing me to the idea of the "Kondratiev wave," though. I plan on starting one at Wrigley field this spring!



  3. Robert,

    JSTOR has a site that lets you do this sort of data exploration -- -- and it is free and open and also lets you generate arbitrary sets of articles over which to mine. (It also provides an alternate search for JSTOR, with many powerful search features).

    In the interests of full disclosure -- My group is the developer of DfR (Data for Research ) at JSTOR. Please feel free to contact us if you have any ideas for improving the site. Our contact info is on the site.

    John burns

  4. One possible reason for the post 2005 decline is that articles only appear in JSTOR after a delay, typically about three years, but sometimes longer. So any stats in the past five years should be treated slightly warily.

    John Burns (JSTOR)

  5. I just noticed that in my comment above I wrote "Maoists and yuppies..."

    I meant "Maoists and Yippies"!

    Uneven and combined development.


  6. Thanks for the link, John. I'm a big fan of JSTOR -- in fact, I was once quoted on the cover of the JSTOR newsletter, saying something like "Before JSOR I conducted research by sending smoke signals and arranging conch shells into words on the beach." True story.

    The decline in the usage of the terms above comes before 2005 -- but the results cut off at 2005, so I imagine the people who put the graphs together took into account the lag in indexing.

    And Kent -- I thought "yuppie" was prescient, given the fate of Jerry Rubin!



  7. Bob, isn't there something deeply incoherent about your argument (aside from the fact that you both have to award me a nonexistent degree to make it work, rendering the whole thing counterfactual, and manage to not actually check to see if the book is full of the jargon you adduce to it?)

    That is, your argument seems to go: academics from a certain period can be identified by their current use of the jargon that was all the rage when they were doctoral students.

    The evidence you produce shows the use of that terminology in that period. It also shows that said use has radically decreased. But this contradicts your argument absolutely, since the claim that formation then produces language now (that's your initial claim, right) requires the continued existence of the language now, which you have just demonstrated isn't the case. Try again?

  8. I'm glad you posted, Jane/Joshua (this is Joshua, right?). And while I disagree with one of your points, another one of them shows me that there's something I should have clarified but didn't.

    The part I disagree with is this: that I have to award you a fake degree to make the argument work. I assume what you mean here is that, because you don't have a PhD, you can't be considered a man of the academy. I don't agree about my motive, and I can't agree about the lack of a doctorate being a sufficient indicator of non-academic status. My motive (besides trying to inject a bit of levity) is sincere admiration: I've read enough of your work to conclude that you know more about the kinds of things English departments awards doctorates in than do most of the people I know who have English PhDs. As for the lack of a doctorate excluding one from academic status -- well, the facts are against it. My father was an academic with an M.F.A. as a terminal degree. I've had colleagues, including a particularly distinguished one, who didn't have doctorates. I think the fact that you've had a career in academe, that you've got tenure at a very fine research university, that much of your time is spent teaching, that you speak at many universities, etc. can all be considered when making a judgment about your status as an academic. If you're academic enough for the tenure committee at UC Davis, you're academic enough for me. (Of course this doesn't mean it is all you are).

    About your other claim (that I say "formation then produces language now," and that this would mean that the decrease in terminology wouldn't come about until all the people from a generation quit writing) -- well, here I think I could have been clearer, but I don't think that the argument I tried to make is incoherent.

    Here's what I believe: firstly, that many people from a given generational cohort slow down or simply cease to publish a few years out of graduate school (there's anecdotal and experiential evidence here, but I also recall a presentation by a historian colleague which demonstrated this more empirically); secondly, many people drop the language of their formative period, either because they want to follow whatever is currently fashionable, or because they actually re-tool intellectually, or they find other audiences, or they associate their earlier language with an oppressive grad school experience, or whatever. Not everyone sticks to the guns they manned in their early years.

    You, however, seem to have done so (which is not to say you haven't added to your range). That is: I think of your general style of thought and language as bearing the marks of your formative period pretty strongly. This isn't the case with everyone. I personally remember being all about postcolonialism in the early nineties, but as it turned my commitment to that was too shallow, superficial, and puerile to sustain me, and I moved on to become a different kind of academic (bumbling though I may be).

    To clarify: I think Clover/you is a largely-unreconstructed figure of the time of his/your academic formation. He, or your, is still partying like it's 1991-1999. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. Hell, there are days, when academe seems to be less afire with moving ideas than it was, I kind of wish more people would do it your way.

    So: that's my "try again." Thanks for being in touch.

    By the way: I like the way your comments come up beginning "Jane said." It reminds me of that song by Jane's Addiction, which marks me by generation, too.



  9. Bob, I appreciate your kind words, and like to think I can keep up in conversations with doctors, though this is not always the case. I'm not sure you have resolved the actual logic of your argument, though, since your argument requires the person and his/her vocabulary to have been formed by the academy — that is, within what our pal Althusser would denote with the jargon of an Ideological State Apparatus. If the claim also extends to anyone who educated themselves in that period, then you are merely making a claim about the period, but not about "the academy," since the actual passage through the academy is no longer required to produce the effects you suppose.

