Times like these are hard. Economic downturns. It means that my job at the university is to prepare students (some of them incredibly bright) for underemployment or unemployment. The concept of ‘professional’ degrees becomes a little bankrupt when there are no professions recruiting. So every year we will graduate new lawyers and pharmacists and accountants and send them into a world without vacancies, like training up farmers and sending them into the heart of Manhattan. And we even do it in our own field. We train up academics when we jolly well know there are hardly any academic posts right now.
It makes me think of a friend I have recently made in Glasgow. (In fact, I hope he never comes across this!) But he strikes me as one of those who the academy has seriously failed. On his part, he did everything right, but it came to no good. The academy gave him a very particular language – Lacanian/Deridian/relentlessly post-structuralist – but then didn’t bother to give him a job. They created him, dizzyingly and at times inspiringly intelligent – if you can keep up – but with a language that is all but useless outside of the ivory tower. The university seemed to decide in the end that he was too theoretical even for them. He lives now in a tiny flat, unemployed, surviving barely on government benefits.
And yet, there are times that I am jealous of my friend’s language. I know that language opens doors and whole countries to us, which is why I still try doggedly to perfect my Spanish. There are upsides to learning ‘academicese’; places that it allows us to go. But perhaps there are downsides as well, especially if you become a monoglot and speak nothing else. There are suddenly places which become shut off, doors which are suddenly closed – even, and paradoxically, doors to academic posts!
Incidentally, I did mean the pun (if you detected it) in the title of this blog. For not only is there a scramble for academic positions or ‘posts’ these days, but within this language that we mockingly call ‘academicese’, there is usually a scramble to master the discourse of at least one of those theoretical schools that boasts the ever-so-trendy prefix ‘post-’.
I imagine the whole thing must have started innocuously enough with the rise of ‘postmodernism’ and ‘postcolonialism’ and ‘poststructuralism’, which in turn saw the rise of post-marxism and post-feminism and post-nationalism, and nowadays it has proliferated into the rather clunky adjective – post-post-colonial, or the altogether hopeful post-racial, or the worryingly post-human, or the Viagra-accommodating post-sexual, and inevitably to the self-reflexive post-theoretical. It is almost amusing, this obsession with academic ‘post-‘s which could either be a hankering for the future or a pathological tendency within academia to go against orthodoxy – an unwitting convention to resist convention.
But I also think my generation must feel a little short-changed by it all, because the whole fucking thing has been so claimed and colonized that there is hardly anything left for us to put the prefix post- before. It is hard work to get a post or a post-. In my own work, I have struggled to do just that.
Ok — so allow me a brief paragraph of academic wankery. You see, my pseudo-scholarly work looks at West Indian epistolography. To put it plainly, I ask the questions: ‘why do Caribbean people write letters? And to whom? And what have been some of the conventions of these letters?’ I also consider what technology has done to the epistolary mode – how emails and blogs and various social media communique upstaged the hand-written missive – how the electronic has replaced the postal. And in thinking about this, it has been impossible for me not to recognize and then to articulate the ways in which the letter has now entered a ‘Post-Postal’ phase. Quite frankly, I was surprised that in New Media studies no one had thought of the term.
But even while I have my wank over page after page of this kind of prose (enjoyable in its own way as every wank is) I couldn’t help but accuse myself – ‘Oh Jesus, Kei! What has become of you? You are a poet with an academic post who has begun to speak academicese!’
This is a conflicting state of affairs. As a previous blog intimated, poets and writers have a strange place within the academy. Because our obsession and vocation has everything to do with language, we seem especially inclined to resist the one associated with the academy. I have had more than one creative writing student complain, ‘Why can’t academics just speak plain and regular English? Why can’t they just say things as they are?’
But this is downright hypocrisy coming from anyone who wants to be a poet. Poets do not say things as they are. Well, not usually. Poetry is certainly not known for its plain-spoken-ness and in fact is accused, just as much as the academy, for its obscurity and its pretensions. And this is as it should be! Those on the outside of poetry might say off-handedly, ‘But isn’t the point to communicate?’ Oh hell no! Communication is what people in advertising agencies do, or PR firms. Poetry may be about transmitting (emotions or sensations), but it is not about anything so banal as ‘communication’ in the way that we generally mean the word.
Poetry disdains everyday and quotidian language in order to reinvent it. And it means that there will always be some who just don’t ‘get it’ and are annoyed by it, in the way that some just ‘don’t get’ academicese.
In the end, my own position is a little dubious – a bit on the fence, as it were. I know that the most significant door that language opens is to ourselves. When we really know a language it means there are thoughts and feelings that we begin to have in that language. And when we know more than one languages, it means we will have thoughts and feelings in one that we simply do not have in the other. And I find the same is true for ‘academicese’. For all its pretensions, there are thoughts I have in that language, ways of thinking through things, that I don’t have access to in another language. It has become a part of myself, and in the end, why would I deny myself such access?