Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Academic Cliche Watch: "I want to argue that . . ."

Today I was reminded of another huge pet peeve of mine - academics who preface what they're about to say with "I want to argue that . . ."  It's a problem with two parts - it's both obviously annoying and, more subtly, anti-intellectual.

Like "In particular ways," "I want to argue that . . ." is completely unnecessary verbage that gets in the way of the meat of a statement.  If you cut the phrase out of any sentence that it begins, the thrust of the sentence doesn't change.  To wit:

  • "I want to argue that Avatar provides a completely unearned and politically counterproductive catharsis for white, Western guilt over colonialism and racist exploitation."
  • "Avatar provides a completely unearned and politically counterproductive catharsis for white, Western guilt over colonialism and racist exploitation."

The comparison makes clear that while "I want to argue that . . ." adds nothing to the content of the first sentence, it does have a function - to make the claim seem more cautious and hedged.  It's the academic equivalent of "Well, this is just my opinion, but . . ."  The problem is that if you want to be a responsible academic, you can't hedge, soft-pedal or whisper.  You have to stand behind your claims, and "I want to argue that . . ." signals that you're unwilling to fully commit.  In short, the phrase is a way for intellectual cowards to shirk responsibility for the words that dribble out of their mouths and pens.

I've noticed, equally, that this hesitation is often a self-fulfilling prophecy, as tentative claims are backed up by watery proofs.  What follows "I want to argue that . . ." is actually not an argument, but a conclusion - the phrase, when used responsibly (if still unnecessarily), is setting the audience up for the argument that follows by letting them know where they're heading.  But with surprising frequency, "I want to argue that . . ." is a way for people to call something an 'argument' that is actually pure assertion - not just a conclusion, but an unsupported one. This limpness must surely seem more justifiable when you've started out by declaring that, well, it's just little ol' me, but . . .

There's something here in common with the past decade's grievous debates about evolution, in which opponents demanded that it be described in schools as "just a theory," without recognizing that in scientific parlance, a "theory" is a well-supported, documented, and carefully constructed system of evidence and proof.  "I want to argue that . . ." implies, albeit subtly, a similarly blinkered attitude toward argument -  that this is 'just an argument,' and therefore all of its claims must be understood as conditional and tentative.  But the function of an intellectual community depends on a certain self-deception: while it's true that the academic project as a whole is constantly evolving and permanently contingent, at any given moment we have to stake our own claims with firm belief.  While what we're saying may very well be ridiculed, overturned, and forgotten as soon as it reaches an audience, the strength of the collective enterprise depends on even the most wrongheaded ideas being argued carefully and with some energetic persistence.  If we constantly remind ourselves that what we're saying is momentary and contingent, we are that much less likely to approach our projects with conviction.  "I want to argue that . . .", then, is not just annoying clot - it contains a subtle message that undermines the project of intellectual inquiry as a whole.

Notwithstanding some productive Twitter debate over what exactly a 'cliche' is, I've gotten good feedback about the first installment in this series (now it really is a series - with two whole installments!).  Because who doesn't love a good rant?  A rant being a thing driven by inspiration, it's hard to say whether a strict schedule would be feasible, but I think these will be coming with increasing regularity.  Next up: "Indeed" and "Of Course."

*P.S. - The Avatar example above is essentially the core claim of a panel I organized and will be presenting at NCA in San Francisco in November.  Be there or be square.


Stephen Lavelle said...

While I can understand your recommendation that people cut out unnecessary verbal baggage and make good bleedin' arguments, you go a bit too far for my liking - your academic ideal seems to side towards a form of advocacy.

You claim that self-deception is necessary, but you have not demonstrated this to be the case.

Unknown said...

Well, if you don't think you're engaging in advocacy with your writing, we'll have to agree to disagree. Every message is tendentious, even if you're an archival historian or a physicist. The question is whether or not you take responsibility for that inevitable advocacy. Maybe self-deception is a bit too strong a term - You simply need to be able to simultaneously believe in your stance and be ready to have it corrected.

Michael Widner said...

What about the alternate "I will argue"? Sometimes that can serve the useful purpose of making what's unique about your contribution clear. Leaving it out can make the argument seem more a statement of fact or something that's just in the air rather than a result of your own thought.

Unknown said...

"I will argue" has less of the problem of conditionality and hesitation. (I don't know if I quite clearly captured the most annoying implication of the "I want to . . ." - that it pre-declares itself to be just an ATTEMPT). But I'm still not sure either is ever really necessary - they're both trying to do things that should be conveyed structurally. It should be obvious when you're previewing your argument, without you having to say "Now I'm going to preview my argument." "I will argue" is definitely less egregious, though, because less wheedling.

darknessatnoon said...


Unknown said...

Oh, ACE man. Great link, thanks, that's going to get reposted.