February 27, 1999

When Ideas Get Lost in Bad Writing


Ridiculing academic writing is becoming commonplace these days.

Cynthia Howe for The New York Times
Homi Bhabha at home in Hyde Park., Ill.

The journal Philosophy and Literature has taken to holding an annual Bad Writing Contest, with prizes going to some of the country's top scholars. Now there's even an Internet site that automatically creates a "post-modern" essay, replete with bloated jargon and incomprehensible sentence structure, every time someone logs onto it (

"If one examines a post-dialectic conceptualist theory, one is faced with a choice: either reject post-dialectic conceptualist theory or conclude that culture is capable of truth," was a recent creation.

Yet the debate has taken a new twist recently with a decision by Edward Said, the new president of the Modern Language Association, to use his first official column in the association's newsletter to denounce bad writing. In an essay on how science is growing at the expense of the humanities, he accused literature departments of fostering incomprehensible writing and factionalism, resulting even more in their "diminishment and incoherence."

It wasn't just Said's position as head of the largest and most influential organization of literary scholars that caught people's attention, however: Said himself is a progenitor of a new kind of literary and cultural criticism that has frequently used difficult language.

One of the country's most prominent literary critics, Said concedes that his own writing hasn't always been easily accessible, but he said in an interview: "I moved away from that kind of thing many years ago, because I feel myself that it's terribly important as an intellectual to communicate as immediately and forcefully as possible.

"At some point critics and writers become parodies of themselves."

In 1996, Alan Sokal, a New York University physicist, tricked the journal "Social Text" into publishing his parody of academic writing, filled with nonsensical words and gibberish, as a serious article.

The argument over bad writing is more than a schoolyard spat. It is at the heart of the continuing "culture wars," feeding conservative attacks on the abandonment of traditional standards and subjects at universities. What's more, it raises questions about the purpose of scholarship. What is the goal of literary and cultural criticism? Who should the nation's educated elite be talking to? Are scholars increasingly making themselves irrelevant?

The debate has energetic advocates on both sides.

In last week's issue of The New Republic, Martha Nussbaum, a professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago, wrote a long attack on Judith Butler, a Berkeley professor and influential feminist theorist, for "ponderous and obscure" writing.

Ms. Butler won first prize in this year's Bad Writing Contest with an essay that said: "The insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony." Ms. Butler's writing, Ms. Nussbaum charged, resorts to mystification in an effort to create "an aura of importance."

Eddie Yyeghiayan
Judith Butler during a break at a lecture. 

"It is difficult to come to grips with Butler's ideas, because it is difficult to figure out what they are," Ms. Nussbaum writes. "Hungry women are not fed by this, battered women are not sheltered by it, raped women do not find justice in it, gays and lesbians do not achieve legal protections through it."

Ms. Butler declined comment.

But Jonathan Culler, a Cornell professor who edits the magazine Diacritics, the original publisher of the "winning" essay by Ms. Butler, said of the contest that it was "bad faith" to pick out a few sentences of a larger work and ridicule them.

Joan Scott, a professor of social science at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, offered a more aggressive defense. When a scholar uses difficult language, he or she is "not pretending to be a journalist" or to be writing for the general public, Ms. Scott said. She argues that the attack on academic writing is "a kind of anti-intellectualism that is everywhere in the culture, a demand for things they already agree with."

Despite his recent criticisms, Said clearly has a soft spot for the writing of some of his colleagues. He too said that difficult writing was sometimes necessary in scholarly work. For example, Said said that Fredric Jameson, a Duke professor who uses Marxist theory to study post-modernism and is a two-time winner of the Bad Writing Contest, was "in his way a poet" whose writing, though difficult, has a cumulative brilliance. When scholars explore new areas, Said explained, they sometimes use language in new ways "about which there is no consensus." He added that there was similarly no consensus about the subjects they study either.

Homi Bhabha, a University of Chicago English professor who works on the culture of post-colonial societies, is an example, Said said. Although he called Bhabha an admired and gifted friend, he did say: "Writers like Bhabha are looking for the occasion to work out ideas. There's something unfinished about it."

Bhabha won second place in this year's Bad Writing Contest with an essay that included the words: "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."

He responded to winning the bad writing prize with what his critics might say was uncharacteristic brevity: "I'm trying not to write bad sentences, particularly not ones that will be read in New Zealand," the home of Denis Dutton, the editor of the journal that sponsors the contest.

Just why is there is so much of what some call "bad" or what others call "demanding" writing?

Ms. Nussbaum says scholars are sometimes encouraged to write in obscure language. "Graduate students in analytic philosophy often get the message that if you write in a way that is accessible to nonspecialists, it means you are going to hurt your career," she said.

Ralph Hexter, dean of humanities at the University of California at Berkeley, who has written on difficult language in classics scholarship, says that some scholarly language is the result of an effort to make literary and cultural criticism "a human science." He said, "A more scientific approach creates an expectation that there might be a scientific vocabulary."

"If you define good writing as clarity, limpidity," he said, "most of this will be by definition bad writing."

Both Hexter and Bhabha say that one reason academic writing is sometimes hard to understand is that the work of the new generation of scholars is heavily influenced by the Continental philosophers, Europeans like Sartre, Hegel and Jacques Derrida, who are practitioners of difficult language themselves. "The basic orientation of Anglo-American philosophy has been very empirical," said Bhabha, who was born in India and trained at Oxford University. But "South Asian and Continental traditions tend to be more metaphoric and symbolic in their use of language."

Contemporary scholars, he added, are also "interested in the process of language itself," that is, in the way in which words and sentence structure can distort meaning to fit ideological or political agendas.

The current debate is as much about politics as it is about language. Dense, difficult writing is most often associated with newer academic fields like cultural studies, women's studies and "queer theory." These fields often cast a critical eye on historical figures and received wisdoms, arguing that our understanding of the "truth" is really a function of who holds power at the moment.

Hexter says that an approach that opens Western values and history to attack is discomfiting to many people. "One side of the culture wars thinks we should read texts that ennoble us and show the strength of our civilization," Hexter said. As Ms. Scott in Princeton argues, "Things that are disturbing or critical or self-reflective are targets."

Conservative critics like Sanford Pinsker, editor of Academic Questions, the journal of the National Association of Scholars, said that the subjects being studied by the post-modernists "are hardly new."

"People used to discuss their disagreements in plain English," he said. But now "you set up a whole new world of language and these people say they're king or queen of it."

That's why Pinsker insists the bad writing contest is "a lot tougher than the Oscars," adding, "There are just so many wonderful contributions by people with tin ears for the sound of language and no capacity for clarity of thinking."

Making fun of academic writing is part of a long tradition. As Hexter noted, none other than Socrates himself was attacked for the difficulty of his ideas. Even Aristophanes, in "The Clouds," Hexter said, "mocks Socrates for his technical language."

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