Some academic texts seem extremely difficult, almost like they’re not meant to be understood. But I notice I get defensive when people talk about it that way.
Last Thursday, I was listening to a podcast at work (I had one of those hours-long braindead excel tasks to do so listening to podcasts keeps my mind engaged). It was from an episode from a podcast I really like, De Rudi en Freddie Show, in which two Dutch journalists analyse… well, anything. Normally, I really like them: they are leftist, idealistic, environmentalist, funny, down-to-earth and seem to really know what they are talking about. One of them is specialised in economy, the other is a historian that mainly focusses on utopian ideas (you might know him from this video).
This episode, they announced they wanted to talk about a book one of them had read, White Innocence by Gloria Wekker, a Dutch, black scholar on postcolonialism and gender studies at the University of Utrecht. I immediately got excited because I thought her book was really good. To my surprise, Jesse, the journalist who had read it, had not liked it at all.
Let me introduce what the books is about first. Gloria Wekker is a black woman in the Netherlands and her book is about racism in the Netherlands: part academic, part from a personal point of view. She tells about a few situations that happened to her personally, but also does some theoretical analysis of more historical cases. One of her main points is that there is still a lot of racism in the Netherlands, but that it is not talked about because Dutch people have this idea of themselves of being tolerant and non-racist. Hence, we still have a tradition like Black Pete (a blackface character within a children’s holiday) because it can’t be racist because we’re Dutch and we’re not racist.
Now, one thing Jesse does in the podcast is question whether some experiences Wekker describes are actually cases of racism. I would love to defend Wekker on that subject, and maybe I will in a later blogpost, but for now I want to focus on another point that was discussed in the podcast: research in the humanities.
The two journalists are clearly annoyed by Wekker’s writing. First of all, they think her research is not solid enough. They compare it to research within fields like sociology and say Wekker does not use enough data. It is true, the kind of analysis Wekker does is not based on a lot of data, it is more like a literary analysis. But I think, in the case of a subject like racism, this can be very valuable. Of course you can use fields like sociology to measure the amount of racism in a society. But I believe it is humanities that can best explain where these things come from, how something like racism is embedded in history, and also something subjective like someone’s personal experience of racism. Wekker isn’t trying to make a statistical point, she is explaining how racism works in very specific instances, and what it does with a person.
But what struck me most, and what I want to talk about now, is the disdain De Rudi en Freddie Show used to talk about certain kinds of philosophy. At some point, Wekker relates her ideas to writers like Franz Fanon and at a certain point she mentions doing an “Althusserian” analysis. This is accompanied by, well, academic language. She uses academic lingo that might be a bit more difficult to understand of your not familiar with the field. I have to say, I did not even find her writing that hard. I normally have quite a hard time with hardcore academic writing (I reading Deleuze right now and I’m dying) and I found Wekker very readable. But the fact that she doesn’t use day to day language is another reason for the journalists to write her off.
Even though I often struggle with academic language myself I do feel like it has a purpose. Yes, you can simplify things. I could summarize Deleuze with “You know, he just feels like everything is connected, in a way. And no hierarchies.” That’s a very simple, understandable explanation of this concept of the rhizome. However, things are more complex than that. When you want to completely change the people look at a certain structure, you might need to invent some new words. And you will need to explain those. And sometimes, the sentences in which you do that can become very long.
Now, I was thinking about this and I am writing this and I feel myself getting defensive of my field. Because in Literary Studies it is something that we run into a lot: difficult texts that many people don’t really understand and we bullshit around it in our papers and hope it works. How often have I not felt like the text was too difficult for me to understand and that I just hoped I pulled the quote enough out of its context to make sense for the point I was trying to make? Could it not be easier? On the other hand, when I read Freud’s analysis of The Sandman in my first year of Literary Studies I thought that text was extremely difficult and when I look back on it now I think it is quite readable and an interesting piece of psychoanalysis. All those difficult texts keep me on my toes, keep me challenged, make my mind long for more new insights. I think it is good that there are journalists like Rutger Bregman and Jesse Frederik who aim for simplicity. But I think we need this complex kind of philosophy as well.
I don’t know if I can look clearly at this subject yet. Truth is that if Bregman and Frederik are right my whole life is a joke and I have dedicated myself to a field that is based on absolutely nothing. That thought is scary and it makes it difficult for me to look clearly at the subject.