The Hapsburg Empire by Pieter M. Judson (2016)

Published in 2016, The Hapsburg Empire looks to be the most recent large-scale narrative history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire from the 1740s to its dissolution in 1918.

Sadly, I had misgivings after five or six pages and gave up after 50. I can’t find out whether Pieter Judson is a native English speaker nor not, since his grasp of idiom is so wooden, but he is certainly fluent in sociological jargon.

The problem with this sociological-inflected style is that it is grey, flat, boring, extremely limited and highly repetitive. It uses the same dozen or so key terms over and over to drain the life out of any subject or period:

site, situate, construct, locate, engage with, negotiate, difference, diversity, practices

are applied over and over again, about everything, to make everything sound the same. If concrete could speak this is what it would sound like. Thus:

  • people don’t have religious beliefs, they have religious practices.
  • A school isn’t a place where stuff is taught or learned, it is a site where teaching practices are carried out, or where the state engages with its citizens.
  • The empire Judson wishes to describe contains a range of diverse ‘cultural, religious and social practices’.
  • ‘Election day constituted a critical ritual of empire’.
  • These ‘cultural and social practices’ are ‘situated in institutions’ or – a favourite expression – in diverse ‘social spaces‘.
  • He is keen to ‘locate causal factors’ and show how they ‘engage initiatives’.
  • New laws created ‘rich sites for developing a politics’.
  • The empire created unity out of the ‘cultural diversity‘ of its peoples, which built on ‘traditional functional practices‘ to create ‘rich sites for developing a politics’.
  • Nationalist movements were organised around ‘key ideas of cultural difference‘.
  • Nationalists explained their distinctiveness ‘in cultural terms symbolised by their different language use and religious practice‘.
  • European historians write about the region’s ‘difference’ but historians of nation states ‘need to think more creatively about cultural differences‘.
  • Nowadays the field of Austro-Hungarian studies ‘is the site of remarkable creativity and innovation’.
  • This is because ‘an approach to imperial history from the point of view of shared institutions, practices and cultures challenges and rewrites nation-based narratives‘.
  • His book will ‘investigate how shared imperial institutions, administrative practices and cultural programs‘ shaped society.
  • ‘We desperately need new general narratives.. We do not need a single narrative…[with this book he hopes to offer] one possible set of alternative narratives.’

Limiting God, this vocabulary is so limited and limiting. In George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four the Party is slowly degrading the ability of people to think independently by reducing the number of words in the language. Well, my impression is that so are many modern academics, especially in the humanities, where the extraordinary diversity of human achievement and the mad chaos of human history is reduced to a handful of stock ideas and jargon phrases:

site, situate, construct, locate, engage with, negotiate, difference, diversity, practices

Generalising Using the same generalised jargon phraseology destroys all individuality and specific information. I mean, which empire in human history could the above paragraph of phrases NOT have been written about? Religious practices, cultural difference, critical rituals, social spaces – short of all descriptive and specific content, these phrases could be describing any empire, at more or less any time.

By levelling everything up towards the broadest, most general mental categories this kind of phraseology empties your mind of detail and specificity and understanding.

Pompous Above all, as a prose style, it is tiresomely pompous. To ‘locate’ or ‘situate’ ideas within a social or institutional ‘space’ is not only boring, and empty of any real content – it’s also tiresomely pretentious.

And here’s an odd paradox. I find that the kind of authors who rely on this jargon, which is relatively new and fashionable, also tend to use heavy-handed and orotund phraseology, which is strangely old-fashioned and clumsy, elsewhere. It’s really as if they have never learned to write clearly and frankly; or that, given a choice, their training as academics means that, given the choice between the plain word and the ‘technological’ or the ‘pompous’, they always choose the pontificating alternative.

In this style you never say that someone ‘tried’ or ‘attempted’ something

  • Rulers always sought to achieve x or y.
  • Low productivity isn’t the result of outdated agricultural techniques, it is engendered by them.
  • Maria Theresa doesn’t write or comment about the peasants revolts, she opines on them (p.45).

Desire When the military carried out a census in the 1770s, Judson says the peasants didn’t take the opportunity to indicate their demands or wishes to the authorities; they indicated their desires (p.38) – a peculiarly inappropriate word to use, but one which is a central buzzword of the modern humanities. When he uses it again on page 50, claiming that in the 1770s increasing numbers of people, from bureaucrats to peasants, projected onto the state ‘their own visions and desires‘ (instead of, for example, hopes and aspirations) we realise that Judford’s mind is in thrall to a handful of modish academic words, phrases and ideas which are actively hampering a flexible and quick-witted response to the complex era he is trying to explain.

