ATTACKING ACADEMESE IN THE HUMANITIES: THE HARD SF VIEW (ON GREG EGAN’S TERANESIA)

Reading the SF novel Teranesia (1999) by Australian novelist Greg Egan, I’m surprised to find an anti-academese critique embedded in a key subplot.

The protagonist Prabir, a teenager, and his younger sister Madhusree lose their parents in the first segment of the book. The couple, Indian scientists doing research on a mysterious butterfly in a remote Indonesian island, are killed in terrible, war-related circumstances. The children survive to be eventually fostered by a cousin, Amita, who works as a ‘Diana Studies’ lecturer in Canada. Her ex-partner, Keith, whom she keeps around in case the children need a “male narrative” is also an academic specialising in ‘X-Files Theory’… Egan, whose domain is hard science-fiction, has a BA in Mathematics, according to Wikipedia, and used to make a living as a computer scientist before becoming an author. He has very little sympathy for the current theory-based Humanities discourse. Or maybe this is a case of seeing the Emperor’s clothes for what they are. Only he misses the point that there seems to be more than one Emperor.

Amita and Keith are good people, well meaning by the kids who are so unexpectedly dropped on their laps. It’s just that they speak academese all the time, the kind of jargon you do find in academic publications on Feminism, Literary Theory, Cultural Studies, etc. too often. Egan gets it right, to my great amusement, but quite humourlessly, forgetting that the liberal humanities crowd is doing much to get SF out of the ghetto. Including hard SF. I’m not going to defend that kind of molasses-thick prose whose meaning very often collapses the moment you attempt translation –not only into another language but into simpler terms. I’ll let you judge whether Egan goes too far.

One day brilliant Madushree returns from school, she’s just 9. What have you learned today?, Amita asks. Her lesson: since in the 1960s and 1970s people’s fight in the streets and the institutions for actual power –both in feminist and civil rights movements– was beginning to succeed, the concerned Government had to seek a solution to curb it down. In the 1980s the CIA, Madushree explains, “hired some really clever linguists to invent a secret weapon: an incredibly complicated way of talking about politics that didn’t actually make any sense, but which spread through all the universities in the world, because it sounded so impressive.”

The new babblers eventually hijacked street activism, and delegitimized its language, so that instead of shouting “‘How about upholding the universal principles you claim to believe in?’ the people in the social justice movements ended up saying things like ‘My truth narrative is in competition with your truth narrative!’” Logically, those in power could then dismiss their claims as unintelligible. “And the secret weapon,” Egan has his little puppet conclude, “lived on in the universities for years and years, because everyone who’d played a part in the conspiracy was too embarrassed to admit what they’d done.”

I agree with Egan that academic prose in the Humanities has been colonised by unnecessary, distorting jargon that seems designed to obscure rather than illuminate meaning. Obviously, there is no conspiracy, although I’m well aware that an inability to spout certain types of jargon is a serious obstacle to publication in many major journals. Whenever I hear someone confidently delivering a paper in a conference written in said jargon, I marvel at how it is done. It often feels like a foreign language embedded in English which I will never master. I do doubt that, apart from papers, though, people speak like this in real life, at least I’ve never heard anyone use the language Amita uses with the children in Teranesia. Language from which Prabir feels called to protect his sister to the point of claiming a very early emancipation from Amita, which even jeopardises his own education.

Madushree, who chooses to pursue an education as a scientist, plays in the late stages of Tiranesia a crucial role, though still an undergrad. Here’s the joke on Egan: these final chapters of his novel (too hurried, not that well written) reveal ultimately the inability of current scientific language to connect with the average reader. I trusted that the medical bio-babble his characters were spouting made sense in a scientific context, though some reviewers pointed that was not the case. The particular problem revealed by Egan’s dialogue, I’ll insist, is that hard SF highlights the enormous distance between scientists and non-scientists in our current culture. As everyone knows, of course, who is aware of the disputes in the field of SF between the hard and soft options.

Egan, of course, would tell you that unlike Amita and Keith he is using accurate language and that for him a spade is a spade. I can even hear Amita and Keith celebrating the complexity and richness of Egan’s scientific mentality, and even defending the idea that they’re contributing to creating a scientific vocabulary for the Humanities (as if criticism needs that). I just feel frustrated that while he sees that the Humanities’ Emperor may be naked, he does not see –quite stubbornly– that the Sciences’ Emperor is, if not naked, at least wearing very strange clothes.

I wonder how Egan and Amita would communicate if left alone for coffee. And if anyone listening in would understand a single word.

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