More on That Word

This is in part an apology for having ranted and run yesterday; between the little project I’m trying to get launched in the next couple of weeks and a meeting that took up a good chunk of yesterday, I wasn’t able to stay on top of the conversation that my post started for very long.

I’ve tried to catch up on it, though, and have a few thoughts I now want to add.

My hatred of the term is not meant to signal any sense that the thing it’s meant to refer to doesn’t exist. To deny that the dominant logic of contemporary U.S. culture is the logic of the market would be a fruitless exercise. Nor do I want to defend that logic, or suggest that there aren’t real consequences to its dominance.

But I do want to suggest that the logic is so pervasive, and the concept used to describe it so totalizing, that, like “postmodernism” before it, at some point it ceases to have the desired critical effect. As in the case of postmodernism, one has to begin to wonder whether there is any outside to neoliberalism. If there is an outside, how do we get there? If there isn’t, what work is pointing out the water in which we all swim actually attempting to do?

The other problem with the term, and the one that I was mostly focused on yesterday, is its conduciveness to sloppy adoption and deployment. This, too, plagued “postmodernism,” a term that got tossed around like confetti until what descriptive or critical power the term had utterly dissipated. What makes it worse in this case is that “neoliberal” is so clearly meant to be a pejorative, and that it gets deployed in the ways that, as Ted Underwood pointed out on Twitter, “bourgeois” once was. There are times when that term is undoubtedly called for. But like “bourgeois” or “reactionary” or any number of other such terms, I have too often of late heard “neoliberal” deployed as an insult by people on the left against other people on the left. It’s the classic circular firing squad of ideological purity, and it makes me nuts.

8 thoughts on “More on That Word

  1. if anyone wants to be more concrete about the term “neoliberalism,”it does have a specific and clear lineage, since being coined in 1938 by German economist & sociologist Alexander Rüstow at the Walter Lippman Colloquium.

    See, or e.g. Daniel Stedman Jones’ “Masters of the Universe: Hayek, Friedman, and the Birth of Neoliberal Politics” (

  2. what if we created a community-published, “Critical Jargon File” project, for shared, concrete, hashtaggable use of terms, like “neoliberal”?

    A pertinent model for this is the “Jargon File,” a core text of computing culture, compiled over time by Stanford and MIT AI and other key computing research labs. See

    As the Jargon File well illustrates, the term, like “argot” or “cant,” need not be understood negatively. Jargon may be a key means of community formation, cultural transmission, and efficient communication.

    Also, our increasingly social, short-form, and atomized media may particularly call for and benefit from some forms of jargon — for example, hashtags.

    I imagine a community curation / publishing project, conceivably overseen by some organization like MLA or Duke University Press, to gather definitions and usage examples of terms, and make them widely deployable in scholarly communication by various means. (DH software, Linked Data, Web services, dictionary modules, etc.). This relates to work that many scholarly societies and publishers do in building subject taxonomies and databases.

    As an example, an entry in a Critical Jargon File might be referenced by conjunction of hashtags, e.g.
    #neoliberalism #CJF
    or by a combined hashtag, e.g.

    thereby, “jargon” might help us talk much more clearly..

    Tim McCormick
    @tmccormick Palo Alto, CA

  3. I’m sure you’ve read it, but Newfield’s Unmaking the Public University is particularly interesting on the discourse of “markets” and the manufactured crisis in public higher ed, particularly the humanities. Sorry for the long paste below:

    Ch. 9: English’s Market Retreat – argues that Literary and Cultural Studies (LCS) have simply acquiesced to the conventional wisdom that markets must determine where universities allocate resources, which has created the “labor crisis” in the humanities.
    Even though the “market” for humanities (in terms of students wanting to take classes) has grown over the last thirty-five years, LCS has shrunk. “It its attempt to be realistic about economic forces, LCS learned one-half of the lesson of business. It was the half the culture wars taught again and again: the market was to be adapted to, not to be criticized or changed. . . The other half of the lesson of business, the half LCS ignored, was the requirement to respond to ‘market’ environments by increasing one’s influence over the market’s demand decisions. This meant learning how to manage markets, instead of just complaining about them.


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