by Johannah King-Slutzky
The word “problematic” is a firehose for — what, exactly? I know it’s loud and sprays everywhere, but I can’t locate its target. It is common knowledge in certain corners of the internet that “problematic” is codependent with the think piece, that short, poorly researched form of essay that exists to criticize recent cultural phenomena on usually disingenuous political or moral grounds.
Fifty years ago, “problematic” was modest, mousy and rare, maybe akin to “thole” or “vellicate” — nice for a dinner party, but far from a buzzword. Today, you can’t go online without bumping into a “problematic” or two: “Hip-hop videos featuring bling and babes” are “problematic”; “The Promising…Future of Ultra-Fast Internet” is problematic; “psychological process — which underpins racism, extreme nationalism, and prejudice of all sorts” is problematic; “resolutions, as Oscar Wilde knew,” are problematic; “videogames” are problematic; Miley, Katy, and Iggy (not Pop) are problematic. In the academe, “the modern Chinese self…caught between tradition and modernity” is problematic, as are the “Fictions of Poe, James and Hawthorne” and “Ordering in French Renaissance Literature.”
I’M problematic? YOU’RE problematic! this whole TUMBLR is problematic!
— adult contemporary (@chuchugoogoo) September 6, 2014
@911VICTIM are you problematic
— Virgil Texas (@virgiltexas) August 31, 2014
[emerging from the forest cave where I’ve been pondering life and licking moss-covered rocks] Beyoncé is good…except when she’s problematic
— Sarah Jessica Wario (@McLeemz) August 25, 2014
Although vacuous, “problematic” has become shorthand for self-serious identity politics for several reasons, starting with its historically mechanical and apolitical connotations. To borrow a tagline from another failed experiment in seriousness, let’s Look Closer.
Imported from France some time around 1600, earlier iterations of “problematic” favor the word’s mechanical usage. From a review in the Royal Society’s Philosophical Transactions in 1686, for example, you will find the statement, “I have inquired into Dr Papins [sic] problematic engine for raising water.” Or The British Cyclopaedia of the Arts and Sciences(1838), “Whether steam artillery will ever be employed for land warfare is somewhat problematic, as the weight of a steam gun is such as to preclude any degree of rapid locomotion…” It was also political back then, but not to the point of satire, as it is today. Here is the word’s older political usage, from the New York Times in 1854: “The axiom, that good may come from evil, may be true in some respects, but this good result is by far too problematic and uncertain to give any one the right to count on the life-blood, tears and sufferings of thousands as an invested fund of martyrdom…”
The word remained unpopular in English until 1960, when its ngram begins to resemble a hockey stick. There are at least four interrelated traditions responsible for the morphing of “problematic” from throwaway to political buzzword in the late-middle twentieth century: 1) the emergence of identity politics beginning in 1968, 2) the rise of the think piece in the nineteen seventies, with a second, ongoing spike that began around 2006, 3) the development of post-structuralism in the seventies, and 4) changes in syntactical patterns of academic English around the turn of the century.
One reason “problematic” lends itself so well to identity politics (and therefore, the think piece and certain flavors of post-structuralism) is because even before “problematic” became overwhelmingly political, many uses of “problematic” alluded to difficulty in representation. The Oxford English Dictionary motions to, but does not outright state this, with its parsing of “problematic” as “difficult to decide.”
Take, for example, this early use of “problematic” in The London Intelligencer, on Signior Dominica, former Valet de Chambre to King James II:
His Religion was very Problematical, for sometimes he discursed like a Roman Catholick, sometimes like a Protestant, at others he shewd such Respect for Rabbinical Learning, as might have created a Suspicion of his being a Jew; but then he was deeply read in the Koran, and might as well have been taken for a Mahometan. (1–3 October 1751)
Same goes for this entry on Napoleon’s army, from The London Sun, 7 July 1800:
All that the Paris Papers state to have been brought by the Chief Consul, is the Ratification of the Armistice. Even this appears to us more than problematical, for, if it had been true, it cannot be doubted that BONAPARTE would have mentioned the fact among the numerous speeches which the Paris Journalists ascribe to him, who appear greedily to collect all his conversation, we know not, in fact, whether with a view to excite our admiration or our ridicule.
