Friday, June 28, 2013

Extrapolating Orwell

I started the day with this Orwell recommendation from Paul Krugman which inevitably ended up with me rereading "Politics and the English Language."
Now that I have made this catalogue of swindles and perversions, let me give another example of the kind of writing that they lead to. This time it must of its nature be an imaginary one. I am going to translate a passage of good English into modern English of the worst sort. Here is a well-known verse from Ecclesiastes: 
I returned and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all. 
Here it is in modern English: 
Objective considerations of contemporary phenomena compel the conclusion that success or failure in competitive activities exhibits no tendency to be commensurate with innate capacity, but that a considerable element of the unpredictable must invariably be taken into account. 
This is a parody, but not a very gross one. Exhibit (3) above, for instance, contains several patches of the same kind of English. It will be seen that I have not made a full translation. The beginning and ending of the sentence follow the original meaning fairly closely, but in the middle the concrete illustrations — race, battle, bread — dissolve into the vague phrases ‘success or failure in competitive activities’. This had to be so, because no modern writer of the kind I am discussing — no one capable of using phrases like ‘objective considerations of contemporary phenomena’ — would ever tabulate his thoughts in that precise and detailed way. The whole tendency of modern prose is away from concreteness. Now analyze these two sentences a little more closely. The first contains forty-nine words but only sixty syllables, and all its words are those of everyday life. The second contains thirty-eight words of ninety syllables: eighteen of those words are from Latin roots, and one from Greek. The first sentence contains six vivid images, and only one phrase (‘time and chance’) that could be called vague. The second contains not a single fresh, arresting phrase, and in spite of its ninety syllables it gives only a shortened version of the meaning contained in the first. Yet without a doubt it is the second kind of sentence that is gaining ground in modern English. I do not want to exaggerate. This kind of writing is not yet universal, and outcrops of simplicity will occur here and there in the worst-written page. Still, if you or I were told to write a few lines on the uncertainty of human fortunes, we should probably come much nearer to my imaginary sentence than to the one from Ecclesiastes.
Reading Orwell on language probably left me even less tolerant of the sort of writing that would come out of something called an "Ideas Festival." For that reason, perhaps I should have skipped this article by Charles Pierce listing the most mockable items on the schedule, including the following (if, like Richard Burton, you love liquor and language, it might be a good idea to take a break and indulge your taste for the first):
Tutorial Session: How We Learn: Applying Eco-Systemic Design to Transform Higher Education for a Global World. 1:20 pm - 2:20 pm MDT on Friday, June 28, 2013. Design, writ large, has always dealt with varying levels of complexity. Designing eco-systemically is more than this. It is specifically about making things that have impact in complex and evolving contexts - from impact on the most personal and intimate level to systems of action that shape contexts for possible change. Eco-systemic design is about altering the context in which things reside so as to influence how those things behave and what they mean. It is about catalyzing new practices, new perceptions, and new relationships; creating new contexts that open up radically new possibilities. In this talk, we will use two case studies to show how the tool set of eco-systemic design is applied to higher education as both a global challenge and opportunity. Ann Pendleton-Jullian, John Seely Brown. Koch Building, Lauder Room.
The sad part is Ann Pendleton-Jullian and John Seely Brown are smart people, but the chances of an actual thought making it through that buzz-word buzz-saw are slight indeed.

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