Every now and then, I’ll stop and ponder on the meanings of words I encounter in my academic studies, convincing myself that I understand their meaning. But then I get to thinking and stop what I’m doing to check (and double check) until I find a satisfactory definition. That is the case here with the word “problematize;” it’s one of those smart-sounding terms that gets tossed around a lot in critical discourse and rarely ever gets “unpacked.” The assumption is that you already know what it means.
But is that really case? If you’ll indulge me (I swear this’ll be short), let me share some of my findings with you.
Now, depending on who you ask, the term “problematize” can mean different things. For starters, a common definition simply converts the word “problem” into a verb by adding the “ize” ending; therefore, making the term mean to make a problem out of something. The word problematic is probably more applicable in this sense. When it is referenced in the humanities (at least), problematize conveys a much more sophisticated meaning, but sophistication does not mean it makes sense or is even rational.
For example,take the following analysis of the term the term “problematization,” as used by Michel Foucault, the godfather of post-modernism:
the work which the historian does to direct the work of thought toward present practices which were once seen as stable but which the historian shows to be problematic in some crucial sense… [and] …as ‘the history of problematization’ such that historical inquiries would aim less to problematize present practices and instead be focused on the way in which certain practices have been subjected to problematization in history. (http://foucaultacrossthedisciplines.blogspot.com/2007/04/foucault-often-described-his-late-work.html)
Did you get any of that? This was way too jargony and is a direct result of the obscurantist writing style that is inherent to post-modernism. A reply on another blog dealing with Foucault’s use of the term lends credence this sentiment:
It seems to me that he’s taking a cue from phenomenology: looking at the ways in which problems are construed in texts enables Foucault to bracket out metaphysical irruptions. An analysis of representations would require some kind of hermeneutic (Marxism or humanism or whatever) to pre-determine how one understands/makes meaning from these representations. So rather than asking about the relationship between sexuality and capitalism (or sexuality and revolution), Foucault asks how different eras have problematized sexuality and thus made sexuality an object of thought. (https://foucaultblog.wordpress.com/2007/04/26/key-term-problematization/)
The connection between phenomenology (another obscurantist methodology) and Foucault is clear, and that don’t bode well from an empiricist perspective. In any case, the point here is to show that these definitions are not what is usually meant–both implicitly and explicitly–when the term “problematize” is used. The quote below perhaps sums it up best:
…the word “problematize,” as used in the literary stuides community, originates from the term “problematic” — and problematize does *not* mean “to make a verb of problem”; which is to say, problematize doesn’t mean to make a problem. it means to make a *problematic* of. problematic (noun) has a specific meaning, and etymology; it’s been in english since 1607, but was re-coined by louis althusser, the french structural marxist theorist who attacked humanism in the 1960’s. from _critical theory since 1965_ (h. adams and l. searle, eds, up florida, 1986): “the problematic of the text is the unconscious infrastructure, the forms that detrmine how the text will behave and can be allowed to be thought.” from althusser: “we must go farther than the unmentioned presence of the thoughts of a living author to the presence of his [sic] *potential* thoughts, to his [sic]
*problematic*, that is, to the constitutive unity of the effective thoughts that make up the domain of the existing *ideological field* with which a particular author must settle accounts in his own thought.” in “english”: to problematize is to analyze the problematic — the material and totalizing conditions — over which a work is produced. (https://userpages.umbc.edu/~korenman/wmst/problematize.html)
And thus, the riddle is solved; at least for now, since it is obvious that the term “problematize,” as it is employed here, has a lot in common with Jacques Derrida’s theory of “deconstructivism” — another post-modern iteration in the art of obscurantist vagueness and word-salad articulation. So, if I may turn a phrase, I find the whole post-modern framework very problematic. To be continued, for sure…