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Just Say No to Academic Language

gethen | 24.01.2010 19:33 | Analysis

For the vast majority of the English-speaking world, 'post-politics' is not a word. 'Problematise' is not a word. 'Subject' is not a word unless you mean 'topic'. And believe it or not, most people have not even heard of Adorno, much less read him.

The people that use academic language often claim that they need it in order to get their point across. This is an unsatisfactory excuse to say the least, given that 99.95% of the population manage to communicate just fine without ever making reference to 'the critical theory of the subject'. Seriously, people, if you are smart enough to use these words, you should be smart enough not to.

This kind of language isn't just harmless gibberish. It is a tool for creating hierarchy. Imagine that you are a young person who has just recently started to get interested in radical politics. You look at a something that claiims to be a radical pamplet or blog, or walk into a discussion on radical politics, and you see / hear:

'“Wrong life cannot be lived rightly”. One of our contributors quotes Adorno as a cynic whose philosophy has immobilised some parts of the radical left. However, when we consider the complete domination of the current political and economic system, manifest in the hugely consensual yet hopeless response to climate change at the recent COP summit, it often appears that this philosophical principle is not cynical, but rather an empowering form of rejection and antagonism against the entirety of the system that dominates every aspect of our lives. Maybe this is the only way to achieve political action that cannot be recuperated...' *

You might think to yourself, "I can't understand any of this, I'm out of here". But instead you might think, "I don't understand any of this, I guess I'm just not smart enough to understand anti-capitalism / anarchism / communism / whatever. I'll just keep my mouth shut from now on so no-one finds out how dumb I am, and when I'm in meetings I'll just let the people who know about 'alter-globalisation' and 'recuperation' and 'the end of history' make all the decisions".

Academic language actively creates hierarchy where there was none before. It creates an elite - the people who understand the academic language - while excluding the majority who don't.

Everyone has to survive under capitalism somehow, and it is understandable that people with academic jobs have to use this kind of language when writing journal articles or otherwise communicating with other academics as part of their work. However there is no reason to use this kind of language in a forum that is aimed at activists, or campaigners, or members of the public in general. It's wrong, it's bad, don't do it. Using language that only a small percentage of people can understand in order to advance principles such as social justice and equality is just as bonkers as bombing for peace, or fucking for chastity.

* The quote is from Shift Magazine, Perhaps it was unfair of me to pick on them since a lot of their articles are interesting and also perfectly readable, although the most recent editorial, in my opinion, isn't.



Hide the following 22 comments

damn right

24.01.2010 20:36

Too many 'radical journals' fall into this trap already..


What is the "english" word for "problematise"?

24.01.2010 21:52

"For the vast majority of the English-speaking world, 'post-politics' is not a word. 'Problematise' is not a word. 'Subject' is not a word unless you mean 'topic'."

What is the "english" word for "problematise"?



24.01.2010 22:26

i was going on about this as long ago as 1946

how many times do i have to say it

george orwell

Its easy to talk shit

24.01.2010 23:40

From Wikipedia:
"To problematize a statement one asks simple questions:
* Who is making this statement?
* Who is he or she making it for?
* Why is this statement being made here, now?
* Whom does this statement benefit?
* Whom does it harm?"
Using Plain English can sometimes mean using more words. Academic language uses short hand, where a new term can be used to refer to a particular argument, or set of assumptions.

in shorthand

the problem with using short hand

25.01.2010 09:39

Hey thanks for the definition of "problematise"! I would just like to "problematise" the statement:

"Using Plain English can sometimes mean using more words. Academic language uses short hand, where a new term can be used to refer to a particular argument, or set of assumptions."

One the face of it I agree with this. Academic language can be a short hand that saves the author a few seconds and makes the article a line or two shorter. This is fine if the people who will read the article are also academics and understand the shorthand.

If the people who will read the article are not academics and can't understand it, then either (a) they will give up trying, in which case the article might as well not have been written at all, or (b) they will spend far more time using Wikipedia or a dictionary or whatever to translate the academic language, than the amount of time the author originally saved by using it. A bad result either way, I'd say. And they will feel dumb.

I'll admit that a big part of my motivation for writing the original post is that many, many times in the past I thought I was too dumb to understand politics, when really I just didn't understand academic language. I didn't realise that academic language really is a completely separate dialect of English. Then one day a friend gave me a copy of something by Negri to read and after struggling with the first paragraph for half an hour or so I thought, "it's not just me, this stuff really is completely incomprehensible".

