Keywords for the Age of Austerity

Via cultural critic Evgeny Morozov, I recently came across a fantastic Tumblr by John Patrick Leary, a professor at Wayne State University. Leary has done a series on the “keywords for the age of austerity,” dissecting how terms like “innovation,” “entrepreneurship,” and “conversation” have been co-opted by businessmen to reinforce narrowideas about hierarchy, market-based everything, and virtual technologies (a creaky term, but one that basically encompasses anything from social networks in particular to the overall distract-a-thon of phones in general).

One of my favorite critiques in the series in this gem about how businessmen really have to stretch their use of language:

“One of the things that surprised me when I began this project was how imaginative, even fanciful, was the language of MBAs and economists, whose prestige derives from their disciplines’ pretensions to science and hard-headedness.  Consider the metaphor of ‘business confidence,’ in which abstractions like ‘business’ and ‘the market’ are personified with the fragile psyches of a lily-livered moper who must be either brow-beaten or deceived back into cheerfulness.”

Yep. And this same reification and shows up with many of the keywords Leary analyzes. If the “market” requires “confidence” at all time, then “innovation” needs a seemingly infinite supply of encouragement to offset the “discouragement” it is constantly receiving from courts that rule against startups like Aereo, fair usage laws, and “short-term returns.”

The latter comes from a NYT column by Cecilia Conrad of the MacArthur Foundation, entitled “Our Society Discourages Innovation,” wherein the author bemoans how educational assessment, the demise of academic tenure, etc., have chipped away at the ability to innovate. It is a strange argument to make, considering that acceptance and usage of terms like “innovation” has helped cause these changes.

All of these profound social upheavals have sprung from an increasingly financialized U.S. economy, in which, for instance, students are constantly monitored for “failure” and pitted pointlessly against their peers overseas, despite the meaninglessness of the tests purported to compare one country to another. Meanwhile, “innovation” is often used a stake to divide the constantly innovating, forward-thinking white collar class from the blue collar world – when’s the last time a central heat installer “innovated” something in the current popular corporate classist conception of the word?

There’s also something very self-destructive about the constant hand-wringing about educational achievement gaps, losing out to China, not having enough STEM graduates/visas, and falling behind in the global “marketplace.” First, business rhetoric is used to frame and even create problems that then require solutions conceived, developed, and marketed using the “austerity keywords” lexicon that Leary has chronicled throughout his blog. I mean, how many times has a huge project been marketed with the promise that it will save tons of money? Money for whom? You can see a specific, highly contextual corporate goal rebranded and repackaged as something that is good for society at large.

But then, since business is a small cross-section of the possible human experience, this approach often ends up entailing actions such as laying off teachers or cutting funding for “soft’ subjects like art history or, well, English. “Expensive” employees and areas of study that don’t directly involve considerations of money or something proven to reliably create it – stop for a moment to consider how un-“innovative” it is to look for “innovation” opportunities only or mostly in specific fields such as computer science or biology, in which there are, vitally, track records of financial success and none of the uncertainty that so upsets the aforementioned “confidence” – cannot be tolerated if all policy is made in deference to an impersonal but somehow godlike “market.”

In addition to the real damage done to livelihoods and social welfare, this approach also dumbs down the language. Instead of stopping to learn how to criticize or think about a cultural work or how to understand its history and usages of language, students and workers alike consume an endless torrent of buzzwords and saturated terms, peddled by parties with no credentials or distinctions in English.

Sadly, one of the most marketable (there’s that word again) arguments for making everyone take advanced English or even comparative literature classes would be to help beat back the tide of a language increasingly hijacked by a handful of overused words that non-expert (with respect to language) businessmen like and, let’s be honest, desperately depend upon for their own security.  Even the business and political classes so eager to cut humanities budget realize, on some level, that the words make the world, or else they wouldn’t be so set on framing every issue with almost the same set of terms.

%d bloggers like this: