“These ideas, … cliché as they are, are actually, today, this ‘modern’ day, the fancy damned zeitgeist itself.”
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“These ideas, … cliché as they are, are actually, today, this ‘modern’ day, the fancy damned zeitgeist itself.”
Most of these terms were, at the outset, startlingly revelatory. Many still carry a vestige of their original charge. They remain insignia of belonging, the currency of academic cultural critique: still-valuable properties in a high-risk market. But overuse has sapped their strength. Easily reproduced, they now serve as fodder for academic satire, mocking the revolutions they once dreamed. When I see them, I wince precisely because I hear the still small voice: “Do not ask at whom the satire points, it points at thee.”
Such terms lie at the heart of a paradox in the humanities. Among our central missions is to challenge the assumptions of the world as we know it: Uproot conventional wisdom; attack the conceptual status quo. While we may also serve as guardians of culture — memorializing the catastrophes of history, defending knowledge and beauty against the onslaughts of barbarity — mostly we view ourselves as critics of dead thought. “Our work … strives to understand the world in new terms,” explains the Modern Language Association. “Humanistic study … encourages [us] to refuse to take things for granted.” We break open the locked rooms of the present, in all its blindness. We defamiliarize the future. Clichés are by nature conservative: They preserve ideas, congealed in truism. We thus stand united against the cliché, that great bearer of atrophied thought.
And yet, somehow we produce our very own. These circulate within the coterie world of the critical humanities, where, instead of challenging the norms of the realm, they affirm them. Guardians of the status quo, they mock one of our most cherished aspirations, the aspiration to original thought. They serve the very thing that cultural critique seeks to dismantle: adherence to groupthink.
You might protest that these are not clichés, but useful terms of art. And yet they conform to classic definitions of the cliché: a phrase “that has become overly familiar or commonplace” and now “betrays a lack of original thought.” The word “cliché” began as an onomatopoeia: initially a verb (clicher) that mimicked the sound a printer’s mold made when it struck molten metal to create the stereotype plates used by 19th-century printers. Soon the verb became a noun denoting the plates themselves. Sometime in the mid-19th century, its usage expanded to designate style: stock phrases; trite fashions, melodies, images, ideas. Perhaps a printer-cum-scribbler opened a dull pamphlet one day and observed grumpily, “Nothing here, just clichés,” then said with a swagger, “Nice figure!” A cliché was born.
The origin of the word “cliché” in a once-clever metaphor reminds us that no cliché begins life as a cliché. Each arises from a startling insight or analogy, one that we repeat until it grows so natural that we hardly hear it anymore. Ours may spring from epiphanies. But so do they all.
Still, clichés have their defenders. A cliché (they say) can establish familiarity and trust. Clichés are democratic, capturing the inflections of everyday speech and codifying popular wisdom. To scorn them may bespeak a narrow-minded disdain for the common. Clichés hide profound insights in plain sight. When they brush against the windows of thought uninvited, one can put them to work against their own fatigue by flaunting them. In implicit quotation marks, the ironic or parodic cliché can reveal our rote habits of mind. It can function homeopathically, offering just a drop of poison to work a cure.
But academic clichés are harder to defend. Far from being populist, they are the status markers of a particularly exclusive community, shoring up higher-than-highbrow privilege. They are esoteric, seeming to say: “You, of course, cannot understand.” If they were to express popular wisdom or capture everyday speech, they would lose their raison d’être. And while others may parody them, we ourselves rarely use them ironically. They are far too politically weighty for that. When ordinary clichés become dead metaphors — so common that they no longer appear as metaphors — they serve as a kind of lexical compost, enriching the language. Academic clichés die too. But like toys dumped on landfill, they rarely decompose. They just grow grimy with age.
How does a critical term make this sorry trip? It starts, of course, at precisely the moment the term begins to gain dominion. To do so, it must capture the academic zeitgeist, but it must also seem radically new. Someone might have said something similar before (Erving Goffman, Simone de Beauvoir, Heraclitus …), but never quite this way, and not with such radical point. People begin to repeat it. They find its insight transferrable. It gains traction, then currency, then charismatic authority, and eventually oracular power, rising in crescendo with each repetition. Soon it becomes a kind of magic talisman: pointing to an idea, perhaps, but also performing its own virtuosity. It expresses an attitude. It declares your allegiances. It positions you against something: capitalism, or neocolonialism, or heteronormativity (the precise thing is not always so clear). Its occultism is central to its glamor. Merely invoking it announces: “Complex ideas at work here!”
It doesn’t matter whether judges use these terms with all the nuance of high theory. What matters is that in such places, we can see — concretely and demonstrably — how the humanities does things with words.
