Ad impossibilia nemo tenetur, at isti ne possibilia quidem perficiunt.
Questo saggio sullo scrivere pretenzioso, analogo a quello dei mandarini cinesi, non è stato abbastanza meditato. Quindi non è purtroppo servito a nulla come contravveleno. Anzi, lo scrivere mandarinesco e nebuloso, per nascondere il vuoto cranico dietro una nube di chiacchiere pretenziose, continua a dilagare. Anche in Italia ne abbiano vari esempi: gente che scrive l’italiano come fosse turco. I cialtroni stanno portando la geografia (e l’università nel suo insieme) allo sfacelo.
Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers (1983), 8, 4, pp. 400-420.
The Mandarin dialect:
an essay on style in contemporary geographical writing
Department of Geography, University of Cambridge
Human geography has witnessed the emergence in recent years of a particular style of writing. This style whilst claiming to capture with richness and subtlety the richness of the human subject and its node of cognition, has in fact served different and more covert purposes: the perversion of meaning, the disguised mediocrity of sentiment, the inflation of the authors’ self-regard and the representation as profound of ideas which are in reality clichéd or banal. This paper discusses the tradition from which such writings spring and advocates a return to a more “normal” style of writing in the tradition of the best academic journalism: a style which performs its proper function — the transmission of information and interpretation — without unnecessary artifice.
Modern writing at its worst does not consist in picking out words for the sake of their meaning and inventing images in order to make the meaning clearer. It consists in gumming together long strips of words which have already been set in order by someone else, and making the results presentable by shear humbug.1
If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious even to yourself.2
The impulse to write an essay such as this may spring from many sources; not least from an irritation with what is currently in vogue: with popular stylistic devices, contemporary “literary” habits, modern conventions. It is in the nature of “ways of writing” that fashions change and that each new readership re-assesses what is good and bad in the expression of its predecessors. When particular writing characteristics establish for themselves a place in the literature of a subject, their innovators may establish too a powerful currency: a currency for which they may or may not be “good”. But one thing is clear: nothing corrupts the geographical literature of our time more than fadishness, verbal trickery and the uncritical employment of unnecessary literary conceit, and in this sense, the impulse to write may stem equally from misgiving: from the need to exorcise from one own’s style the rococo tendencies of much modernistic prose and to re-establish what may pass for a “normal” unaffected manner of writing: a manner which says what it means — no more and no less. The balance between journalism (the conventional reporting style normally employed in academic writing) and creative writing (the literary styles more typical of novelists, poets and dramatists) is ripe for re-examination.
Insidious habits are creeping into the writing of geography. Perhaps a reaction to the flat homogeneity of an earlier period, a new style has become acceptable, even mandatory, and the dapper among us are exihibiting it with relish. The sonorous phrase is in, clear expression is out. Ostentatious, nonsensical and artificial by turns, the new form is increasingly de rigueur. It has balance and élan, passion and commitment, it has imagery, metaphor, simile and hyperbole, flamboyance and energy — in fact everything save honesty of intention and meaning. Living to the well-turned phrase, the daring (and frequently irrelevant) flight of fancy and the elaborately-tooled purple passage, it lives for little else. The rest is padding and pretty poor at that. It does nobody and nothing — least of all the reputation of the discipline — any good, though its authors doubtless consider it “stylish” and that is enough. It is ART and it proclaims itself thus. This piece is written with STYLE. Conversely, those who do not succumb to the delights of the new cult are seen as lacking in a fundamental way: in originality, virtuosity, seriousness, “significance” and, by implication, depth of purpose. In short STYLE is all, and you have either got it or you haven’t.
Though the historiography of this particular stylistic position is of less than paramount concern here (it is considered briefly below), two observations are of contextual interest: first that, like many of the more general attitudes it reflects, the pre-occupation with style harks back to the literature and philosophy of the inter-war years when many of the writers invoked by current geographical “stylists” — Joyce, Kafka, Beckett, Eliot, etc. — were at their most active, whilst more interestingly the contemporary of its development in geography and the flashy popularizer of the wider gospel implied, was none other that Marshall MacLuhan of “the medium is the message” fame. Secondly and relatedly, it is worth noting that the opponents of this shallow stylistic doctrine — the proponents of clear language (Orwell, Connolly etc.) wrote after Joyce and his colleagues, and like their creative contemporaries reacted strongly against it. Hence:
The poets of the New Signatures have swung back ……. To the Greek preference for information or statement- The first requirement is to have something to say, and after that you must say it as well as you can.3
The rationale behind the new style’s success in geography — whether too many journals and too few authors, or too little talent and too many outlets, or too little thought and too many pressures — is not for discussion here. Readers may make of these what they will, though there is little doubt that the demands placed upon academics to write quickly and often, rather than well and only when they have something to communicate, encourage whatever trivializing tendencies exist, whilst the disinclination of reviewers to challenge the credentials of the new “literati” make their continued posturings almost inevitable. Equally it is clear that some authors “just write” because being “professionals” in the subject they still need to profess it and accordingly publish what is patently not geography in geographical books and journals. If indeed they have nothing to contribute then an inflated style helps enormously. The corollary of this — that much of the best geography (in terms of both content and style) is being published by non-geographers through non-geographical outlets —— is unquestionably true ans is a lesson to all those who suggest that the subject itself no longer has anything worthwhile to say. Important issues are at stake, for style is no superficial matter as anyone involved in the transmission of ideas must be aware.
Let us be clear at the outset, however, that this attempt to analyse and “deflate” the paraphernalia of the new writings is not to argue for poverty of expression. Of course the manner in which things are said is important — as important as what is said (though no more so). Style, in the true sense of the word to which we shall come, matters; though the avoidance of inflation of style matters still more. As journalists of a sort, geographical writers must tread a careful course between two extremes: investing their work with the richness which characterizes thoughtful writing, whilst avoiding the subsumption of content to an arbitrary literary form. We are not Joyces or Eliots and should not be encouraged to think that we might be. We should not be aiming at to be admired for our style in fifty years time, rather to be consulted for our insights in three or four. The perils of failure to recognize this are illustrated here. The prescription for successful writing can be found elsewhere.4
The subject of this essay is thus the quality of selected writing in geography, its broad stylistic characteristics and the origins of its present predicament. It is not a comprehensive review of current writing since that would require an objectivity and breadth beyond the scope and inclination of the present scheme. Neither is it concerned with the subject matter of the debate (except insofar as currently acceptable forms of writing increasingly serve to obscure the details of the argument presented, making the content of discussion secondary to its mode of presentation). It is concerned, essentially, with the uneven relationship between form and content which lies at the heart of the whole issue of modern writing styles and, like the geographical literature to which it refers, it has broader precedents. Indeed, in this sense, it has diagnostic as well as didactic purpose, for little that the advocates of Mandarin in geography (see below) are saying has not been said and better said elsewhere. When it comes to the examination of human behaviour and motivation, of liteature as source for existential understanding, the new humanists have little of value to offer that greater minds have not already explored. The falseness of their position stems not from this determination to re-examine, however, which is legitimate enough, but rather from the implication that profundities are being revealed as never before. Their success thus far in promoting this pretense is largely attributable to the employment of identifiable linguistic tricks and particular stylistic devices. Written in plainer style the banality of much humanistic literature would be obious to all.5 For some the situation is close to that described by Orwell in 1940:
In cultured circles art-for-art’s-saking extended practically to a worship of the meaningless. Literature was supposed to consist solely in the manipulation of words. To judge a book by its subject-matter was the unforgivable sin, and even to be aware of its subject-matter was looked upon as a lapse of taste. About 1928, in one of the three genuinely funny jokes that Punch has produced since the Great War, an intolerable youth is pictured informing his aunt that he intends to “write”. “And what are you going to write about dear?” asks the aunt. “My dear aunt,” says the youth crushingly, “one doesn’t write about anything, one just writes”.6
Finally, before turning to these issues in depth, let it be clear that though some might consider style to be a personal matter and the business of no-one save the author, and might accordingly regard this whole exercise as an unwarrantable intrusion upon the personal property of others (for style is something which we all like to think we have), nothing could be more misleading. For reasons outlined below it is possible to argue that the adopted style of an author deeply affects not only his ability to express certain kinds of ideas, but also the impact which those ideas will have upon the readership. Style is therefore a matter of public debate and for these and other reasons some authors — notably Orwell — have seen the obliteration of the writer’s personality as the key to the production of good “Vernacular” prose: prose so clear and unobtrusive that is, to quote Orwell, “like a window pane”.7
In 1976 Peter Taylor published a stimulating though perhaps to some jaundiced review of the quantitifcation debate in British geography.8 Timely and sane it may at the very least have compelled some to hold a mirror to their writing and to examine the extent to which concerns other than the advancement of knowledge determined the dress in which they clothed their ideas. Taylor, like Andreski9 before him scrutinized the private language of the quantifiers and found in some cases at least, obfuscation masquerading as insight, complexity as precision and jargon as meaning. A more subtle and more unpleasant campaign is underway — subtle because it appears to return to straightforward normality (to the language of everyday communication: a form of English); unpleasant because it does not such thing: its aim is to parade, to cajole the reader into accepting as profound what is in reality nonsensical or opaque; to convince the honest that there merit in expression for expression’s sake regardless of whether that expression serves to communicate meaning; to foist upon a hoist of impressionable disciples the notion that a thing is better said with mystifying complexity than with direct clarity; and to impress through semantic conceit anyone prepared to fall into the web of words. It is self-seeking and self-serving. It is an attempt to establish through phrase-spinning what the content of the argument cannot: the awesome gravity of the author’s mind. It is clever and it is a sham.
