Bad language

by Henry Farrell on October 29, 2003

Thanks to “Jeffrey Atkinson”: for pointing me to the Chronicle’s recent “review”: of a collection of essays in defense of bad academic writing in the humanities. Or, more precisely,

bq. exposing to interrogation the history, conventions, and assumptions underlying the designation ‘bad writing’ and its almost inarguable efficacy [as a rhetorical weapon].

Which is almost admirable in its silliness; a Foucauldian genealogy of the “discourse” of bad writing. Carlin Romano, the reviewer, has a lot of fun in teasing the book’s authors for their pretensions (and, in some cases, awful writing), while acknowledging that a couple of the essays aren’t bad. I haven’t read the book, nor do I know much about the feud that occasioned it, so I’ll try to be nice. But it’s hard. As presented by Romano, the book sounds like a sham. It trots out the usual defence; that bad writing in the humanities and cultural studies isn’t _bad_ writing, it’s just _difficult_ writing. Writing that challenges commonsensical notions, a la Gramsci and Adorno. Stuff and nonsense, I say.

I’m writing this as someone who’s reasonably sympathetic to the agendas of both cultural studies and modern literary theory. There is real intellectual value to the careful unpacking and teasing out of the unspoken assumptions behind this or that novel, or cultural form. Intellectual genealogies have value, and when they’re done well, they’re wonderful. But they rarely, if ever, require the sorts of vaporous argument and shoddy reasoning (or more precisely, barbarous and tangled prose imperfectly masking the void where reasoning should be) which characterizes much literary criticism. Gramsci, for one, was remarkably precise and clear, as, for the most part was Adorno (at least when compared to his epigones). Walter Benjamin wrote dense – but entirely lucid – sentences and paragraphs. And some latter-day cultural studies types are similarly able to write extraordinarily well without, it appears to me, losing any intellectual force. One may not agree with Edward Said on the facts – but his prose is compelling precisely because of its vigor and clarity. James Davidson’s _Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens_, is one of the best histories of recent years, but is in part a Foucauldian deconstruction of Foucault’s own theories of society in classical Greece. Sounds unpromising – but it’s written for the most part in clear, even lovely, English, and is all the more powerful for it.

Compare Said and Davidson with, say, Homi Bhabha. I once spent three days struggling with Bhabha’s influential essay, “DissemiNation: Time, narrative and the margins of the modern nation.” There isn’t a “there” there. Bhabha’s essay uses page after page of tortured and convoluted language to express maybe three, partially contradictory, paragraphs’ worth of ideas. The “difficulty” of his language doesn’t reflect theoretical sophistication; it reflects Bhabha’s addiction to jargon, his muddy thinking, and his intellectual confusion. Fredric Jameson is a little bit better (anyone who likes Philip K. Dick can’t be all bad), but again, uses jargonistic and arid prose to express at length what could be argued, with no loss of meaning that I can discern, at much shorter length, in much plainer language. I believe that the technical term is “bullshit baffles brains.”

The problem with much literary theory isn’t that it’s overly complex (complexity has its merits). It’s that it’s “bad theory”: Not only that, but it’s bad theory tarted up in obscure and pretentious language. God knows, I disagree with “Erin O’Connor”: about many things, but I suspect that I’d be far more inclined towards a disgruntled theoretical conservatism if I were an academic in the humanities. Social scientists have their own awkwardnesses of prose, but they’re more likely to fall victim to dull repetitiveness and lack of verbal imagination, than to high-octane babbling. A venial sin, I’d contend, when you look at some of the possible alternatives.



Dan 10.29.03 at 8:06 am

And yet, bad writing leads to greatness! I am thoroughly convinced that we study Hegel and Kant today–with far more passion than, say, Neiztche and Marx–because everyone knew what Neiztche and Marx were getting at. In order to find mystery in Marx, you need his commentators, his followers, and so; no one has questions about what Neiztche meant.

But take a good German physicist or two, let them think they can do philosophy, let them write well-nigh incomprehensible essays–ah, that’s the stuff to make an undergard pop sleeping pills, to make a German sit there with a translation out of their native language, and to draft a tenure case on.


chun the unavoidable 10.29.03 at 9:36 am

No one has any questions about what Nietzsche meant, eh?

I’m going to challenge Henry on Jameson (no argument for Honi for the time being) here and say that he can’t in fact adequately reduce any of his arguments in the manner he claims. I’m not certain this is a good thing, necessarily, but it is different than mere excessive jargon. Jameson writes in a self-consciously “dialectical” style, which involves a continual modification of the claims of his argument. Thus it’s not easily summarizable and not reducible–the negation of that reduction providing not the text or the data of that imaginative level: but instead presupposes a reconstruction of the negation to the horizon of the concept–a concept further elided by “prior knowledge”–of “authorial intent,” which requires the reader to sublimate his reinvested energy before the expressive determinacies and exigencies of form, properly figured and allegorized in the absent whole of what is, in the final analysis, only the negation of the negation.