Not only are both entries about difficulty in detection, but both are about representation in classically conceived mediums — in the first example, religion as mediated through speech; the second, the details of an armistice as represented in Napoleon’s oration and press.
The representational leanings of “problematic” are not totally divorced from the mechanical. Like identity politics, “problematic” often refers to representational difficulty with physical effects. For example, from the eerily-named 1905 article “Death to Jackrabbits”:
The electric headlight, they say, is doing the business, for it seems to stupefy and frighten cold the long-eared creatures which sit on the track until they are run down and killed. Just how many thousand jackrabbits there are along the Southern Pacific is problematic, but the railroad men say that the ranks of the representatives of Kansas are rapidly being thinned out.
This usage of “problematic,” which is typical for its time, is illuminating because it pre-dates what we now traduce as “identity politics.” Not only race and sex, but the lineaments of human bodies altogether are absent from this 1905 musing on jackrabbit populations. Even so, the newspaper clipping includes two of identity politics’ constituent features: representational difficulty (in an ecological survey) with physical consequences (death of jackrabbits). But this is only a loose relationship. “Problematic” in identity politics means “bad representation” in two senses of bad: (a) inaccurate, and (b) hurtful. When the Tuscon Sun ruminates on jackrabbits, (a) inaccurate accounting does not cause (b) dead rabbits.
More recently, the mechanical flavor of “problematic” comes through in political metaphor, where it can be a way to mask ideology with practical critique. That’s how you end up, in 1955, with this LIFE editorial about legitimacy in government:
It is problematic in the new governments of Asia, since legitimacy requires time to establish itself. But time is not the only consideration: even the Communist regime of Yugoslavia, whose revolution had a national base, could earn legitimacy quickly if it will trust and be trusted by its people.
What makes the new governments of Asia problematic? Certainly it’s not that they’re communist: It’s because “legitimacy requires time to establish itself” — like allowing your oven to pre-heat or bacteria to culture; not so different from the Royal Society’s 1686 “problematic engine.”
In the modern think piece, “problematic,” like “identity politics,” is about the representation of bodies with real-world effects, generally along favored axes like race, sex, class, physical ability, and sexual orientation. These particular axes became the categories of identity politics some time between 1970 and 1990. Bob Guccione in the November 1992 issue of SPIN lays it out for us:
This is an election between us — you and I — and George Bush and his extreme conservative factions, who have already had a strangling effect on America and, in 12 years, have turned this country from a problematic but intellectually and socially progressive nation, into an infinitely more problematic and desperately regressive society, rife with racism, poverty, illiteracy, and general social abandonment.
Which problems are “problematic”? By the late twentieth century they were racism, poverty, illiteracy, and general social abandonment — all issues closely associated with what we call identity politics. “Problematic,” which has always lent itself to representational and mechanical error, blends the right connotations — difficult representation and real world effects — to suit identity politics. In many ways, identity politics, which are overtly representational, treat bodies like positivist machines that know more than the self-deluding mind. So one reason “problematic” has flourished in the last fifty years is because it works well with this post-1968 moment (which we’re still in).
Not unrelatedly, “problematic” owes its most recent spike to the emergence of the think piece, which is “a piece of writing that responds to a recent cultural product, event, or phenomenon, and attends specifically to its social and political implications.” That’s from Joseph Staten, a student at The New School who delivered a paper on the think piece last spring at Theorizing The Web. Staten argues that “The keyword of the think piece…is ‘problematic’” and that “problematic,” which is political, is used to obscure the aesthetic qualifications of pop culture.
There is almost no research on the history or definition of think pieces. Slate’s David Haglund traces think pieces back as far as 1930, but the early think pieces he identifies qualify in name only: The phrase “think piece” that appears in the 1936 Nation article Haglund cites does not refer to “a piece of writing that responds to a recent cultural product, event, or phenomenon, and attends specifically to its social and political implications,” but to the practice of quoting from supposedly anonymous sources as a way to advance the journalist’s own views in a thinly reported piece.
