• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.


Clarity and Sophistication

Language matters.


August 7, 2018

I remember raising an eyebrow when I learned that “sophistication” and “sophistry” share a root. They both refer to the Sophists, a school of thought in pre-Socratic Greece who were known for their facility with language. As I learned it, they were sometimes understood to prize the style of a statement over its actual truth; the point of language, for them, was persuasion. Truth was only one tool among others, and often, not the best.

I was reminded of that in reading Jessica Calarco’s hypothesis on Twitter this week. She suggested that “bad writing plays a key role in impostor syndrome,” by sowing doubt in the reader that s/he’s not smart enough to understand what’s going on.  

That certainly described grad school pretty well, in my experience. I was there during the mature phase of the postmodern wave, when clarity was considered a sort of complicity. That’s not a caricature, either; several theorists argued (as near as I could tell) that the reason that radical theory can be so hard to read is that it the capillaries of power inhere in language itself. If discourse is shot through with power, and some discourses are more favored than others, then it shouldn’t be surprising that a more egalitarian politics would initially lead to moments of linguistic uncanniness. Decentering the subject is rough on subject/verb agreement.

Which isn’t necessarily absurd in a vacuum, but doesn’t do much to empower anybody.  

(To be fair, postmodernists had no monopoly on opacity. I remember being struck that Habermas, the great theorist of communication, couldn’t write to save his life.  For that matter, I’ve long suspected that Hegel is some sort of elaborate prank.)

I tried valiantly to play along for a while, with varying degrees of success. Then I started teaching, and quickly realized the radical power of clarity. Students didn’t need their subjecthood “problematized,” as we used to say; they needed to feel entitled to subjecthood in the first place. After all, the alternative to being subjects is being objects, and they’ve had plenty of that. But regaining a sense of subjecthood required some basic understanding, which required clarity. Being inscrutable just felt mean.  

Moving into administration, my suspicion of gratuitous complexity grew. Colleagues know that “keep it simple” is one of my go-to phrases. The more complicated a plan is, the likelier it is to be misunderstood. (Related: the longer a strategic plan is, the less likely it is either to be read or to be used.) The trick is being simple without being simplistic. That takes craft.

My pet theory is that there’s a bell curve of the relationship between understanding a situation and describing it clearly. In the early stages of learning, the previously-simple picture is, well, problematized, and the language goes along with that. But as understanding progresses, it becomes easier to separate the essential from the inessential, and therefore to express clearly what matters. If you understand an idea well enough, you should be able to explain it clearly to a non-expert, at least at a metaphorical level.

Calarco’s invocation of impostor syndrome, I think, captures well the feeling of being overwhelmed by a wall of language. It also implies some of the effects: disempowerment, self-doubt, paralysis. They may share a root, but sophistry and sophistication are not the same thing. Real sophistication lends itself to clarity, and even to brevity. Now, about that strategic plan...



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