The elements of this display are not difficult to identify, not at least in their extreme form: it is partly a matter of vocabulary, sentence construction, imagery, prosody and the like. The chiming metaphor, the strained alliteration, the extended analogy, the mannered interrogative, the clever allusion, all have their part to play. It is not simply a matter of jargon, though jargon is partly a matter of it. Neither is it wholly a question of rethoric: the bludgeoning of the reader with twenty words when four of five might seem too simple a solution. The Latin tag, or better still French or German equivalents of perfectly adequate English words help “stylistically”, serving to distract the reader’s attention from a threadbare argument which might otherwise appear too obvious or, as such authors themselves mighy express it, merely jeune. In isolation any of these devices can add to the variety as well as to the sense of the prose, but the style has them all and more. It has them in profusion, and intelligibility is the first casualty.
This kind of fussiness has a considerable literary tradition upon which to draw, and at best that tradition has produced some remarkable writing, though in very specific literary contexts (see below) where its mannerisms may be altogether more appropriate. The Mandarins may be news in geography, but elsewhere they have long been recognized for what they are.
In 1938 Cyril Connolly documented the evolution of two contrasting styles in English creative writing: the Mandarin and the Colloquial or Vernacular. The Mandarin style with which this essay is primarily concerned flowered in England in the late seventeenth century. One of its earliest masters was Joseph Addison. Connolly’s assessment of Addison — that “he had the misuse of an extended vocabulary and so was able to invalidate a great number of words and expressions”10 — immediately establishes something of the Mandarin stock-in-trade, as does his equally acute suggestion that “the quality of his mind was inferior to the language which he used to express it”.11 For these and other reasons, Mandarin is beloved by literary pundits, by those who would make the written word as unlike as possible the spoken one. It is the style of all those writers whose tendency is to make their language convey more than they mean or more than they feel, it is the style of most artists and all humbugs.12
The stylistic hallmarks of Mandarin at its most characteristic include:
long sentences with many dependent clauses ……. the use of the subjective and conditional ……. Exclamations and interjections, quotations, allusions, metaphors, long images, Latin terminology, subtlety, conceits.13
or, more extremely,
exhibitionism, false hesitation ……. wholly profundities …… mystification ……. whimsy ……. archaism ……. Pedantic usages, false colloquialisms and sham lyrical outbursts.14
Some geographers have learned this craft well in the limited sense that the examples of their prose which appear below might well have been written to this exact description. But in another sense Mandarin has been much debased in geography. Whatever the merits of the style, and it has many, in the wrong hands, it is susceptible of rapid deterioration. At its best it yields (in creative literature) “the richest, most complex expression in the English language, such that there are many passages where the complexity is worthy of the emotion expended upon it, where very difficult and subtle truths are presented in a language that could only express them if difficult and subtle”15 but its florid tendencies are too easily overdone; what begins with character and discretion becomes stentorean and arcane. At this as yet wholly superficial level then, the Mandarin style is nothing more than “an ability to spin cocoons of language out of nothing”16, a multi-layered collage of mannerisms in which what starts out simply grows more elaborate, leaving “the content lagging far behind”17. Though Mandarin has rather deeper connotations than the purely decorative, for the moment it is enough to note that those geographers utilizing its inflated formulae may make appeal to broader and distinctive traditions. Even so they do their reputations no good.
Connolly’s vigorous analysis was not directed primarily towards the problems of writing academic prose, and though his remarks on journalism can still be read with profit, his criticism of Mandarin and its adjuncts does not extend much beyond purely literary criteria. George Orwell on the other hand, a contemporary of Connolly’s and a man equally obsessed by the need to clarify English writing styles, exhibited interests closer in spirit to those of the academic essaysts18. If Connolly’s preoccupation with style evolved from a particular aestehic, then Orwell’s formed against the background of open propagandizing in their inter-war years, was altogether more practical and pedagogic in nature. His sustained disapprobation of the Mandarin style grew out of an acute awareness of its potential for distorting ideas and disguising false sentiment: thus he argued, style does not affect the clarity of statements and declare the author’s linguistic aestethic, but it actually influences directly what can be and is said, changing the meaning of words and at the same time conditioning the impact which they will have upon the readership. Hence:
but if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even amongst people who should and do know better. The debased language ……. is in some ways very convenient ……. A continuous temptation, a packet of aspirins at one’s elbow ……. (but) every such phrase anesthetises a portion of one’s brain.19
In this way, the Mandarin style is seen as heavily culpable in moral terms: it is not simply null and superfluous (as harmless decoration) but strongly negative in its impact upon the integrity of writing. So that:
The inflated style is itself a kind of euphemism ……. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and declared aim, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.20
For academic writers, these issues are surely crucial. If our aim continues to be that of presenting truthful statements (or in the case of more interpretative discussion, making statements which we ourselves regard as honest in their intention and meaning)21 then the Mandarin medium with its capacity for fudging issues, distorting truth, euphemizing the unpalatable and determining if not actually falsifying the message must be actively eschewed in favour of more direct and less manipulable writing styles. Thus a clear distinction begins to emerge between the use of Mandarin in different kinds of writing. If the place and success of Mandarin in creative literature is determined largely by aestethic considerations, in academic prose it has broader and more significant connotations. In literature, the style expressed particular intention — the expression of subtle and difficult sentiments. It had too an honoured place in the scale of literary achievement, claiming for its membership some of the most celebrated poets, dramatists and novelists in the English language. But Keat’s or Donne’s, Carlysle’s or Ruskin’s, Woolf’s or Huxley’s purpose is not ours. Academic writing is essentially a craft and to be good at it requires talent and integrity; creative writing is an art and to be good at it requires genius and imagination. The two observe different rules and espouse different aims and to confuse these is not only misleading but improper. These distinctions are important and we must return to them later.