Cosma 10.29.03 at 11:57 am

I’m not sure what boggles me more: the idea that Marx and Nietzsche are less widely and passionately studied than Hegel and Kant, or that the latter were “good German physicists”. I happily grant Kant the nebular hypothesis, but Hegel?

On Bhabha’s essay, Henry, you might enjoy Marjorie Perloff, “Cultural Liminality/ Aesthetic Closure: The ‘Interstitial Perspective’ of Homi Bhabha”, if only for the source-criticism.


Thomas Dent 10.29.03 at 1:03 pm

Nietzsche certainly isn’t clear. Not because of convolution or obfuscation, but because what he writes seems to be a commentary on his thoughts rather than an expression of them. In order to get somewhere near what he meant to mean you need to get inside his head. It’s more like a theatrical performance, except that you can’t hear the tone of voice. Nietzsche’s meaning depends vastly on the tone of voice: sincere vs. ironic vs. ironically sincere vs. … hence a vast range of (mis)interpretations.

I found James Davidson’s work on Greek manners intermittently readable: while he makes his arguments clearly, filleting Foucault with sushi chef-like precision, he uses the same example (a political speech) again and again in the second half of the book to illustrate marginally different aspects of society, which leads to a sense of deja vu, bogging down and scraping the barrel.


Timothy Burke 10.29.03 at 1:31 pm

The proposition that bad writing is merely difficult writing because the underlying ideas and concepts being explored are impossible to describe cleanly and commonsensically easily can be, as Henry says, shown to be false, because there are scholars who work with those ideas and concepts whose writing is measurably easier to follow and understand.

(This is not to say that there is nothing at all to this view: I think it’s a bit harder to talk about about meaning, being, selfhood and so on than it is to narrate what happened yesterday in a Congressional hearing. There *are* genuinely difficult problems out there whose complexity cannot be managed solely through rhetorical skill).

What is more complicated is the argument that Judith Butler has made from time to time, borrowing from Adorno, that to write commonsensically is to open up one’s writings to appropriation by the target of critique, and that “common sense” rhetoric actually intrinsically reproduces the governing logics and principles of the systems of thought and practice that some bodies of critical theory mean to repudiate.

I see the point (and it’s hard even to describe it in accessible language) but I passionately dissent from it. It’s wrong on multiple levels. In this respect, I’m with Orwell and Habermas: the point of writing is to communicate. And the point of communicating is to make sense, to achieve a connection, to work within a shared public sphere.


Jeremy Osner` 10.29.03 at 1:33 pm

I agree that Nietzsche is not clear — indeed that reeks of understatement — but I think it would be difficult to argue that he is not a great writer. I think the key thing that is lacking from the jargonistic academic essays under discussion is not (or not only) clarity but voice — they do not in my limited experience with them read as if they were written by an individual human author.


david 10.29.03 at 2:56 pm

Frederick Crews’ Postmodern Pooh can help you out with Bhabha; it’s also an extremely funny presentation of the argument that bad writing does not necessarily equal radically original thought. But I also think Jeremy’s right — it can’t just be clarity that makes for good writing, or Nietzsche’s out, and I don’t see Nietzsche being out as plausible.


Josh 10.29.03 at 3:05 pm

I’ll jump on the bandwagon, and also assert that 1) Nietzsche is a great writer, and much studied (indeed, when I was an undergrad, he was probably more read than Hegel, and possibly even more than Kant, by philosophy majors, and certainly more read than Hegel or Kant by non-philosophers); 2)That he’s also both maddeningly obscure at times (though his obscurity is more a matter of aphoristic or vividly dramatic, metaphorical prose, than of convolution and jargon), and the source of much controversy (just compare the readings of Nietzsche by, say, Walter Kaufmann, Maudemarie Clark, and any Straussian or Straussian-influenced writer, for starters); 3)Marx’s writing, while sometimes wonderfully clear and also dramatic, can also be terribly rebarbitive; he, also, is much studied — less in the US, where people tend to focus more on his epigones these days, than here in England, and there has hardly been a lack of controversy over his meaning; 4) A more important point, which I’m surprised people haven’t mentioned. All of the thinkers we’ve been discussing, as well as Adorno and Benjamin and Heidegger, were GERMAN speakers. They mostly wrote in German; and all were educated in a German literary and philosophical tradition. Their style, and their way of thinking, were therefore rather different from that of most anglophone thinkers. The German language tends towards greater convolution than English (or, if you prefer, allows for greater complexity. It also allows for greater abstraction; whether this means getting closer or further from the truth of things is an open question). English, on the other hand, allows for greater clarity (and this is why many German students read Kant and Hegel in English translation!)
Now, I admire all of these thinkers tremendously, and I think that we should take the trouble to try to figure out what they mean; and I think that the difficulty of their style really is tied to their way of thinking, and thus their insights.
But I think that it’s a very bad idea for theorists writing in English to pretend that they’re writing in German (or to pretend that they’re French speakers who are pretending to write in German, a la Derrida in his worst moments. Incidentally, while I’m on the subject, I think that one should also make a distinction between Foucault, who’s quite a good writer, and some of his American disciples who take on his jargon without his clarity). It seems to me that those who try to write English as if it were German produce a literary monstrosity, without achieving any great insights — though I may well be missing something.
Finally, I think one can be allowed a good deal of obscurity if one is, in fact, on the intellectual level of Kant or Hegel, or even Adorno. Still, to the extent that I have comprehended anything that Derrida, Butler, Jameson, and Bhabba, have written, I think that it’s ludicrous to claim that they are (this is not to say that they aren’t very intelligent and insightful, or have ideas which, if they could just communicate them better, would be illuminating; but I think it’s hard to dispute that their thought is just less rich and profound, and so doesn’t compel or repay one to take the same trouble in deciphering, as that of the greater thinkers we’ve been discussing)


