Saturday, January 21, 2006

Alien Transmission from planet Academic Obfuscation

I was reading David Tracy's Analogical Imagination this week for my Theology & Culture class. It's a book on theological method; Tracy is particularly concerned with the place of theology as a discipline within the broader academy, especially in a radically pluralist world like our own.

He's got lots of good stuff to say about meaning-laden cultural "classics," and especially, as one might guess, about the analogical imagination and how similarity-in-difference is the key to opening up theological insight. Still, I'm not sure in the end he offers anything more than a really, really open-minded and civil tolerance of other viewpoints while maintaining a firmly modernist position on Truth as finally and ultimately revealed in the Christ-event. (Not that there's anything wrong with that).

Anyway, like many University of Chicago folk, he writes with an incredibly specialized vocabulary, in thick convoluted prose that seems intended to obfuscate rather than clarify -- or at least it seems to me. But that may just be me.

The last time I encountered stuff like this, from Don Browning in my Practical Theology class, I was pursuaded that there were two possible explanations for my cluelessness. One was that I was in way over my head, and these guys were writing about SERIOUSLY deep stuff, and I wasn't ready to swim in that end of the pool. The other option was that these guys -- how else to put this -- just can't write. I don't know - maybe they get bonus academic brownie points for not being understood. Maybe you don't get tenure if your review committee comprehended more than half of your latest monograph.

Of course, as anyone learns in grad school, the two options mentioned above (they can't write/I can't read) are not mutually exclusive -- there might be elements of truth in both of them.

So I have found helpful when reading such thick stuff to try to summarize each paragraph in my own words. Fortunately, this was precisely the task before me: to write a précis on Tracy for our class. (By the way, the word "précis" is a perfectly wonderful academicism).

So here are two sample sentences, taken from p. 447, and then my decoding of same:

The need for conversation -- expressed in the differing strategies of confrontation, argument, conflict, persuasion, and above all, concentration on subject matter -- should free the theologian to the fuller contemporary possibility of an analogical imagination. Under the rubric of a comparative and critical hermeneutics, the real similarities and dissimilarities, the continuities and discontinuities present in the contemporary pluralist situation should be allowed their necessary emergence.

Keep talking. Keep thinking. But ya'll can disagree. It's all good.

(Thanks to my friend Chip Andrus for the southern influenced inflection).


bethany said...

I've run into similar reading angst. And I study... COMMUNICATION. I have a suspicion that there's a lot of academic posturing involved - even stupid ideas look smart at first when you have to decode it from all the jargon (if you're reading bad ideas in translation it's even more deceptive), plus everyone wants to prove that they can do it too.

Mary said...

Oh. Yes. I laughed reading the Tracy paragraph because my brain immediately switched modes ("All systems, power up!") and because I got through it and thought, "Jeez, that's a lot of words to say something relatively simple," which is exactly what you deduced.

I keep thinking my committee will reject my dissertation because it's just too easy to read: "I'm sorry, Mary, but this makes perfect sense. Please try again."