A Call to Arms (or Fingers, since they do the typing): Let’s All Just Write Clearly.

It’s Monday morning. On the kind of fall morning where the novelty of cold perks up people’s step, makes them that much gladder to get inside. Body humming with a little low-risk adrenaline. Order that pumpkin spice something. Maybe a croissant. Definitely a croissant.

I overhear an expression at the next table. “… position of power…” Blah blah blah. And I feel an unexpected surge of… what is it? Love.

Maybe I had too little intellectual stimulation over the weekend.

It surprises me. Because I’ve been on a bit of a diatribe lately. Why? Academic language is driving me crazy. I’ve reached a saturation point. Or something. A colleague recently pointed me to this gem by George Orwell from 1946, in which he explains my sentiment more eloquently and thoroughly than I could possibly manage. (Clearly, he also had more time on his hands.) He argues that World War II politics had caused a complete erosion of meaning in the English language. Leaving aside historical context and a bunch of nuance, he had the same literary epiphany as I’ve had–nearly 70 years ago. It is humbling to realize once again that we are possessed of few original thoughts. I choose to see the companionship in this, rather than the (unflattering) comparison. No sense defeating myself before I’ve even started.

Maybe that’s why I’ve committed to foist this blog on the information-saturated world–a world so drenched in verbiage that I’ve been scheming a yoga retreat just so I can be somewhere where everyone’s shut the *&% up. (We’ll just be in the present moment, and feel sporting in our luon active wear.)

Until then, I’ve decided to pick up Orwell’s baton and replace torturous phrases like, “As an object of East-West translocation, MSG resonates with recent discussions about how central newly recognised spatial and material registers of agency are to networks of transnational exchange under neoliberal deregulation and financialisation …” (are your eyes glazing yet?) with something like, “Monosodium glutamate (MSG) helps us rethink the myth of an easily defined “East” and “West,” because it is a modern technology that was invented in Japan using scientific techniques that are inseparable from 19th century European ideology, culture, and colonialism. It is also helpful for thinking about how science-based industrial capitalism and, later, consumer culture came to represent the inevitable shape of progress and improvement in the 20th century for every country of the world.”

See what I mean? It took me, like, ten minutes to turn the first sentence (from my own writing in 2013) into the second. Writing clearly is hard on the head. But reading it is so much better! I want to write words that read themselves. That’s what my favourite works of fiction do, and since everyone is so fond of saying how the academic world is changing, why not academic writing, too?

I’m thinking of a truism of Julia Child’s, that beloved mid-century American popularizer of French cuisine. She famously said, “You can never have too much butter.” And I realize it’s just that. Child was full of crap. You CAN have too much butter. Or too much foie gras. Too much bacon. Too much myriad-topological-ontological-discursive-accretions of meaning. Without balance and moderation, a rich thing can become too rich, fast.

So, I’ve gathered new resolve. I will write about complicated ideas and phenomena (for phenomena, read “stuff that happens”) in a way that is as clear, honest, and entertaining as I can manage. Academic work can be innovative and theoretically informed, and still be accessible. I like our lingo, our preoccupations, and even sometimes our affectations. (I chose to join this club, didn’t I?) But from now on I want to add just enough jargon to be precise–and not so much that my words get in their own way.

Because life is too short to write boring shit.


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