    The logic puzzles don't end there. If the more common outcomes of passage through, and residence in, the academy are, as you say,
    a) ceasing to publish, or
    b) changing interests,
    then these too would be outcomes of the impress of the academy. So in your version, the absence of jargon would also be a mark of being "a man of the academy," just like the presence of jargon. In short, your account explains both the persistence and the vanishing of jargon via the exact same mechanism — "the academy." And that is no argument at all.

    Indeed, here's the situation you how have: someone who didn't go to a doctoral problem, and in turn doesn't change in these ways you indicate are common to the academy. So you seem to have made an argument which has almost nothing to do with what happens in the academy, no?

    While you're resolving that, here's an additional puzzle. Given that there is no empirical category of "jargon" but that it is a subjective judgment which changes over time, which of the following can be more closely identified with a specific historical period/situation: the use of jargon, or the accusation of jargon? You seem to have accepted one of these as objective, and one as an outcome of various other forces. Not a method you would endorse in general, I suspect.

  10. Firstly, I want to clarify the overall claim I'm trying to make, and then take your observations one at a time. My overall claim is that your prose style indicates a strong and enduring emphasis of the kinds of writing and thinking rising, or peaking, in the academy during your formal education. I don't intend any claim about all people, or all academics, having their prose style formed by the main trends of during the period of their formal education — there are too many variables to make such an argument, and too much ground to be covered, for me to tackle it in a blog post.

    That said, on to your points.

    1. You state that my "argument requires the person and his/her vocabulary to have been formed by the academy… If the claim also extends to anyone who educated themselves in that period, then you are merely making a claim about the period, but not about the academy, since the actual passage through the academy is no longer required…"

    Well, this still begs the question, in that makes the assumption that you educated yourself outside the academy. I don't know you as well as you do, but I find it difficult to believe. Like me, you have family attachments to the academy, which is one possible indicator of an academic culture in the household. Also, you hold two academic degrees — this does not make you an autodidact. You held a residency at the University of California, Berkeley in the late 1990s. You were later welcomed into academe and tenured there, things rarely done for people who have not been marked by academe in some way. So I can't buy the premise that you have not had a "passage through academe." A case could well be one of the most important institutions in your life (as it has been in mine).

    2. You also say this: "If the more common outcomes of passage through, and residence in, the academy are, as you say, a) ceasing to publish, or b) changing interests, then these too would be outcomes of the impress of the academy. So ... the absence of jargon would also be a mark of being "a man of the academy," just like the presence of jargon."

    I think everything you say here is true, but it does not pertain to the argument I am trying (erhaps not very well) to make. The argument I am trying to make is not the argument that appeared in the New York Times (where it was stated that you were "quite obviously a man of the academy"). I disagreed with the Times in that I don't think there is one way of being marked as academic.

    Against the Times, I argue that you manifest in prose style as one marked by particular version of academe, the version that was flourishing in the humanities around the time you were a student and grad student.

    3. I like the "additional puzzle" at the end of your post, where you propose that we accept as a give that "jargon" designates different things at different times (I agree — and would add that it means different things to different people during the same period, too).

    Then you ask: "which of the following can be more closely identified with a specific historical period/situation: the use of jargon, or the accusation of jargon?" "Accusation" is a bit loaded, but then again so is "jargon," so okay. I mean, I did pick up Marc Tracy's term "jargon" from the Times, and I should probably have used a less loaded term, like "vocabulary and sentence structure characteristic of prominent academic trends of the humaities in the 1990s."

    I think they are both products of their embeddedness in moments of time, and in locations within culture. I'm not sure how this effects the argument that I want to make (that your characteristic style, or one of them, is marked by some academic intellectual practices of the 1990s). All styles are marked by something: yours, mine, etc. I wanted to give more nuance to what Marc Tracy was saying. I think, with your help, I finally am doing so.

  11. Michael Robbins12:55 PM

    The problem is surely that "jargon" is an empty category, one that Raymond Williams nailed in Keywords, where he points out that it derives from the Old French for birdsong. What The New York Times means by "jargon" is simply that the book uses concepts & terms that might be unfamiliar to those who are unfamiliar with them. Doubtless The New York Times is correct.

  12. Hey hey Robbins,

    Empty? Hmmm. I take your point, but...

    I'd go for the less radical term "contingent"? That is, what counts as jargon is variable depending on who you are and what you're familiar with.

    And I'd say "jargon" isn't "terminology with which I or the group I am thinking of is unfamiliar" -- it's more specific than that, isn't it? I mean, I'm not familiar with all of the words in Glaswegian English, but I don't think I'd call them "jargon" -- "jargon" seems to signify

    1. words with which the group in question is unfamiliar (since this is audience specific, this is where we get contingency)

    but also, more specifically

    2. words that that the audience is unfamiliar with that come from some professional or trade group's vocabulary -- as opposed to a geographic group, like the Glaswegians.

    I concede that it also has the following meaning kicking around:

    3. bad, (because obscuritanist) language

    And it's because of #3 that I think I shouldn't have followed the New York Times, and should have substituted another term ("language familiar to humanities profs of a certain kind, and some social science people" or something).

    Anyway: the point that's important to me is that Clover shouldn't just be labeled as a guy whose terminology marks him as academic -- it marks him as an academic with strong connections to the kind of thinking and writing that were peaking, or radically rising, during the years of his formal education.



  13. Great stuff. Assuming you see the irony of using the word "bolus" to describe the academy -- in a book about rock n' roll.

  14. Of course I was referring to this guy: