World from Words

Monday, 23 April 2012

I've been reading a few pieces recently - notably Raimond Gaita's piece in Meanjin and a piece by Will Self on the BBC website.  Both deal with language, and its absence.  Both talk about with the way language - or its lack - defines or flattens our own worldviews.  We are so close to words, they are so powerful, that a few new words into your understanding and wham, out puffs the world, larger and better and more complex and more beautiful than it was before.

That is the power of words.

Raimond Gaita's focus is on the university, and about its scholarly limitations when it has been so enshrouded managerial newspeak - where students are now customers:
It is no small matter, the ubiquitous success of managerial newspeak in the characterisation of university life. Students who learn to speak it, confident in no other language with which to express what it can mean to be a student, will not have the words with which to identify the deepest values of their education and thereby to claim its treasures as their inheritance.

An example will illustrate the point. Recently when I gave a public lecture at the Melbourne Law School, in which I lamented the ways managerial newspeak had estranged politicians, civil servants, school teachers, academics and others from the deepest values of their vocations, a student said at question time that he did not object to being described as a customer in his dealings with his teachers. In fact, he went on to say, he welcomed it because it enabled him to hold them to account if they did not deliver the product the university had advertised.

... I suspect that the student in my example welcomed being described as a customer because customers know—or can set out to know—how to demand value for money. Customers typically know what they want and what counts as getting it. The trouble, however, as I hope my example shows, is that students are initiated into things they don’t understand and which take time to understand. If they are well taught, they discover worlds they had never dreamed of and whose exploration requires disciplines that, at their deepest, can never adequately be captured in the forms they fill out at the end of the semester to assess their lectures and lecturers. When we describe students as customers we do not create a suitable means to enable them to hold their teachers to account. We make many of their teachers servile because they become fearful. We then betray the trust of the students and their teachers.
Well, just quietly, fuck you, managerially-newspeaking universities - and yes, my current one is no exception.   To now gain the higher benefits from your education requires a complete rejection of the values which underscore the university from which you are getting that education.  Your systems and your financial bottom line are not the most important thing here.  Your ability to change the minds of your students, to wake them up, to tap into what they yearn for - that's the most important thing here.  But I can't say that anymore, can I?  Because the university and the culture have removed, stone by stone, any lanes that lead to the space where everybody understands why this is true.  All there are left are empty floating grey bubbles where all the words once were.

Strange times we live in, folks.

It is no coincidence that my university is a lot sexier than it was when I first started there back in 1998.  New, sexier buildings ... but do I detect a faint dumbing down of the syllabus from when I first began back then?  Uh, duh.  (And even back then the dumbing down had begun).

And so I have decided in this little corner of Discombobula that in retaliation I am going to soon begin a series here on words that puff out the world from the small little corporatised bullshit we've become accustomed to into the bigger space that we feel it is.  Words that have fallen by the wayside because they're too big to tweet, too complex to learn in under five seconds, too sexy to fit into McLanguage. 

Are there any words (or phrases) that you hold dear, that you have come upon in your life, delved into, swilled around in your mouth, and had puff out into your world?  Words that have enriched you, made everything feel more mysterious because with your learning them an entire city has fallen onto your horizon to be explored?

Because that's the power of words.


  1. Great post. I just lurve 'McLanguage', Sue:) The 'best' words, concepts point far beyond themselves to a wordless reality. Even as I speak or write them I sense their incompleteness, transitoriness. There have been many, especially recently, which have grabbed me for a while, before passing on into the void. I use as few as possible now, but 'oneness', even with all its trendy connotations, continues to fascinate. I look forward to this series:)

  2.  I think that's what's so delicious about them, that pointing but never being able to contain.

    And it's why McLanguage is so distressing because though not infinite, they do point there.  :)


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