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Interrogation or Torture?

I think John Holbo puts his finger on 80 percent of what bothers sensible people about contemporary humanistic scholarship -- overuse of the word "interrogate":

Just plain 'interrogate' is good enough for comedy. Shakespeare in the little room, looking nervous, tapping the table. (Alternatively, just a book on the table.) Critics watching him through the one-way glass. Lots of gritty, cynical banter as they sip coffee in styro. Hardboiled Walter Benjamin: 'You think he's the guy?' 'Hey, even if he isn't, no guy's so civilized he ain't a testament to barbarism. He wouldn't be here if he didn't have somethin' to hide. Just look at him.' Maybe a good-critic/bad-critic routine. One posing as a sympathetic humanist. 'I know you're a good guy and this is all a misunderstanding. But my partner here -' Then the bad critic explodes into a stream of foam-flecked jargony abuse. Then a third critic bursts in, kneecaps and tasers the Bard, who starts bawling and confessing to everything. Alternatively, a version of the Nite Owl interrogation scene from L.A. Confidential. Two famous authors in different rooms and the critic shuttling back and forth, expertly, getting the suspects to cough up dirt about each other, reducing them to blubbering crybabies. Later, over drinks: 'Why'd you become a critic?' 'I guess every kid wants to be a critic. I guess I wanted to help people, do some good, make a difference.' 'So do you? Make a difference, I mean?' 'I dunno. Sometimes it just gets crazy. But I get tenure in two weeks. Then I don't gotta worry about nothin'.' Of course the author escapes from his cell and kills the critic just before he gets tenure. So the critic's partner has to track down the the author and avenge the critic's death. Ah, the function of criticism at the present time. To be the thin blue line between the reading public and the text.
I would only add that in my (admittedly more limited than John's) experience, "interrogate" is but one of a series of detective metaphor that seem overused, albeit the most egregious example. The funny thing is that you could easily turn the tools of contemporary criticism against the critics on this stuff. Interrogate the performance of criticism as criminal investigation.

February 23, 2005 | Permalink


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Too bad the Abu Ghraib stuff hasn't been called torturegate, because they it could also be referred to as interro...gate. Or interrogationgate.

Posted by: SP | Feb 23, 2005 10:21:22 AM

That sounds like a clever knock on lit crit's use of the word "interrogate," until you actually read the definition:

tr.v. in·ter·ro·gat·ed, in·ter·ro·gat·ing, in·ter·ro·gates

1. To examine by questioning formally or officially. See Synonyms at "ask"

Posted by: bobo brooks | Feb 23, 2005 11:34:02 AM

I went to Holbo.

He says he got this meme from the Little Professor.

Shouldn't she be properly cited on your front page as well?

Otherwise, this looks like a classic case of how women become invisible in the blog-sphere--by the time her good idea has made it up to a high-visibility site like yours, her name has been left off.

Even just "I think John Holbo link (following up on an idea from the Little Professor link) has put his finger etc...."

Posted by: Tad Brennan | Feb 23, 2005 11:39:53 AM

Even younger college-aged liberals are using the word "interrogate" too much. Click the link and watch the video clip. Damn college liberals- they've all been corrupted by amoral deconstruction.


Posted by: overinterrogating | Feb 23, 2005 12:36:50 PM

Part & parcel of the hostility that underlies so much lit crit. Sontag's "Against Interpretation" teems with metaphors of rape & violence in describing the critical urge to erase a text (by "interpreting" it) & replace it with something else.

And I don't know what you'd call it other than "hostility" when a professor assigns a 700-page novel for class and then conducts the entire class without once directing his students' attention to a single word in the actual book.

Much more fun to "interrogate" Shakespeare, etc., than to *read* them. Easier too.

Posted by: Anderson | Feb 23, 2005 1:52:27 PM

Forget "interrogate". How about "contested"?

Posted by: Julian | Feb 23, 2005 2:54:39 PM

How about "intervention." As in, "I'd like to stage an intervention in this discussion."

That is to say, "Mere mortals like you 'debate' issues. But I swoop in from above to explain how all the premises are incorrect, and I therefore reshape the discussion in brilliant ways that completely alter its previous course."

Of course, usually these people are just joining in an argument, same as us mortals. And of course, with everyone "intervening," the whole idea becomes meaningless.

Posted by: cthomas | Feb 23, 2005 3:31:45 PM

I suspect that suspect is one of the lesser used words. Which is too bad.

Posted by: benton | Feb 23, 2005 3:43:30 PM

It's a certain sloppiness; it's easier to think of the single world "interrogate" than the phrase "ask oneself questions about". Of course, it's a problem that's widespread.

But, by the way, the notion that interrogation is equivalent to torture is false. Being interrogated by the police (or the secret police) is no fun, but it's a lot worse when they bring out the broomsticks and the crocodile-clips. This collapse of distinction is not due to academics, Matthew -- it's due to pro-torture politicians and bureaucrats prettying up a cesspool.

Posted by: MFB | Feb 24, 2005 4:00:29 AM

I would also point out that there are a limited number of synonyms for "question." Since much of what critics do is ask and attempt to answer questions about a literary work, they find themselves needing words that mean "ask" fairly often. Since you can't just use the same word over and over, synonyms like "interrogate" get used. It's also one of the longest synonyms, another plus. After all, criticism is written in a formal tone and the occasional larger-word-where-smaller-would-do signals that quite well. That said, it does seem to be a stylistic mistake if a critic overuses such words. It's possible to write clearly and insightfully. I tend to think critics who can't write clearly can't think clearly either.

Posted by: mallarme | Feb 24, 2005 9:00:24 PM

torture is not an American value.
you can't make war on an abstract noun (terrorism)

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