The opposition to the Mandarin style comes in the form of the Vernacular or Colloquial and is sometimes referred to as Realist. It consists primarily of writing simply and is the craft of all those who, like Maugham believe that “to write simply is as difficult as to be good”22 or agree with Hemingway that “prose is architecture, it is not interior decoration and the Baroque is over”.23 It is nonetheless a craft and its objective is not to produce dull and emaciated prose without character or form, but rather to express its ideas clearly and without conspicuous artifice. Taking its cue perhaps from Samuel Butler’s famous dictum that “a man’s style in any art should be like his dress — it should attract as little attention as possible”,24 the Colloquial manner is sober and subdued, though it represents nothing casual. In some ways it goes beyond Mandarin, recognizing that simplicity must be striven for. Thus:
The quality of mind of a writer may be improved the more he feels or thinks or, without effort, the more he reads and as he grows surer of this quality so he is the better able to make experiments in technique or towards the simplification of it, even to its apparent abandonment and the expression of strong emotion or deep thought in ordinary language.25
But the Colloquial style too has its dangers. It may lack sparkle and originality, it may become bland and lugubrious and it may lack character, resembling the worst in hack journalism. Poor Colloquial becomes reportage, but at its best the style encourages happier traits: precision and lucidity, an evenness of tone and above all “that discipline in the conception and execution of a work which gives simply written things the power to endure, the constant pruning without which imagination like a tea-rose reverts to the wilderness”.26 In any event Vernacular should not be confused with what is simply bad and ungrammatical — with writing what might be termed “scientific” prose: i.e., that which eliminates style completely and appears to condone illiteracy. If the “scientific” style is allowed to triumph in academic writing, then for sure “prose will only be as unassuming as good clothes but as uniform as bad ones”.27 Uniformity and poverty of sentiment are not the objectives of the Vernacular style, though the labelling of many a text-book as of that style gives a different and false impression. Much academic writing is simply a mixture of limited vocabulary, loose expression and insufficient care and should stand as a model for nothing save how not to encourage a readership. Thus in geography as in other subjects a great deal of writing has looked to no particular style at all, equating more to the general disregard typical of those who do not care how they are read. As in the worst of Mandarin, this is a form of non-communication. But the Vernacular style is a literay style and as such requires cultivation. Its adoption, whilst not guaranteeing the pinnacles of stylistic flamboyance, would nevertheless represent something of an advancement to may of us, forming the solid basis of clear, grammatical expression.
Having outlined the Mandarin style and a form of opposition to it, it remains to see what all the fuss is actually about, and here I shall concentrate on the evolution of Mandarin within recent geographical writing. In its earliest manifestations28 it announced itself primarily through the employment of long, often grammatically complex sentences, a rich and suggestive vocabulary and a tendency to overblow: “a determination to hit the nail on the head and then hit it on the head and then hit it on the head …….”.29 Hence
In each of our personal worlds, far more than in the shared consensus, characters of fable and fiction reside and move about, some in their own lands, others sharing familiar countries with real people and places. We are all Alices in our own Wonderland, Gullivers in Lilliput and Brobdingnag. Ghosts, mermaids, men from Mars, and the smiles of Cheshire cats confront us at home and abroad. Utopians not only make mythic men, they re-arrange the forces of nature: in some worlds water flows uphill, seasons vanish, time reverses, or one- and two-dimensional creatures converse and move about ……. Non-terrestrial geometries, topographical monsters and abstract models of every kind in turn lend insight to views of reality. If we could not imagine the impossible, both private and public worlds would be poorer.30
Hell and the Garden of Eden have vanished from most of our mental maps, but imagination, distortion and ignorance still embroider our private lanscapes. The most compelling artifacts are but pale reflections of the lapidiary architecture of the mind, attempts to recreate on earth the visionary images ascribed by man to God; and every marvel unattained is a Paradise Lost.31
Leaving aside for the moment the rather sermonizing tone, all this is inoffensive enough if more than a little precious. It is balanced and it reads well. It is civilized and urbane. It sounds, as it is presumably intended to sound, like the product of a man of smooth manners and good learning. A little wordy (“at home and abroad” for everywhere, “lapidiary architecture of the mind” etc.) it is nonetheless acceptable armchair stuff, exhibiting the cardinal assumptions of Mandarin at its easiest — “that neither the writer nor the reader is in a hurry, that both are in possession of a classical education and a private income”.32 It invites the reader to give of himself, to read what he can into the allusions; and it flatters him with its expressive vocabulary. But if early Mandarin is normally characterized by prolixity (usually at the service of “sound”, balance and sentence construction, so that worlds add only to the “flow” of the prose not to its meaning) then in the more mature style, this tendency is taken to greater heights, with absence of communicative intention added into the formula:
Put differently, the immature feels the assault on the self coming from without, while the mature understands that it comes from within. The former is caught in the Cartesian either-or, the latter, in the dialectic subject-object. What a challenge for positivistic geography, if we actually discovered that there could be no things but nameless things, no names but nameless names!33
Challenge indeed. But to rise to it we would have to understand what it was and this passage does not help. In some ways it is less than fair to place these quotations in the same general category; yet all exhibit features of the Mandarin style, the last in ways which all become apparent shortly. Indeed it is quite majestic, for in saying nothing very much it succeeds brilliantly. Saying nothing very much with all the linguistic resources at its command appears to be a major objective for geographical Mandarin and some authors are beginning to hit the target with consistency. Take for example the following passages which appear to be arguing that time is continuous and history an active creaion in which we can all participate. Neither concept is very new, but the author ably rises to the challenge that they might be:
The present comes from somewhere and vanishes again some wither. But the new present remembers the just vanished moment and is its child, bearing traces of its likeness without being the same. Was not this true also of that just vanished moment? Then is it not legitimate, mandatory to think of a succession of moments?34
We can as historians participate in history, marching with Xenophon and rejoicing in the sudden apparition of the sea.35
These are both good examples of the new Mandarin. Note first the quaint archaism of “some whither”, a Georgian touch; next the personification of time in the metaphor — time “remembers”, it gives birth — a cheap device characteristic of the worst poetry. Then more the deceptive interrogative — “was it not true?” — of course it was true: the question is purely rethorical for the author is not asking us, he is telling us. It is otiose, like the question which follows, and having been forced to swallow the first, we are invited to choke on the second. Meanwhile, the classical allusion adds “weight” — to those at least who understand it, though it is essential to the “style” as employed here that most of us will not. It implies erudition and instructs the reader to reflect on the gaps in his own education. A man with Xenophon at its fingertips, is handing down the Tablets. He surely must know what he is talking about. To take this further, consider:
And thought is the biggest step of all, for it entails imagination, the power to originate the unprecedented, perhaps in some sense ex nihilo. What thoughts can set bounds to the reach of thought?36
“Ex nihilo” sounds better than out of nothing and is helpful to the author in disguising the fact that the whole sentence (“to originate the unprecedented …….”) is tautologous and ultimately meaningless. Thought bounding the reach of thought is a terrible cliché and “thought ……. entails imagination” is a truism. “In some sense” is an escape clause typical of this kind of “woolly profundity”, whilst the whole passage means nothing and having said nothing, true to type, the author goes on to say it again. On the subject why prediction is impossible we have:
There is no telling what thought in its widest sense, the imagination of the poet, the mathematician or the scientist on any path of knowledge, may originate in time to come, for a thought foretold in its exact completeness is a present thought.37
Despite its metaphysical pretentions, this too is vacuous, but illustrative in the light of what has gone on before. It is an attempt to catholicize the writing, to suggest an immensity of vision which at this point the author’s mental equipment cannot match: “poet”, “mathematician” and “scientist” aim at universality and suggest more than they mean; “time to come” went out with John Wesley and “any path of knowledge” is a let down. It is intended to continue the theme of breadth of conception but it is too ordinary and routine to do so, though it adds four words. Again the final clause sounds better than it is: meaningless, it “reads” well enough. These then are the basic features of Mandarin in geography, but for its highest development we must look elsewhere. Take for example
This presents a most serious dilemma, for to categorize is to fetter and not to categorize is to tear the world asunder. As in other instances of the human condition, tragedy captures the pattern. The lesson to remember is that when we encounter is that when we encounter a new reality, our first reaction is to baptize it.38
This extract from a much longer passage of the same ilk is rather worrying. “To categorize is to fetter” is not the universal truth which its statement implies, “not to categorize is to tear the world asunder” is not an image, it is an untruth, “the human conditon” is another cliché and the attempt at personification in “tragedy captures the pattern” is a nonsense. The final sentence is preaching and tendentious and later it will become harangue. Again the author is discharging his mind and we had better all listen. Still later in the same paper, the author reverts to his more usual “we” style (another Mandarin diagnostic):
Since we can chase only after shadows, Nietzsche was correct in voicing his fear of God, because we shall never rid ourselves of the grammar in which he resides.39
Here the “we” is incorporative and invites us to place ourselves on the same elevated plane as the author who is not only familiar with Nietzsche but can actually analyse God. Now “we” are all culpable. In similar vein, note the Mandarin use of “of course” in the following:
What maddens me with these experiences is of course that I remember Wittgenstein’s dictum that “the limits of my language mean the limits of my world”.40
This “of course” is a master-stroke. It implies, first, that everyone is necessarily familiar with the dictum (an insincere form of flattery) and secondly, it establishes that the author’s own familiarity stems from something altogether deeper that anybody else’s — it is part of his everyday consciousness. We should not be surprised to learn that the author had met the man and discussed with him. Meanwhile Wittgenstein is as good as money in his bank, for the effect of all this is intended to be cumulative. By establishing an aura of superior grasp, the writer can now go on to sell us anything he likes, and only by extracting particular statements from their context can this particular ruse be uncovered.
