The Body in Question   /   Summer 2015   /    Signifiers


Wilfred M. McClay

Universal Composition, 1937, Joaquín Torres-García (1874–1949); photograph: Philippe Migeat; Musée National d’Art Moderne, Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France; © CNAC/MNAM/Dist. RMN-Grand Palais/Art Resource, NY; © copyright Alejandra, Aurelio, and Claudio Torres 2017.

We are living in an era of pervasive genteel disbelief.

Academia has a lot to answer for when it comes to the corruption and decay of our language. We all know about the impenetrable prose that has become academia’s stock in trade. But there are certain untoward developments that seem to be attributable to the rise of mass higher education, which has broken down the barrier between academia and public discourse, to the detriment of both. It is no coincidence that the years since World War II, which saw an astonishing rise in college enrollment have also seen a great many academic words and concepts finding their way into everyday speech. This is a process that has continued unabated, and it has nearly always tended to undermine the vigor and directness of our speech.

So now, instead of changing our minds, we undergo a “paradigm shift.” Instead of finding something risky, it has become “problematic.” Instead of a fanciful story being called a fable or a tall tale, it is dubbed “an urban legend.” Instead of identifying one’s intimate partner as something more or less determinate, he or she is one’s “significant other.” Instead of being self-centered, the insufferable young man is “narcissistic.” And one could go on.

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