Let me begin by confessing that I have edited academic anthologies, and published several chapters in them, so I am guilty of adding my mite of bombast to those miserable magazines of bombastry.
We have the word anthology from the Greek anthologia, which is literally a bouquet or collection of flowers. The metaphorical nosegays that we call anthologies of literature appeared in the Renaissance, and were collections of the “flowers” of classical poetry, epigram and myth. The editors of these anthologies collected texts that were scattered, but also selected texts that were best. It was their selecting of the best that justified the comparison of their collections to bouquets of flowers.
If the modern academic anthology has a botanical analog, it is not a fragrant bouquet, but rather a ragged bundle of hellebore, nettles and jimson weed. The editor of an academic anthology does not collect the best. He scrapes together whatever he can find, packages these sweepings under a specious title, and then sells the collected gibberish to saps. These saps are in most cases graduate students and university libraries.
Bombast was originally the name of the material that tailors and dressmakers used to pad clothing, and thereby give shoulders to gentlemen who were slight, and breasts to ladies who were slim. In one old poem, a shriveled geezer laments,
My thighs are thin, my body lank and lean,
It hath no bombast now, but skin and bones.*
From this sartorial origin, it was but a short step to the rhetorical bombast of puffed and pretentious words. Denouncing a book of geography that was more fantastical than most, Eusebius called it,
A huge volume full of bombast and vain ostentation.**
When his argument is weak and lacks all natural charm, the crafty academic reaches for the bombast and stuffs it in.
Consider, for instance, this advertisement, just arrived, for a noisome nosegay of high-flown hoo-ha. The anthology is titled Defining Landscape Democracy: A Path to Spatial Justice, and you may have a copy from Edward Elgar Press for only fifty dollars on paper, fifteen by download.
This stimulating book explores theories, conceptual frameworks, and cultural approaches with the purpose of uncovering a cross-cultural understanding of landscape democracy, a concept at the intersection of landscape, democracy and spatial justice. The authors of Defining Landscape Democracy address a number of questions that are critical to the contemporary discourse on the right to landscape: Why is democracy relevant to landscape? How do we democratise landscape? How might we achieve landscape and spatial justice?
To a guileless reader, this may sound pretty cerebral; but it is in truth nothing but “bombast and vain ostentation.” There is, I will venture to say, more substance behind the falsies of a flat-chested street walker, but this blurb is like those falsies insofar as it gives promise of delights that the essays in the anthology cannot deliver. The blurb promise “theories,” but the essays will deliver speculations. The blurb promises “conceptual frameworks,” but the essays will deliver jargon. The blurb promises “discourse,” but the essays will deliver babble. The blurb promises a “path,” but the essays will take the reader to a vacant lot overgrown with hellebore, nettles and jimson weed.
Tailors and dressmakers stuff garments with bombast to make that which is little appear large, and that which is shriveled appear sleek or strong. Academics stuff bombast into their prose for the very same reason. If we pull the padding from the phrase “landscape democracy,” for instance, we find “the skin and bones” is just abolition of private property. Sing it, Woody!
This land is your land,
This land is my land,
To the New York Island,
From the redwood forest,
To the Gulf Stream water,
This land was made for you and me.
Woody Guthrie was a communist, but was not, at least, a bombastic communist!
“Spatial justice” is just a bombastic way to say desegregation, and a soothing way to say forced integration. In this anthology, “justice” will almost certainly mean equality, in which case “spatial justice” will require that every individual is equally likely to occupy any particular “space.” As a practical matter, it would mean that families were assigned to neighborhoods randomly, and without respect to their wealth or preference. For there to be thoroughgoing “spatial justice,” each of us would have to request a randomized spatial assignment before we visited a store, a park, or a public amusement.
By “right to landscape,” the authors do not mean that you have a right to plant petunias along your garden path. They mean that other people have the right to indefinite occupation of public spaces such as parks and sidewalks, this right of course entailing a right to void their bowels and empty their bladders when the need arises, and a right to take refreshment in public without censure or molestation. In other words, a “right to landscape” means we are livin’ in the Big Rock Candy Mountains. Sing it, Harry!
In the Big Rock Candy Mountains
You never change your socks
And the little streams of alcohol
Come trickling down the rocks
Harry McClintock was probably a communist, but at least he served it straight.
So, if we strip off the padding and look this blurb in its birthday suit, we see that the advertised anthology is just another dreary bundle of the usual academic weeds. Communism, desegregation and the Big Rock Candy Mountains! Hellebore, nettles and Jimson Weed!
*) George Gascoigne, “Dan Bartholomew’s Dolorous Discourses,” (c. 1560).
**) Ecclesiastical History, Trans. Meredith Hanmer (1577).