BEING AN IN-SIMPLEST-TERMSIST
Tim N. Thompson
Some say beautiful and meaningful things in few and simple words. Some can take that beauty and convert it into lofty abstractions that are understood by very few. Put simply by the poet Mountain:
I am exiled in an age of academic Mandarins
Ah, Po Chu-yi, how they would laugh at you, My Friend,
As in your time, Po Chu-yi, so in mine, My Friend,
Simple is beauty and beauty is simple. What is it that drives us toward high level abstraction? Why do we seek the good, better, and best ways of saying things, oftentimes with big words, and believe in those words, and fight about those words? What is it about big words and complex explanations that attracts academics like so many moths to the flame? The motives are many.
Some are seeking the perfection of language: seeking deeper understanding, looking for the meanings under the surface; seeking power, as those who have the best definition of a situation quite often control the situation; seeking excitement, the sheer pleasure of learning a new way of seeing things through fresh terms; seeking simplicity, trying to compress complex thoughts into more streamlined descriptions for more efficient communication more meaning in fewer words. Complex and abstract terms can be a shorthand, allowing us to say something without spelling it out. Naming things with meaning-packed and complex terms is a path to perfection, transcendence of sorts, and it has its rewards.
But naming our world with complex abstractions can have its consequences, of which habit formation, excluding people, and damage to academic credibility are just a few.
The repetition of any behavior, from using muscles to using words, can lead to the formation of habits. Our ways of naming and thinking about the world, like other behaviors, become habits (or should I say 'communicative and cognitive behavioral patterning resultant in habituation'), and those habits can deter us from explorations elsewhere. A habit, like a road often traveled, can keep us contained and content from traveling in different directions.
Gregory Bateson discussed such habit formation in his Steps to an Ecology of Mind. He treated human behavior as a "variable," and warned of the outcomes from not exercising the full range of the variable:
"In other words, the variable which does not change its value becomes ipso facto hard programmed. Indeed, this way of stating the genesis of hard-programmed variables is only another way of describing habit formation.
As a Japanese Zen master once told me, 'To become accustomed to anything is a terrible thing.'
From all of this it follows that to maintain the flexibility of a given variable, either that flexibility must be exercised or the encroaching variables must be directly controlled."
Our choice of terms can become habit, limited in range, inflexible, with a corresponding narrow view of the world. And while high level abstractions may enter our vocabulary as variations, something new and exciting, if used enough they become hard-programmed.
Another consequence of complex terms, mentioned in the opening verse, is that many will not understand what we're saying. Jargon, acronyms, and scientifically efficient terms exclude people from the conversation. For academics and others it can be a thrill to learn the jargon of a discipline or profession, and share it among peers, and feel the camaraderie and shared sense of purpose that a common lingo can provide. And we might think that those terms are bringing us closer to "it," whatever it may be. In fact, that is a key to the allure of terms, that they make us feel we're getting closer to the goal of some grand understanding, and it can provide a sense of togetherness identification -- in our understanding. But too often the "deeper" understanding felt by a few from lofty language represents an obstacle to understanding for the many. Learning the terms of a discipline is part of the path to perfection, and again, there are rewards for learning to talk the talk; but keep in mind the talk might be more of a border than a bridge.
Yet another consequence of jargon and high level abstractions is the potential damage to academic credibility. One may think, and oftentimes rightly so, that using big words lifts the credibility rating. In some contexts, like a classroom full of true believers and in conversation with smart friends, big terms sound good. Many people, however, some I've talked to and some I've read about, lambaste the academic community for talking in a language that is not understood. They hold an image of the academic as one who is removed from reality, talking theoretically without being connected to what's going on. Members of the business community are especially apt to promote such an image of academe.
Talking the talk can become habit. Talking the talk keeps people out, acts as a boundary between those who know and those who don't. And talking the talk can work against our credibility in many contexts. If our goal is to diffuse wisdom beyond the walls of a profession or academe, we eventually need to find terms for common understanding. And if we're not careful, our habit of using higher terms may get in the way of understanding. If we're not careful we acquire an abstraction addiction, and though it may keep us "in touch" with some we'll be out of touch with many.
