Friday, December 6, 2013

American Academics Writing Badly

When it comes to really, really bad writing, American academics are world beaters.

People who do not swim with the academics are usually surprised to learn that English professors write such abysmally bad prose. Among academics they are not standing alone as wretchedly bad writers.

In a recently published interview, David Foster Wallace tried to make some sense of the fact that American academics are so hell bent on pretending to be doing serious theoretical work that their prose drowns whatever sense they are trying to make.

To illustrate the point, I went back to the Bad Writing contest in 1998. Consider it a random sampling, but note that the authors are academic stars, even superstars, at America’s finest academic institutions.

I will not explicate the sentences; for the most part they are pure gibberish, products of feeble minds trying to look brilliant.

Take Judith Butler, professor of rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley. Butler is always competitive in any bad writing contest, but in 1998 she won with this:

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.

Some people think that the ability to write unintelligible prose is a sign of great genius. It is not. It is the sign of enormous arrogance and a refusal to communicate ideas that one fears will be dismissed by anyone who really understands them.

Second place went to Professor Homi Bhabha, of the University of Chicago. Again, a majorly important professor in a great academic institution.

Here is Bhabha’s sentence:

If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.

You think it’s a joke.  You do until you start pondering the fact that all the hard work you are doing to get your child into a great university will expose him to this kind of mental drool.

And then we have Steven Z. Levine, a professor at Bryn Mawr College, who offers a Freudo-Lacanian sentence. You may or may not know, but I am more than familiar with this sort of thing. I am also well qualified to tell you that Levine is using bad writing to cover up his ignorance. Like the vast majority of those who tread in these waters, he has no idea what he is talking about:

As my story is an august tale of fathers and sons, real and imagined, the biography here will fitfully attend to the putative traces in Manet’s work of “les noms du père,” a Lacanian romance of the errant paternal phallus (”Les Non-dupes errent”), a revised Freudian novella of the inferential dynamic of paternity which annihilates (and hence enculturates) through the deferred introduction of the third term of insemination the phenomenologically irreducible dyad of the mother and child.

A special award goes to Professor D. G. Leahy who taught religious studies at New York University. Now he works at something called The New York Philosophy Corporation.

His contribution:

Total presence breaks on the univocal predication of the exterior absolute the absolute existent (of that of which it is not possible to univocally predicate an outside, while the equivocal predication of the outside of the absolute exterior is possible of that of which the reality so predicated is not the reality, viz., of the dark/of the self, the identity of which is not outside the absolute identity of the outside, which is to say that the equivocal predication of identity is possible of the self-identity which is not identity, while identity is univocally predicated of the limit to the darkness, of the limit of the reality of the self). This is the real exteriority of the absolute outside: the reality of the absolutely unconditioned absolute outside univocally predicated of the dark: the light univocally predicated of the darkness: the shining of the light univocally predicated of the limit of the darkness: actuality univocally predicated of the other of self-identity: existence univocally predicated of the absolutely unconditioned other of the self. The precision of the shining of the light breaking the dark is the other-identity of the light. The precision of the absolutely minimum transcendence of the dark is the light itself/the absolutely unconditioned exteriority of existence for the first time/the absolutely facial identity of existence/the proportion of the new creation sans depth/the light itself ex nihilo: the dark itself univocally identified, i.e., not self-identity identity itself equivocally, not the dark itself equivocally, in “self-alienation,” not “self-identity, itself in self-alienation” “released” in and by “otherness,” and “actual other,” “itself,” not the abysmal inversion of the light, the reality of the darkness equivocally, absolute identity equivocally predicated of the self/selfhood equivocally predicated of the dark (the reality of this darkness the other-self-covering of identity which is the identification person-self).

Admittedly, Judith Butler writes atrocious prose, but D. G. Leahy is off the charts.

What did David Foster Wallace, an important novelist, essayist, and also an English teacher, say about this?

He began by being charitable. More charitable than I, you might say. He did not consider these writers to be stupid people who do not know what they are talking about. Allow him to have his say:

There’s the kind of boneheaded explanation, which is that a lot of people with PhDs are stupid; and like many stupid people, they associate complexity with intelligence. And therefore they get brainwashed into making their stuff more complicated than it needs to be.

But, Wallace was on better ground when he explained that this junk prose proliferates because of social pressures exerted by academic worlds. These academics are not concerned with communicating ideas. (One suspects that their ideas are too silly to withstand any serious scrutiny.) They are using their writing to claim a place as members of an elite group.

