Theory vs. Literature

20060923_kumarAmitava Kumar over at Bookslut:

On the website of the University of Chicago Writing Program, there is a link that you can use to generate a random academic sentence. When I last clicked on it, this is what I got: “The idea of the proper-name effect allegorizes the de-eroticization of normative value(s).” The site also says that if you are “the do-it-yourself type,” you may write your own sentence. You are to choose one word from each of the four drop-lists, and then all you need to do is click on “Write It!” If the result doesn’t please, click on “Edit it!” (If you start enjoying what you’re doing, there’s also a third button that is called “Reset.”)

I will now list some of the words and formulaic phrases in each drop list. One: “the public sphere,” “the gendered body,” “power/knowledge,” “agency”; Two: “discourse,” “politics,” “legitimation,” “construction”; Three: “post-capitalist hegemony,” “the gaze,” “pop culture,” “civil society”; and Four: “epistemology,” “emergence,” “logic,” and “culture.” Simply by choosing a word or phrase from each category, it is easy to write sentences like the following: “The emergence of civil society may be parsed as the legitimation of the public sphere.” This was among the more intelligible results I got. When I clicked on the cheerful and encouraging “Edit It!” link, I got the following, rather perfect, result: The legitimation of civil society may be parsed as the emergence of the public sphere.

All this is funny, at least for a short while. When an academic friend of mine posted the above-mentioned link on her Facebook page, another friend asked in the comments section whether she could use the sentence generator to complete her dissertation. That joke was a wonderfully precise one. More than anyone else, it is the academic initiate, the graduate student or, in some cases, the young scholar seeking tenure, who must reveal his or her proficiency in the use of the sacred tongue. Style is assumed to be a feature only of senior living, a part of what you do later in your career, when you have acquired the necessary academic credentials. And till you have amassed the capital of years of professional membership, the luxury of innovation or originality is frowned upon as irresponsible and excessive. Recitation by rote is encouraged. It is to assure all, or at least some of us, that we belong to a community, or at least a tribe with shared rituals and a common language. In a rather obvious way, then, the academy is the original random sentence generator.