It Was Just as Bad For Me as it Was For You
I enjoy coincidences. They make me feel like part of the Divine Plan. (That’s a joke, but actually there was a coincidence last week that made me feel tempted to go all New Agey. I resisted, though.) So it amused me a couple of days ago that I started the day reading a new collection of ‘theoretical’ articles (by which you are to understand articles written by people who once would have been called literary critics but who have now moved Up in the world) – articles of a badness, a pretension, a tortuously protracted emptiness, that has to be read to be believed, and then after I’d done that until I couldn’t stand it any more I got on line and found two articles about Bad Writing. Spooky, or what?
One is by the excellent Carlin Romano, reviewing an anthology of essays by, apparently, fans and practitioners of bad writing.
Culler, the well-known Cornell University literary theorist, and Lamb, a Ph.D. candidate at Cornell, waste no time noticing in their introductory essay that the catalyst for recent ill will in this area, the Bad Writing awards bestowed from 1996 to 1999 by the journal Philosophy and Literature, largely targeted practitioners of “‘theory,’ with its odd cachet of both political radicalism and intellectual abstraction.”
Welll…that’s a self-flattering way of putting it. I’m not sure ‘theory’ has all that much cachet beyond the departments where it is practised, or perpetrated. As a matter of fact, radical historians and philosophers of my acquaintance despise the stuff. ‘Theory’ doesn’t have much cachet, odd or otherwise, and most people aren’t entirely convinced of its radicalism. To put it mildly. Abstraction, yes, that everyone will give it. It is abstract. So abstract that most of the time it manages to say nothing at all, or so little that one wonders why anyone would bother to scribble it on a postcard, let alone go on for pages and pages in a journal.
Not a single essayist departs from a seeming party line that what Dutton and his sympathizers call “bad writing” is simply “difficult” writing that intentionally varies from formulations of common sense (a commodity much insulted in these pages from a standard Adorno/Gramsci standpoint) in order to question various kinds of linguistic, philosophical, and political status quos.
No. Not all of it at any rate – and in fact not a lot of it that I’ve ever read, or that anyone I know has ever read. At least – it is difficult in the sense that one feels a strong compulsion to fling the book out the window, and it takes an effort to resist that urge. But difficult in the sense that there is profound meaning that one has to concentrate to understand? No. That’s just more self-flattery. What there is, is an endless tedious process of vocabulary display, in which the writer demonstrates to her colleagues that she knows how to use ‘imaginary’ (as a noun) and ‘geometry’ and ‘discourse’ correctly. But that’s all. That’s not difficult, it’s only too easy, to understand as well as to write. If you don’t believe me, I recommend to you the introduction to the anthology The Futures of American Studies edited by Donald E. Pease and Robyn Wiegman, or the essay by Wiegman therein, ‘Whiteness Studies and the Paradox.’ By another coincidence, those were the bits I read that morning before reading these articles – and Wiegman is mentioned as a bad example by Romano, citing Denis Dutton.
The other article is one by Dutton from 1999 – a locus classicus of the war on Theoryspeak.
No one denies the need for a specialized vocabulary in biochemistry or physics or in technical areas of the humanities like linguistics. But among literature professors who do what they now call “theory” — mostly inept philosophy applied to literature and culture — jargon has become the emperor’s clothing of choice.
That’s what so annoying about it, you see – that pretense that ‘theorists’ are doing philosophy when they’re not, they’re not doing anything like it. Nor are they doing literary criticism. They’re attempting to do a sort of cultural analysis, which is a good thing to do in, er, theory, but in practice they do it so ineptly that one wishes they wouldn’t.
The vatic tone and phony technicality can also serve to elevate a trivial subject. Many English departments these days find it hard to fill classes where students are assigned Milton or Melville, and they are transforming themselves into departments of so-called cultural studies, where the students are offered the analysis of movies, television programs, and popular music. Thus, in a laughably convoluted book on the Nancy Kerrigan/Tonya Harding affair, we read in a typical sentence that “this melodrama parsed the transgressive hybridity of un-narratived representative bodies back into recognizable heterovisual modes.” The pretentiousness of the worst academic writing betrays it as a kind of intellectual kitsch, analogous to bad art that declares itself “profound” or “moving” not by displaying its own intrinsic value but by borrowing these values from elsewhere.
Phony technicality – again, that’s just it. It’s like Nick’s vision of Gatsby in Paris, a fake ‘leaking sawdust from every pore.’