Friday, January 27, 2006

your scare quotes, they are really "scaring" me

Theory is under siege, of course. And nothing very new about that. But it sure would help deflect the world's understandable sniffs, smirks and groans if we could all agree on some basic rules of punctuation. Hence, I have come up with some–I hope–relatively mild and harmless suggestions, take them as you will:

1. "Scare" quotes

This would be a misnomer, albeit one that has itself now permanently infiltrated popular usage, so much so that there is virtually no competition for describing what "scare quotes" describes: the resistance to or questioning of the self-evidence of specific words or phrases.

The funny thing about scare quotes is that there is nothing even mildly scary or scaring about them. On the contrary, they should only be used when referencing a merely popular idiom, or common usage. Rather than "look out!" their tone is always one of "duh, you know, I mean to reference this word in the banal sense of course, though without subscribing to it. It's just that much more convenient; I trust you understand."

If there is any doubt on the part of the writer that the desired reader may not catch the reference or share in the assumption of its meaning, then this banal sense one has in mind should probably be made explicit. In other words, scare quotes should only be used for stuff that is almost too obvious to even bear mentioning.

If the writer uses quotation marks at all deceptively, or even ambiguously, it may henceforth safely be assumed that the writer is merely being cutely, pedantically "ironic," and referencing yet again, in an entirely tiresome formulaic-parodic fashion the very scare-quotidity of the scare quote as a genre (or what is more likely some abstruse theorist) as it (or she) procedes to further conquer the optimistically alleged "post-ironic" and "globalized" planet, always already, and so on.

Scare quotes may be saying EITHER, "I do not think this word means what you think it means," OR "this common term is perhaps not the most useful. It may even be deeply unhelpful. But in the absence of the immanent arrival of another, better one - or perhaps toward that end - well, you understand of course that I will have to compromise."

Thus, the scare quote would only be serious cause for fear if one insisted on overestimating what it is in fact saying (thus inviting, naturally enough, all kinds of speculation about the listener's knee-jerk fidelity to the dogma and ideological encrustations invariably imbedded in common sense everyday language, etc.)

But wait. Of course the term, "scare quote," was itself always already ironic, or was it rather simply and pedantically mocking. The fact that this mocking has sometimes been well-deserved does not, unfortunately, alter the fact that it remains at root nothing but a knee-jerk, or an habitual wink nudge nudge, if not a tired form of the allegedly "Socratic" conservativism that permeates analytic philosophy and groups deriving their impetus and identity from their willingness to "subversively" employ anti-PC language, alike.

The rhetoric of the "scare quote" - on the part of those who have decided this is what such politically-correct or self-conscious use of quotation marks around everyday words shall be called - is quite simply, structurally, that of the bully on the playground; on par with a sarcastic taunt: "oooooh, you're scaaaring me." And so the bully seeks to mask, in typical fashion, his own insecurity and fear by perpetually intimidating others, to transform his fear into a tangible object to be conquered, to transfer it onto the other he bullies, in order that he may forget for a moment his own fear, etc. Nothing new about that. The popular name itself, "scare quote," is thus at root anti-intellectual.

It is perhaps not so funny when you have to point it out.

(nb. Things are more complicated of course, particularly when it comes to the potential irony of irony, ad infinitum. In which case, I would recommend a particular brilliant, maddening essay on all this by David Foster Wallace, if only I could find it. A quick google search turns up, among other less than helpful things, a previous post of mine in which I also state that I wish that I could find it. Maybe some kind reader has it?)

2. Inverted commas

Contrary to what everybody and their mother (and especially in England) seems to think, these are not to be used interchangably with scare quotes, or as a more sophisticated (or lazy, or both) substitute for regular quotation marks. Rather they should be used as sparingly as possible, if the writer has any helf-decent sense of integrity, humility or intellectual history. Like a fine wine, inverted commas require time and patient investment to develop and mature and acquire their taste. Only in this case taste is meaning. Inverted commas are asking the reader to take an entirely more substantial leap. In short, the precise status of the inverted comma in a text is, and should be, a much more difficult thing to ascertain. As a general rule, inverted commas should be left to the philosophers. One should not employ inverted commas unless one is prepared to refer the reader to either a)the way a particular philosopher has developed, over the course of a lifetime of work, a unique sense for this word; b)a particular philosopher's particular book; c)one's own book, providing one has the gall to call oneself a philosopher or; d)a poem, provided the poem is written by a poet who is also a philosopher.

...To be continued, on dashes that cleave one word in two. Also known as hyphens. And their silence.


Keith said...

I often think to myself that I should stop using "scare quotes" as often as I do, and instead search for more 'meaningful' ways of articulating my thought. As for the case of the inverted commas, the way you describe their use makes them sound rather 'elitist'.

Matt said...

I don't understand why you put "meaninful" and "elitist" in inverted commas; are you trying to be cute?

It isn't cute.

The thing about inverted commas is, they make far more (philosophical) pretense; they are in many ways, therefore, the opposite of "scare quotes."

You might say that inverted commas mark a self-conscious failure to reference. Well, some failures are more elegant than others.

Matt said...

The only person for whom this could be "elitist" is an anti-intellectual, whether they realize it or not.

Keith said...

Well, the entire analysis you've presented seems to me a bit of an exageration of the phenomenon. (incidentally yes, I was trying to be "cute" with my use of inverted commas).

It seems strange that you would have such a reaction the application little marks that enclose words for the purpose of indicating a slightly different reading of whatever words (or phrases) happen to be sandwiched between them. This is not to say that "scare quotes" or inverted commas are not used in a sloppy manner, but for you to imply - as you seem to be doing - that they are useless, meaningless, or should not be used unless the writer is him/herself a philosopher/poet or is referencing a philosopher/poet, well...that's just absurd.

Although I appreciate what you are attempting to point out in this post it's a bit of a scarecrow for me, and I find it impossible to take you entirely seriously.

Matt said...

Golly, it seems I am doomed to be taken literally. Yes Keith, but I was the first one to be cute.

(As in, the over-reacting may be elsewhere.)

Matt said...

So no, not entirely seriously.

(My actual position on what counts as philosophy may indeed be rather broad).

Keith said...

Well I didn't really take you literally. I only meant: "oooh, you're scaaaring me".

Matt said...

Yes, you were trying to be cute.

Of course, everyone should stop using scare quotes except when they have good reason to defend them. Inverted commas even moreso.

Also, peppering one's text with both, interchangably, tends to make the status of one's inverted commas - hence one's actual thinking - painfully obscure.

What on earth do you, Brits, especially, have, against, quotation, marks?

Ok I'm finished.

Anonymous said...

I am neither a phylospher or a poet but may have stumbled upon an instance where the usage of such quotation marks would be deemed acceptable by both the aforementioned.

When writing a journal. Some of lifes events are not always happy ones. To the writer, these harrowing thoughts may translate to one word or short phrase contained within quotation marks. If this was then read by someone who knew the writer very well, the true meaning would be understood immediately.