When I did my own research, I found “problematic”-saturated think pieces budding in specialty publications around 1970. Here is an entry from the Berkeley newspaper El Grito, from September 1st, 1970:
As he steps into this arena to partake of its explanatory fruits he must necessarily step into its many academic bogs as well. Of this there can be no avoidance. This is because being Mexican-American alone does not dispel the problematic characteristics of social science research in general. In this light this issue of El Grito speaks directly to some of the problems that are to be encountered by Mexican-American social scientists in the production of objective and scholarly research on the Mexican-American.
This is an early think piece: it addresses a recent change in culture and criticizes a cultural group’s representation with political implications. Like contemporary think pieces, El Grito also borrows from poststructuralism when it spatializes academia as — in the article’s own words — an “arena” to be “stepp[ed] into.” And although “the historically all white arena” does not “interrogate,” to use a favorite metaphor of the poststructuralists, it at least “speaks.”
Think pieces — and “problematic” — have grown in popularity as the newspaper industry has suffered. The explosion of news media, including endless TV news and hyperlocal news blogs, meant that elite authors needed authoritative language to mortgage credibility and distinguish themselves from the fluff. Newspaper and blog writers have almost certainly appropriated that credibility from academic English by using self-serious words like “problematic.”
The data reflects this. If you look at a timeline of “problematic” in Google Books you’ll see that it got a huge spike in use around 1960:
But if you look at “problematic” in newspapers like the Washington Post, you’ll see that “problematic” doesn’t get a spike until 2007:
From the Washington Post’s website.
(This chart is not a paper-specific fluke. For contrast, the New York Times used “problematic” only seven times in 1910 and six in 1920, but in 2000, it “problematic” showed up two hundred and fifty times. Last year, it appeared six hundred and twenty-five times in print, and two hundred and sixty-six times online.)
The gap between English-in-books and English newspaper usage suggests that by the time newspapers and blogs took up the mantel of “problematic” it already had the tone of non-newspaper dialects. Perhaps it borrows from academic English, a term of art used by linguists; it sounds academic, largely because it suits itself to grammatical structures prevalent in academic language. According to linguists Douglas Biber and Bethany Gray, the primary features of academic English are its higher-than-average noun-to-verb ratio, and phrasal, rather than clausal, embedding, which is another way of saying there aren’t many finite dependent clauses in academic English. So, the phrase “the assertion is incorrect” — which is in academic English, with no dependent clauses and few verbs — might become “whoever said that is wrong” in conversational English, where it has a dependent clause, finite verbs, and a low noun-to-verb ratio.
But think pieces rarely speak only in academic English. Tracking down syntax in think-piece English is especially complicated because even publicists have begun to use “problematic” in speech without following the rules of either newspaper or academic English. For example, in a pre-draft interview with NBC News, Cyd Ziegler, the founder of outsports.com, said of Michael Sam, “For them not to select him would be very problematic.” Ziegler parroted think piece jargon and his sound byte made it into many post-draft think pieces, but it doesn’t follow newspaper or academic English standards. This pidgin — think-piece English? — is replicated in different forms, not just in news interviews, but also in tweets, Facebook shares, gchats, and other social media which hybridize conversational and professional syntax. Think-piece English is not a stable target because the think piece is an invention of the social media’s web and gets blended with conversational syntax all the time.
That being said, it’s easy enough to identify the different strains of “problematic” currently in use. Using Michael Sam as a case study, we can see that one common formulation is “x is problematic,” as in Cyd Ziegler’s “For them not to select him would be very problematic.” “X is problematic” tends to be restricted to spoken quotes, like Ziegler’s, and headlines, which follow their own set of rules. This formulation is so thoroughly encoded in the logic of think pieces that you get headlines that sound like “problematic” chop and screw, such as Bustle’s “Hey Shailene Woodley: Your definition of feminism is really, really problematic” and Slate’s “Is the Portrayal of Women in The Newsroom Problematic?” “X is problematic” is not academic at all, although to the uneducated ear it might sound like it. A more academically inflected think piece wrote, “Michael Sam has faced intense scrutiny and media attention since coming out, but the focus speaks less to his ability than a problematic NFL culture.” Here, “problematic” is a modifier in a noun phrase that comes after the head verb — very academic — but the dependent clause is more newspaper than academe. “Problematic” has academic authority, from which users like Ziegler and many thinkpiece authors borrow inexpertly.
