Marjorie Garber is the queen of US cultural studies. She knows everything and nothing about cultureby Robert S Boynton / June 20, 2001 / Leave a comment
When I was an editor at Harper’s magazine in New York, I would regularly receive essays from academics hoping to communicate to a wider public. More often than not I was pleasantly surprised by their eloquence and accessibility. Most of these writers knew how to wear their learning lightly, and their essays were a testament to the proposition that clear thinking and good writing are as likely to be found within the university walls as beyond them.
Occasionally the results were not so happy. In particular, I remember a piece by an ambitious young scholar whose prose, he assured me, was “100 per cent jargon free.” And, sure enough, it was. The problem was that while he had diligently expunged words like “hegemony” and “problematise” their conceptual ghosts remained. Stripped of his theoretical armour, he was lost in an intellectual no-man’s land. He neither sounded impressive nor had much to say.
Like many academics in recent years, he was consumed by the desire to be a “public intellectual.” With the proliferation of outlets such as cable television and the internet, intellectuals have less difficulty reaching the public than they once did. A trickier task, however, is attracting an audience while maintaining one’s intellectual credibility.
One might read Marjorie Garber’s most recent book, Academic Instincts, as a meditation on this tension. “In their heart of hearts, scholars long for public and even popular recognition. The Holy Grail of the ‘crossover book,’ one that impresses one’s colleagues but also appeals to the intelligent reader and perhaps even makes the bestseller list, is a recurring dream of the profession,” she writes. Garber, who is director of Harvard’s Humanities Centre, knows what she is talking about. She divides her books between academic presses like Routledge and commercial houses like Random House and Simon & Schuster (which paid $150,000 for Vice Versa, her study of bisexuality). She is a prolific and graceful writer whose work appears in the New Yorker, the New York Times and the London Review of Books.
The author of three well-received scholarly studies of Shakespeare and a half dozen works of eclectic criticism, Garber is the queen of American cultural studies. Whether opining on cross-dressing, bisexuality, the erotic relationship between sex and real estate–or between dogs and their owners–Garber is witty, imaginative and wide-ranging, raising intellectual improvisation to an art form. She is the dinner guest every hostess covets, the indefatigably charming conversation partner who, no matter what the topic, keeps things going.
Garber established her method in her first crossover book, Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing & Cultural Anxiety (1992). Never having seen a distinction she couldn’t subvert, she performed a transgressive analysis of cross-dressing, which dispensed with the false “binarity” separating “male” and “female.” For Garber, transvestism is a “category crisis”–not only for human sexuality, but for the very notion of “category.” Once considered little more than a cultural oddity, in her hands cross-dressing prophesies nothing less than the end of epistemology. The New York Times praised the book as “a provocative piece of cultural criticism.” The Holy Grail was hers.
With Vice Versa (1995), she ratcheted things up a notch by exploring another false binarity, this time in “the eroticism of everyday life.” Although her overheated prose sometimes resembled fashion magazine writing–”borderlines are back: ethnic, racial, religious, and sexual minorities assert their visibility and, thus, their power”–her point was serious. After all, the world is full of sexual and romantic entanglements that defy standard categories. Reading Vice Versa, one suspected that bisexuality–even if not present absolutely everywhere, as Garber intimated–was surely vastly under-represented.
Unfortunately, things went downhill from there. Two of Garber’s later works, Dog Love (1996) and Sex and Real Estate (2000), are the kind of literary follies men of leisure might write on a dare. Prodigiously researched and fluently written, neither offers an argument for anything beyond its author’s intellectual ingenuity. Writing in the New Republic, Zoë Heller described Sex and Real Estate as “so serenely silly–so untroubled by any whiff of a serious idea–as to invite a kind of awe.”
