On 4 June 2014, Eric Schwitzgebel’s “A Theory of Jerks” appeared on Aeon.com. In the piece, Schwitzgebel articulates a need for a theory of jerks before noting being in possession of one. He then advances a working definition and partial history of the term “jerk” before addressing the validity of his professorial approach to the topic. The article then situates jerkiness amid psychological constructions and in contrast to its antithesis–for Schwitzgebel, the “sweetheart”–before laying out overall justification for its treatment of jerkiness. Qualifications of the argument follow, and Schwitzgebel then notes the hierarchical direction of jerkiness before isolating a particular sub-set of jerks and concluding with a call to action for people to recognize and work against their own jerkiness. In all, the piece is an engaging read in the tradition of Frankfurt’s On Bullshit (which the article references, if briefly), one that displays, through its informed treatment of the mundane, some of the best features of public intellectualism.
I used the article with my class on 31 March 2018, having come across it earlier that week and deciding that the topic would make it of interest to my students. (That it references Frankfurt also attracted attention; I have done some taurascatological work from time to time, and the similarities delighted me.) After working through some of the vocabulary–Schwitzgebel writes as a professor, and my students are not yet so adept as that–they latched onto the piece tightly, wringing much from it and prompting a discussion that lasted for the better part of an hour. (Generally, the students will address topics for only fifteen to twenty minutes at a time, unless prodded.) They were able to identify a primary audience for the piece (to paraphrase, intellectual or pretentiously intellectual mainstream elite or elite-aspirant men), as well as its stated and tacit purposes, as well as to identify points of failure for the primary and other audiences. And their collective analysis of the piece helped to point out gendering of language (“jerk” and “sweetheart” both read as gendered to the students, as did some other terms in the piece), as well as to explore some of the parallels of academe to the broader working world. In all, it was a useful exercise, and it is one to which I think I will return with students in such classes in the future
Provided, of course, that I have them. Insofar as I remain in academe, I remain contingent.
Among the many things that struck me during the conversation, though, was how students reacted to the focus of the article: the jerk. One voiced disbelief that an academic–a philosophy professor, no less–would not only write a piece about jerks, but would use the word 90 times (according to a search function run in class), including in variants such as “jerkitude” (which term itself occasioned comment) in 3,600 words (per the article’s online paratext). But I think the disjunction between Schwitzgebel’s article and the student’s expectation of academic writing is an informative one, one tying to my own earlier comment about the article doing good work at public intellectualism. There is a disconnection between what academic writing is and what it is supposed to be–and between both and what it is perceived as being by those outside academe. The disconnection is amply attested by far better scholars than I (Cohen’s piece in Hardcastle and Resich’s Bullshit and Philosophy comes to mind as one example, and Birkenstein’s 2010 College English piece on Judith Butler comes to mind as another), so I will nor rehearse it here. It will suffice to say that academic writing is generally perceived as being pretentious and removed from everyday concerns, while it is necessarily concerned with precision (and not seldom loses clarity in the attempt to find and isolate the precise nuances that need discussion), and it is supposed to be directed towards the dissemination of information so that others can use it to make yet more new knowledge.
Part of doing that last, part of making new knowledge, lies in interrogating what we think we already know. We cannot leave unexamined the assumptions we make, even when, on the surface of them, we think we know what they are and mean. I often work with four-letter words in my classes; I not seldom have my students consider the word “blue,” a simple monosyllable that invariably shows up disagreement about what the world is and what the words are that get applied to those words. “Jerk” seems to have functioned similarly, with some overall agreement about its meaning but little considerations of the small distinctions that will identify people as jerks or as something else entirely. And it does take some work to untangle such things, to be sure, particularly because the things being untangled seem so commonplace and obvious. But that some effort is required does not mean the work is not worth doing; quite the opposite is true. There is more to gain from the expenditure of effort, from the time taken to consider what is meant by even the simplest words, and what it reveals about us that we use them the ways we do, than we commonly understand and recognize.
Thanks to Schwitzgebel, my students have a bit better idea about that now. Thanks to him, also, I have a bit clearer idea in my head of what I might be able to mean when I use a word that I use perhaps too often already–along with no few other four-letter words I know. And while the former is of far more worth than the latter, I am grateful for both–and more.