Dec 132003

Bad academic writing is called by its perpetrators “difficult” in the same way indulgent parents call their rotten children “difficult.” “Delinquent” would be apter in both cases. Jonathan Culler and Kevin Lamb have proferred the standard excuses in Just Being Difficult? Academic Writing in the Public Arena, which I haven’t read and doubt I could bring myself to read, and on which John Holbo has done a far better demolition job than I could in any case. Holbo quotes a paragraph from Culler’s introduction that gives the flavor:

The claim not to understand might seem an innocent posture that people would seldom adopt willingly, but in fact it is one of considerable power, in which authorities often entrench themselves. Eve Sedgwich has described the “epistemological privilege of unknowing,” whereby “obtuseness arms the powerful against their enemies.”

Pot, kettle. As Holbo says, “If these jerks are going to pretend not even to understand why some people are a bit cheesed off about how badly Homi Bhabha and Judith Butler write, just turn that trick on its head. Don’t even offer the courtesy of a fair debate, if that courtesy will only be abused by willful refusal to respond seriously to serious points. Thank you for being such a pain.”

Few ideas are so difficult that they can’t be expressed in a few sentences or a couple of equations. One doubts that these deep thinkers are up to anything so recondite as, say, Gödel’s theorems of formal undecidability, the proof for which David Berlinski managed to summarize clearly in three pages and about which Ernest Nagel wrote a very short and lucid book.

Legendary bad academic writers like Butler and Bhabha are quite capable, when the chips are down, of turning a respectable English sentence. In fact they tend to reserve their best prose to reply to complaints about their bad academic writing (Butler’s New York Times op-ed on the subject; costs $2.95, but trust me, it’s clear, if silly). They write that way on purpose. They’re hiding something.

Humanities departments are trade unions, and trade unions exist for two reasons: to restrict the supply of their labor, and to increase the demand for it. Of course there is no ultimate demand for Bad Academic Writing, in the sense of actual readers. Yet there is ongoing ancillary demand, from Bad University Presses and Bad Academic Quarterlies. They have quotas to meet and space to fill, while being generally exempt, thanks to generous endowments and still more generous taxpayer sponsorship, from the tiresome obligation to turn a profit. New and cogent thoughts on literature and philosophy will not float these subsidized outlets, not by a long shot. What is needed, and supplied, is a formula for generating an indefinite number of ways to say the same thing. Bad Academic Writing, like so many other bad things, is your tax dollars at work.

There remains the problem of supply: literary criticism and philosophy require no special training, unlike, say, pipe fitting. Modest erudition and a little elbow grease suffice. When T.S. Eliot, asked what a suitable method for criticism might be, answered “to be very intelligent,” he was making the same point in a more flattering way.

To the professionals in the field this state of affairs is deeply unsatisfactory. Doctors have medical boards, lawyers have bar exams, what’s a poor humanities academic to do? The First Amendment unluckily prevents the issuing of licenses to practice philosophy or criticism, so other means are resorted to to keep out the amateurs like, say, T.S. Eliot. These means are tenure and an arcane lingo. If you don’t use the lingo you don’t get tenure, if you don’t get tenure you’re not a professional, and if you’re not a professional you can be safely ignored. Better luck next time.

No matter how you scramble the language of “rearticulations,” “social relations,” “structural totalities,” and “enunciatory modalities,” it always comes out the same: as a critique of post-industrial capitalism. Try this yourself at home. The words are father to the thought, and it is seemlier to make writing a certain way, rather than thinking a certain way, a requirement for guild membership. If it’s hegemony you want, well, I got your hegemonic power structure right here.

  19 Responses to “My Head Hurts”

  1. Compare the bloated, flopping beached-whale prose of the litcrits with the lucidity, requiring no more than algebra to understand, with which Einstein explained the most revolutionary concept of the 20th century, Relativity.

  2. I think that there are a variety of reasons for why academics write poorly, but there is no question in my mind that the post-moderns do so out of a desire to hide the simplicity of their thought, the gist of which is:

    1. There is no universal truth, just a universal desire for power.
    2. Truth claims are always efforts to grab or maintain power.

    If there is anything else to it, someone please let me know.

  3. I think you will find that most of the scientists that are remembered as giants in their fields were at least competent writers. This is not too surprising; in order for people to recognize an idea as great science they first have to be able to understand it. Papers full of incomprehensible gibberish (and the authors who write them) tend not to be remembered. Even if there really is a a great idea there, the gibberer will generally be upstaged by the first person to come along and express the idea in a way that people can understand.

    I expect it works pretty much the same way with the writing we’re talking about here. People may be bamboozled for a while, but eventually they just shrug their shoulders and move on, and the gibberish articles wind up consigned to microfiche in a sub-sub-subbasement somewhere.


