Translating English Into English

In a tweet on April 23, 2015, the anthropologist David Graeber lamented the “disastrous fate of anthropology: of 4 top-sellers on Amazon, 3 are different editions of Guns, Germs, and Steel.” The book is the hugely popular 1997 monograph which argues that Western society’s vast material wealth, and the Global South’s respective poverty, can be attributed to a geographical accident—the development of agriculture in Eurasia. Diamond, not an anthropologist by trade, was widely castigated by those in the field for his “one-note riff” of a book.[1] Anthropologist Jason Antrosio said that the book did a huge disservice to the telling of human history, both erasing human agency and abdicating Europeans from taking responsibility for their murderous conquests. Unfortunately, Diamond’s “story-telling abilities are so compelling that he has seduced a generation of college educated readers.”[2] Diamond’s critics painted him a magician, spellbinding his audience with narrative and hypnotizing them into accepting his severely flawed thesis.

Now, as a college educated person who has  read Guns, Germs, and Steel and enjoyed it, I need to tell you that at no time while reading Jared Diamond’s book did I feel like I was being confounded or hexed. I know, I know, what if I just haven’t noticed because I’m still under a dark curse cast by a scientist who can actually write. But seriously, Antrosio’s assumption that the book’s engrossing prose and human story befuddled millions is the classic elitist sentiment that says “if it’s popular, it can’t be good.”  Peasants with mere bachelor degrees aren’t capable of reading critically. It’s up to me, the wise college professor, to elucidate this clumsy analysis, using my work instead!

The historical analysis Guns, Germs, and Steel offers is far from perfect. It falls victim to ecological determinism, and I agree with many critics that Diamond’s depiction of human agency across history is downplayed. But Diamond raises interesting questions about the world, in words that people without a PhD can understand. Most importantly, Diamond’s book offers a gateway to many more conversations in anthropology and other disciplines, which could offer more nuanced views of our world. Backlash against well received books and media is appropriate and necessary, but I only wish that academics would take Diamond’s case as a lesson that the books that get read are well written, and the books that don’t get read, are poorly written. Which are the ones academics write. Oh, no one’s read my research on the history barrel making in the Byzantine Empire? You obviously haven’t met my dissertation committee!

I wish people would read academic texts because I find interesting topics in them all the time. In a recent issue of the scholarly journal African Affairs, there was an article about Nigerian Muslims making the hajj to Mecca during British rule. When I read that, my mind overflowed with wonder. Who are these people? What were their lives like? These are the questions that people want to get answered. Unfortunately, historical nuance often needs to be sacrificed to construct a compelling narrative which will stir the interest of a reading public. That’s a sacrifice more should be willing to make, so that we can get these stories out.

A professor of mine told me that history teachers need the moral courage to make generalizations to their students, even when they know that the real events were more complicated. Historians and other social scientists need that courage if their disciplines are going to remain relevant. We need more people to blur the line between academic and popular writing. It is possible to research rigorously and write a lucid story that people will enjoy reading. If more social scientists bring their research interests to a broader audience, readers could become more engaged on global issues. It’s good for academics too! Your writing will finally be read by people who aren’t in a committee or on an editing board! Can you imagine?

It can be real. Free yourself from the chains of jargon. Embrace the language of the common people. Get feedback from a person with a real job. Cease the obfuscation of your discourse through the forfeiture of your ego.

[1] Antrosio, Jason, 2013. Real History versus Guns Germs and Steel. Living Anthropologically, http://www.livinganthropologically.com/anthropology/guns-germs-and-steel/.

[2] Ibid.

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One thought on “Translating English Into English

  1. I love how you call out “elitist sentiment” that if it’s popular, it can’t be that good. That same mentality, I argue, is why university PhD writing programs produce a slew of writers trying way too hard to seem as sophisticated as a PhD program teaches them they should be (instead of focusing on writing a good “story”). Thank you for publicizing the riff between Graeber and the scientific community, and bringing attention to the popular vs academic debate. Now, with the proliferation of the internet and interdisciplinary programs, I understand why certain disciplines (anthropology in this case) are protective of their ranks, as half-ass or mediocre scholarship needs to withhold the test of scrutiny. Yet you also agree that any “backlash” is part of the program, so I’m confident you’re not out to poo-poo academia, but to instead urge then to pay more attention to story. “The books that get read are well written,” you write, and I couldn’t agree more! Nice job on choosing the links as well.

    Your discussion about the article on Nigerians Muslims and their pilgrimage to Mecca is interesting, particularly in your relating of the passion it brings to you. I do wonder, though, what was it about that article that captured your attention, besides the topic? That is, I want to hear about what made the “good writing” in that article. The most compelling thing about your critique, to me, is how you sell it to academics: hey all, resort to some generalizations, search for a clear meaning of things, pay attention to the “story” through which you present your material, and sit back and enjoy your commercial and personal success! In the end, you are right: forfeit the ego. Take a look at our own institution if you want to see that ego in action! A well-written and intriguing critique!

    Like

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