Abstraction addictions begin to take hold when we word users get hooked on certain words and phrases. It can happen at any time in life, but for many graduate school is where the monkey really gets on their back. In grad school we learn the academic way, the way of the scholar. In grad school we learn words that unlock the doors to the mysteries of mind and society (and perhaps a little about self). In grad school we learn that certain explanations get rewarded and others do not. In grad school we might come to know the sheer enjoyment found in sharing secret terms; the "high ground" we talk about with fellow students as we learn to name things in better ways.
People of all kinds are motivated to name things in better ways. Individuals, schools of thought, academic disciplines, professions, and others play the game of perfecting language, seeking better ways of seeing through better ways of saying. Our ways of naming, defining and discussing the world, become our ways of seeing, perceiving and understanding the world. We perfect toward some form of better understanding via better terms, and oftentimes we justify the correctness of our terms' by comparison to the incorrectness of others' terms. Words are the fabric of our point of view and we seem motivated to seek better points of view.
But what counts as better? Scientists might hold "Occam's Razor" to symbolize perfection: the idea that we find ever more efficient ways of exchanging information, to reduce complex theories and findings down to fit on the sharp edge of a razor. Business types might prefer terms that are better for the bottom line, words that make financial sense. Artists and those who buy into the Arts have aesthetic measures for what constitutes good, better, and best. Each domain has its principles of perfection, the tips of the hierarchies, peaks of excellence, and words to describe those peaks. And as Kenneth Burke reminds us, the words are the peaks language is motive. What moves us to find a better way and what constitutes the better way? Look to language.
Burke discussed habits in language and mind. In Permanence and Change and Language as Symbolic Action he wrote of the "occupational psychosis" that develops from doing any one job or thinking in one way for prolonged periods, and the "terministic screens" by which we see the world through fogs of symbols.
Psychosis results from taking any normal tendency to extremes. It is normal to clean, psychotic to be cleaning all the time; normal to want sex, psychotic to want it all the time; normal to be afraid, psychotic to live our life in fear. Where we draw the line is negotiable. One person's normal is another person's psychotic.
Burke expands John Dewey's concept of "occupational psychosis," which refers to the habitual patterns of thought tribes develop, or the "pronounced character of mind" that co-evolves with the economic patterns of a tribe. Put simply, ways of living promote ways of seeing. For Burke, the tremendous emphasis put on money, technology, and progress within an intensely competitive context in our culture is representative of a psychosis. For some, the academic way can become a psychosis. We can become stuck in the mire of abstractions that have little to do with day to day life, all the while believing those abstractions give us a clear picture. We create complex terms for naming situations, then see the situation according to those terms. For instance, if I get into the business of attacking power structures, for the reason that they "marginalize" people, then I will start seeing people as marginalized even though they may be very much in the center of some story. They may have a very full and meaningful life, a much richer story than some of the fat cats at the top of the power structure I am attacking; but if my definitions say they are marginal, then I will see them as marginal. We tend to start seeing the world according to the terms of our occupation, and quite often that overemphasis on one way of seeing can become psychotic.
In the beginning, to open Permanence & Change, Burke introduces us to his change of orientation program, a shift from the scientific to the poetic. Using Freud's followers for example, Burke shows how all orientations, ways of looking at the world, can be considered rationalizations. "One man's reason is another man's rationalization." And he notes how we can get stuck in an orientation/rationalization, much like the chicken coming to the bell that signifies food, because it has its rewards. But in time that orientation might not mean the same thing as it did, rewards might turn to punishments, just as the bell that before meant food might come to mean the farmer waiting to chop off the chicken's head. Burke's poem, "An Old liberal Looks To The New Year, 1953," is about such a shift in the rewards for interpretations, as "the social conscience of '35 becomes the treason of '53." One lesson from this is that any orientation, any set of terms for our situation, is only viable so long as people let it be; what is fashionable now, in thinking like clothing, may not be later. Any orientation is one of many rationalizations.