  4. Aaron,

    I don’t think that things are quite that bad Aaron, but certainly there are a lot of critics out there who don’t really need the works they are criticizing to make the point they want to make–and if that’s the case, then they aren’t critics!

    Yeah, I know, they’re "theorists". And who needs theories in the arts? Theories are analogies that help us to understand natural, political, or psychological processes–they don’t have anything to offer the student of sui generis items like novels, poems, or films. Your tools for analyzing a given work should emerge from that work itself–along with your general knowledge of the cultural context in which that work was produced… But, you know, it’s not all theory in the academy these days. Sacvan Bercovitch isn’t dead yet, and he’s still working in the tradition of the great Perry Miller (whose New England Mind is the finest work of scholarship I’ve ever read), as are Evan Carton, Ray Carney, Stanley Cavell, and many others. These critics give us scintillating accounts of an encounters between their own minds and multivalent work of arts, and that’s what all criticism ought to be!

    It’s my feeling that the Foucaultian power theorists are on their way out–it really isn’t interesting enough, even to the trade unionists you describe, to go on much longer…


  5. Einstein supposedly said that if you can’t explain something to a 6-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself. If he didn’t say it, please don’t tell me; I’m far too fond of it to give it up.

  6. Aaron:

    I don’t buy your trade union analogy at all. Tenure has been around for a long time, but back when I was in college–in the 60s–English and other humanities professors were usually paragons of articulate lucidity. If anything, their occupational weakness was a glib lucidity. But this was back before "theory," back when the focus of study was poems and novels and plays and not the professor’s conspiracy theories.

    I agree with you that "theory" tends to boil down to the same anti-establishment paranoia and that the more or less same point is being made over & over about every text under discussion. Well, the same 2 points: here is an example of the mystifications of power, here is an example of an insurrection against it.

    But this doesn’t explain the bad writing. I knew people who held these views back in the late 60s & early 70s–before any of them had ever heard of Foucault et all–and they expressed these ideas lucidly–if always with the same bludgeoning dullness. But they were real revolutionaries–or wanted to be. I think the epidemic of bad writing is a symptom of the demoralization of the academic left, a sign that the writer no longer believes or maybe no longer even cares whether anyone–except the similarly alienated among their impressionable students–will be persuaded by what they are saying.

    I know that anxiety about being laughed at as frivolous by their colleagues in the sciences was a factor in English profs openness to theory, but I think that’s a minor element. There are, in fact, specifically literary theories that not only clarify literary texts but make it easier to talk about certain matters clearly–I would recommend Kenneth Burke’s Grammar of Motives. The "theory" actually adopted by academia relects, to my mind, a disillusionment with the enchantments of literature that’s rooted in a wholesale alienation from the society in which the professors live and teach.

    One more thing: it’s not all tax-funded. The same thing goes on at both private and public universities, though some small, out of the way private colleges seem largely to have avoided the plague of theory.

  7. With respect to the professorial classes, I quote Bertrand Russell in his essay How I Write:

    This suggests a word of advice to such of my hearers as may happen to be professors. I am allowed to use plain English because everybody knows that I could use mathematical logic if I chose. Take the statement: "Some people marry their deceased wives’ sisters". I can express this in language which only becomes intelligible after years of study, and this gives me freedom. I suggest to young professors that their first work should be written in a jargon only to be understood by the erudite few. With that behind them, they can ever after say what they have to say in a language "understanded of the people". In these days, when our very lives are at the mercy of the professors, I cannot but think that they would deserve our gratitude if they adopted my advice.
    Professors have merely extended the practice of using jargon beyond their first works. Perhaps they do so because, unlike Russell, they do not have mathematical logic to fall back on in a pinch.

    By the way, Russell has three rules that I think are quite good:

    First: never use a long word if a short word will do. Second: if you want to make a statement with a great many qualifications, put some of the qualifications in separate sentences. Third: do not let the beginning of your sentence lead the reader to an expectation which is contradicted by the end.

    He contrasts these rules with the rules employed by his brother-in-law, Logan Pearsall Smith. Smiths rules are: "Put a comma every four words", and "never use ‘and’ except at the beginning of a sentence".

  8. I object to the naming of philosophy as an academic discipline devoted to producing difficult works. Some fairly recent counter-examples are: Elbow Room by Daniel Dennett (an excellent discussion of free will), Anarchy, State and Utopia by Robert Nozick (hardly a critique of post-industrial capitalism), and Naming and Necessity by Saul Kripke (heavy-duty logic, and quite wrong, but also well-written and quite clear.) By the way, Berlinski is a sometime philosopher and Nagel was a full-time one.

    You are right about Butlers op-ed piece. She admits that academics play bait-and-switch by making some outrageous statement to gain attention (and tenure) and then explaining in the fine print that they really mean some banality that would be maked trite in a hight-school essay. Im almost ready to pay the $2.95 to read the example again.

