In this corner, journalist June Casagrande. In the other corner, eminent intellectual and Harvard professor Steven Pinker.
The contest: who better explains for why academics can’t write.
We have all heard of Pinker. Most of us have not heard of June Casagrande.
In the past university professors prided themselves on their ability to write cogent and coherent prose. Now, most university professors, especially in the Humanities, are incapable of doing so.
Why should this be?
The bell has rung, and Pinker throws the first explanation:
The most popular answer outside the academy is the cynical one: Bad writing is a deliberate choice. In my experience, it does not ring true. I know many scholars who have nothing to hide and no need to impress. They do ground-breaking work on important subjects, reason well about clear ideas and are honest, down-to-earth people. Still, their writing stinks.
Obviously, a choice need not be deliberate. It might be motivated by fear. If Pinker believes that these scholars are doing ground-breaking work and have nothing to hide, he is being far too optimistic. One appreciates the value of Pinker’s crusade to look on the bright side of things, but it’s also possible to be blinded by the sunlight.
Anyway, Casagrande’s counterpunch must sting:
I have, over the years, caught whiffs of the problem, and I had my own theory: Certain academics, I figured, need to make their writing as convoluted, intimidating and hard-to-read as possible to hide the fact that they have nothing to say.
That is, if no one can grasp or even finish reading something you wrote, no one will know that your research is useless and your university paycheck is tantamount to theft.
When people owe their jobs and their careers to considerations that have little or nothing to do with achievement they have good reason to ensure that no one finds out that they are, to speak frankly, frauds.
One must add that some supposedly serious thinkers indulge in advanced obfuscation because they are extremely thin-skinned. They fear debate; they fear discussion; they fear argument; they fear criticism.
If no one knows what you are saying, no one can reasonably disagree with you. If no one knows what you are saying, you cannot be wrong.
Here, Pinker might forward another argument: namely that academics write badly because they know their subjects so well that they assume that everyone else knows it as well as they do. In other fields this is called narcissism.
It does not necessarily bespeak knowledge. It might also be a symptom, describing a world where most of the participants do not know what they are talking about. At best, they use formulaic expressions as passwords, not because the words mean something but because they signify membership in an in-group.
In any event, we should test these competing explanations. To do so we need but examine the winning entries in what used to be called the Bad Writing Contest.
Take the winning text, written by Judth Butler, a woman who holds a prestigious chair at the University of California, Berkeley.
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.
And then there is a text written by University of Chicago Professor Homi Bhabha:
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.
Let us be clear. These writers are not obscure academics teaching as adjuncts in no-name universities. They are important professors, teaching at the nation’s most prestigious institutions.
If anyone is doing what Pinker calls “ground-breaking work” they would certainly be on the list.
Do they satisfy the Pinkerist predicate: do they reason well about complex ideas?
Or, does it make more sense to say that they are using obscure and obscurantist thinking because they have something to hide. One might also suggest that they write drivel because they think drivel.
If a professor cannot write clearly the chances are very good that he or she cannot think clearly. If an academic, someone whose job requires an extended dissertation, cannot write at all, most likely he or she cannot think.
What brought major Humanities professors to this degraded condition? I suspect that they are merely reaping what they sowed. They are paying for having discarded the canon of great writers and great thinkers of the past. Having rejected the canon, they do not know how to write or think. Most of them would not recognize good writing if it hit them in the face.
As the old saying goes, garbage in/ garbage out.
Most of these instances of bad writing are pretentious attempts to appropriate French thinking. Their authors are driven by ideology, not by a wish to do ground-breaking work in the Humanities. They want to look like sophisticated intellectuals, the better to trick the world into thinking that they are earning their salaries.
In the stand-off between June Casagrande and Steven Pinker, this referee awards the victory to Casagrande, by a TKO.