No Exit

And speaking of writing and thinking – as we so often are, one way or another – here is a good article on the subject. Unfortunate that it was first published in the Weekly Standard, but sometimes things fall out that way. It is republished in Theory’s Empire.

…bad academic writing nowadays has become something worse than an aesthetic offense…Academic writing in our own time, however, exhibits a disregard, not merely for style, but for truth. Once upon a time, no matter how badly they wrote, scholars imagined that they were contributing to knowledge. But no longer. Much of the scholarship now published in the humanities—primarily in English and comparative literature, but increasingly in history, musicology, art history, and religious studies—has no other purpose than to confirm the scholar’s own status and authority. It is not a contribution to knowledge, but to political power.

A harsh comment, but all too believable. I say ‘believable’ in that waffly way because obviously one can’t know for sure – we have no way of knowing for certain what people’s motivations are for writing what they do. But it is believeable, because when you look at the actual work in question, it simply is very difficult to think that anyone writes it in order to contribute to knowledge. That just doesn’t seem to be what’s going on – what’s going on looks like something else entirely.

Although she agreed that even leftist scholars “should be able to clarify how their work informs and illuminates everyday life,” Butler insisted that academic writing needed to be “difficult and demanding” (her words) in order to “question common sense”—the truths which are so self-evident that no one thinks to question them—and so to “provoke new ways of looking at a familiar world.” If the only choice is between academic obscurity and the pseudo-clarity of “common sense,” who wouldn’t choose the former? But who said that’s the only choice? In the limited range of options she offers us, Butler reveals much about the real politics behind bad academic writing.

Thus – and so soon, too – we meet the false dichotomy again. Who, indeed, said that’s the only choice?

The desire to “question common sense” is merely the self-congratulation of someone whose “sense” is different, but no less “common.” Although Butler wishes to disrupt “the workings of capitalism,” the effect of her writing is exactly the opposite. Its effect is to safeguard the power and privilege of academic capitalists—among whom she is one of the great robber barons.

Wishes, or perhaps claims to wish to disrupt those workings. I myself (suspicious rat that I am) tend to think it’s far more of a claim than a wish.

What Butler’s writing actually expresses is simultaneously a contempt for her readers and an absolute dependence on their good opinion. The problem is not so much her lack of concern for clarity; it’s her lack of concern for clarification. If Butler took seriously her academic responsibility—her duty to teach—she would take pains to make herself clear. Her concern, though, is not to clarify a difficult subject but to justify her position in the front ranks. Hers is not writing to be read and understood; it is a display of verbal majesty, which is to inspire awe and respect. Its one purpose is to confirm Butler’s authority as a leader of the academic left.

A knock-down point, I think. The lack of concern for clarification is telling.

But you can sense the strength of Butler’s party even more strongly among those who support the Bad Writing Contest. In the last two years, at least five young scholars have submitted entries, asking that their names not be released if they should win. In an unsigned June 1997 letter, one entrant confessed that he was “loathe to upset senior scholars in my field,” since alienating them could do “significant damage” to his career…In the current crisis of hiring freezes and intense pressure for tenure, the need to publish is perhaps greater than any time before. Yet to publish in most journals means flinging the jargon, toeing the party line (which is somewhere to the left of gibberish), and quoting the usual suspects (Benjamin, Foucault, Derrida, Said, Jameson, Butler, etc.). I’m often appalled at my own writing, but since jargon, rather than substance, gains a publication, I succumb to verbiage.

Maybe they all hate it, maybe even Butler does, maybe they’re all caught in a trap of their own making. Let’s hope they find the way out soon.

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