The special use of language is, as we have seen, crucial to the Mandarin style and in geography two variations on this theme have appeared: the coining of new and generally superfluous terms and the use of foreign expressions where plain English would be perfectly adequate. For the first consider:
In a supportive physical environment time-space routines and body ballets of the individual may fuse into a larger whole, creating a space-environment dynamic called place ballet.41
Or better still:
I suggest the term spant, an acronym for SPace ANd Time unit. The size of a spant could be noted as appropriately needed by subscripts referring precisely to longitudes, latitudes, dates and times of the day ……. History is the study of spants. When a parent tells a youngster “this is not the time or place to behave like that” the child rearing effort has been focussed on a spant. The idea of human density is improved by thinking of people-per-spant.
This kind of manufactured jargon is really quite unnecessary. The assertion of the last sentence of the second passage is highly questionable despite the certainty implied, whilst taken at face value the whole exercise is quite absurd. Historians might be interested to know that they are really spantologists, but the amusement would soon wear off. Equally, the human race has handled its understanding of time and space thus far without recourse to spant, and it is unlikely that whatever mysteries remain will be uncovered by the incorporation of spant into the vocabulary. In practice this kind of jargon is worthless since it adds nothing to our ability to express ideas and consequently it will not endure. It will have limited “spant”.
No better, in fact rather worse, is the obligatory substitution of foreign terms and the sprinkling of Latin decoration.43 In geography the early Mandarins had a little of this, though the newer ones are polyglot in a big way. From an early example of the genre we have:
As every personal history results in particular private milieu, no one else can ever duplicate the terra incognita of anyone else. An adult who learns a foreign word or custom does not start from tabula rasa but tries to match concepts from his own language or culture.44
Again this is perfectly acceptable as wordy prose goes. Affable and inoffensive, it fills the anthologies. But is is a measure of how far newer Mandarins have taken things when compared with the next example:
Emotionally laden eulogy on the meaning of places rings through much modern poetry and song. Nostalgia for some real or imagined state of harmony and centredness once experienced in rural settings haunts the victims of mobile and fragmented urban milieux. Like many a fortune-seeker amidst the lights of Broadway who longed for the simple cabin near the rippling stream back home I suppose one could say “You never know what you’ve got ‘til is gone ……” And today, as the uniqueness of places becomes more and more threatened by the homogenizing veneer of commercialism and standardised component-architecture, many people long for their hembygd and smultronställe.45
This is a classic and worthy of much closer attention. Almost all of it is cliché or at least its imagery is so tarnished as to be well on the way to becoming so. It is certainly over-wrought (three attempts at alliteration in the first forty words) and surprisingly tired, through the simile with its implied knowledgeability is deceptive. Doubtless fortune-seekers on Broadway did and do long for home, but the author does not know one as intimately as the simile suggests — the fortune-seekers’ real emotions are as foreign to the author as they are to the rest of us, and this is merely another clever, if conventional try-on. The log cabin and the rippling stream are straight out of Uncle Tom’s and have lost all currency, whilst “I suppose one could say” is a dodge. The author is saying it, but is also conscious that it is a bad quotation from a modern song and quite out of line with the lofty position she is trying to put over. It is an implied descent to “our” level in case the racy cleverness of what has gone before has left our feebler minds behind. Finally, anyone with a dictionary could come up with “homogenizing veneer of standardized component-architecture”, but it takes mastery to spin out this slender idea for a further eight words and end in the cadence such as “hembygd” and “smultronställe” — a statement so patently absurd as to be fatuous. (In the English-speaking world to which the paper is addressed, people mey long for home and a sense of belonging. Calling it hembygd does not clarify the nature of the longing — it positively obscures it — or make its analysis any easier.) In he same paper we read:
The skyscrapers, airports, freeways and other stereotypical components of modern landscapes — are they not symbols of a civilization which has deified reach and derided home? Or the gaping wounds of mining and industrial landscapes, are they not the refuse heaps of a civilization intoxicated with Promethean hubris?46
Forgetting the deliberate emotion of the passage, the interrogatives are again mere devices. She is telling us that these things are, not inviting us to consider the matter, for treating the reader as an intellectual equal is not the Mandarin way. “Deified” is quite the wrong word and chosed presumably only to alliterate with “derided”, adding further proof that words serve only the style and not the meaning. “Promethean hubris” whilst more memorable than the rest is mannered in a classical way. The whole piece stands as eloquent testimony to Orwell’s assertion that:
As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of the meaning, and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a pre-fabricated house.47
The maintenance of a superior attitude towards the readership is partly a matter of tone, though certain linguistic and grammatical tricks can be employed to re-inforce this, producing a spurious impression of mental felicity. Note then the apparent technicality of the following example achieved through the use of ordinary enough vocabulary in a special way:
Societal lore reinforces an empiricist image of the older person’s geographical experience pervaded by a motif of closure — of progressive imprisonment within a more limited space.48
Here “societal lore” is not the absolute the author supposes and “an empiricist image” is both unnecessary (if empiricism means “learning from experience” then how does it differ from societal lore i.e. the accumulation of learning derived from the membership of society?) and misleading. Why an image? Does this mean that there are many such images and the author is unsure which one he is talking about, or that a particular image is characteristic of the older person? He might of course mean neither. “Geographical experience” is convenient, but if the humanists are right, a real Pandora’s box — it is shorthand for nothing and positively unhelpful in a context such as this. It does not add to the meaning but rather subtracts from it. “Motif of closure” could mean anything but is probably Mandarin for circumscription. Up to this point the thrust of the sentence is quite unclear, but to his credit, the author is well aware of this and adds the only clause which means anything after the dash. “Progressive imprisonment within a more limited space” might not have the imagination of the rest of it or seem as technically precise, but it does serve a purpose. Included in the manner of an aftertought, it confirms that what has gone before might sound good but not unambiguously mean anything, hence the author might have written: social attitudes reinforce old people’s sense of isolation — but this would have been too straightforward and, more importantly, seventeen words shorter.