I think probably a lot of academic activists really do find it easier to write this way, and they think that switching to normal English would be too much effort for them. However I would suggest that these people are pretty obviously in a position of priviledge, their views are read and heard disproportionately often compared to the views of non-academic activists, and thus it is down to them to learn to speak normal English, rather than expecting non-academics to learn academic English.


Problematizing Problematise

25.01.2010 09:42

The plain english word would be the verb "to question" - repeatedly. If you need to use the word problematise then you are not doing so.

Luther Blisset

check out "turbulence"

25.01.2010 09:49

...thats really is incomprehensible... and I did a pointless humanties degree. check this article by uber-wankists ben trott and tadzio mueller: should be titled "what are the fuck are we on about".

i mean, who are they talking to, except about the 50 "radical" academics who exist in european universities. currently being used as toilet paper at social centres all over europe.

if you think shift is bad...

Get a life

25.01.2010 10:02

Get a life and make your own magazines then. Face it the radical scene in the UK is willfully ignorant and anti-intellectual! Maybe those magazines aren't for you, find one that is or make your own.



25.01.2010 10:28

"'Subject' is not a word unless you mean 'topic'."

I don't think the use of the noun "subject" to mean "topic" is academic language. I've heard it used in that context all my life. When you're at school, the various lessons like Maths, English, etc. are all called "subjects"

Unless I'm totally misunderstanding you, or maybe this is a regional difference.

I think academic language has its place - it can be a useful shorthand when you have an audience that specialises in the topic and understands it.

I agree that on a place like Indymedia it isn't appropriate though. You should put things as simply as possible so that the maximum number people will be able to understand it. It's also important when you can expect some readers who mighty not speak English as a first language.


If you've got a problem...

25.01.2010 11:17

then go fix it. Make your own zines, papers and journals. Publish your own critiques, analysis and theory.

Firstly, it's worth remembering the language used in these journals/papers is often not from the academic world, but taken from concrete struggles. Much of the language used in Turbulence and Shift is taken directly from the history of autonomous struggles in Italy in the late 1960-80s and from movements/groups associated with 1968 in France and elsewhere. It may be later down the line or concurrently that these terms became used by academics, but that doesn't explain their genesis. If they have been picked up by activist-academics 'before' movements in other countries, this is probably due to the privileges afforded to an academic. However, this isn't a reason to belittle the work of activist-academics, but rather to try and understand what is useful and what is not for our struggles. That is the challenge!

Secondly, many of the terms criticised have been adopted from other languages, primarily French, Italian and German, that have a supporting concept in their native tongue. When these new words are introduced into English, it requires learning whole new concepts - different ways of seeing the world - so as to make them intelligible. In other words, a given word or phrase is introduced not for the sake of it, but so as to introduce a new concept. A simple example: in French there are (at least) two words for 'power' - pouvoir and puissant - whilst we only have one in English. The reality is that in French 'power' does not exist as a concept, as they have two more intricate terms, roughly understood as 'power to do' and 'power over'. In translating these concepts from French to English, it is not enough to directly substitute words, you have to choose from existing English words to explain completely new concepts. This is why translation is so hard, and something a computer can never do sufficiently for you - there is a diversity of ideas embedded within each language that you are trying to reveal. It's not as simple as beer = bière.

Finally, if you don't understand what is being written, then you aren't really in a position to denigrate the language that is used. If you can't understand the word, there is a good chance that is because you don't understand the concept - simply translating it into 'common sense' English may well dilute the point that is being made. Before someone goes off on a tirade - these terms didn't just emerge out of thin air but were often created to explain concrete conditions of struggle. It's not easy for anyone who picks up Hardt & Negri for the first time - but that doesn't mean it isn't worth working to understand it. Approach it in a different way. Go and pick up a descriptive 'history' book like 'Subversion of Politics' or watch a film like 'Radio Alice' - use the historical context of these struggles to understand why and how new ideas emerged. New ideas don't come easy, they take the cumulative experience of decades of struggle and work. To thrown them away as 'too difficult' is not only an insult to those who spent decades fighting but the suffocation of your own radical potential.

Good ideas come to those who wait

Grammar 101.

25.01.2010 11:21

"'Subject' is not a word unless you mean 'topic'."

Are you sure about that?

1. Being in a position or in circumstances that place one under the power or authority of another or others: subject to the law.
2. Prone; disposed: a child who is subject to colds.
3. Likely to incur or receive; exposed: a directive subject to misinterpretation.
4. Contingent or dependent: a vacation subject to changing weather.

