David Shields’s Real Problem

Justins Evans in The Point:

AdornosmallI sometimes get more pleasure from learning a thing’s name than from learning about the thing itself. When, a few years ago, my then girlfriend offered me a potato pancake, I wasn’t impressed, even though she told me about the history behind it. When she called it a latke, on the other hand, I was thrilled. The same thing happened when I found, in my college’s listings, the course title “Literature and Phenomenology.” I had no idea what the latter was, but—phenomenology—it had to be fascinating. This effect is heightened when it comes to the particularly useless or obscure. Take the jargon of rhetoric: anacoluthon, antanaclasis, asyndeton. Soraismus. Lovely. Now, I’m not praising myself. People like me are a less enthusiastic, less entertaining—“Did you say I’m self-righteous? I think you mean comminatory”—version of that guy who makes six to ten puns per day. Such close attention to the sound of language can come at the expense of attention to its meaning. I’m not proud of my tendency to ignore this fact.

I went to college in the late Nineties, which made the problem worse; back then new ideas could be expressed only in new and fun-sounding words or phrases (Rhizome. Ideological sublime). I hadn’t learned to write in the margins of my books, so if you flick through my copy of, say, The Foucault Reader, I won’t be embarrassed by over-enthusiastic exclamation marks or all-caps scribblings of yes! But I know what caught my ear because I marked passages in pen, sometimes quite insistently. And my love of big, complicated sounds (Captatio benevolentiae!) must have led to a love of big, complicated ideas; I obviously enjoyed the sound of “polymorphous techniques of power,” and at some point may even have come to understand what it meant.

More here.