Dr Fox

A kind and helpful reader alerted me to this article in an email yesterday. It’s very interesting (and also rather amusing, especially at the beginning), but it turns out it doesn’t corroborate what I’m saying in quite the way I thought it might. But that’s okay, because it does raise another issue, which I think it’s worth talking about.

The claim of the article is that difficulty carries prestige, quite independent of content or substance. That educated people will rate a lecture or article more highly if it is ‘difficult’ than if it’s not (with the substance remaining the same). But the trouble is, the measure of difficulty is not a very good one, as the author, Scott Armstrong, acknowledges of one test.

This test is a crude measure of readability because it uses only S, sentence length in words, and N, the number of syllables per 100 words:
F = 207 – 1.02 S – 0.85 N…The Gunning Fog Index (G) is based on average sentence length (S) and the percentage of words (W) with three or more syllables; G = 0.4(S + W).

Yes, and that’s not what I mean by ‘difficulty’ or obscurity or indeed bad writing. At all. I like both polysyllables and long sentences with dependent clauses, and I emphatically don’t like Dick-and-Jane baby writing. I have seen some books of popular philsophy that resort to short sentences and words, and it always surprises me. Surely the audience for popular philsophy is not people who balk at long words or sentences – surely it’s mostly educated people, but educated in other fields. So that’s not it. It’s far more a matter of that dread word, ‘jargon’. That is a loaded word, and I flinch a bit whenever I use it. One person’s jargon is another person’s everyday vocabulary (or it’s another irregular verb – I use technical language, she uses jargon), technical fields do rely on jargon where it would be cumbersome to try to do without it, and it can be and often is anti-intellectual to complain of any and all jargon/technical language. But, in spite of all that, it is almost impossible not to suspect that jargon as used by Bad Writers is not necessary, but rather a device for expanding a small, banal idea into a huge billowing one that impresses the audience, just as Dr. Fox impressed his.

Consider Martha Nussbaum’s translation of Judith Butler’s prize-winning sentence, for example:

“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.”

Now, Butler might have written: “Marxist accounts, focusing on capital as the central force structuring social relations, depicted the operations of that force as everywhere uniform. By contrast, Althusserian accounts, focusing on power, see the operations of that force as variegated and as shifting over time.” Instead, she prefers a verbosity that causes the reader to expend so much effort in deciphering her prose that little energy is left for assessing the truth of the claims.

‘Verbosity’ is yet another subjective term, of course, but surely it’s obvious enough what Nussbaum means. And Nussbaum herself is no short sentence, cat sat on mat writer. In fact she is quite difficult at times, but since she is actually saying something, it’s not the baffling, energy-depleting sort of difficult that Bad Writing resorts to, in a conscious or unconscious effort to prevent assesment of the truth of the claims. The Dr. Fox theory has a lot of merit.

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