He explained:

I think the smarter thing to say is that in many tight, insular communities—where membership is partly based on intelligence, proficiency and being able to speak the language of the discipline—pieces of writing become as much or more about presenting one’s own qualifications for inclusion in the group than transmission of meaning. And that’s how in disciplines like academia—or, I’ve read some really good legal prose, but when it’s really, really horrible (IRS Code stuff)—I think that very often it stems from insecurity and that people feel that unless they can mimic the particular jargon and style of their peers, they won’t be taken seriously and their ideas won’t be taken seriously. It’s a guess.


David Foster said...

Bad writing AND bad oral presentation skills are common in academia, but are not limited to that arena. There are many people in business whose presentation skills are abysmal...PowerPoint deserves some of the blame, but many of these people would give bad pitches in ANY format. I've even known commissioned business-to-business salespeople, whose income is directly related to their pitchmanship skills, who were pretty mediocre at this.

I think that Rhetoric, which was one of the classical Liberal Arts, should again be part of the university core curriculum. Any college graduate should be able to write clearly, speak intelligibly and persuasively, and defend his ideas in debate.

Josh said...

After reading good writing - even intellectually challenging material - I don't feel exhausted. I take it as a sign that someone is poor at written communication when reading a single of their sentences makes me feel exhausted.

Charles A Pennison said...

Here's some entertaining quotes from an article in the Florida Bar Journal, Lawyers Should Use Plain Language, on the use of legalese:

"The price of clarity, of course, is that the clearer the document the more obvious its substantive deficiencies. For the lazy or dull, this price may be too high.--Reed Dickerson, Professor of Law, Indiana University."

"The common language of the law is not the product of necessity, precedent, convention, or economy, but it is the product of sloth, confusion, hurry, cowardice, ignorance, neglect, and cultural poverty.--Judge Lynn N. Hughes, U.S.. District Court, Houston, Texas."

" The judge wrote:

I read briefs prepared by very prominent law firms. I bang my head against the wall, I dash my face with cold water, I parse, I excerpt, I diagram and still the message does not come through. In addition the structural content is most often mystifying."

Anonymous said...

My writing has progressed through the years by reading a number of books and articles. Here are five that have had the most impact:

- "The Elements of Style" by William Strunk & E.B. White
- "On Writing Well" by William Zinsser
- "Politics and the English Language" by George Orwell
- "Writing On Both Sides of the Brain" by Henriette Klauser
- "On Writing" by Stephen King

Klauser's book had a huge impact because it introduced me to the "Gunning Fog Index," a tool for analyzing readability. I read it immediately after college and it changed my writing forever.

Wikipedia does a good treatment on the fog index:

I remember pulling a number of books off my shelf. I stacked them in rank order based on how easy I remember they were to read. Then I measured random pages from each using the fog index. After that exercise, I measured my own writing from college and realized I absolutely tortured my professors by subjecting them to needlessly complex sentences. What an enlightening experience!

I also love Stephen King's rule admonishing writers to eliminate all adverbs. That's a difficult one for me, but I get it. Still practicing (really, really, really practicing!).

I know I make long comments on this blog, but I hope they are clear!


Charles A Pennison said...


I also like "Make Your Words Work" by the late Gary Provost.

"By writing that works, I mean writing that does the job it's suppose to do, whether that job is to inform, entertain, anger, or instruct."

Sam L. said...

Clearly all had done extensive post-doc work in bafflegab.

Anonymous said...

I suspect there are two major motivations:

1 - Try to swindle the reader for personal profit - e.g., I don't know anything of value, but I want the university to keep giving me grants;
2 - Try to swindle the reader for collective profit - e.g., I think my entire discipline is fraudulent, and I won't personally profit from its continuation, but I want my peers and successors to have a lucrative business.

Anonymous said...

Orwell: When people use impenetrable prose and arcane jargon - they don't want to communicate. They want to lie and/or hoodwink for purpose.

Sad fact: Orwell (I've read 2 bios that convinced me) was suicidal from Burma on. And Wallace.

I got out of the Speechwriting game just in time. My newer honchos were uninterested in Communicating. They wanted to tell audiences how Great & Brilliant they were, and make brownie points with Their honchos.

I tried, but was unable to do that.

My replacement cut & pasted from the Web. Last I heard, they liked his stuff.

Why do "theories" of impenetrable persiflage and utter bosh emanate from France & Germany? -- Rich Lara