Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Lessons in Jargon: Examining What Obscures Effective Communication

I, like many others, have a visceral aversion to jargon. Jargon is most commonly associated with written and spoken communication in highly specialized areas that require advanced degrees, such as medicine, law, and especially doctorates in many subjects. What bothers me about jargon and those who employ it is that it seems to obscure the relevancy of what is being studied. To some degree, one's specialty must be easily-communicated for it to be relevant beyond the immediate audience of one's colleagues. As far as I can tell, most people who make the effort to get an advanced degree believe that their area of study is relevant, so why is it that some feel the need to actively make their specialty seem less relevant by employing jargon and impossibly confusing sentence structure?

As an effort to expose jargon and as a proposal to simplify communication by obliterating its usage, I present you with my first piece of evidence of this pretentious practice: "the gaze." How often have you read an article, particularly one about literature, film, or another cultural work, and seen this concept employed. One commonly sees terms like "the feminine gaze" in this context. Not surprisingly, the idea of "the gaze" came about in the 1960s advanced by such postmodern theorists as Michel Foucault and Jacques Lacan. Since the goal of the postmodernist movement seems to be to write as indecipherably as possible, jargon is at home among these thinkers. I remember first encountering the term in a pretty well-known article about Alfred Hitchcock's Rear Window that I read for my film studies class in high school by Laura Mulvey. It was by no means a bad or uninteresting article, but the constant use of the term "gaze" made it more difficult to comprehend.

What is "the gaze?" According to the ever-reliable Wikipedia, it is a concept that "deals with how an audience views other people presented." Just by looking at someone, it is proposed that a power structure is established, usually one in which the dominant party is directing the gaze and the submissive party is receiving it. To use Rear Window as an example, L.B. Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart) is purported to direct a gaze at his girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelley) that projects a sort of fantasy unto her. Fremont is perpetually the one being gazed at and never the gazer (is that a word?), which therefore proves that the Hollywood film has a male-centric concern. The gaze is therefore a way of looking at women.

I'm not necessarily proposing that Mulvey is wrong about this but rather that she is unhelpful in her analysis. Why need one use the term "gaze" to describe a complex relationship between these two characters? In my opinion, it would be much more helpful if a scholar like Mulvey were to rely more on textual evidence and less on outside theory--i.e. scenes where Jeffries tries to mold Fremont and the accompanying camera, mis-en-scene, etc. techniques-- that help convey this relationship. This in fact would avoid the substitution of a scholar's own thoughts or agenda and allow as much as possible for the integrity of the text to come out. Using the term "gaze" allows the scholar to characterize an unproven intent of a principal character (i.e. speculating on what this character is thinking when s/he looks at another person). It makes it easier to not rely upon textual evidence, and moreover, it is a word that becomes a bit confusing for the reader who is familiar with its common meaning but not with its academic meaning.

Therefore, I submit "the gaze" as an abused and overused word-concept of academia, as a jargon violation of the highest order!


KD-DK said...

:-) I do agree to your feelings about the usage of jargons. I too was worried about myself not able to understand most of these jargons especially when reading/talking to others, esp when the topic is something exotic. However, over the recent years, I have come to understand that jargons are necessary. not for making the whole idea obscure or difficult to apprehend, but to capture the essence of the speciality involved. One good reason for this could be bcos of the human tendency to not appreciate things that comes easily. Jargons give that impression of the complexity and as most of them are (as you rightly said) domain specific,and hence give that punch to language for the topic. Anyways, at the end of the day, its always the readers right to form impression about the article just read !!

Chris said...

Ah...the gaze...the reason why you see it so often is because it's such a convenient theory...at least the lacanian one. As with pretty much all theory, it's far too easy to interpret through theory than with the help of theory because it takes little thinking. So, anything with a mirror or a painting (Picture of Dorian Gray, for example) can be conveniently associated with "the gaze"...I admit being guilty of such practices a couple of times.

Nevertheless, since scholars are such an egotistical bunch, they have to agree on common terms that make up "discourse" - their word for jargon collectively. Those terms can have as many definitions as scholars that use them, since many define them in their own way, in which case, those terms become, to use another overused post-modern theoretical concept, "overdetermined." When you read these pieces of criticism one usually spends much more time talking about the author's definitions of terms rather than on the text criticized.

This is part of the reason why I could never become an academic, no matter how tempting it might be. But, hey, academics need stuff to keep them busy...no one said it had to be useful. If you read Erasmus, you'll find out it's been going on for centuries.

Elaine said...

Thanks for both comments. My big issue with jargon is that it often becomes easier for academics to rely on it to communicate than to actually communicate. Sometimes it's not easy to articulate what one means to say, but it can be very satisfying to do it clearly and succinctly, even if one has to spend a little time on it.

Chris, I know what you mean about spending more time on a definition of the keywords than on the work itself. Last year I had to read Emmanuel Levinas for a class and subsequently our professor had to give a lecture that reiterated--albeit in comprehensible English--what Levinas had written.

I guess jargon is a byproduct of an increasingly (and necessarily) specialized society.

Lauren said...

Have you ever met Carol Simpson Stern? She's a professor in the Performance Studies department who's firmly anti-jargon, and has done research on the way it's used and mis-used in education.

Elaine said...

Oooh, she sounds cool!