Author: Jeremy Nathan Marks

“There is pain when functional activity is insufficient, but excessive activity produces the same effect.” -Emile Durkheim, The Division of Labor In Society

Jerrold Davis Ph.D. (c) had a problem. He was such an astute student that he had assimilated the language of his discipline of sociology to the point that he no longer could speak in words and phrases of his own making.

Ever since Davis had begun his journey to become a professional sociologist, he had worked to master the language, the lingo of his field. He parroted the things his professors said, and he could recite, chapter and verse, the works of masters like Durkheim, Parsons, Weber, Marx, and more recent luminaries like Skocpol. Davis dazzled his professors by making his points in ways they would make. He was such a good student that he earned several A+ grades in his course work and passed his comprehensive exams (comps) with distinction. Everyone said Davis had a brilliant career ahead of him. All he needed to do was produce articles for publication in academic journals, and he would be assured a postdoctoral fellowship (a “post doc”). No one doubted that his dissertation would be brilliant.

But then something happened Davis could not explain. And when I say could not explain, he literally could not explain it.

One morning, two weeks after Davis defended his dissertation proposal, he woke up unable to speak. When a roommate asked him if he wanted a cup of coffee, Davis could not respond. He was mute. Davis had to nod vigorously so his roommate would hand him a cup. His entire morning was like this, having to pantomime his intentions. That is until he arrived at the Sociology Department where, much to his relief, he found he could again speak.

“Jerrold, here is a copy of your proposal with your advisor’s notes,” one of the secretaries told him.

“________________________________________. ________________________. _____, _________.” Davis replied.

“What?” the secretary asked.

“______________. ______,_____. _____! ___.”

She shook her head, unable to make sense of what Davis had said. In fact, he had been quoting from White Collar by C. Wright Mills. But since that work is copyright protected, I cannot repeat it here.

Davis left the main office and walked to the Teaching Assistant cubicles down the hall. Instead of asking himself why the secretary couldn’t understand him and settling on the answer that she didn’t know her Mills, he told himself, “_______________________. _____,________;_________;________________._____;_____________;________________;____________;__________,” which was a passage from Weber’s essay, “Bureaucracy.”

In the office, a peer congratulated Davis on the success of his dissertation proposal. Davis responded by quoting Marx on “each according to his ability” rather than simply saying, “Thank you.” The grad student shook his head and thought again that Davis “couldn’t ever turn it off.’”

By now, Davis was growing concerned. When he tried to ask a question of someone, even a simple question like, “Does anyone want coffee?” he would quote from an article on food deserts in major urban centers. Increasingly desperate, he tried to use dialogue from some of the pulp detective novels he read in his spare time. But it was impossible to do this. All Davis could do was speak in a sociological language.

To get through the day, Davis tried composing a note explaining that he had laryngitis and had lost his voice. But when he tried to write this on paper, he could not. Davis could not print the pronoun I. What he could do was reproduce a passage from Kevin White’s An Introduction to the Sociology of Health and Illness, 3rd edition. For the first time in his life, Davis could not speak up.

He shouted,“____________,_______________” from The Division of
Labor in Society by Durkheim. What he had meant to say was the word “shit,” but his voice would not allow it. No sociologist he had read had used that expletive in their writings.

Still, Davis had a reason for hope. He had just downloaded an AI App for his phone and asked it what he could do to speak to his colleagues. The App suggested using a speech-to-text device, but Davis had to tell the App this would not work because laryngitis had cost him his voice. The App said he should see a doctor, but if he lacked health insurance, he might consult a friend who could speak for him by reading messages that Davis wrote on a tablet. In disgust, Davis closed the App. He tried typing his thoughts into a text-to-speech program, but once again, he could only put down the words of others. Desperate, Davis decided the only option left was to see his dissertation advisor and somehow get him to say things that Davis could repeat. If he could get the man to say, “I have lost my voice. Please provide guesses as to what my needs are from my body language,” then Davis might be able to have someone assist him with his condition. But when he went to his advisor’s office, it was vacant even though his advisor was supposed to be there for office hours. Davis sat and waited in vain all afternoon.

On his way home, a mugger accosted Davis. The man pulled a knife and demanded his wallet. Davis had left home with nothing but his keys and some loose change but could not explain this to the mugger. He did not bother trying to speak. The only thing Davis could do was turn out his pockets to show his poverty. But when he reached into them, the mugger assumed he was going for a weapon, so he stabbed him.

Davis fell to the sidewalk, bleeding from his stomach. The mugger searched him and, finding nothing, ran off. Davis tried calling out for help, but the only thing he could muster was, Au Secour! Au Secour! Because it had appeared in a French article on social determinants of health. But Davis did not live in a French-speaking neighborhood, so he lay on the pavement experiencing an increasing loss of consciousness for which he had no words.