Dude, Where’s My Site of Hegemonic Dominance?

John Holbo has a very sly post on the tireless Bad Writing subject on his blog. He read the first three issues of the PMLA – Proceedings of the Modern Language Association – for 2003 cover to cover, twice. (Then he had a complete blood transfusion and is well on the way to recovery – now cut that out.) And he has some thoughts.

First he quotes Judith Butler explaining why bad writing is necessary and good:

The accused then responds that “if what he says could be said in terms of ordinary language he would probably have done so in the first place.” Understanding what the critical intellectual has to say, Marcuse goes on, “presupposes the collapse and invalidation of precisely that universe of discourse and behavior into which you want to translate it.”

Then he comments:

Mutatis mutandis, understanding how Bad Writing Contests are funny may presuppose the collapse and invalidation of precisely that universe of MLA discourse and behavior that is the butt of the joke. Judith Butler fails to apprehend the crucially performative aspect of this subversive critical work – the way in which Bad Writing Contests provide a voice to those on the margins by challenging the dominant hegemony of ‘theory’ in literary studies.

Naughty Butler, failing to apprehend the performative aspect. Very droll.

Just as you give up the right to insist on hushed reverence for all things academic when you title your paper, “Dude, where’s my reliable symbolic order?”, so you give up your right to demand fair and open-minded consideration of your views when you yourself explicitly advocate adopting language which functions expressly to short-circuit critical dissent by presupposing that one’s opponents are not just wrong but basically in a state of complete intellectual collapse. Given that this is her attitude, Judith Butler was never going to listen to Denis Dutton’s criticisms of her views in any case. He is, as she says, the editor of “a small, culturally conservative academic journal”. Being a figure on the margins – whom Butler is working to silence, by collapsing any language in which he can express his views – what does Dutton have to lose by mocking, rather than arguing?

There’s a good deal in what he says. He also says a good deal more, including his own crude but effective grading system for the articles in the PMLA. OK and Trivial are two of the possible grades, which is quite sensible. And he ends with a sentence that would make a good Thought for the Day:

It is a nice question whether it is worse to perpetrate tautological emptiness with an aura of significance or egregious unsoundness/invalidity with an aura of significance.

I love nice questions, and I plan to think about that one at odd moments for some time.

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