Then its spread accelerates, and the slide begins. Applied mechanically to an ever-widening pool of objects, the term suddenly appears in the most surprising places. (How, exactly, is llama farming “posthumanist”? Are Chicken McNuggets really “bare life”?) Losing its bearings, it starts to stand for propositions that are dubious at best. Or, with theoretical pomp, it proclaims the obvious. No longer cutting-edge but blunted for general use, it becomes commonplace, then flatly imitative, then mind-numbingly predictable.
The 28th time in the space of a week that I read the word “anthropocene” (six times in conference programs, 15 times in journal articles, seven in student papers), I sigh. Not quite a cliché, but maybe on its way. We always hope such words will change the world. Sadly, the words of even the best of us seem fated to die within the walls of the university. Did Fredric Jameson’s dazzlingly obscure Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism contribute a microparticle to thwarting the tyrannical dominion of capital? Has Giorgio Agamben made the slightest dent in neo-despotism or the permanent state of exception? If we try to trace the political impact of cultural theory’s most revolutionary ideas, it often seems doubtful they do anything at all.
1991, The New York Times: “You thought modern was bad enough. … Post-modern is going to be a lot worse. … How about making up a sentence using ‘performativity’? … Performativity?” (incredulous jeer). 1998, Slate: “How long will it be before some cultural-studies professor writes a paper for the MLA called: ‘[The] Politics of Deconstructive Video-Tape Performativity?’” (satiric chuckle). 2004, The New York Times: “The preferred term nowadays seems to be performativity” (slightly raised eyebrow). 2013, television comedy-drama Glee: “[Sam]: I’m taking over this Monster Ball since … as a former teen stripper I understand the power of … performativity” (wry wink). 2021, Rolling Stone: “The fact that younger generations are now courting LGBTQ+ audiences through explicit queer performativity is … progress” (earnest nod). 2022, BBC Radio, interview with the opera star Kangmin Justin Kim: “I’m a Korean American man sometimes singing an Egyptian prince or African princess or anything, you know … the performativity of gender, a different attitude to masculinity” (gesture that means: “we take this for granted”).
Some of our clichés turn up in court as legal decrees. One finds “performativity,” “deconstruction,” and “normativity” in judicial opinions. “Intersectionality” has transformed antidiscrimination law. In Lam v. University of Hawaii (1994), the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit found that “where two bases for discrimination exist, they cannot be neatly reduced to distinct components,” citing Kimberlé Crenshaw’s foundational 1989 paper. “Genderqueer” now appears in countless legal decisions defending rights and mandating pronoun choice. It doesn’t matter whether judges use these terms with all the nuance of high theory. What matters is that in such places we can see — concretely and demonstrably — how the humanities does things with words.
Academic clichés die too. But like toys dumped on landfill, they rarely decompose. They just grow grimy with age.
Admittedly, academic buzzwords don’t always do what they should. They may go rogue. If one catches on, it may show up in caricature and turn on you. Sixteen states have now banned the teaching of “critical race theory,” and nearly 20 more have a ban in the works. Far-right protesters around the world hold up signs: “stop teaching critical racist theory”; “say ‘no’ to gender theory”; “performativity destroys the family.” In Brazil, protesters burn an effigy of Judith Butler wearing a pink bra as they scream, “Burn the witch.” One Twitter comment: “How can you know if your research is having an impact? When a mob holding Bibles and crucifixes burns an effigy of you.” Who will be louder? It’s anyone’s guess. Clichés are plutonium nuggets of thought: They might power a revolution, or they might explode on you. That is the risk, but maybe it’s the risk of any political work.
My colleagues are at a rally. They wave signs in the air: “Feminism against patriarchy!” I picture them the next day scrawling “Avoid clichés!” in the margins of a paper titled “Feminism Against Patriarchy.” We divide our thinking: political slogans, yes; clichés, no. These are two different things, belonging to two different spheres, politics and pedagogy. But how can this be right? For if we insist on this segregation, we’ve clearly forgotten the precept we hold most dear: Rhetoric is politics. Orwell and Arendt knew that — but they were wrong about clichés. Clichés are the indispensable glue of political change. It’s just better when they’re the right kind.
Not all of our students will be original thinkers, nor should they all be. A world of original thinkers, all thinking wholly inimitable thoughts, could never get anything done. For that we need unoriginal thinkers, hordes of them, cloning ideas by the score and broadcasting them to every corner of our virtual world. What better device for idea-cloning than the cliché? These don’t live forever: Most are bubbles and will waft away on the breezes of change. So why should we seek to kill off those that remind us of things worth remembering, bear within themselves a dream or a promise, and might just repair lives along the way? Maybe we should instead strive to send our students forth — and ourselves too — armed with clichés for political change.