Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Plain Mystifying

Noosa Lee at That's So Pants and Ms Baroque cheer Germaine Greer for her sarcastic response to her 'Golden Bull' award from the Plain English Campaign. Prof Greer receives this award for the following sentence in a Guardian article on October 23rd:
The first attribute of the art object is that it creates a discontinuity between itself and the unsynthesised manifold.
'The unsynthesised manifold', as Greer explains in her more recent article, is a phrase from Kant's Critique of Judgement which should be familiar to students of aesthetic theory, and Greer says, to 'most reasonably educated Guardian readers'.

Now I agree with those who have said that the PEC are barking up the wrong tree here (legalese and political obfuscation are surely the better targets), and it's also true that, as Ms Baroque illustrates with examples from their web site, there is a dangerous linguistic dumbing-down tendency in their philosophy and practice.

But, I don't know... Maybe it's the ex-secondary-school teacher in me, a teacher of rehoused Gorbals kids who had arrived at secondary school at the age of twelve unable to read... Those contemptuous sniggers when I didn't make myself understood, those life chances which failure to understand meant those kids wouldn't get... Maybe it's the ex-twelve-year-old in me whose uneducated relatives looked so dismayingly uncomfortable when I used big words they didn't understand... But, the thing is, I'm not very happy with that elitist supposition about 'most Guardian readers', Greer's assumption (in her original article) that she had no need even to say where that phrase comes from, leave alone what it means.

It's all a question of who you are writing for, I suppose. Are you writing only for those who already understand everything about the subject you're addressing, or are you prepared to include those who don't?


Adrian said...

Agree totally, if it's a quote, put it in quotations. Or, if its an allusion, you can still cheer up those people who get it, but illuminate those who haven't read it. It's not about education, its about scope - and yes, she's right to complain about the Plain English Campaign, but as always, she protests too much. Has she thought about a blog?

Ms Baroque said...

The thing is, in the original article on October 23, Germaine Greer amply explained the phrase right after she used it. As I said, it is a crystalline piece of writing; it made me want to go out and look at art!

In yesterday's article Greer also abundantly explains why she thought it was all right to use the phrase. I agree, the pull-quote was over the top. I've never read Kant (shock). I note the subs removed the modifier to make it more attention-grabbing.

Elizabeth Baines said...

If she explained in the original article then I take it all back!

Elizabeth Baines said...

However, I've just looked at the original article again and I can't say I agree that she does explain:

'The first attribute of the art object is that it creates a discontinuity between itself and the unsynthesised manifold. It may do this merely by displaying a signature, or by sitting on a plinth, or by enclosing itself in a box or a frame.'

What she explains is how she considers the work of art creates the discontinuity (between itself and the unsynthesised manifold) but she doesn't actually define the term 'unsynthesised manifold' or say where it comes from. It is true that we may infer from the rest of the paragraph that by it she means the 'painter's reality' or 'life', but firstly this requires the kind of intuitive leap from the reader which an explicatory passage should not require (although I know that much art criticism does require it!), and secondly, 'reality' and 'life' are inadequate substitutes for the phrase as she now explains it.(If they were, then presumably she need not have used it.)

Elizabeth Baines said...

If they were adequate, I mean.

nmj said...

I have not read Kant either, so am not worthy of Germaine Greer's supposition. I would have had no clue what 'unsynthesised manifold' meant.

That's so pants said...

The term 'unsynthesised manifold' is not common currency as a quick google search will reveal. Greer is given to ludicrous pomposity as we all know. I have lampooned her before for it. The 'most Guardian readers' bit is clearly the raving of a demented Rapunzel held captive in an ivory tower. However, the PEC people infer the phrase has no meaning and that is plainly not true. We should challenge the ignorance of these people who set themselves up as arbiters for the linguistic boundaries of public discourse. Next they'll be suggesting that Einstein's Theory of General Relativity is meaningless becaus it has too many big words in it and most people don't know what it's for. It was the Guardian rather than The Mail. I also think there is something very wrong in allowing self-consciousness about the inequalities in education to threaten the continuing development of critical theory. If Greer was talking pants then she should be challenged but she wasn't and that's the point. I'm a Guardian reader and I read both articles with great interest and learned something. I don't want to read stuff I already know. Rather than build a protective barrier between the growing numbers of people who receive an inadequate basic education and academia, I think we would be better off demanding higher educational standards across the board. Then everyone can choose if they're interested in discussing art or not based on a knowledge of what's out there. Let's not forget that the most important art galleries in this country are free and that most cities have them.

Elizabeth Baines said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Elizabeth Baines said...

That's So Pants: Yes, the PEC implication that the phrase has no meaning is outrageous, but my point is that they wouldn't have made this mistake if Greer had briefly revealed its provenance. The point was that it was a specialist term and they didn't know that, and Greer didn't provide enough of a context for them in the more general overall context of a newspaper for them to realise it. It is important to remember that Greer was not writing an academic paper but for a more general readership. Ignorance is something that needs to be dissolved, not ignored (if you see what I mean!) and then got angry about. I personally think it's sad and funny, as well as dangerous, when ignorance leads people into postures of mistaken authoritarianism as has happened here, but I think those armed with education bear most responsibility for preventing this from happening through clarity.

I'm not so sure that a self-consciousness about the inequalities in education is likely to threaten the development of critical theory. Critical theory seems to be going along very nicely without the interest or even awareness of the of the general population and vice versa (I don't understand a lot of it, and I'm a woman with an English degree and a constitutional interest on such matters). And as for bridging that educational gap, it seems to me that those in academia can contribute to that when writing for more general publications by explaining their terms if they judge that some readers (leave alone most) may not be familiar with them. As I say, it depends on that judgement. By not doing so, or by judging wrongly, they are the ones building a protective barrier outside of which people can make those goofy PEC mistakes.

All I can say (though I guess I've already said it) is that as a schoolteacher you soon learn that if you don't quickly make yourself clear you've had it, and more importantly, so, in the long run, have the kids.