Self-referential and synthetic argument between the author and himself is another common Mandarin tool, useful since in turning in constant circles upon itself, it gets nowhere very slowly whilst giving the impression of fastidious logic:
“Here” and “there” imply “now” and “then”. Here is now and there is then, and then means a time in the past or in the future. There implies here and then implies now; but the reverse is not necessarily true.49
To understand how I “see”, you must understand how I mean something in my language, conversation requires conversation. However, meaning as the thing “referred to” is quite different than [sic] meaning as “the idea expressed” — “the sense” or “the gist”. The former is a matter of convention derivative of language seen as a set of more or less flexible categories — categories which are directly derivative of use — e.g. in cartography laboratories “mapping” means “making marks on paper”. In the latter sense, meaning as “gist” or “thrust” or “expressed idea” is not an appendage — like character of a term, but rather inheres in a term and implies the performance of other actions and events as well as those directly in question.50
It is ironic that a passage so devoid of clarity should be discussing the nature of meaning, but this apart its Mandarin character shines through. “Conversation requires conversation” is another meaningless gesture and the mapping example is majestic in that far from clarifying the exposition, it simply adds to the readers’ question. “More or less” is pure Mandarin: in one sense it is redundant in that things must be or less flexible according to what they are, yet in another sense it is an attempt to disguise a contentious assertion: a relative amidst several absolutes. But what does the whole passage mean? Naturally we could always ask the author, but the point remains that we should not have to. His use of Mandarin techniques has rendered the argument sufficiently abstract as to become impenetrable: the readership is unclear what, if anything, he is trying to say. Following Orwell, it may be of course that the author is himself unsure, in which case the Mandarin attributes of the passage are not merely stylistic decorations but integral to the whole deceitful structure.
Anyone looking to copy the style might like to study a few building-blocks, and the following extract is instructive. Add the subjunctive to a collection of rather feeble images and you get:
The fact that all people are located in a world which is in part geographical is an irreducible characteristic of human existence. Be it as small as an apartment, or as expansive as the ocean surrounding his ship at sea, as commonplace as a neighbourhood or as strange as a distant country, man is housed in a geographical world whose specifics he can change, but whose surrounds in some form he can in no way avoid.51
Examination of this passage need not detain us long, since the best that can be said for it is that it does not really come off. It would be a pity though we miss the “at sea” added only to ease the flow (ships surrounded by ocean tend to be at sea) and in the “in some form” which underlines the fact that the author is not sure whether what he is saying is invariably true and therefore fudging the issue as a first line of defence, “Be it as small …….” has a real flavour, for the sentence in more dynamic mood would reveal just how trivial the “for instances” are; and any potential author would do well to learn this little subjunctive wrinkle which serves to transfer the embarassment from author to reader.
Many more examples couls have been presented and other issues raised, but it too must avoid trying to hit the nail on the head too often. The nature of the problems should be clear by now, but if any doubts remain that even at its most innocent the employment of Mandarin in geography functions primarily to inflate the ordinary to profound proportions and to render the banal unintelligible, then the following might help tip the balance:
Yet, when participating in those activity bundles at precise geographic locations and more or less fixed temporal locations, and when thus having her participation in other types of activity bundles and projects constrained, the individual daily undergoes experiences, interacts with other people, acquires and reinforces competencies and encounters symbolically laden inanimate objects, first- and second-hand ideas, and information stimuli in general that otherwise would not have come her way in exactly the same form.52
The time-space routine has a certain holistic pattern which, like movement itself is well described by the word “unfolding”.53
Consider a young couple who have frugally saved their pennies to purchase a rug for their sitting room floor. Due to inflation they can just manage a “huge” six by eight foot shag. Elate by their purchase, they elect to carry it home themselves, but no sooner do they get the rug on the floor than they regret the entire business. The huge rug they had bought has shrunk to a tiny rag, and the tears shed over this by the young lady cause her contact lenses — floating on an invisible film of tears — to come unstuck and fall into the forest of the shag. Falling to their knees the two are shocked: their tiny rug has miraculously assumed Saharan proportions.54
It is true that a tulip is a flower. It is also a bubble of blood. An upturned heart is a burning flame, igniting whoever it touches. And so it is the sign of a good metaphor that it defeats ordinary meaning and ordinary existence. If it is successful then it manages to keep both the general and the particular alive, bringing distant realities into consuming embrace. Dialectics offers the prospect of a similar type of merger, for any dialectical statement contains within itself the seeds of its own destruction. As eyelids close with a bang, tears of contradiction soak into themselves.55
The Leibnizian salva veritate principle is consequently upheld. Incommensurability is exorcised and the ritual of rational thinking is once again reconstituted. In its own interests, it has once again reinforced the powers of reification. Fascistic status quo has once again prevailed, for status quo is meaning variance brought to a halt. Halt! Zum Schluss! Feuer! Say Grace for Heaven’s sake!56
And so it is that inscape triumphs over landscape as white writing of degree zero assumes the activity beyond nihilistic despair. I think that is everything. Not for good perhaps. But for the here and now and before the now-here becomes nowhere.57
This is not rich, imaginative prose trying to capture complex and subtle ideas with appropriate subtlety. It is a form of verbal inflation which ultimately devalues the very meaning of the words it employs.
THE HUMANIST DEFENCE AND RESPONSES TO IT
I have suggested that the employment of Mandarin by certain writers in geography is not casual. Its selection as the medium through which to present particular kinds of argument is not that of an arbitrary literary form, rather the deliberate exploitation of a style capable of yielding for its practitioners certain dividends.58 Why then has this been done? One obvious possibility is the innocent suggestion that this kind of writing is in fact easy to produce: in manipulating blocks of familiar idioms, much of the pain of prose construction is removed with the result that though many passages mean nothing, they nevertheless flow particularly well:
The attraction of this way of writing is that it is easy …… if you use ready-made phrases, you do not have to hunt around for words; you also don’t have to bother with the rhythms of your sentences, since these phrases are generally so arranged as to be more or less euphonious. When you are composing in a hurry …… it is natural to fall into a pretentious latinized style …… (which) will save many a sentence from coming down with a bump. By using stale metaphors, similes and idioms, you save much mental effort, at the cost of leaving your meaning vague, not only for your reader but for yourself.59
But this explanation is not in itself sufficient to clarify why the Mandarin style has been particularly symptomatic of writing in certain parts of the subject, and here other criteria may apply. Two interpretations seem likely: either the one already implied — that when it comes to hoodwinking the public, nothing succeeds like Mandarin excess; or, more charitably that the Mandarin style offers unique solutions to the problems of treating the imperfect, shifting, personalized and ambiguous nature of those geographical concepts generally housed under the umbrella of “humanist geography”.
