Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Academics (Especially in the Humanities) Write Very Badly

This isn’t new, but we can’t resist posting about it.

Between 1995 and 1998, the journal Philosophy and Literature had a Bad Writing Contest. You’ll want to check out all the winners, but here, for your edification, is one winner. According to a press release from Philosophy and Literature. . .
Judith Butler, a Guggenheim Fellowship-winning professor of rhetoric and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley, admired as perhaps “one of the ten smartest people on the planet,” wrote the sentence that captured the contest’s first prize.
And just what piece of prose won this honor?
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.
One might be tempted to say it takes real talent to write such turgid, stilted and opaque prose. Surely, this must a a parody, right? But no, it’s not.

We are rather a fan of George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language.” Orwell insists that bad language doesn’t merely show ineptness, it results from intellectual slovenliness and downright dishonesty.
Now, it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.
The reason that foolish language is so often found in the humanities is, quite simply, that academics in the humanities so often have foolish thoughts.

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