academic name dropping

So right now, as we speak, I am in the center of a typhoon of academic name dropping.

A little while ago, two women I work with ran into Judith Butler in the cafe in our building. It’s not that uncommon to see high profile, “famous” academics from Berkeley in these parts. But the encounter has led to a full discussion of all the various post-structuralist, post-mondernist, feminist, queer theorists that they have ever seen, spoken with, ran into on a train in New York, taken a class with at Stanford, or would even want to meet in a crowded bathroom at an A’s game.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m all for being a fan of academics and deep thinkers in the same way that most folks are fans of the next American Idol. But to be in the middle of this conversation where people are name dropping and talking like academics, using two and three bit words, throwing out Big Ideas in the way that people do to make themselves look smart — ugh.

Ugh I say. I know I’m guilty of the same. I know that I talk that way at times. But I save the times that I speak like an academic for when I am in the company of my advisors. Or when I’m writing.

Maybe it’s that thing about language. Maybe it’s that I love language; but, more to the point, I love it when people use language appropriately. That is, when people know their audience. Or their context. And when people always speak like an academic, it makes me wonder if they they’ve fallen victim to the idea that the academic has authority over language and that certain kinds of language are “better” or more “correct” than others. That using prim and proper English sans slang is the only way to speak. And that those of us who have mouths like sailors in everyday conversation are not only butchering language but are, in point of fact, just not as intelligent.

I’m reminded of an Inside the Actor’s Studio episode I saw with Richard Gere who took the ultra conservative understanding of the Buddhist precept against “false or malicious” speech to mean that one shouldn’t swear. Therefore, in answer to James Lipton’s question, “What is your favorite swear word,” Mr. Gere said, “I don’t,” wearing his over-sized mala beads in such an obvious way as if he was advertising his Buddhism. But it comes off to me as pretentious.

Language is powerful. Look at this rant if you don’t believe me. Look how riled up I am from just being in the room with it.

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