Posted by: Harold Knight | 05/24/2011

Oprah, Pomobabble, and Spuriosities

An old spuriosity

An old spuriosity

Most of the subjects I write about are well beyond the reach of my authority to discuss. My last post about being in my body (May 22), for example, is an exercise in dabbling that is, for all practical purposes, well beyond my philosophical or neurological or psychological expertise.

I can claim some growing familiarity with the subject of bodies. We old folks think a great deal about our bodies as we become (painfully) aware of the short time before ours cease to be. However, I doubt I will ever understand serious academic and philosophical writing on the subject. Heidegger’s Being and Time sits in my library, once-read but not understood. That raises questions about my ability to think about “what bodies are for,” much less to write about the subject. On the other hand, my newly resumed—after a 17-year hiatus—yoga practice, my learning to square dance, and my daily confrontation with new “aches and pains” probably stand me in better stead for thinking about bodies (mine at any rate) than can the works of Heidegger, Nietzsche, Foucault, and Derrida combined.

I’m probably cowed (needlessly) because I don’t understand what Dennis W. Arrow calls (I don’t know if he invented the word) “pomobabble,” that is, the kind of “postmodern babble” (gibberish) academic writing is full of that only initiates can understand (1). The mysterious Being and Time seems to be the source of most of that language.

I say I’m needlessly cowed by pomobabble because I know and understand an arcane language very few of us do—musicology (I have a PhD in it). However, my favorite article on the subject begins with a discussion of the coinage of

. . . the useful portmanteau-word “spuriosity,” thereby wittily combing the earlier words “spurious” and “curiosity” and giving us one neat word for what the dictionaries and catalogs term rather pompously “spurious, doubtful, and misattributed compositions”—the kind of thing one finds in the Anhang or appendix. . .(2—you really should look at this; it’s a great pun).

(A “portmanteau” is a suitcase; “spurious” means “not genuine.” Anhang is the German word for “appendix.” I point that out simply to say that musicologists use words that are in the dictionary, and they mean what they say. They did in 1954, at any rate.)

Most everyone has heard one of the prime examples of a “spurious” attribution of a piece of music. If you’ve attended a wedding where the bride processed into the church to Henry Purcell’s “Trumpet Voluntary in D,” you’ve been duped. It was composed by Jeremiah Clarke. Spuriosity.

That said, I’m going to change the subject and join the “fools [who] rush in where angels fear to tread” (an appropriate use of the phrase from Alexander Pope’s An essay on criticism, 1709, in which the “fools” are literary critics).

The range of concerns and slipperiness of concepts such as emotional intelligence, well-being, emotional literacy and self-esteem have created something of an orthodoxy. Interest in emotional vulnerability parallels the assumption that low self-esteem is the cause of a wide range of social and individual ills. This is epitomized. . .  by the influential views of confessional television host Oprah Winfrey who says that ‘lack of self-esteem is the root of all the problems in all the world’ (3).

I tell my students, “all” is a dangerous word to use in a thesis.

All? Arnold Schwarzenegger’s love child is the result of low self-esteem? I suppose Maria has confided in her friend Oprah the truth about that. Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s sexual encounter with a hotel maid, whether consensual or not, was the result of low self-esteem? Martha Stewart went to jail because of low self-esteem? The most intelligent student in all of my classes didn’t finish her research assignment and earned a B minus instead of an A because of low self-esteem? I didn’t finish my second PhD because of low self-esteem? (That one, of course, may well be true.) The War in Iraq is the result of low self-esteem?

I’m grasping at straws here. But we can surely agree not all of the problems of all people, famous or not—problems played out at home or on the “world stage”—are caused by low self-esteem.

Seemingly, everyone in the country is talking about Oprah’s last show. Oh, come on now. I’m not an iconoclast. Perhaps I simply watch too much television. I’m sure academics who use pomobabble don’t know or care about Oprah’s last show.

“She very much played the role of mother writ large,” Sheri L. Parks tells Janice D’Arcy in The Washington Post this morning. “Parks said Oprah projected an idea that ‘women had a station in their community and were acting on it, that they were smart, interested and efficacious. She was empowering’” (4). Parks is Associate Professor of American Studies at the University of Maryland and is an Oprah fan.

Oprah and Nate

Oprah and Nate

I understand all of that. And I wouldn’t, even if I thought I had some reason to, belittle that. I am grateful to Oprah, too. She has shown being gay to be simply a fact of life. She has interviewed many gays in different contexts without ever making an issue of their sexuality (ask Ellen DeGeneres and Nate Berkus). She has had an important part in the current change in attitude among Americans  concerning same-sex marriage.

Here’s my point. I think there’s as much danger (or nonsense—take your pick) in “popularbabble” as there is in “pomobabble.” Nothing is as simple as raising one’s self-esteem to solve the problems of this life.  For example, cosmetic surgery, one of the many recurring topics on the Oprah show, is not necessarily the solution to a lack of self-esteem because

. . . Oprah’s guests who claim they did it ‘‘for themselves’’ [overlook] the fact that the norms that encouraged these individuals to see themselves as defective are enmeshed in the practice and institution of cosmetic surgery itself. And so is individual behavior (5).

Low self-esteem is mixed up with a multi-billion dollar industry. Which feeds which?

The Father of Pomobabble?

The Father of Pomobabble?

Aha! Back to the Olde Spuriosity Shoppe. Both pomobabble and popularbabble need appendices. Both are curious and may be spurious. Heidegger says,

the phenomenon of communication (Mitteilung) must be understood in a sense which is ontologically broad. (…) Through it a co-state-of-mind (Mitbefindlichkeit) gets ‘shared’, and so does the understanding of Being-with (6).

Oprah says,

Before you agree to do anything that might add even the smallest amount of stress to your life, ask yourself: What is my truest intention? Give yourself time to let a yes resound within you. When it’s right, I guarantee that your entire body will feel it (7).

So I’m back to being and bodies. I assume other people understand either Heidegger or Oprah or both. I don’t. We need an Anhang here to explain both of them. Academics for decades have been trying to explain Heidegger.  Let the explanations of Oprah begin.
(1) Arrow, Dennis W. “Pomobabble: Postmodern newspeak and constitutional `meaning’ for the uninitiated.” Michigan Law Review 96.3 (1997): 461.
(2) Cudworth, Charles L. “Ye Olde Spuriosity Shoppe or, Put it in the Anhang.” Notes, Second Series 12.1 (Dec., 1954), 25-40. (Published by Music Library Association).
(3) Ecclestone, Kathryn. “Resisting images of the ‘diminished self’: the implications of emotional well-being and emotional engagement in education policy.” Journal of Education Policy 22.4 (2007): 455-470.
(4) D’Arcy, Janice. “Goodbye to Oprah and her strong arms.” Lifestyle. On Parenting. The Washington Post. 05/24/2011. Web. 24 May 2011.
(5) Cadwallader, Jessica. “Suffering Difference: Normalisation and Power.” Social Semiotics 17.3 (2007): 375-394.
(6) Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time (1927), trans. J. Macquarrie and E. Robinson. Oxford: Blackwell, 1997 (205). Quoted in:  Baiasu, Roxana. “Puzzles of Discourse in Being and Time: Minding Gaps in Understanding.” International Journal of Philosophical Studies 17.5 (2009): 681-706.
(7) No citation. From The Quotations Page. Web. 24 May 2011.


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