Accordingly, three lines of defence appear to be open to its advocates and all three have been voiced at some time in the last four or five years. The first, already partly familiar, is the suggestion that the subject matter of some parts of geography is less susceptible to conventional analysis and requires more allusive linguistic expression. This reaction is distinct from, but appears to be related to, the rejection of positivism more generally as a legitimate mood of geographical explanation. Specifically it springs from two sources: one, which has already been mentioned, is the deliberate change in emphasis form numeracy to literacy and is related to the rejection of quantification, the other, which follows more closely from the rejection of positivism itself is the disavowal of positivism’s analytical conceptions of reality. Thus for the new humanists “objectivity” is anathema and “subjectivity” a creed and this has been linked by some writers to particular writing styles and their differential abilities to penetrate the nature of “subjectivity”. The import of these manifestly naïve notions is clear, so that in the same way that some authors have argued the inability of positivist approaches to illuminate the existential meaning of phenomena, some writers of the Mandarin dialect have suggested that the vigorous presentation of existential or phenomenological ideas requires a language as tortuous as it is opaque. Certainly the Mandarin style is typical of those working in the newer and more nebulous fields of geography — time geography the literature of space and place, and writing on the methodology and philosophy of the subject. Hence Tuan’s belief that:
The depiction of complex and tenuous relationships as they exist simultaneously calls for a language that is subtle and richly suggestive: the writer must be able to write “four sentences in one” and he will be dependent on images that synthesize dissimilar ideas — in other words metaphors.60
Literary art serves the geographer in three principle ways. As thought experiment on possible modes of human experience and relationships …… As artifact ……. Finally as an ambitious attempt to balance the subjective and objective it is a model for geographical synthesis.61
Clearly it is the third sense which is important here, together with the implication that the techniques of “literary” writers can be exercised in academic writing with benefit. Though Tuan is cconscious that there are also dangers in the more novelistic approach, and though the whole tenor of the paper is sensibly cautious, the point is nevertheless clear: statements about subjective values, attempts at synthesis, examination of the whole concept of “self” in geographical analysis require a particular style of writing. The immediate assmption follows that the appropriate style is Mandarin, and this, like the broader philosophical ethos from which it is derived, is based upon a major misconception.
To begin with humanist geography never states what subjectivity means or whose subjectivity is at stake — the subject of the writing, the author’s or the reader’s (the beauty of objectivity is that it is the same for all three). From this, several issues arise. Pious declarations about aiming for a dialectic (Olsson) or a balance (Tuan) between subjective and objective points of view are worthless in the absence of any evidence that the two can be expressed in anything approaching the same terms, Indeed the whole message of art and literature since the Enlightenment is that they cannot be. No one knows what subjectivity is. Blake, Wordsworth and others might have believed, with Kant, that there are two forms of truth — subjective and objective — and that each must be expressed in different terms (though the interesting point is that they considered that subjective truth required the plainest, most colloquial language), but it was left to Strindberg and Gide to refute this simple conception and to demonstrate that there is no unitary self, no single subjectivity that can be known and expressed, but only a mass of partial and incompatible subjectivities.62 Thus the achievement of the Baroque style of Joyce, Eliot and Yeats, to which the Mandarin explicitly claims ancestry, is fundamentally that is allows the revelation of not only the unknowability, but also, to use Orwell’s term, “the imbecilities” of the inner mind. In sharp contrast, readers of novelists like Heinrich Böll will be aware of the deliberate plainnes of style, simplicity of conception and the claim to reveal the subjects’ motivation through objective reporting.63 Whether this is parody or not is beside the point, for if it is, then it is simply an admission of defeat for the whole concept of “empathy” and the belief that the subjectivity of self can be expressed in any sort of language. All told, the assertion that Mandarin either uniquely or even satisfactorily allows the revelation of subjective truth is a misleading and quite unfounded nonsense. Outside the magic circle of humanist geographers no one is yet convinced that there is such a thing as a knowable self, let alone a linguistic formula for its recovery, and the writers who have come closest to touching it have done so through the simplest possible style. Conversely, the Mandarin style aped by those authors quoted here has had its most singular success not in reavealing truths about selfness, but in portraying fragments of its “imbecilities”: In short, the notion that the Mandarin dialect holds the key to analysis or synthesis of the elements of subjectivism is based upon a digest of incompletely worked-out ideas.
Even on a more prosaic level there are objections to this first defence of the Mandarin style, not least the fact that there is not the slightest evidence as yet that it is living up to the problems it claims to have presented to itself. We are constantly being assured that some geographical phenomena require complex expression because of their complexity and simultaneity, but where is the proof? In most of the examples I have quoted, it is not the ideas that are complex but the style. The basic views which they contain could be expressed quite straightforwardly in more epigrammatic style. The “art” of humanistic geography should not lie in the inflation of trivial ideas to labyrinthine proportions, but in the opposite: the expression of difficult ideas as simply as possible. We might accept, in part, that intricacies of meaning require ingenuity of language but let us have evidence of the former before we accept the necessity of the latter. Furthermore, as any number of contemporary novels could attest, writing can be elegant, purposeful and capable of capturing fine nuances of meaning without recourse to dishonest devices, and a heightened conversational tone still seems the best overall basis for academic writing of this sort.
The second defence of the Mandarin style is closely allied to the first but expressed at a rather more abstract level. It might be tought of as of the “making a virtue out of necessity” variety. It states that ambiguity, confusion (even nonsense) should not be avoided in prose construction, but deliberately exploited and manufactured in order to extend both the scope of language and our ability to understand contradiction as it exists in reality. Thus Olsson, the prophet of this particular gospel, argues:
One of the most crucial fronts in this constant war between social simplicity and individual complexity is the communication process itself. Thus it is in the interest of social cohesion to impoverish language. It is my conviction that these forces must be fought, or our very survival as a species may be at stake. As a consequence we should continue to read modern writers such as Baudelaire, Mallarmé, Joyce, Kafka und Beckett. For even though they never managed to escape from the prison house of language, they nevertheless bent its walls and thereby expanded our common universe.64
all of which culminate in:
In conclusione we must be get used to reading and writing in the dream-like state that Joyce practised and Freud and Jung analysed. The result may be that eventually we come to describe, explain, predict and create all at the same time; for truth emerges when identities are violated and opposites, unified; as Hegel had it, “The truth is thus the bachanalian revel, where not a member is sober” ……. All of which is yet another attempt to heed Beckett’s call for unifying form and content so that the text is what it expresses and expresses what it is. For those who are too afraid to admit that this is geography, the reply is that “The map of the soul’s groupography rose in relief within their quarterlings”.65
I am not too afraid to admit that this is geography, merely saddened to know that it is becoming everyday more so. Unpleasant and unnecessary as it is to draw boundaries around the subject matter of the discipline, we surely have to question the proposition that we should all attempt to imitate Joyce by writing always in a dream-like fashion. To be able to do so requires genius not talent, and anyone so equipped is in the wrong profession. We surely have to question whether the aim of academic writing should be the stimulation of this kind of imagination and hedonistic introversion; for distinctions exist between the purposes of literary art and academic writing, and Olsson’s assertions to the contrary, we would do well to recognize them. Tuan knows only too well:
An important stylistic difference between literary and non-literary composition lies in their degree of explicitness. A literary work implies, even when it appears to be stating; whereas a scientific work — with its narrowly defined goal — should only attempt to state.66
In other words, the task of academic writing on the one hand and literary art of the other are different as are the means necessary for their successful accomplishment. Olsson is confusing both issues.67 The exposition of an academic argument certainly does not demand purely experimental writing techniques of the “stream-of-consciousness” kind, and creative ambiguity is a fancy name for nothing more than this. It is an “anything-goes” attitude, chaotic and unscholarly, in which we all write whatever nonsense comes into our minds, dignify it under some fashionable banner and then deny the right and capacity of anyone else to challenge and oppose it. Largely self-important and deliberately self-glorifying it becomes, to use Connolly’s phrase, a variety of “Proustian onanism”.