Garber doesn’t identify it as such, but Academic Instincts is a response to such critics. Published by the staid Princeton University Press, and bristling with arguments, it is an attempt to convince her colleagues that she can do the job after all. Although structured like a work of analytic philosophy (three slender chapters on persons, institutions and language) the book is informed by Garber’s favourite psychoanalytic theme: the desire everything has for its opposite. Academics want to be public intellectuals (and vice versa); each discipline covets its neighbour’s insights (literary studies envies philosophy, which in turn envies law and/or science); and each discipline attempts to create a technical vocabulary, while at the same time longing for “a universal language understood by all.”
In Academic Instincts, Garber does what she does best: she champions an uncontroversial thesis–human sexuality is multifarious, dogs are man’s best friend, vigorous discussion enhances intellectual life–with a panache that makes it feel daring. “When you stop and think about it…” is one of her favourite phrases but her work depends on a reader not pausing for thought. Instead, Garber sweeps you up and buries you under a mountain of deceptive syllogisms, misleading generalisations, wordplay and sheer chutzpah–all eventually resolved into elegant, yet inoffensive, soundbites.
Take, for example, her argument that the professional wants to seem like an amateur, since amateur status is thought to indicate virtue. “Politics is a dirty business, and a professional politician an object of suspicion. Better to have a background in something else,” she writes, “like sports.” And we’re off on the trail of athlete-turned-politicians Bill Bradley and Jack Kemp.
But if you really do stop and think about it, Garber’s examples are usually either trivially true or false. American politics has always been a profession one joins from the outside. No advanced degree is required, so every new office-holder is an amateur–whether he comes from the world of sport, entertainment or business. The far more important factor, which Garber overlooks, is that it helps to have been successful in your previous profession. Failed actors and mediocre athletes seldom get far in politics.
The last and most argumentative chapter of Academic Instincts is about jargon, the cultural theorist’s Achilles heel, the place where the tension between the public and private intellectual is greatest. The purpose of jargon is to make inter-disciplinary communication more efficient. It only becomes a problem for the specialist who wants to speak to non-initiates about his field. Who, after all, has ever criticised a chemist for communicating with fellow chemists in the language of the periodic table, or mathematicians for using algebraic or geometric terms?
So why don’t would-be public intellectuals simply eschew their disciplinary jargon? The reason, as the linguist Walter Nash has argued, is that jargon is not only “shop talk,” but also “show talk”–a means of impressing, sometimes mystifying, the uninitiated. This “intelligibility gap” is the essence of modern professionalism. Without it you’re just a generalist, with it, you’re a specialist, the credibility of whose pronouncements is augmented by your institutional prestige.
Although exhaustively argued, Garber’s defense of jargon is simple. “Since language is a living thing, yesterday’s jargon words may very well be today’s normal or standard speech,” she writes. Then comes the deluge: For Theodor Adorno the words “authenticity,” “genuineness,” “transcendence” and “belief” were jargon. Orwell considered “romantic,” “values” and “sentimental” jargon. Shakespeare introduced over 1,500 words, including “label,” “lapse,” “dialogue,” “design,” “addiction,” and “anchovy.” “Could we imagine doing without them?” Garber asks.
Well, certainly not anchovy. But isn’t Garber’s suggestion something of a straw man? Who in his right mind argues that we should dispense with them? Words like “values” and “belief” are indeed vague and clichéd, but are they jargon in any recognisable, modern sense of the definition?
Quicker than you can say Aufhebung, Garber broadens its definition and transcends “the paradox of jargon” by constructing a syllogism so slippery it would make Socrates blush. 1) Jargon encompasses both technical and banal language. 2) Jargon is any kind of language that has been overused. 3) Neologisms, because they are invented to suit specific circumstances, are the only words that aren’t jargon. 4) But since neologisms are precisely the kinds of words that are most frequently recognised as jargon, then all language is jargon.
This is Garber’s genius. Cheerfully embracing the irreconcilable, she beats her critics to the punch. What can you possibly say about a thinker so entirely comfortable with intellectual incoherence, as long as it carries a whiff of subversion?