1. One who is under the rule of another or others, especially one who owes allegiance to a government or ruler.
a. One concerning which something is said or done: a subject of gossip.
b. Something that is treated or indicated in a work of art.
c. Music A theme of a composition, especially a fugue.
3. A course or area of study: Math is her best subject.
4. A basis for action; a cause.
a. One that experiences or is subjected to something: the subject of ridicule.
b. A person or animal that is the object of medical or scientific study: The experiment involved 12 subjects.
c. A corpse intended for anatomical study and dissection.
d. One who is under surveillance: The subject was observed leaving the scene of the murder.
6. Grammar The noun, noun phrase, or pronoun in a sentence or clause that denotes the doer of the action or what is described by the predicate.
7. Logic The term of a proposition about which something is affirmed or denied.
8. Philosophy
a. The essential nature or substance of something as distinguished from its attributes.
b. The mind or thinking part as distinguished from the object of thought.

Taken from

Good ideas come to those who wait

new concepts?

25.01.2010 11:55

I don't think the problem is a famine of concepts, but the ability/motivation to communicate the ones we already have. I grew up on a "sink" council estate and there is no doubt that the kind of language contained in turbulence (which is the most extreme example, admittedly) would be totally alienating - and aggravating to those i grew up with.

The editors of such magazines would probably argue that it isn't aimed a such people. Quite.


A famine of concepts?

25.01.2010 12:44

"I don't think the problem is a famine of concepts"

All the people that write for these various publications would probably argue to the contrary. After all, at what point was a 'perfect' understanding obtained of the entirety of social and material relations of this world, rendering all further thinking superfluous?
The point being, all language is exclusive until you understand it, yet it would be shortsighted to brand all Polish people exclusive because you don't speak Polish or mathemiticians exclusive because they use equations you don't understand. Regarding the exclusive-for-some texts referred to above - this doesn't make them elitist or necessarily opposed to the aims of the excluded. They are not written by a capitalist class who seek to further exploit, nor are they written by aspiring statesmen. They may well be alienating and aggravating to some, but this doesn't devalue the ideas or the words that are written. I am alienated and aggravated by ascetic texts that tell me to buy less, orthodox Marxist texts that tell me my freedom lies only in more work, primitivist texts that tell me to abandon civilization - but the answer isn't to reject them outright, but to build new concepts that bring our struggles together.

Good ideas come to those who wait


26.01.2010 09:05

Your general point is an important one. Bad writing is more of a problem than bad vocabulary however. The tradition of philosophy or social criticism is one in which authors use writing as a means to develop their own ideas. So the themselves don't know what they are "going on about" .... Reading this stuff is aprocess... A dialogue. And it is important

Still a lot of Pomo writing is simply gibberish. The British have always been doggedly literal minded and concrete when it comes to philosophy. It's not simply a class thing. The best remedy for bad writing is to ignore it.


@If you think shift is bad…

26.01.2010 09:53

The Shift quote above isn't incomprehensible, it just takes a moment's consideration. It says that a possible conclusion that could be taken away from the experience of Copenhagen is that capitalism is such a 'totalising' system/relationship (i.e. something that encompasses so much of our lives and the world) that it's not possible to find niches within this 'bad' system for a 'good' life (or for making a bad system better) and the whole thing needs to be rejected. You can agree of disagree with the argument, but it's not hard to understand.

And if you care who Adorno is (which you don't need to know to understand the quote), well you could look it up. Or don't, and chill out.

Trying to work out what a complicated text is on about requires a bit of good faith. i.e. You have to decide it's worth the effort. It might or might not be, but you need to decide whether or not you're going to have a go. Since, regarding the Turbulence article you link to, you didn't even take the time to figure out who had written the piece and who were just it's translators, nobody can really be expected to think you really gave this a shot. Or are the words "By" and "Translated by" academic jargon too?

Oh yeah, one more thing: It's pathetic to personally insult named individuals in an anonymous forum, grow up!


Chilling out is not the solution

26.01.2010 11:56

Telling people to grow up and not insult (named) people in a public forum is childish. If good manners were universalised then what of Hogarth? People are rude in public: give them good reason to not be rude and then you might flee to to moral high ground over rude language. Until such time: respect the words of others.

The article pointed to was grammatically questionable for no discernable end. With punctuation. And sentences. Edited together in a self gratification. Of language. The whole article thus has appearances of hermeneutic for which no amount of acess to Adorno would grant insight. It was, to all appearances, wank.