  9. I am sure, as John Hinchey suggests, that my diagnosis is incomplete at best. Foucault and the Foucaultettes wrote clearly thirty years ago, when their theory was new and they felt obliged to make themselves understood. But if this prose is just a symptom of the death-agony of the academic left then it’s certainly taking its sweet time to expire. And I thank John for mentioning scientism, which also plays a part.

    John’s distinction between private and public universities, however, is mostly nominal. As Hillsdale College found out, it is almost impossible for an American university not to accept tax money even if it doesn’t want any.

    I certainly did not intend to sweep all academic philosophy or literary interpretation into this dustbin. Any friend of Perry Miller or Saul Kripke is a friend of mine.

  10. Yeah, the lingo is a shibboleth. Yeah, the ideas are simple (as the huge majority of ideas are).

    Honestly, it amazes me that people can take this sort of crap seriously.

    I have a friend who’s into all kinds of utter bullshit sociological theory masquerading as literary criticism, and he explained it to me (indirectly) one day: "Theory is all BS, it’s just about having fun."

    Ms. Butler has some serious peacock feathers.

  11. Aaron’s Father:

    It is true that Kripke’s essentialism is both clear and wrong. However, Frege is just as wrong and much less clear. Has anything really satisfactory been written on the subject of names and descriptions?

    I haven’t read anything on the subject since the NYT Sunday mag did a puff piece on Kripke in the early 80’s at the same time I was taking a course with Kripke’s aged relative, Homer. Of course, I just had to read Saul then, much to the detriment of my course with Homer.

  12. Dennett, Nozick and Kripke, for all of their errors, are (or were) clear writers, to be sure, but what allows the confused and verbose ones to get away with it? The average, run-of-the-mill academic is sooo often mired in confusion and jargon… Why aren’t they more routinely called onto the carpet for it??

  13. So who are the truly embarrassing writers about cities & the built environment?

    Herbert Muschamp of The NYT is certainly at the top of my list. Some of his stuff is so densely dumb that I assume he writes it as self-parody.

    Anyone else?

  14. >Third: do not let the beginning of your sentence lead the reader to an expectation which is contradicted by the end.

    This rule is impossible to follow and still write well. Certainly violating this rule is the essence of humor — e.g., "No good deed goes unpunished." "No one can read the death of Little Nell without laughing," etc. To a slightly lesser degree, the point applies across all prose, and probably poetry, too.

  15. "No good deed goes unpunished" is not humor. It is ontological certainty and the ultimate refutation of Buddhism. Unless you are a Buddhist, you cannot believe the the begginning of that sentence contradicts anything but an unbelievably naive conception of human nature and cosmic workings.

  16. The reason why theory is so attractive is that it offers the chance to claim expertise across a very broad domain of knowledge, compared with less-theoretical approaches. In business, for example, an MBA may claim that he has "strategic" knowledge which allows him to run companies in any industry whatsoever. Others may disagree, arguing that at least some "tacit knowledge" of the industry is necessary.

    I believe the same mechanism operates in the humanities and especially in the arts. Theory extends one’s personal claims to expertise. And, where theory is not actually a strong tool, it tends to degenerate into verbiage.

    (Disclaimer: I’m not alleging that *all* or even most MBAs behave in the way mentioned above, but the nature of their education and expectations makes it always a strong temptation.)

  17. "Humanities departments are trade unions, and trade unions exist for two reasons: to restrict the supply of their labor, and to increase the demand for it. Of course there is no ultimate demand for Bad Academic Writing, in the sense of actual readers. Yet there is ongoing ancillary demand, from Bad University Presses and Bad Academic Quarterlies. They have quotas to meet and space to fill, while being generally exempt, thanks to generous endowments and still more generous taxpayer sponsorship, from the tiresome obligation to turn a profit."

    Many quite wealthy people have avoided the tiresome obligation to turn a profit – and many quite bad products have been extremely profitable. The ingredients list on the side of most pre-prepared foods makes no easier reading that academic prose.

    This being said, often the source of dense academic prose is that the writer doesn’t know what they intend to say. This, actually, is good bad writing, in that there is thinking going on. The same is true of many business memos – many hard to follow and not particularly coherent memos actually have very good business ideas behind them.

    However, most bad writing from academia is the opposite – the writer knows exactly what they want to say, and is merely armoring it against all possible academic objections. The creakier the argument, the more armor plated it needs to be.

    Economics departments can compete, pound for pound, with English departments in this regard.

  18. This is quote from Samuel Johnson I just found. It may explain the thinking of academics and why Johnson’s own work was so stilted.

    "Read over your compositions, and whereever you meet with a passage you think is particularly fine, strike it out."

  19. Johnson’s prose is actually excellent, although it sounds stilted to modern ears, and his advice, which I often quote, is sound. What he means is that if you have become especially enamored of some turn of phrase you are probably no longer objective about it, and very likely you don’t need it anyway, and put it in because it pleased you.

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