Why is so much academic writing unreadable?
Structures… patriarchy… hegemony… something something… structures
‘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.’
Really makes you think.
This passage, by the gender theorist Judith Butler, has become a sort of platonic idea of incomprehensible academic literature ever since it won an award for bad writing two decades ago. If you find yourself struggling to get beyond the 17th ‘structure’, bear in mind that Butler is among the top-cited authors in the humanities – one estimate from 2014 put her at number 24 – and what she writes has a real influence on the world.
Bad writing is a problem afflicting academia, and it seems to be particularly notorious in postmodern thought and other areas covered by Cynical Theories - and for the sake of brevity I had to cut several examples from yesterday’s post.
For example, the 1987 paper ‘Doing Gender’ by Candace West and Don H. Zimmerman, is a relatively early example of the genre and so is still recognisably English: ‘We contend that the “doing” of gender is undertaken by women and men whose competence as members of society is hostage to its production. Doing gender involves a complex of socially guided perceptual, interactional, and micropolitical activities that cast particular pursuits as expressions of masculine and feminine “natures”.’
This is the most referenced work in its field, with over 13,000 citations in papers, articles and books.
Twelve years later Homi K. Bhabha, a leading figure in postcolonial studies, came runner-up in the journal Philosophy and Literature’s Bad Writing Contest for this: ‘If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline, soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.’
Then there is this, from queer theorist Robert McRuer’s 2006 book Crip Theory: Cultural Signs of Queerness and Disability: ‘Just as the origins of heterosexual/homosexual identity are now obscured for most people so that compulsory heterosexuality functions as a disciplinary formation seemingly emanating from everywhere and nowhere, so too are the origins of able-bodied/disabled obscured… to cohere in a system of compulsory able-bodiedness that similarly emanates from everywhere and nowhere.’
They also quote this passage from disability studies theorist Fiona Campbell, written two years later: ‘Whether it be the “species typical body” (in science), the “normative citizen” (in political theory), the “reasonable man” (in law), all these signifiers point to a fabrication that reaches into the very soul that sweeps us into life and as such is the outcome and instrument of a political constitution. The creation of such regimes of ontological separation appears disassociated from power… Daily the identities of disabled and abled are performed repeatedly.’
Although these are all relatively clear compared to this great quote by postcolonial scholar Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak, which doesn’t feature in Cynical Theories: ‘The rememoration of the “present” as space is the possibility of the utopian imperative of no-(particular)-place, the metropolitan project that can supplement the post-colonial attempt at the impossible cathexis of place-bound history as the lost time of the spectator.’ I really can’t see that one suffering from Churchillian Drift.
Steven Pinker, one of the great critics of this form of writing, has lamented that: ‘Together with wearing earth tones, driving Priuses, and having a foreign policy, the most conspicuous trait of the American professoriate may be the prose style called academese.’
The question is why. These are all intelligent people who can presumably string a sentence together in real life, and whose job is in part to communicate ideas. Pinker admits that ‘The most popular answer outside the academy is the cynical one: Bad writing is a deliberate choice. Scholars in the softer fields spout obscure verbiage to hide the fact that they have nothing to say. They dress up the trivial and obvious with the trappings of scientific sophistication, hoping to bamboozle their audiences with highfalutin gobbledygook.’
He’s not convinced that this is the reason, and also blames the ‘curse of knowledge’, which forms a chapter in his book A Sense of Style. ‘It simply doesn’t occur to them that their readers don’t know what they know — that those readers haven’t mastered the patois or can’t divine the missing steps that seem too obvious to mention or have no way to visualize an event that to the writer is as clear as day. And so they don’t bother to explain the jargon or spell out the logic or supply the necessary detail.’
Being a massive cynic, I’m more inclined to think that academics deliberately make their subject matter needlessly-complicated sounding, but not because they have nothing to say – but more because what they say is so obviously insane that it needs to be disseminated among prestigious figures in academia before it can face the world.
In her 1993 book Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of Sex, Butler wrote that ‘“Sex” is an ideal construct which is forcibly materialized through time. It is not a simple fact or static condition of a body, but a process whereby regulatory norms materialize “sex” and achieve this materialization through a forcible reiteration of those norms. That this reiteration is necessary is a sign that materialization is never quite complete, that bodies never quite comply with the norms by which their materialization is impelled. Indeed, it is the instabilities, the possibilities for rematerialization, opened up by this process that make one domain in which the force of the regulatory law can be turned against itself to spawn rearticulations that call into question the hegemonic force of that very regulatory law.’
Her essential argument, that ‘sex’ (in scare quotes) is performative and fostered on people through norms, is empirically, scientifically untrue. Obscurity is the point – and it has succeeded.
If you had turned up in a popular scientific journal in 1993 and said in clear, precise English that ‘sex’ is a product of ‘regulatory norms’ you’d have been treated as a crank, but by using the esoteric mystery cult language of postmodern feminism, Butler’s ideas have been hugely influential in our attitudes to “‘sex’”. This is only possible because they were first articulated in obscure language until, having received enough support from intellectuals, they can then be disseminated among the wider university-educated class, who often just mimic ideas that carry status and the signal of education. By the time the idea is being debated among the general population, it has too much prestige to oppose.
‘There was a strategy behind Lenin’s aggressively tedious prose,’ he writes. ‘The tsarist censors had form when it came to underestimating the impact of very long, boring works on economics…. By adopting a similarly jargon-laden scholarly approach as Marx, Lenin would get his own interminable “respectable” work of theory into print legacy.’ It is generally agreed that Stalin was a much better writer than Lenin, by some accounts quite talented, although he sadly stopped his poetry to focus full-time on mass murder. Which goes to show, at least, that being a good writer doesn’t make you a good person.