ISBN 9781741669046, $32.95
Bendable Learnings reprises a theme that Don Watson established in 2003 with Death Sentence and continued in 2004 with Weasel Words. Over the intervening six years, he has tightened his aim to focus specifically on the managerial jargon that pervades all facets of institutional life.
Like Weasel Words before it, this book remains in the shadow of Death Sentence, using new examples to fill out Watson’s existing themes. Each chapter lists a series of obtuse phrasings from a given field of endeavour: education (naturally), healthcare, public administration and so on. These gobbets have been provided by volunteers, Watson’s spies in the land of Mordor, who send the most egregious examples of management-speak they encounter.
One of the main interests in reading this book, then, is to see whether any social enterprise in which one is a stakeholder has come in for adverse mention. I note that Victoria University (Overland’s chief backer, Watson’s erstwhile employer and my current employer) has drawn only light fire.
Because he sought to write an interesting book about language that he characterises as boring, Watson has styled the chapters as an ironic workbook, with each gobbet framed by a ‘learning’ in the manner of a self-help text. Additionally, there is a set of ‘exercises’ near the end of the book for recapitulation of these learnings.
The pseudo-pedagogical layout reveals two deeper facets of Watson’s project. One is his evident love for what he hates. Managerialism is entertaining, and not only as the butt of ridicule. There is an aesthetics to this ‘anaesthetic’ language, a beauty that has demonstrably entranced its leading critic.
This tenderness interferes with Watson’s underlying pedagogy, based on a view he credits to Orwell about the relationship between clear expression and clear thinking. There are also strong echoes of Leavis in his moralising approach to public discourse.
A less honest critic than Watson would conceal this tenderness, but I am glad he does not. It is the closest his analysis comes to taking these ‘learnings’ on their own terms. They are the poetry of institutional life.