Talking Ugly
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John David Rhodes

 

 

To accuse someone of speaking in jargon is usually to insult someone’s style. Jargon is a byword for the ugly. It’s a convenient term for its user (jargon is never a term of flattery, only of abuse) because it summons, in the minds of readers and listeners, the bad thing that it signifies (unappealing language) without actually having to name it as such. I don’t have to say it’s ugly, I just have to say it’s jargon, and we know what that means. And if something can be called jargon, then we also know what it’s not being called: it’s not being called beautiful. The accusation of jargon, of being jargonistic, of using jargonistic language is a just-barely concealed discourse on the beautiful and on not being it—on not being beautiful, that is to say.

 

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To be ugly, which is not to be beautiful, seems to mean, moreover, not to have style. Beautiful people (BPs, as the poetics of demotic acronymy have sometimes referred to them) have style. So if I accuse you of using jargon, I would seem to be accusing you of being ugly, and of having no style.

 

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If the beautiful, in Kant’s conception of it, is that category to which our human minds are naturally attuned, then it is the most obvious of categories, the least given to thought. Kant tells us that the beautiful object is that which “seems to be, as it were, pre-adapted to our Judgment, and thus constitutes in itself an object of satisfaction.”1 The beautiful: not everyone can have it or be it, but everyone can know what it is, what it looks like. “I know what I like when I see it”: such is the discourse of the beautiful. The beautiful has two names, and they are identical to one another. Jargon, on the other hand, names what has not yet been named: if it registers anywhere on the continuum of Kantian categories, then it would have to be in the register of the sublime, the mode in which reason (thought) and imagination argue crankily with one another. (nb: According to Kant, in this agon of reason and imagination, the latter loses, eventually.)

 

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In many cases, writers (whether they are academics, scholars, specialists of any sort) may be forced, or may feel the necessity to employ specialist terminology. This terminology may not be particularly pretty. Such terminology often consists of “made-up” words, neologisms—words cooked up from scratch, forced marriages of nouns—or else forced immigrations (sans italics) of the foreign word into English syntax, surprising accretions of suf- and/or pre-fixes. These words will, most likely, fall short of our standards of beauty and they may make the sentences into which they are inserted fall short of common standards of straightforward lucidity. The resort to a word that is new and strange, if performed in good faith, extends out of the need to name something new and strange, something new to thought, for which we have no word because we may have had only lately the thought that required the word. Ugliness and jargon, therefore, might also be the marks of the latecomer, or else the newcomer, the raw arrival. And while one—one who is beautiful, for sure—can be fashionably late, jargon would seem rather to share in the vulgarity of the early arrival—one who has arrived in advance of oneself, before the table has been set or the wine opened. Which is another way of saying that jargon could be a method of fucking up the dinner party.

 

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There may be writers who cannot write without recourse to specialist discourse susceptible to being labelled jargon. These writers may be better or worse stylists. If one cannot express oneself without jargon, then either one is saying something new that requires the risk of unloveliness, or one is saying something that might not need to be said (or should not be said altogether). But how we adjudicate between these two possibilities will require that we make some declaration of what we think is worth saying and what we think is not worth saying. Jargon, in every case, will be the sign that marks the exigency of taking a position. Its relation to necessity is yet another indication of jargon’s salubrious association with bad taste.

 

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Kant’s conception of the beautiful seems pretty close to Adorno’s formulation that “people know what they want because they know what other people want.”2 The unseemliness of jargon might be, in the best cases, a necessary result of trying to find new desires, or new ways of desiring.

 

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In this moment in the academy (I write this in the U.K.), I am confronted daily with someone else’s jargon—the jargon of university administration: “outputs” (what once were called books and articles), “excellence” (a vague term, meaning one’s middling success has been profligately documented),  “KTs” (“knowledge transfers,” a term referring to, well, teaching), “entrepreneurship” (making the university some goddamned money). I do not yet know with what language to oppose this language. (Or with what action to oppose it.) But this language’s ugliness tells me that some revelation is at hand. The problem with the jargon of university administration, however, is that it pretends to have already been here. In listening to its jargon, I would be wise to hear, in fact, the sound that these words make: a preternatural whine (something being born) falsely modulated into the chatter of bureaucracy: vicious absurdity trying to pass itself off in the unconvincing drag of common sense.

 

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Bataille writes that if we think flowers are beautiful, it is because “they seem to conform to what must be.” “The most admirable flower,” he goes on to say, would be “a filthy and glaring sacrilege.”3 In other words, ugly, necessary, and true.



 

John David Rhodes is the author of Stupendous, Miserable City: Pasolini's Rome (Minnesota, 2007) and the editor, with Brian Price, of On Michael Haneke (Wayne State University Press, forthcoming). His essays have appeared in Modernism/Modernity, Film History, and Framework.

 

 



Notes

 

 

1 Immanuel Kant, The Critique of Judgment, J.H. Bernard, trans. (Amherst, NY: Prometheus Books, 2000), 103.

2 Theodor Adorno, Minima Moralia: Reflections from Damaged Life, E.F.N. Jephcott, trans. (London: Verso, 1974), 101.

3 Georges Bataille, “The Language of Flowers,” in Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939, Allan Stoekl, ed. (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1993), 12-13.