Telling people to just ignore it as "harmless fun" is exactly the kind of muticulturalist claptrap you might expect from the EDL. Multiculturalist in the sense that the EDL or BNP adopt the language of mutliculturalism when speaking of "our identity" in order to promote their culture of violence, intolerance and power worship. Ignoring the BNP is a token of the same type of argument: ignoring it does not work there why should it work here?

There are many people who are just as radical as any Postmodernist worshiping critical theorist. However, Postmodernity will change nothing if there is no praxis. That is - as Marx and Gramsci and Rawls and Nozick and Adorno and Badiou recognise - Postmodernism has theories that need to be put into practice or else it will change nothing. Telling people to "ignore it" is to tell them to go to sleep and ignore philosophy.

While an article might appear to be wank that does not mean that it says nothing. You might have to work hard to discover what is being said. This is not necessarily a bad thing: but it is nothing to chill out and ignore. Even if the response is: this is a load of wank.

Luther Blisset

Betrayal and struggle

26.01.2010 19:57

The real problem with the decomposing academic legacy of the "Autonomia", Negri et al, is that Negri and many of the people who orbit him, are those same people who renounced the armed revolutionary struggle of the 70's and 80's, signed a deal with the Italian State for clemency over their activites, and declared that now 'was not' the 'right time' for revolution when faced with a life-time of struggle inside the jail, developing a body of ideas which is a mask for their collaboration with state-politics.

There are still comrades from this era within the Italian prisons who will never get out, because they will never renege the revolutionary struggle against capitalism. These people are the continuing radical current of the struggle of the 70's and 80's, not "penititi" like those who sign deals to get out quick like snitches.

The "post-politics" of Negri and those who base their work on his ideas, who repeat the terms and methodology of a major political racket gloss over this complicity with the Italian State, and NATO, which played a major part in the period. Precisely, because their own activities contain accomodations and obiesience to power.

This collaboration functions, amongst other details, as a means to destroy all other fighters that remain inside and outside the prisons that are outside of instrumental political control.

You should know this maaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaan!

Free Alfredo Maria Bonanno!

A Theorist who puts his actions where his ideas are!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Fuck Academia and Fuck your Social Activism MA Dickheads!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!



26.01.2010 20:19

Some people have commented here that, in their opinion, using academic or specialized language which is difficult to understand allows a writer to convey ideas they could not convey using normal language. To be honest I don't believe this - I think they authors could convey the same ideas using normal language if they made an effort to. However I have no way of knowing if for sure if this is true because I can't read the fancy academic language, and I say this as a person who has spent several fruitless afternoons attempting to understand Negri and the like. Even if it is true that the specialized language allows the author to convey some special extra meaning, it is definitely also true that using this kind of language excludes many people and creates hierarchy, so to my mind this trade-off is still a bad one.

I had no idea that the terms I referred to in the original post originated in struggles in Italy and France. I have seen these terms many times and since they are never explained I still have no idea what they mean.

I'd like to point out that there is another area of struggle that has developed its own specialized language - feminism. However feminists have taken the trouble to create resources such as this one:, which explain the specialized terms used so that people who don't have a degree in Women's Studies will be able to understand. Could I suggest that if the anarchist academics really think their specialized language is so useful, they should create a similar resources so that the rest of us can understand and take part in the wonderful idea-fest that is apparently going on.


Toi my knowledge

26.01.2010 21:09

To my knowledge Shift mag is NOT an academic publication nor is it particularly influenced by Negrian or post-workerist ideas. It is however one of the few publications i am aware of publishing analysis from campaigns and actions in the UK. Freedom doesn't really fulfill this role, nor does Black Flag (which only really comes out on leap years or something). What other publications come out of the anarcho-autonomist scene in the UK? 325, Resistance newsletter what else?


To be Fair

26.01.2010 21:25

Agreed a lot of academic jargon is very off putting and hard to grasp. However, lots of movement writing is hard to understand too. I mean take insurrectionist writing for example! There is a reason for there being an online insurrectionist text generator! Or primo hit such as Zerzan etal! Also lots of the discussions on non-academic movement resources such as LibCom can be hard to understand to the uninitiated (I mean the theory ones rather than the in jokes!).



26.01.2010 21:31

Aufheben is, to my knowledge, not written by academics, nor is it sympathetic to Negrian ideas. It is definitely not that easy to read and uses jargon.

Somebody Somewhere

To be honest, I rather understand Shift ...

27.01.2010 13:16

... articles then the blabla of subcommandante Marcos, which is often such a general romantic blah that it does not tell anything.


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