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December 07, 2004

Bad Writing. Obscure or Just Babble?

Fenster Moop writes:

Dear Blowhards,

As admirers of Denis Dutton, I am sure you are aware of the Bad Writing Awards he's given out in the past for academic writing that lacks that certain je ne sais quois of intelligibility. That's the award that was given to Judith Butler for the now-famous line:

"The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power."

But enough with the sarcasm, already! Now the empire strikes back with the publication of Just Being Difficult? Academic Writing in the Public Sphere, a collection of essays that sets out to redeem a certain style of academic writing from its detractors. A review of the book summarizing its various arguments can be found here.

So the challenge has been laid down. Is this writing dense-but-for-a-damn-good-reason, or just dense? Worse, is it babble, signifying (next to) nothing?

As a non-academic, and a non-initiate, I wouldn't know. I suspect the worst, but I have only my common sense to guide me and, Lord knows, that's not nearly enough to get through the thicket. Maybe this stuff really is coded for a good reason? And in any event, while Dutton's award was hugely effective in puncturing pretensions, fair is fair, and the countercharge that non-initiates just don't get it deserves a response.

So why not be empirical about it and put it to a test?

It would seem to me to be a relatively easy matter to present academics wedded to this style of writing with some very dense passages from their own kind, asking them to "translate" back into standard English the best they can. We can then examine the "translations" to determine if in fact a significant measure of actual meaning made the synapse jump from brain to page to brain. Sort of like an academic version of the old children's game of whispering a message from one ear to the next to check for accuracy of transmission.

I think it's a fair challenge. While scientists can make the claim that some of their ideas are simply untranslatable into standard English, I don't think pomo theorists go that far. Rather, I understand the claim to be: you may not understand it, but this dense code is simply a better, and more elegant, way for us to communicate with one another. If that's true, then some reasonable translation back to standard English ought to be possible, and we can measure accordingly whether the passages represent tough prose or gibberish.

C'mon Denis! I have fifty bucks on gibberish!



posted by Fenster at December 7, 2004


"C'mon Denis! I have fifty bucks on gibbersish!"

That's no bet. That's like taking candy from a baby. No-one with an IQ larger than his belt size would take the other side of that bet.


Posted by: A.C. Douglas on December 7, 2004 7:05 PM

Er, no-one other than an academic, that is.


Posted by: A.C. Douglas on December 7, 2004 7:10 PM

Hell, it doesn't take very much to prove the "gibberish" claim.

Look at the very beginning of the quoted sentence: "capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways". "Homologous" applies to the realtionship between two or more entities, i.e. "a man's hand and a whale's fin are homologous." But in this case she seems to be describing "capital", all by itself, as homologous. The only possible way you could do this is to either not know, or ignore, what "homologous" means. It's like saying "2 plus 2 is equal." It's not even a complete sentence.

Posted by: jimbo on December 7, 2004 7:45 PM

But...I DO think the ability to write like that--in that old "homologous" way (if she can misuse it, so can I!)---seems to be a pre requisite of getting a doctorate. I mean, it's just plain a lot of work to string thay many multi-syllabic words together. It's a lot of work to KNOW that many multi-syllabic words---geez, you expect her to use them properly and mean something by them, too?? However, I do think the translation to standard English would be hilarious. It would be like, after all that, the translation would be: "The sky is blue."

Posted by: annette on December 7, 2004 7:59 PM

The statement "The sky is blue" is clearly not homologous to equally uncontestable statements in constructing social realities in that it presents an attempt by the hegemonic patriarchal structure to assimilate into the constructed idea of 'blueness' a spurious association with masculinity, hence, the phallus. The dissemination of this idea is pervasive to cultural identification elements such as the concept of the 'Sky God'/'Earth Mother' binary, or in similarly propogated ritual practice and programming, see the tendency to dress baby boys in blue.

Posted by: . on December 8, 2004 10:25 AM

The goal of scientific writing is to be clear, accurate, and concise. We use jargon to forward these goals. These writers, on the other hand, are using jargon to obfuscate, to create an exclusive class of professionals. They simply cannot convince me that this style of writing is intended to convey information, other than the message that the writer is a deep thinker.

Posted by: C.S. Froning on December 8, 2004 10:36 AM

I'm putting my dough down on gibberish too. Although I've got one percent of shading I'd want to add. I spent a little time wrestling with the philo-critics who were chic at a certain point (Baudrillard, Derrida, etc). And I spent a little more time than that wrestling with the works of Film Studies theorists. And the funny thing was that, if you did the exhausting spadework, there was sometimes -- not often, but sometimes -- a little something worthwhile, or semi-perceptive, underneath all the tangle and verbiage.

But yeah, 99% gibberish, intended only to impress others.

I'm ignorant about all technical fields, but am resigned to the idea that technical fields especially need jargons and insider languages. But as for the arts ... Well, have you ever encountered any thoughts about the arts that couldn't have been expressed in relatively clear, simple and straightforward prose? Not that I should be trusted, but I certainly haven't.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 8, 2004 11:50 AM

FWIW, don't you also just love the fact that English and lit profs have given themselves license to come on as Deep Thinkers? As people advancing the revolution? As pioneers on the frontiers of thought? English profs!

I think my favorite little blip in the Judith Butler passage is "brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure." The thinking "of" structure? What the hell does that "of" mean? Are we meant to understand that "struture" is doing some thinking? Or did she just forget to use the down-to-earth word "about"? Not that that would clarify much of anything...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 8, 2004 11:55 AM

"...gibberish intended only to impress others."

