Humanities Buzzwords

FM compiles a brief abridged lexicon for easy midnight-hour use.

“The canon has oft limned mimetically,” types the frantic thesis-scrambling freshman, “but its constant commodification demands to be problematized and deconstructed. Luckily, though, the postmodern paradigm is shifting, rendering the contemporary discourse intersectional.”

David Foster Wallace had a thing or two to say about this sort of slapdash, overwrought writing, deeming its word choices acceptable only in “a university course taught by a professor so thoroughly cloistered, insecure or stupid as to believe that academese constitutes intelligent writing. A required course, one that you can’t switch out of.”

Sadly such classes pervade our course catalogue, and though Wallace hated all those normative probs-patriarchal signifiers, he was also a firm believer in “do what you need to do” when it comes to adopting the language of your overloads. (See his essay “Authority and American Usage.”) In that sympathetic vein, FM compiles a brief abridged lexicon for easy midnight-hour use on all those cloistered, insecure, stupid professors:

Problematize: To eat a piece of the chocolate-ganache birthday cake your friend spent all day preparing, find it delicious, and then go onto complain that it should have been carrot. Responsible for the prevalent belief that the humanities concentrators are cranky grandparents who ruin family events by whining endlessly without proposing any solutions.

Intersectionality: The term was coined in 1989, when, apparently, academics woke up and noticed that problems intersect. From the Big Bang up to 1989, it seems, all issues sat around minding their own business with strict borders. You know, people were either hungry or thirsty but never both, systematically oppressed for one discrete reason at one discrete time. Until—BAM—cultural studies realized that gender, race, class, ability, sexual orientation, religion, caste, age, etc. do not in fact exist in autonomous bubbles. Best used in conjunction with the phrase “multidimensional conceptualizations.”

Limn: The most pretentious and simultaneously gaudy synonym for “portray” or “describe.” Sure sign of synonym laziness. Unless, of course, you were wise enough to use dashboard’s snarky Thesaurus, which warns “This is the phoniest word in the critic’s vocabulary […] It’s one of those words that wants to be urbane and debonair but are somehow really ugly, pushy, and nouveau riche.”

Deconstruct: Once upon a time, in a far away land, there was a castle in which lived a beautiful princess, Jacques Derrida, who used this word with a wondrously precise definition: close reading employed to unveil a (philosophical) text’s paradoxes, to show how its logic, at every point, contracts and undoes itself. Then a dragon burnt the castle to the ground, and the term became a catch-all, amp-up-your-discourse verb for any critical or interpretive enterprise. Which makes phrases like “deconstruction of the deconstructive deconstructed castle” a-o-deconstructive-kay.

Postmodern: A fabulously flexible descriptor for any text/artwork/phenomenon that seems tinged with irony, meta-anything, pata-anything, parody, problematized history, problematized narrators, a lack of ontological truth, nihilism, etc. Certified for use on anything post-1980. Certified for a controversial “ground-breaking” thesis when used on anything pre-1960. Bonus: That’s called proto-postmodernism.

Mimesis: An imitation, representation, or copy of something else—or the process of making that copy. Usually the copy is art and the something else is life, unless you’re proto-postmodern. Guaranteed paper topic for any survey English course, as in: “How does this text/author/episteme/ movement/word conceive of mimesis and why?” Which I’ll problematize/deconstruct by pointing out that Plato coined the term disparagingly to explain why he would banish art—a mere banal imitation of life, itself a banal imitation of the forms—from the Republic.

Bonus: Adjectival form is “mimetic,” which sets you up for this go-to section comment: “The [formal element] is mimetic of [previously analyzed content].” *Cue jaded TF orgasm*

Commodification: Wake up and smell the $$$ people. The world is one big commodity, and no one is safe, and every art piece you’ve ever loved was the result of patronage/market forces/good old fashioned economics. Has it gotten worse in postmodernism? Maybe, but only because we realized things were intersectional, and one of those sections was capital. But, at the end of the day, there’s no better way to problematize than call out some commodification.

Empty Adjectival Antonym: Authentic.

Discourse: When humans talk, they call it a conversation. If they know the word discourse, they call it a discourse.

Paradigm: There’s only one thing you need to know: it’s shifting.

Canon: Limns mimetically. Probably commodified. Waiting to be problematized and deconstructed. Luckily, the postmodern paradigm has shifted, so the discourse is more intersectional.