A general distrust of language

A word from everyday language, self-evident in literary studies, metaphorically used in anthropology, generalized in semiotics, ambivalently circulating in art history and film studies, and shunned in musicology, the concept of [insert own word here] seems to ask for trouble[1].

Foucault (1981) establishes in The Order of Things the difficulty and the precarious nature of the ‘human sciences’ and their uncertainty as sciences through “their dangerous familiarity with philosophy, their ill-defined reliance upon other domains of knowledge, their perpetually secondary and derived character, and also their claim to universality”[2]. As a field the humanities proceed in accordance with models or concepts borrowed from biology, economics, and the sciences of language.  This places the humanities in a position that at once makes them appear both minor, yet privileged in relation to all the other forms of knowledge to which they defer.


The adoption of processes that critique contemporary culture, while inclusive of non-art spaces, non-art institutions, and what can be considered non-art issues, blur the division between art and non-art. So too does the language used in the search for the democratic distribution of knowledge. Concepts are “the tools of inter-subjectivity: they facilitate discussion on the basis of a common language”[3] [and] because they are key to inter-subjective understanding, more than anything they need to be explicit, clear and defined[4]

However the whole scale adoption of concepts from the other sciences into the humanities has been identified as problematic, and since concepts are barely ever used in precisely the same sense, and while their usages can “be debated and referred back to the different traditions and schools from which they emerged, thus allows an assessment of the validity of their implications[5].

The problem arises when the contradictions in the terms/concepts and their descriptions from their original spheres are ignored. The theory surrounding the contradictions of the terms cannot be neglected and cannot be divorced from the systematic theory from which they emerge. The concepts we use in the humanities “need to mean the same thing for everyone, failure to do this results in our having the undesirable situation in which concepts are tenuously established, suspended between questioning and certainty, hovering between ordinary word and theoretical tool[6]”. The combined commitment to theoretical perspective and concepts on the one hand and to close reading on the other is in itself a continuous changing of the concepts, that bracket all meaning and eliminate none, does not solve any confusion as to the true meaning of a term, it increases it.

In order to “avoid misunderstandings in communication with others”, Meike Bal argues that the processes of change and meaning of a concept need to be assessed before, during and after each “trip”. This assessment, we know, rarely if at all ever happens. Bal’s interest “in developing concepts we could all agree on and use, or at the very least disagree on, in order to make what has become labelled ‘theory’ accessible to every participant in cultural analysis, both within and outside the academy”. This means that usage of concepts is particular, and consequently, meaningful disagreements can be made on content.

Her interest in developing concepts usable and agreed on, or at the very least disagree on, in order to make what has become labelled ‘theory’ accessible to every participant, both within and outside the academy. If Bal’s research is to be understood in any particular way, it is that she calls for a development of shared and agreed upon language that can “travel”, but the terms or common definitions of this “shared language”, I would argue, are still to be invented/ reinvented.

As Bal correctly, asserts: “concepts are not fixed. They travel – between disciplines, between individual scholars, between historical periods and between geographically dispersed academic communities. Between disciplines, their meaning, reach and operational value differ[7]” precisely for this this reason, I would argue that the definition and meaning of epistemological concepts should be fixed or at least far more descriptive. 

This is not to say that concepts should be rigid. The metaphor of ‘elasticity’, Bal mentions might be helpful in assessing the particular use of a concept, because “it suggests both an unbreakable stability and a near-unlimited extendibility.”[8] However, when the terms becomes so elastic as to be meaningless then they no longer solve a problem but by virtue of their all encompassing nature they become the problem. Bal herself rightly points out: that concepts are not to be regarded as labels and rather concepts (mis)used in this way lose their working force; they are subject to fashion and quickly become meaningless”. They become jargon; lose their content and nothing more, than tautologies. They ‘pretend’ to be a theory with greater impact and meaning, but they’re actually just a description of an absence.

Some concepts are so much taken for granted and have such generalized meaning that they fail to be helpful in actual practice how do we reclaim these concepts and apply them in a structured manner. Terms like collaboration, community, participation, relational social practice collective are just another way of saying ‘we are working together’ and none of them actually describe fully the complexities encapsulated in each conjuring of the term. All these terms are building up, in my opinion, into a glossary of complete abstractions, which for the most part can be, and increasingly are, misleading.

To argue, therefore for an ever expanding and increasingly elastic understanding of terms/ concepts results in circular arguments that in the end draw up back into the conundrum of how do we then define the term in question and how much of this definition is incontestable. Definitions by their nature serve to delineate what is included on the understanding of the term and its antitheses- what it directly opposes or does not mean. Which makes the simple “borrowing” of loose terms here and there not very helpful in describing aspects of cultural phenomena[9] they also do not offer a clear-cut, unambiguous formulation of terms – which Bal positions as “could at best be attempted but never achieved – but for its insistence[10]

Defining and analysing a concept can be a useful way of defining a research problem or phenomenon under study. To do that, it is important to reveal all the problems with the concept you are about to use. How far should a concept be allowed to travel until it is considered lost? How strictly should particular concept definitions be made?

[1] [Cit.5 ] Mieke Bal  2009, Pp. 21.Working with Concepts.  European Journal of English Studies. Published online: 17 June 2009. Avail: http://www.tandfonline.com/loi/neje20  [Cit. 2]

[2] Michel Foucault, 2001. The Order of Things (Routledge Classics). 2 Edition. Routledge. Pp380

[3] [Cit. 5 Bal 2009:19]

[4] Jacques Derrida is his 1995 paper Archive Fever: A Fruedian Impression, lengthy defines, and contextualises the term ‘archive’ from its original work ‘arkhe’, drawing back the relationship, and the difference of the terms to each other before divulging the function of the now defined ‘archive’ in the political context. In a similar explicatory fashion Hannah Arendt defines forgiveness and its constituents in the Human Condition 1958. These and other theoretical writers are of course the exception, instead of the norm.

[5] [Cit. 5 Bal 2002:29]

[6] [Cit. 5 Bal 2009:15]

[7] [Cit. 5 Bal 2009:19]

[8] [Cit.5 Bal 2009:17]

[9] [Cit.5 Bal 2009:17]

[10] [Cit.5 Bal 2009:18]

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