Created: 2000-03-05
Last Modified: 2000-03-05
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Communication: Should We Write to Be Understood?

J. Bradford DeLong



>Well, again I think the problem is a very simplistic and monocultural
>perspective on communication and meaning. I would think that editors
>would want articles with a communicational genre that relates to their
>purpose and audience. The style and organization would vary accordingly.
>Anything on the forefront of a particular area, particularly social
>theory would confront what Michael Shapiro calls the "dilemma of
>intelligibility". That is, at stake in the writing process is the
>confrontation of creativity with intelligibility. To communicate
>"effectively" is to sacrifice creative distance in order to produce
>understandable frames of reference. Communication operates within
>cultural bounds working constantly to restrict meaning in order to
>increase circulation.
>Of course, a major concern is the generation of a communication setting
>with sufficient mutual intelligibility to allow for practical or
>political engagement with what are recognized as problems in the
>predominant public discourse. This concern is what probably provokes
>reactionary statements like the one below. However, producing
>communicative signs may prove a hindrance in the creation or recognition
>of new solutions or viewpoints with sufficient distance from the
>normally prescribed. The other part of the intelligibility dilemma is
>the need to distance oneself sufficiently from common views to allow for
>a new frame of reference that can disclose unrecognized commitments and
>forms of subservience to aspects of power embedded within the
>communicational genre of intelligibility.
>Reading a TCI cable bill or instructions to operate your VCR might call
>for an information design which allows for simple reasoning or the
>coordination of motor movements but complex social analysis deserves a
>more fluid taxonomy for stretching the language and then hopefully
>provide for new ways of understanding.
>The strength of poststructural movement in postmodernism is that it was
>significantly more self-conscious of this process and looked to
>recognize the scripts embedded in what passes as common language and to
>provoke people to recognize the strong ideological positions masked in
>the communicational genre.

My Comment:

It is possible to express profound and difficult ideas in demanding and technical language. It is possible to try to express profound and difficult ideas in simple and everyday language (and to lose much of the content in the dumbing-down). It is possible to express simple and straightforward (but quite possibly very important and interesting) ideas in simple and everyday language. And it is possible to express simple and straightforward ideas in demanding and technical language.

Professor XXXXXXX has kindly provided us with a very highly developed example of the fourth category: simple ideas expressed in demanding and technical language.

Would anything be lost if we replaced his four paragraphs with, say, the following:

The more you dumb down the language that you use, the
less you can convey to those who have seen the terms and
ideas before, and already understand them. If we use only
commonplace terms and cliches, we will soon find that
everything we say is a commonplace or a cliche.

On the other hand, too many technical terms and too much
sloppy, convoluted, unedited prose may make it hard
for anyone outside a narrow, insular group to understand
what is being said--and runs the risk that authors will
so entangle themselves in their prose that nothing will
be said at all.

Unclear language is a hazard when you actually want the
reader to do something, like verify that their cable bill
is correct or turn on their VCR. But unclear language is
an asset in sociology: it allows you to say something
without necessarily knowing what you mean--thus escaping
the boundaries that our everyday language places around our
thoughts, and creating the chance of saying something
profound and new.

Poststructural postmodernism's key strength is that it makes
us recognize that what we know depends on how we talk:
strong conclusions that we may, upon reflection, wish to
reject can arise from ideas about how the world works that
hide inside our everyday language.

I don't think anything would be lost.

I don't think Professor XXXX's 400-plus words have any advantages *at all* over my 200 or so.

I think that my 200 convey all the ideas of Professor XXXX's in half the space, and about a quarter of the reader's time.

I think that the ability of a reader can *understand* my words relatively quickly is an important and powerful asset: it allows readers to start figuring out whether they agree that the production of "communicative signs may prove a hindrance in the creation or recognition of new solutions or viewpoints with sufficient distance from the normally prescribed."


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Professor of Economics J. Bradford DeLong, 601 Evans Hall, #3880
University of California at Berkeley
Berkeley, CA 94720-3880
(510) 643-4027 phone (510) 642-6615 fax

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