What’s wrong with this text?
The work of the text is to literalize the signifiers of the first encounter, dismantling the ideal as an idol. In this literalization, the idolatrous deception of the first moment becomes readable. The ideal will reveal itself to be an idol. Step by step, the ideal is pursued by a devouring doppelganger, tearing apart all transcendence. This de-idealization follows the path of reification, or, to invoke Augustine, the path of carnalization of the spiritual. Rhetorically, this is effected through literalization. A Sentimental Education does little more than elaborate the progressive literalization of the Annunciation.
It comes to us from a German professor named Barbara Vinken. Said professor has also professed at places like Yale University, New York University, the University of Chicago. The text is quoted from a book that was published by Stanford University Press.
If this represents the best and the brightest that the academic world is offering these days you understand why students at these institutions have, as Camille Paglia has said, minds like jello.
The text is a pathetic hodge podge of big words that do not end up meaning anything. The author seems clearly to be suffering from polysyllabic-itis. I take it as an indication that she knows she is an impostor and is terrified that she will be found out.
Naturally, some people have been pondering the fact that this counts for serious scholarship at top universities. They have suggested, for example, that academics belong to a very high status club and write to keep out the hoi polloi.
It might also be that these people are ignorant fools, impostors who know nothing and can teach nothing. They might be flinging a mountain of gibberish to ensure that no one could ever judge them. One would be hard put to say that this is just bad writing. It is not writing at all.
The real meaning is clear: Humanities teaching in today’s universities is hopelessly corrupt.
Anyway, the bad writers of academia do have their defenders. Among them Harvard professor Steven Pinker, who, one hastens to add, was not talking about the Vinken text quoted above. Pinker suggests that academic writers get so deeply into their fields that they get lost. They are so highly specialized that they cannot communicate with normal people or even with students.
Victoria Clayton summarizes Pinker’s argument in The Atlantic:
Pinker, a cognitive scientist, says it boils down to “brain training”: the years of deep study required of academics to become specialists in their chosen fields actually work against them being able to unpack their complicated ideas in a coherent, concrete manner suitable for average folks. Translation: Experts find it really hard to be simple and straightforward when writing about their expertise. He calls this the “curse of knowledge” and says academics aren’t aware they’re doing it or properly trained to identify their blindspots—when they know too much and struggle to ascertain what others don’t know. In other words, sometimes it’s simply more intellectually challenging to write clearly. “It’s easy to be complex, it’s harder to be simple,” Bosley said. “It would make academics better researchers and better writers, though, if they had to translate their thinking into plain language.” It would probably also mean more people, including colleagues, would read their work.
The curse of knowledge… what a clever phrase. Pinker must feel a special need to cover the shame of some of his colleagues. But, the problem, of course, is not that these writers know so much. They do not know much of anything at all. The academic world has been corrupted by political correctness and identity politics. In the Humanities, especially, it is infested with people who are completely unqualified for their positions. People who did not earn their way to their jobs often suffer from impostor syndrome.
A moment’s reflection answers the question of whether academics have always written so badly because they knew too much. In fact, the claim is nonsense. One might go back a century and examine a book like Oxford professor A. C. Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy or Harvard philosophy professor Josiah Royce’s Lectures on Modern Idealism. And William James taught psychology at Harvard.
More recently, in the field of literature, Lionel Trilling wrote well and clearly. As did Cleanth Brooks and William Wimsatt and Northrop Frye and Harold Bloom. I would add two distinguished academics I took graduate courses from: Erich Heller and Nathan Scott. Former academic Henry Kissinger writes well even today, and he is writing in his second language. So does Niall Ferguson.
Back in the day academics took pride in the quality of their writing. They considered it their job to write well and clearly. After all, how can you teach anyone anything if they do not understand what you are saying? Today, however, students do not study with people who can write intelligible prose and who know what they are talking about. They have the privilege of having their minds deformed by the likes of Vinken, Judith Butler, Slavoj Zizek and Alain Badiou.
It’s going to take more than a call for better writing to make the dimwits who currently occupy high positions in academic Humanities departments into writers of readable prose.