Russell Jacoby has an interesting brief essay in the Chronicle of Higher Education on the academic fetish for “complicating” issues. "I hope today to complicate our notion of. . . .” "In this article I seek to complicate scholars' understanding of. . . .”
Jacoby’s argument is that this "fashion elevates confusion from a transitional stage into an end goal. We celebrate the fact that everything can be ‘problematized.’ We rejoice in discarding ‘binary’ approaches. We applaud ourselves for recognizing — once again — that everything varies by circumstances.” This is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go very far, and surprisingly, Jacoby doesn’t offer much more of an explanation. Maybe he’s just trying to complicate our understanding of academic habits of mind. . . .
I think there are a couple of major reasons for this particular habit, which Jacoby rightly identifies as an excessively common one. First, this is one of the few tendencies of academic writing and speaking that has its roots in teaching. Students are forever wanting to offer simple, straightforward answers to difficult questions, presumably so they can move on to more important matters, which means that teachers are forever having to say, “Hold on a minute, it’s not that simple.” So the “complicating” tic is in part an extension of the everyday pedagogical situation.
But there’s something else, something more revelatory of the pathologies of the academic mind. “Complicating” gets you a twofer. If you arrive on the scene telling everyone that you see complexities that others have failed to note, you show your depth of thinking and your intellectual courage. (“I can dwell in the midst of uncertainties that lesser minds feel the need to resolve.”) But you are also not making any claims that are likely to be undercut. When one academic says “Other scholars have failed to note these complexities,” it’s almost unheard-of for another to say, “No, you’re just inventing all that crap, these matters are actually pretty simple and straightforward.” “It’s complicated” is, effectively, an irrefutable claim and is therefore the safest place to stand on any given issue.
So academics who talk this way gather unto themselves the aura of bold risk-taking, while simultaneously preserving themselves from any actual danger of refutation. And for an academic what could be cooler than that?