To describe people as having, not religious faith or beliefs, but ‘religious practice’ is limiting, condescending and above all, leaves you worse off in your understanding of them. Other, cleverer, more interesting authors might have written about people’s faith or beliefs, their theology or liturgy or mass or rites i.e. might give us some detail, some information, some specificity to add colour and life and for the mind to latch on to. But in the hands of arid academics like Judson, all of this complexity disappears, is erased and subsumed by the one official sanctioned, stock phrase ‘practice’, which is repeated again and again with no variation or colour.

Bureaucratic jargon Also, I find it odd and spooky that there is such an obvious overlap between the impoverished jargon and dwarfish conceptualisation of the modern sociology-influenced humanities (because you also come across a lot of the same phraseology in modern art and literary criticism) and the rhetoric of the government departments and agencies I’ve been working in for the past ten years.

In government departments we engage with stakeholders, are aware of diversity, we value difference, we engage users in conversations about their practices and needs, we institute projects which require narrative explanation. (As a digital analyst at a government agency, I was aware on a daily basis of the importance of creating compelling narratives in which to convey the raw data.)

To return to Orwell, I find it genuinely eerie that the jargon-laden language of the humanities, of academia and the arts is becoming more and more closely aligned with the stock and stereotyped language of government and bureaucracy, which – to be blunt – is designed for misinformation and control.

To conclude

The narrow repetitive jargon in which Judson’s history is written drains away all the specificity, interest and colour from what should be a fascinating subject. In the Introduction he tells us about a massacre of 30 or so civilians by the army in a provincial town of the empire during the 1911 election and I don’t think I’ve ever read a description of a riot and then a massacre which was more flat, boring and forgettable. It is the one slight blip of half colour in an otherwise grey, concrete Brutalist building of a prose style.

More examples of dreary sociology jargon

  • Carrying out a census is one among many ‘state-building practices’…
  • The Empress Theresa Maria’s idea to have a census was an ‘enumerative project’…
  • Societies work by having ‘traditional hierarchies of privileged and less privileged classes’…
  • The empire was characterised by ‘linguistic and religious diversity’…
  • ‘European states did not rest on…unified cultural practices…’
  • A coffee house is ‘a site of public discussion’.
  • It is also a ‘site of sociability’.
  • Freemason lodges were not ‘sites of social equality’. A site of sociability is a place where members can debate and develop policy ideas. A freemason lodge is a site where members might debate and test reform ideas, but ‘it was not simply urban-based Freemasonry that offered sites for sociability and debate.’ (All on page 30)

I became sick of the sight of the word ‘site’.

  • The Empress Maria Theresa doesn’t have a religious belief or faith. She has ‘religious practice’.
  • Local priests may or may not engage with new ideas of the Enlightenment (p.41).
  • Maria Theresa and her advisors don’t have or formulate a new political theory, they enunciate a political vision.
  • And she isn’t trying to reform the empire, that would be far too simple a way of putting it. This idea has to be cast in altogether more clunky and corporate phraseology: Maria Theresa was undertaking ‘imperial reform projects.’

Projects. I am surrounded by project managers in my day job as a web content manager. This project, that project, programs full of projects. It is sad for me to read the language of bureaucratic administration being projected onto history, a subject I go to, at least in part, for reasons of escape, to escape to different times and places, to learn about the weird and wonderful things our ancestors, in this country and all around the big wide world, have thought and said and done over the past few millennia, and instead to find all this wonderful diversity, the lives and beliefs and activities of millions of people, being reduced to the same handful of stock, lifeless phrases:

site, situate, construct, locate, engage with, negotiate, difference, diversity, practices

The paradox is that these kinds of politically correct American academics take every opportunity to refer to gender and race, to show how woke they are, and place a big emphasis on diversity.

And yet the actual works they produce are stiflingly undiverse a) failing to capture the actual crazy diversity of the people they’re describing and b) set in prose which is stifling narrow and conventional and flat and dreary.

This is history with all the colour, interest and life drained out of it, and replaced by empty jargon and pompous rhetoric. The students he teaches may admire it for its inclusion of all the right buzzwords, and fellow academics may admire it because it may well feature all kinds of new historical research and results.

But for me, as a critical reader of English prose, it was all-but-unreadable, so I gave up.


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