Terrible Academic Writing

A great piece on bad academic writing (which is, perhaps, an unnecessary redundancy). Camille Paglia has been bitching about this for years – the primacy of “theory” in universities – and how it is killing adventurous thought, and any kind of honest intellectual inquiry.

Ophelia Benson, in this blistering piece, calls a spade a spade.

…Another benefit of talking about theory-disparagers’ being frightened off is that by implication it makes the theory-lovers seem brave, daring, butch, risk-takers, rebels. Or at least that’s what it’s meant to do, but the trouble is of course it doesn’t. The whole maneuver is so transparently self-flattering that you would think such a knowing, hip, wised-up, rhetoric-conscious crowd would notice the fact, blush violently, and delete that bit of text. But no. Perhaps they think we don’t notice? Perhaps they think that because the non-theory team is by definition and invariably so frightened off by questions about language that we are entirely blind deaf and stupid about rhetoric? Perhaps, but sadly for them, we’re not, and we can see perfectly well what they’re doing.

And the same goes for the ‘difficulty’ ploy. That’s also a popular one, of course. Theory isn’t gibberish or vacuity dressed up in resounding neologisms appropriated from Lacan and Derrida – no, it’s difficult. It addresses subjects so complicated and arcane and profound that a special new language is required in order to deal with them at all.

It’s ridiculous – truly.

I’m a big fan of Dennis Dutton’s yearly “Bad Writing Contest” , hosted by Arts & Letters Daily - which exposes these academic buffoons for what they are. Uh … buffoons.

The winning entries are always laughably impenetrable.

The only people who read that stuff are … other people who write like that. It’s like a strange doomed contest to see who can write in the most incoherent way.

How in the world has this occurred?? I have a feeling it all goes back to post-modernism, and de-constructionism – a worthy pursuit in the abstract – but when you get right down to it: dammit, is a poem good to read? Does the language sweep you away? As a whole, what does it say to you?

All of this “theory” takes the juice out of ANY writing. It tries to make language manageable, understandable, easily broken down into components. The theorists can then be Masters of the Universe – they can translate everything for the un-washed masses.

I can hear the cackles of Shakespeare and Chaucer and James Joyce now.

“De-construct ME? You must be MAD! Just read it out loud – just hear the sounds – do I not amaze you?”

Just for a joke – here is one of the winning entries in the Bad Writing Contest:

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.

Such language only emerges from a very confused and unorganized mind.

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3 Responses to Terrible Academic Writing

  1. Ever see that “Postmodern Theorem Generator” website? It comes up with fake psychobabble, which is totally indistinguishable from genuine psychobabble.

  2. Mala says:

    Initially, after the first 4 or 5 words, I let my eyes skim over that Bad Writing Contest example … until you mentioned it was ONE SENTENCE. Holy Cow!

    That should be illegal! Where are the Prose Police when you need them?

    Oh – BTW – Thanks for the reading suggestions. I’m picking up Atonement over the weekend (and already own Catch-22, in hardcover and paperback…. GREAT book!). :)

  3. Patrick says:

    Seriously, Sheila. How do you expect me to get through all this great stuff you link to and talk about?