I am not an academic. It’s been something like 15 years since I last took a course from any university. Nonetheless, I read a fairly high number of academic articles, especially in the “social sciences”, in order to inform my work. In this way, I feel at once estranged from academic culture and familiar with academic writing.
I’m looking for help from genuine academics, therefore, in an effort to deal with a linguistic habit I’ve encountered, over and over, in academic writing. It’s the Curse of Then.
As I read through academic articles, seeking to gain some insight concepts or research findings, I keep stumbling into extra thens. The word then is inserted into otherwise straightforward sentences, without any apparent need. The extraneous then is often present next to a statement about how something can be understood. For example:
“The question of feminism’s contribution to bioethics can be understood, then, as a question about how and why bioethics might benefit from excursions into this sort of theory.”
“Racism in the novel can be understood, then, as a set of rather ridiculous prejudices that exist in society, not a universal or stable system based on truth, which in turn makes its brutal effects (such as slavery in general and the rape of Nanny and its aftermath), particularly devastating.”
“Affect can be understood then as a gradient of bodily capacity – a supple incrementalism of ever-modulating force-relations – that rises and falls not only along various rhythms and modalities of encounter but also through the throughs and sieves of sensation and sensibility, an incrementalism that coincides with belonging to comportments of matter of virtually any and every sort.”
“Noddings ethic of care can be understood, then, as a special case of Martin Buber’s I-Thou or subject-subject relation.”
“The rule of law can be understood then as a set of ideas that institutionally protect the social and dialogic process of exposing and critiquing reasons for decisions, rather than as a set of ideas that institutionally entrench the hierarchical or hieratical process of announcing them.”
“Psychotherapy can be understood, then, as a middle-class, Western invention.”
All these academic writers seem to be saying that certain things can be understood in certain ways, not now, but then. When is this then? Next Thursday at 5:03 PM Greenwich Time? On the Ides of March? After I finish my bagel and lox? After awhile, the use of then in academic writing begins to sound like the use of them in the ramblings of conspiracy theorists – representing a shadowy zone that can never be seen directly, disappearing as soon as one attempts to define it with specificity.
Is this somehow related to quantum mechanics, and Schrodinger’s mangy cat? There certainly seems to be some kind of pursuit of relativity motivating the periodic insertion of then into academic articles, and an uncertainty principle of some sort, though I’m no theoretical physicist, so I couldn’t possibly differentiate a Weberian Boson from a Foucauldian Quark Field with enough precision to nail this relationship down.
There is some association of random utterances of then with the perhapsification of academic language. They write:
“Though Russia is no longer Communist, under Vladimir Putin it can perhaps be described as a post-totalitarian regime.”
“What emerges can perhaps be described as a radical relativism under rigorous restraints.”
“The ability of the therapist accurately and sensitively to understand experiences and feelings and their meaning to the client during the moment-to-moment encounter of psychotherapy constitutes what can perhaps be described as the ‘work’ of the therapist after he has first provided the contextual base for the relationship by his self-congruence or genuineness and his unconditional positive regard…”
Are these academic writers proposing the creation of alternate realities as they construct their articles, so that the act of publishing in a journal validates the academic’s ideas, while simultaneously, in an antimatter universe of some kind, exposing these same ideas as complete hogwash?
If this is the case, the academic’s style of writing can be understood, then, as perhaps the least confident form of language ever known to humankind.
What can be done? Must I wade through an swamp of thens and perhapses and as it weres to get to the ideas in every paper I find? Is there, then, nothing that instructors grading papers could do, perhaps, to eradicate this linguistic plague, as it were?