But isn't that the real joke? If all of us out here can see it doesn't say a damn thing, and that, more than likely, the writer doesn't KNOW a damn thing or he/she could express it more clearly, why would "brainy" academics be "impressed"? Why wouldn't they see the fraud in it?

It seems to me that the only person "impressed" would be very insecure and/or--ahem--not too bright. Even if the translation into standard English turned out to reveal the content as brilliant, I'd still be unimpressed with the lame communication style.

Posted by: annette on December 8, 2004 12:58 PM

Since there's no trackback, here are my comments:

Posted by: mallarme on December 8, 2004 1:21 PM

Mark Bauerlein, the author of Fenster's linked article, makes the case for Bad Writin' (whatever the Thinkin') well:

"Awhile back, in the MLA ballot for At-Large Members of the Executive Council (2001-04), candidate Judith Butler wrote a statement of purpose that began:

'The MLA has an obligation to make clear the value of literary studies to the broader public and to counter the anti-intellectualism and sloganeering that threatens the critical thought within the academy. Perhaps most important is to show that a culturally complex range of writing and thinking compose the world of literary studies today . . . '

Two sentences, two subject-verb disagreements. Another candidate, Rey Chow, stated,

'It is against this unfriendly global trend that the MLA must continue to reconceptualize its leadership for scholars specializing in the study of languages and literatures. Such leadership should consist, as it always does, in fostering a strong sense of community among its members at a critical time.'

An organization reconceptualizes its leadership for scholars (whatever that means), a process confounded by the nonsensical phrase 'should consist, as it always does.'


Posted by: annette on December 8, 2004 1:33 PM

Much as I hate to say it, after reading Ms. Butler's remark five or ten times, I think she is saying a tiny little something in there. If she turned this one sentence into about five sentences, and turned the knob way down on the jargon factor, everyone could understand the relatively simple comment she's making. (I would guess that she's describing a shift in intellectual fashion.) What strikes me is that nobody is, ahem, editing her prose, and she clearly needs fairly stringent editing.

Another small comment: any field that relies too much on jargon is in serious danger of losing its ability to communicate, even internally.

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 8, 2004 2:06 PM

Question: Did Ms. Butler ever comment publicly on her bad writing award? Does she consider herself an intellectual martyr, or what?

Posted by: Friedrich von Blowhard on December 8, 2004 2:10 PM

Dear .

Dare I admit it? I get what you wrote.

Posted by: ricpic on December 8, 2004 4:33 PM

Ya know the pity in all this is that english is rich in polysyllabic words, that - if used sparingly - can convey just the right shadings to a text; which their more common equivalents cannot.
It's sad really that an academic would throw away that advantage, for impenetrable exclusivity.

Posted by: ricpic on December 8, 2004 5:11 PM

"Wheresoever, manners, and fashions are corrupted, Language is, It imitates the politicke riot. The excesse of Feasts, and apparell, are the notes of a sick State; and the wantonnesse of language, of a sick mind." - Ben Jonson.

Posted by: carter on December 8, 2004 5:51 PM

"Question: Did Ms. Butler ever comment publicly on her bad writing award?"

"A bad writer bites back," _New York Times_, March 20, 1999, Vol. 148 Issue 51467, pA15:

Posted by: Dave Lull on December 8, 2004 7:01 PM

I read "A Bad Writer Bites Back". Her resonse is more clearly written than the example sentence in the posting, but also seems to have entirely missed the point of the award. Here is part of what she says:

"BERKELEY, Calif. -- I n the last few years, a small, culturally conservative academic journal has gained public attention by showcasing difficult sentences written by intellectuals in the academy. The journal, Philosophy and Literature, has offered itself as the arbiter of good prose and accused some of us of bad writing by awarding us "prizes." (I'm still waiting for my check!)

The targets, however, have been restricted to scholars on the left whose work focuses on topics like sexuality, race, nationalism and the workings of capitalism -- a point the news media ignored. Still, the whole exercise hints at a serious question about the relation of language and politics: why are some of the most trenchant social criticisms often expressed through difficult and demanding language?'

It isn't "difficult and demanding" language that she is being criticized for. It's bad grammar, misused vocabulary words, run-on sentences, and impenetrability.

Amazing how she skipped over that.

Posted by: annette on December 9, 2004 5:16 PM

..but does the fact that a writer can lapse into writing that is grammatically flawed at best & unintelligble at worst therefore also delegitimize the content of that writing?

Posted by: confuchsia on December 13, 2004 3:59 PM


That would be the point of the little game mentioned in the post. Most posters here seem to think the lack of intelligbility masks an underlying real incoherence. But maybe this crowd is too suspicious.

So I say: give the writer the benefit of the doubt and make 'em translate to the king's english. I suspect that if they tried it would be apparent that the "content" would be "delegitimized"--but hell, let 'em try.

Posted by: fenster on December 14, 2004 6:02 PM

The Bad Writing Awards could easily expand to cover different categories for different fields, much like the Grammys or Oscars, with the equivalent of Best Motion Picture going to the worst of the lot. This jargon-laden approach encompasses most of the arts and humanities, fine arts, and social sciences, no longer just "literary theory". Mainstream and academic art criticism, even actual works of art, could be considered for the award, as the bulk of contemporary art consists solely of an "artist statement" which explains the "intentions" of the art in the same obfuscational terms.

Posted by: Raphael on December 14, 2004 6:14 PM

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