Tuesday, June 08, 2010

An open letter to political pundits from English professors

Dear political pundit types:

Speaking on behalf of literary theorist types everywhere, I must protest your recent unauthorized overuse of the word "narrative." As in: "President Obama needs to present a clear narrative of his administration's goals." Or, "This goes against the dominant narrative of Elena Kagan as a remorseless apple-polisher and power-seeker."

I realize that it is natural for such terms to go in and out of fashion in the discourse of political talking-headedness, but "narrative" seems to have found a special niche since the election of Barack Obama. Is this because he has written two books? Is it because, as storyteller-in-chief, he has made the concept of narrative newly central to American politics? Or is it just a handy new term that injects a veneer of pseudo-intellectualism into the blasted wasteland of desiccated politico jargon?

Whatever the reason, I fear I must demand you immediately cease and desist. If you consult the records of jargon ownership, you will see that narrative became the exclusive property of literary theory in the mid-1970s. If you must employ a literary term, feel free to use "plot" and "story," as these became passé at about the time we staked our claim to narrative. Perhaps you can make them trendy again.

Please do not force us to make recourse to legal action. "Narrative" is our word to over- and misuse, not yours.

Yours sincerely,

The Academic Literary Profession


Anonymous said...

Should we tell Nairn Waterman to be expecting your call?

Fred said...

I must protest your recent unauthorized overuse of the word "narrative." As in: "President Obama needs to present a clear narrative of his administration's goals."

It would have been better, and more accurate, to ahve written: "President Obama needs to present a clear outline of his administrative goals."

The term "narrative" in the way it has been used above hearkens back to the Orwellian complaint of bureaucrats using language for political obfuscation.

If the political wonk wanted to indicate where Obama's adminstrative goals were expected to lead to, in terms of future outcomes, then he might replace "outline" with "expectations," as in "President Obama needs to present clear expectations of his adminstration's goals."

Personally, I do not just blame this sort of sloppy reliance on abstractions and associated vagueness on the inexperience of the authors producing such sentences, but I also fault university education, with professors complimenting those students who can achieve such a particular style of writing.

To wit, such textual processing of signifiers signals a dynamic (indeed, dialogic) postulation of power over the (un)written/conscious body, so that it resists the easy production of meaning within societies grand-meta mythopoetic narrative. Holy shit!!

Fred said...

Not to be too much of a grammarian fuss-budget, but in the above sentence I realize there is some ambiguity concerning to whom "expectations" are applied. We have three choices:

(1) public (or reporters)
(2) President Obama
(3) Obama's adminstration.

Each of the three can be addressed in the sentence as follows:

(1) "President Obama needs to present the public's expectations regarding his adminstration's goals in a clear manner."

(2) "President Obama needs to present with clarity his expectations regarding his adminstration's goals."

(3) "President Obama needs to present a clear outline of his cabinet's expectations regarding their goals."

One other point, concerns the time of the goals (recent past, long ago, or future). For instance: "President Obama needs to clearly present his current expectations regarding his adminstration's year old goals." While this last example splits the infinitive, grammatical rules have relaxed enough to allow for such a violation without editors circling such "errors" in red pen.

In this way, the term "narrative" may be relegated back to where it belongs, in the hands of literary critics.