The final defence of the Mandarin position has come in the more mundane form of an assertion that much geography not written in the style, is written in no style at all: that it is badly expressed, carelessly constructed, unedifying to read and damaging to our collective reputation as academic craftsmen. The usual focus of direct criticism is the alleged inability of non-Mandarin styles to convey a sense of involvement: its failure to make its subjects “live” in the imagination of the readership. Hence:
In geography texts, we have all encountered the dry itemization of streets, shopping centres and other land use patterns as though they somehow add up to a living portrait of the city.68
Though there may be some truth in this pronouncement, it is easy to overstate the case, and as easy to overlook the failure of much Mandarin to enliven its subjects. Breathing life into prose style comes from disciplined imagination, not from wanton wordsmithery, just as sublety is derived from absolute precision of thought and language, and not apparent in confusion. As to the dismissal of more conventional writing, caution must be exercised, for just as we are not driven in geography to produce “great literature” (only good writing) so we are entitled to judgement according to our own qualities, and not those which might be applied to the novel and to poetry. When writers of the new dialect accuse other geographers of having no style, they invariably mean that they lack conspicuous artifice and this is by no means the same thing. Critical assessment applied to academic writing should include not only the criterion of readability (its construction and “flow”) but also its clarity, depth of purpose and success in matching content with form. On this basis, a great deal of geography may not be very showy, but it fulfills its obligations without dissembling. Certainly it could be improved, but if the alternative to this “absence of style” is expression along the lines of “fetishism is consumed by the praxis of its own dialectic”,69 then give me “the results of the analysis yielded seven principal components which accounted for 63.1 percent of the variance of the original data set”70 any time. I could not feel further from the philosophy which lies behind the latter statement, but at least I know what it means.
Taken together or individually these three defences lack conviction. The first is based upon a confusion, the second has yet to establish its good faith. The third is more convincing, though in arguing for more pride in expression it is as applicable to the Mandarins as to their quarry. The advocate of deliberate mannerism must do better than this.
What has been said here might have been said more felicitously and it may afford some amusement to analyse the devices used in this essay, to uncover the Mandarin which it employs. I bear the authors quoted here no grudge and hope that they will bear none towards me, for I might have easily chosen a dozen or so other authors and treated them to the same commentary. I have instead deliberately chosen to examine the extremes because these seem to me to be the most dangerous. The style is seeding itself; it is becoming more acceptable (because more common) all the time and it is already creeping into the writing of some university students who think it both clever and necessary. The impression must be reversed, for if Orwell and others are right “style” is not the only thing which will suffer: “truth” itself is at stake.
Academic writers are essentially communicators of ideas — sophisticated journalists whose craft lies in expressing what they believe to be true as clearly and as deeply as possible. They are not writers of “literature” and to believe that the construction of an academic paper is akin to the art of Tolstoy or Huxley is seriously to misunderstand our proper functions and concerns. In the manner of the best journalism, the sense of an academic exposition “should be graspable at once”71 for there can be no “delayed impact, no embellishment, no assumption of luxury in the reader”.72 It should be “simple, intimate and striking” and must obtain its effect through clarity and precision.
Whilst its possible to agree with Derek Gregory that “the creative dimension of language cries out for examination” and with his conclusion that the real value of “humanist” experimentation with style “lies more in an admission of their failure than in the agonized pursuit of still more contortions of sound and collison of sense”,73 his solution is not entirely mine. Similarly with Tuan. Certainly the “depiction of complex and tenuous relationships as they exist simultaneously call for a language that is subtle and richly suggestive”, but rich sugestion has a habit of concealing weakness of ideas and poverty of argument. Gregory’s aim is to write in the manner of E. P. Thompson “with rare sensitivity and a grand passion”, in a style that “majestically mirrors the elusive and allusive cascade of human history” and which “refuses to confer upon [ist] ……. reconstructions the spurious objectivity of historians whose pallid sentences, bare of adjectives and adverbs, display a past drained of the sensuous swirl of contingency and determination”.74 But it is possible to catch these nuances, as it is possible to write passionately in a more colloquial style. To adopt a less florid and sententious manner is not to wed oneself to disinterest and “spurious” objectivity, or to forgo richness of sentiment; whilst the danger of adjectives and verbs remains their capacity for taking over. Those wishing to uncover subtlety must first employ precision and later simplicity of style, for simplicity of style and simplicity of argument are not the same thing. The art of good writing lies in making complexity intelligible, in conveying difficult ideas with apparent ease. Conveying simple ideas with conspicuous difficulty is Mandarin at its most accomplished.
I have not sought to defend bad writing and I am not advocating “scientific” prose. Geographers writing in styles more traditional than the new Mandarins have also produced their share of mediocre material, though their fault seem to arise more from carelessness, lack of ambition and insufficient pride in expression. The faults of those writers examined here derive from altogether less accidental sources. The danger with more colloquial writers is always that because of their laxities they will not be taken seriously enough, with the Mandarins it is rather that they will be idolized for their manner and forgiven their absence of ideas: taken too seriously when they have nothing serious to say. No one could pretend that “time and the way it is handled has a lot to do with the structuring of space”75 is great prose, and it is not what I am advocating but at least its meaning is clear and its manner unpretentious.
This essay was never intended to be prescripitive, since it is not for me to lay down rules about how we should all write. I have preferred instead to illustrate some of the dangers inherent in one particular style of writing in the hope that its more insidious features might be avoided in future. However, on a more positive note, one proposition seens to me entirely right:
Style is a relation between content and form. Where the content is less than the form, where the author pretends to emotions that he does not feel, the language will seem flamboyant. The more ignorant a writer feels, the more artificial becomes his style. A writer who thinks himself cleverer than his readers writes simply (often too simply), while one who fears they may be cleverer than he will make use of mystification: an author arrives at a good style when his language performs what is required of it without shyness.76
The author would like to thank Dr J. Langton, Dr D. R. Stoddart and Dr C. W. J. Withers for their detailed and helpful comments on earlier drafts of this manuscript. The opinions expressed remain the author’s own.
1 ORWELL G. (1946) “Politics and the English language”, reprinted in ORWELL G. & ANGUS L. (eds.) The collected essays, journalism and letters of George Orwell, Vol. 1, (Harmondsworth) pp. 145-70, 163-4
2 Ibid. p. 170
3 ORWELL G. (1940) “Inside the whale”, reprinted in ORWELL G. & ANGUS L. (eds.) The collected essays, journalism and letters of George Orwell, Vol. 1, (Harmondsworth) pp. 540-78, 560
4 See for example ORWELL, “Politics and the English language”, ORWELL G. (1945) “Why I write”, reprinted in ORWELL G. & ANGUS L. (eds.) The collected essays, journalism and letters of George Orwell, Vol. 1, (Harmondsworth) pp. 23-30; ORWELL G. (1944) “Propaganda in demotic speech”, reprinted in ORWELL G. & ANGUS L. (eds.) The collected essays, journalism and letters of George Orwell, Vol. 3, (Harmondsworth) pp. 161-8; and CONNOLLY C. (1938) Enemies of promise (London)
5 The illustrations offered in a later part of this essay go some way towards substantiating this claim. For a more detailed critique of some of the constructions utilized by humanistic geography see GREGORY D. (1981) “Human agency and human geography”, Trans. Inst. Br. Geogr., N.S. 1, pp. 126-42
6 ORWELL G. “Inside the whale”, p. 557
7 ORWELL G. (1983) “Why I write”, pp. 29-30
8 TAYLOR P. (1976) “An interpretation of the quantification debate in British geography”, Trans. Inst. Br. Geogr., N.S. 1: 126-42
9 ANDRESKI S. (1972) Social science as sorcery, (Harmondsworth)
10 CONNOLLY, op.cit. p. 24
11 Ibid. p.24
12 Ibid. pp. 24-5
13 Ibid. pp. 29-30
14 Ibid. pp. 92-3
15 Ibid. p. 62
16 Ibid. p. 62
17 Ibid. p. 61
18 See for example his “Propaganda and demotic speech” together with “Politics and the English language”
19 ORWELL, “Politics and the English language”, pp. 166-7
20 Ibid. p. 167
21 I do not believe there can be any quibbling about this: like journalism, the purpose of academic writing is to convey discoveries of information or ideas, not to stimulate imagination or introversion and this is why some writing styles are appropriate, whilst others, more suited to literary tasks, are not.
