Marjorie Garber, PI | The Nation


Marjorie Garber, PI

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While her point may not be novel, the way she argues it is fascinating, both for itself and for the style of thinking it represents--a style that has become all too typical in cultural studies. Imagine Garber's mind as a kind of intellectual black box from which every either/or proposition that enters exits in the form of a both/and conclusion. Once inside the black box, the either/or proposition is processed through a maze of checkpoints--fake segues, tendentious comparisons, deceptive syllogisms, overbroad generalizations, misleading historical precedents, witty wordplay and sheer chutzpah--before being spit out as elegant yet inoffensive soundbites in the conversation of mankind.

About the Author

Robert S. Boynton
Robert S. Boynton, head of the Magazine Writing Program at New York University, is the author of The New New Journalism...

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"When you stop and think about it..." is one of Garber's classic introductory phrases--a rhetorical sleight of hand whose effectiveness depends precisely on the reader's not pausing to consider the validity of the what follows. Then, before you can think, Garber is off and running, burying the reader under a mountain of "evidence," occasionally pausing to reload ("It is interesting to note," "It is interesting to recall") before continuing the onslaught.

Take, for example, her argument that the professional wants to seem like an amateur, since amateur status is thought to guarantee virtue. "Politics is a dirty business, and a professional politician an object of suspicion. Better to have a background in something, almost anything, else," she writes. "Like sports, for example," and we're off on the trail of athlete-turned-politicians Bill Bradley and Jack Kemp. "Or consider, at least in the state of California, politicians from the world of entertainment," which is followed by a consideration of Ronald Reagan and Clint Eastwood.

But if you really do stop and think about it, Garber's examples usually fall into two categories: the trivially true and the false. American politics has always been a profession one joins from the outside. Unlike law or medicine, no advanced degree is required, so every new officeholder is an amateur, an outsider--whether he comes from the world of sports, entertainment or business. Therefore being an amateur is a necessary, but not a sufficient, requirement for becoming a politician. Generally, it helps to have been successful in your previous profession; failed actors and mediocre athletes don't tend to get very far in politics. While a candidate's amateur status is hardwired into the structure of the political system (although some wield their "outsider" credentials better than others), the far more important factor, which Garber willfully overlooks, is "success."

The last and most argumentative chapter of Academic Instincts is about jargon, which Garber refers to as "Terms of Art." Jargon is the cultural theorist's Achilles' heel, the point at which the tension between the public and private intellectual is greatest. The purpose of jargon is to make intradisciplinary communication more efficient. Thus, jargon is only a problem for the specialist who wants to cross over and speak to noninitiates about his field. Who has ever criticized a chemist for communicating with fellow chemists in the language of the periodic table, or mathematicians for speaking with algebraic or geometric terms? Objections like these literally don't make sense.

So why don't would-be public intellectuals--professional academics who covet the breadth and audience of an amateur--simply eschew their disciplinary jargon? The reason is that jargon actually plays a double function; as the linguist Walter Nash writes in Jargon: Its Uses and Abuses (1993), it is not only "shop talk" but also "show talk," a means of impressing, sometimes mystifying, the uninitiated. The funny thing about jargon for academic public intellectuals is that it is something--as the old saying goes--they can neither live with nor live without. It makes them both understood (within their profession) and not understood (outside it). And this "intelligibility gap" is the very essence of modern professionalism. Without it you're just another thinker, autodidact or generalist who is at home nowhere and everywhere. With it, you're a fully credentialed specialist, the credibility of whose pronouncements is augmented by your disciplinary and institutional prestige. As with all either/or propositions, Garber wants to have jargon both ways: as a sign of marginality (and hence moral superiority), and of professional expertise.

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