So let’s add a third allegation: not only did “problematic” become popular because it suits identity politics and sounds smart, it’s also highly shareable. “Problematic” bundles urgency, seriousness, and debatability into a single vague word, which is great for both sound bytes and tweets. Perhaps coincidentally (but probably not), these double prongs of technology — TV news and social media — correspond chronologically to the double spike you get in “problematic” in the sixties and early aughts. You don’t need to know the specifics of a “problematic” allegation to share it on Facebook.
If the appearance of “problematic” does not always follow the letter of academic English, it certainly follows the spirit, which is obscurantist. Academic English etiolates cause and effect. Nominalization and passive sentence construction both muddle academic writing’s waters, which is how “John Smith manages hazardous waste” becomes, through the lens of a professor, “hazardous waste is managed.” This is where “problematic” becomes really useful. “Problematic” will tell you what is problematic — usually race or gender — but it won’t tell you who did what, when; there are no finite verbs. Take this thinkpiece on #CancelColbert, from Salon: “To grow up in America is to receive racially problematic and stereotypical ideas about people of color almost by osmosis.” What is problematic? Ideas! About people of color! But cause and effect are abstruse, the author even casts her personal story in the infinitive, “to grow up in America.”
Two years ago, Alix Rule and David Levine remarked on a similarly obscurantist art world phenomenon in their Triple Canopy article and plenary, “International Art English.” (Actually, because it was Triple Canopy, the title was all lowercase, “international art english.”) The lexicon of IAE, say Rule and Levine, is “pornographic” — you know it when you see it. It includes words like aporia, radically, space, proposition, biopoliticial, tension, transversal, autonomy, interrogate, question, encode, transform, subvert, imbricate, and displace. Everything in IAE becomes a noun. “Visual” morphs into visuality, “global” to globality, “potential” to potentiality, and so on. “Problematic” does not belong to IAE’s more elite oeuvre, but as any humanities undergrad worth her salt knows, it’s a close second. Like many of poststructuralist journal October’s essays, “problematic” and its more aspirational cousin, “problematize,” sound poorly translated, one suffix tacked on another like German nouns. Rule and Levine might as well be talking about “problematic” in the think piece when they write, “[L]anguage had a job to do: consecrate certain artworks as significant, critical, and indeed, contemporary.”
Many linguists have remarked that academic writing “has not always been unelaborated and implicit in the expression of meaning relations.” Why has academic writing changed? In their examination of academic English, Biber and Gray suggest it has to do with the invention of typewriters and word processors, without whose editing faculties all that phrasal elaboration — its sheer differentness from conversational English — would rebuff print. Basically, say Biber and Gray, you cannot think in academic English, you can only wrangle post hoc. In this roundabout way, they imply, Microsoft Word husbanded identity politics in the late twentieth century. I’m skeptical — I think in academic English all the time, to my detriment — but they’re right that language and technology aren’t antipodes. The computer didn’t give us “problematic,” but it may have contributed to obscurantism in academic and art English, of which “problematic” is a part, just as social media and CNN made “problematic” phatic for “short, smart and shareable.”
To some, this is not news. The Crisis, the NAACP magazine founded by W.E.B. DuBois in 1910, speared “problematic” through its core in 1980 when it wrote:
When an issue is problematic, it is simply open to question or debate and difficult to solve or decide; when that issue reaches crisis proportion, it becomes the turning point for better or worse — the decisive moment in unstable or crucial times or state of affairs whose outcome will make a decisive difference for better or worse in and on the lives of those persons affected.
Problematic situations are never crises, which is damning when you consider that “problematic” tends to be used in critical discourse on racism, sexism, and homophobia. “Problematic” whines; it does not act. It takes baths. But most of all, it, like racism, sexism, classism, ableism, and heterosexism, is definitely bad for indefinite reasons.