Burke's discussion of "terministic screens" in Language as Symbolic Action is a variation on the theme of how words fog our view. Any terminology that we believe is a "reflection" of reality is also a selection and deflection of reality. "A way of seeing is also a way of not seeing." Terms turn our attention to thinking and behaving in our world in certain ways and not in other ways. Where a Marxist might see evil in rampant consumerism, a businessman looks to the blessings of his bottom line. While a postmodern works her program of decentering and deconstructing, the theologian prays that God's order may prevail. Each sees the world through different terms, indeed, sees a different world.
If we try to strip any terminology to its truths, or untruths as the deconstructionists would have it, we find that truth depends on our orientation. The question is not "who's right?" so much as who's got a better story with a better moral. And of course, "better story" also depends on our orientation. It's the logical problem that Russell, Whitehead, Bateson and others have played with at different times, that no part of the system can get outside of the system to fairly assess the system. Any "truth" (or Truth, or TRUTH) is only so because we say it's so (as Humpty Dumpty put so well), and to get outside of our terms to confirm our terms is a difficult (and logically impossible) task. This sounds like I'm taking sides with Sophists, but I'm not. The point is we use terms to name, think about, and act in situations, and while those terms reveal they also conceal, and any attempt to escape those terms to talk of their credibility is just another set of terms more rationalization dressed as reason.
The path for some is to "transcend" the limits of language, to rise above the confines of current labels. That transcendence takes many forms and goes by many names, but essentially entails groups of people developing vocabularies, believing in those vocabularies, and promoting those vocabularies. Each group, if their vocabulary is compelling and sells well in the marketplace of ideas, can earn the title of "ism" Marxism, Feminism, Postmodernism, etc. and a follower of a school of thought can become an "ist." Some find comfort being an ist in an ism. Some revel in sharing terms of transcendence ("Our Terms" or "The Word according to ________ism"). Some make the ism their way of life. And some shrivel into intellectual wimps if their ism becomes so ingrained in the brain that they no longer can see the territory, let alone explore it.
There is nothing wrong with learning to talk the talk of an academic area or subculture. It can be fun, profitable, and the social cement that promotes closeness with one's peers. But there is something not quite right with an academic getting stuck in the "high ground" of abstractions, unable to talk with common folk. This is especially important in our field communication a word that evolved from the Latin "communicare" (to share) and "communis" (common). There is nothing wrong with traveling up, the "upward way" of transcendent terms, but don't forget the way back down, back down to the ground, to share something in common.
Simple terms are grounded; not grounded in theory and research the game of making maps that verify our maps, on the way to "isomorphic" explanations rather grounded in common understanding. Grounded in words even a child can know and love. We can say lofty and intelligent things and still remain near the ground. Such is the writing of Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) and Shel Silverstein. Their prose and poetry is written for children and adults, yet contains some of the best social criticism and richest theory of how things work that one is apt to find anywhere. Geisel's "The Lorax" could compete with any eco-feminist piece on what humans have done with nature and what can we do about it. Silverstein's poem "Listen To The Mustn'ts" provides theory and criticism of the socializing function of the negative in few and simple terms. The authors are grounded in common understanding. Their writing is accessible to many. But they'd never make it in our journals.
And there is part of the pressure to speak and write in high level abstractions; a peer pressure of sorts. Academics, in their journals and classrooms and clubs of all sorts are pressured to say smart things. After all, what better constitutes membership in academe? In the guise of describing and explaining the world, attempting to demystify, academics quite often mystify more people than not. The peer pressure to perform intelligent acts can promote a psychotic addiction to abstractions.
This is not an attack on all high level abstracting. It has its place in the cycles of wisdom of our learning and teaching. This is only to say we should exercise a full range of terms, and practice putting our big ideas into simple words. Resist the tendency toward language habits, abstraction addictions, and the academic psychosis by practicing the principle of communication: to share in common.
Let us come to terms together,
Let us come down,
Let us set our sights on communication,