A critical examination of pretentious academic writing

The absolutely facial identity of existence/the proportion of the new creation sans depth/the light itself ex nihilo: the dark itself univocally identified, i.e., not self-identity identity itself equivocally, not the dark itself equivocally, in “self-alienation,” not “self-identity, itself in self-alienation” “released” in and by “otherness,” and “actual other,” “itself,” not the abysmal inversion of the light, the reality of the darkness equivocally, absolute identity equivocally predicated of the self/selfhood equivocally predicated of the dark (the reality of this darkness the other-self-covering of identity which is the identification person-self).’

What the fuck does that even mean? Maybe something profound, maybe nothing at all – who cares, at least it sounds good, right? Wrong. There is nothing more infuriating than reading a article or book on a topic you are relatively familiar with and coming across a passage like the one above. Indeed, it is so cryptic and utterly inaccessible that it seems as though its intended purpose is to confuse the reader – bashing us over the head with unfamiliar terminology in an attempt to force us to concede that it is our own intelligence at fault for any lack of understanding, and not the author’s own lack of clarity.

With that being said, perhaps these feelings of outrage are rash and unduly harsh. While it is easy to point to an exceptional example of bombastic writing and proclaim that it is of poor quality, it is difficult to draw a conclusion that applies to challenging academic writing more generally. On the one hand, we are drawn to the intuition that unclear writing ought to be lamented across the board for obscuring meaningful ideas in an impenetrable fog. On the other hand, there is a creeping feeling that maybe difficult language is necessary to capture difficult ideas, and that criticising academic writing is slippery slope down towards anti-intellectualism.     

What I have just sketched above, however crudely, are the intuitions behind some literary conservatists and post-modernists respectively. In the late 90’s, tensions came to a head between these two positions in academia, with conservatists angered by what they perceived as a degradation in the quality of academics. The cause, they argued, was partly to do with the post-modernist approach of applying theory from traditional subjects, such as philosophy, to new subjects, such as queer and gender studies. 

An interesting way to understand this tension is through the historical lens of the Bad Writing Contest, which was held annually by the academic journal Philosophy and Literature. It was founded by the journal’s editor, Dennis Dutton, whose purpose was to ‘solicit the most egregious examples of awkward, jargon-clogged academic prose from all over the English-speaking world’. Hundreds of scholars gladly participated, sending in samples of work that were, in their minds, overly pretentious and deserving of the title of the worst writing in academia.

Unsurprisingly, the Bad Writing Contest met heavy criticism for its hostile disposition towards difficult academic writing. Some claimed it was unfair to remove a single passage and evaluate its meaning in isolation of the piece as a whole. Others, such as Princeton Professor Joan Scott, went further, suggesting that it was an example ‘a kind of anti-intellectualism that is everywhere in the culture, a demand for things they already agree with’.

The competition met its end in 1999, after renowned academic Professor Judith Butler was awarded first for a passage that includes ‘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’ as its first line.

Butler defended herself in an essay, appropriately called A ‘Bad Writer’ Bites Back, by first bringing attention to Dutton’s cultural conservatism. She proceeded to claim that it is the duty of academics to challenge common sense and cultural norms, including the way we use language. Moreover, according to Butler, it is the very use of non-conformal prose that leads to the emergence of new ideas – citing the example of Adorno’s use of ‘man’ in his famous sentence ‘man is the ideology of dehumanization’ as bringing light to the dehumanising way his contemporaries used ‘man’.

I think there are two separate points made in Butler’s rebuttal that need to be teased out here. The first is that literary and cultural conservatists, such as Dutton, ought not to call into question the legitimacy of contemporary subjects. The breadth of important work done in gender and queer theory validate this premise.

The second point – the idea that difficult prose itself can lead to reformation of ideas – needs qualification. While this may be possible in selected cases, such as Adorno’s,  the vast majority of academic writing is nowhere near profound enough to justify the use of deliberately unclear language. In practice, it primarily serves to separate specialists from non-specialists, thereby limiting accessibility. As academic writers, we should continue to embrace clarity as our guiding principle.

Image: Antonio Litterio

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