22 MAUGHAM W. S. (1952) The summing up (London) p. 102
23 HEMINGWAY E. (1932) Death in the afternoon (London) p. 105
24 BUTLER S. quoted in CONNOLLY, op. cit. p. 37
25 Ibid. p. 29
26 Ibid. p. 93
27 Ibid. p. 88
28 For the purposes of this essay which is concerned with the development of a particularly pernicious form of Mandarin, I take its history in geography no further than 1961. I am aware that the style more generally was present long before then. No reader of J. K. Wright will need to be told this. It has been suggested (and quite rightly) that an examination of this earlier period might prove rewarding. However, because of restrictions of space and the risk of making the argument presented even more diffuse, I have resisted this temptation though at considerable cost to the paper’s comprehensiveness. For the analysis of the prose style of one particular author not included in this survey — D. W. Meining — see SYMANSKI R. M. (1976) “The maniplation of ordinary language”, Ann. Am. Ass. Geogr. 66: 605-14
29 CONNOLLY, op, cit., p. 30
30 LOWENTHAL D. (1961) “Geography, experience and imagination: towards a geographical epistemology”, Ann. Ass. Am. Geogr, 51: 241-60, 249
31 Ibid. p. 249
32 CONNOLLY, op. cit. p. 30
33 OLSSON G. (1978) “Of ambiguity or far cries from a memorialising mamafesta”, in LEY D. & SAMUELS M. (eds.) Humanistic geography: prospect and problems (Chicago & London) pp. 109-120, 117
34 SHACKLE G. L. S. (1978) “Time, choice and uncertainty”, in CARLSTEIN T., PARKES D. & THRIFT N. (eds.) Making sense of time (London) pp. 47-55, 47. I include Professor Shackle in this analysis since his paper appeared in what is essentially a geographical text, prepared and edited by geographers.
35 Ibid. p. 47
36 Ibid. p. 49
37 Ibid. p. 49. This appears to be a re-phrasing of a similar passage in Popper. For the constrasting style of the original see POPPER K. R. The poverty of historicism (London) pp. 14-15
38 OLSSON G. (1979) “Social science and human action or on hitting your head against the ceiling of language”, in GALE S. & OLSSON G. (eds.) Philosophy in geography (Boston & London) pp. 287-307, 297
39 Ibid. p. 297
40 Ibid. p. 299
41 SEAMON D. (1980) “Body-subject, time-space routines and place-ballets”, in BUTTIMER A. & SEAMON D. (eds.) Human activity and time geography (London) pp. 148-65, 159
42 MELBIN M. (1978) “The colonisation of time”, in CARLSTEIN T., PARKES D. & THRIFT N. (eds.) Human activity and time geography (London) pp. 100-13, 101
43 Orwell was again aware of this particular trait: “Bad writers and especially scientific, political and sociological writers are nearly always haunted by the nation that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones and unnecessary words ……. constantly gain ground ……. the result in general is an increase in sloveliness and vagueness”. “Politics and the English language”, p. 159
44 LOWENTHAL, op. cit. p. 244
45 BUTTIMER A. (1980) “Home, reach and the sense of place”, in BUTTIMER & SEAMON, op. cit. pp. 166-87, 166
46 Ibid. p. 174
47 ORWELL G. “Politics and the English language” p. 159
48 ROWLES G. D. (1994) “Towards a geography of growing old”, in BUTTIMER & SEAMON, op. cit. pp. 55-72, 56
49 TUAN, YI-FU (1978) “Space, time, place: a humanistic frame”, in CARLSTEIN T., PARKES D. & THRIFT N. Making sense of time, pp. 7-16, 11-12
50 ROSE C. (1980) “Human geography as text interpretation”, in BUTTIMER & SEAMON, op. cit. 123-34, 128
51 SEAMON, op. cit. p. 143
52 PRED A. (1981) “Power, everyday practice and the discipline of human geography”, in PRED A. (ed.) Space and time in geography: essays dedicated to Torsten Hägerstrad, Lund Stud. Geogr., Ser. B, 48: 30-55, 38. This volume is a treasure-house of Mandarin at its most pretentious and includes no less than two attempts at “poetry”: Ms Buttimer’s doggerel after the manner of Crabbe (in a mixture of English, Swedish and bibberish) and Olsson’s “Thunderbolt on Heron’s shore” — a sort of acrostic, the flavour of which may be suggested by:
“Graffiti in the nation’s toilets is the narcissiastic proof of operationalized
Eternity half digested into vomitted Reflections …….”
53 SEAMON, op. cit. p. 159
54 WOOD D. (1978) “Introducing the cartography of reality”, in LEY & SAMUELS, op. cit. pp. 207-10, 209
55 OLSSON G. “Social science and human action”, p. 303
56 Ibid. p. 290
57 Ibid. p. 305
58 If Orwell is correct it does more than this: it changes ordinary meaning. See ORWELL G. (1941) “The frontiers of art and propaganda”, reprinted in ORWELL G. & ANGUS L. (eds.) The collected essays, journalism and letters of George Orwell, Vol. 2, (Harmondsworth) pp. 149-53
59 ORWELL G. “Politics and the English language”, pp. 163-4
60 TUAN, YI-FU (1978) “Literature and geography: implications for geographical research”, in LEY & SAMUELS, op. cit. pp. 194-206, 199
61 Ibid. p. 205
62 It was Strindberg’s belief that if these different selves came to know each other madness would result. The prefaces of several of his plays are masterful statements on the multiplicity and unknowability of subjective motivation and, written in the plainest possible language, give lie both to the assertion that subjectivity can be explored only through complex language and to the shallow notion that the nature of subjectivity can be known at all. See for example the preface to Miss Julie (Sometimes known as Lady Julie) (1888) translated by JOHNSON W. (1971) as STRINDBERG A., The pre-inferno plays (Washington).
I am grateful to Dr. J. Langton for permission to draw upon his unpublished paper “The world, the selves and confusion” for the basic outline of this section of the essay, and grateful too for his having drawn my attention to a number of the works cited.
63 For a particularly powerful example see BÖLL H. (1978) The lost honour of Katerina Blum, or: how violence develops and where it can lead (Harmonsworth)
64 OLSSON G. “Of ambiguity” p. 110
65 Ibid. p. 118
66 TUAN YI-FU “Literature and geography”, p. 204
67 The reason why a style which is suited only to the expression of imaginative conceptions is used for what should be reportage is that these authors refuse to categorize and therefore reject the self-evident truth that some kinds of ideas are different from others. In refusing to be analytical they must try to do everything at once. The result is invariably a chaotic synthesis.
68 TUAN YI-FU “Literature and geography” p. 204
69 OLSSON G. “Of ambiguity” p. 119
70 SIT V. (1980) “The location of small industries: an ecological approach”, Trans. Inst. Br. Geogr., N.S. 5: 413-26, 419
71 CONNOLLY, op. cit. pp. 100-1. For a full discussion of the relations between literature and journalism, see pp. 103-7
72 Ibid. p. 31
73 GREGORY, op. cit. p. 7
74 Ibid. p. 7
75 HALL E.T. (1966) The hidden dimension (London) 163, quoted in CARLSTEIN T., PARKES D. & THRIFT N. (eds.) Making sense of time (London) pp. 119-129, 119
76 CONNOLLY, op. cit. p. 29