chun the unavoidable 10.29.03 at 3:25 pm

I hope you’ve read Derrida in the original because claiming that a French prose style tries to emulate German based on the evidence of an English translation is just silly.


David W. 10.29.03 at 3:45 pm

I’m certain the object of Henry’s critique exists (although I don’t think Jameson is an appropriate target, or at least not the Postmodernism essay, which I always found quite clear). Let me also agree with the consensus that Neitzsche is A) a great writer, B) a very difficult (and often willfully unclear) writer, and C) those two truths are intimately intertwined.

As much as I’m not unsympathetic to Henry’s post, there is something about it that drives me crazy. It’s not that I necessarily think he’s wrong about Bhabha, but that he doesn’t see fit to really even say anything about why. I know the practice of blog writing doesn’t always lend itself to fully formed position papers, but I’d like to be at least pointed to what’s so wrong with Bhabha’s ideas. The practice of announcing by fiat that an emperor has no clothes commits the same sin as the bad writing you deride–your substantive point is mystified rather than clarified. The angry literary blogger you link to does the same thing with Critical Inquiry, and it’s just silly. Tell me what’s wrong! I can handle it!

Another point–you’re post implies, although you stop well short of actually asserting (for good reason) that good writing and good ideas go together, as do bad writing and a lack of ideas. This dichotomization of the writing scene makes your point a rather simple one, but I don’t think it covers all that we might encounter. There are plenty of examples of academic writing composed of unnecessarily difficult prose that reveals, after too much slogging and struggling, some pretty good insights. (for what it’s worth, I’d put Spivak in that category). There are good theorists with bad writing habits in which the clarity and exposition of the ideas is only minimally hampered by the bad writing (here I have Rawls in mind). In short, the writing/ideas quality connection isn’t as clear as it’s made out to be here.

I’d also say to the previous poster on the subject of the task of writing–yes, communication is the primary task of most writing, but it is certainly not the only one. Some excellent writing is geared toward evoking emotional responses, disorienting the reader, and perhaps even enraging the reader. It’s in the process of reflection on why that response took place that the impact of the writing becomes clear. When this is the agenda, crisp, as-clear-and-simple-as-possible writing in which claims are straightforwardly asserted doesn’t really serve the writer well.


Cosma 10.29.03 at 4:43 pm

The link to Perloff’s essay doesn’t seem to have come through; it’s I think David W. will find it does a fairly good job of explaining (some of) what’s wrong with Bhabha’s thoughts. Similarly, John Holbo hasn’t just taken pot-shots at Critical Inquiry; he’s written a (very nice) long essay on “The advantages and disadvantages of theory for life”, which you can find via his blog.


alkali 10.29.03 at 5:14 pm

I am generally sympathetic to the whole lit theory/cult studs project, but this business of defending Jameson, Bhabha, et al. on the basis of their agenda has got to go. Style is a result, not an intention. That I intended to write a meditative sonnet in the style of Donne is neither here nor there if the result is a five-line offering which includes two rhymes for “Nantucket.”

To wit: “Jameson writes in a self-consciously ‘dialectical’ style, which involves a continual modification of the claims of his argument.” Well, no, he doesn’t, not if I can’t understand what the sentences mean. For him to achieve this stylistic effect would require that I first understand his initial claims, and then that I understand that he is modifying them. If readers do not perceive the intended stylistic effect, then it is nonsense to say that the prose is written in that style.

I would add that it seems to happen with some frequency that writer X writes impenetrable work of prose Y and then goes around explaining on the down low to some favored friends and colleagues how to read Y so that it makes sense. That is not participating in academic scholarship, but an attempt at forming one’s own personal cult. This little scheme can be traced back to James Joyce’s pulling Stuart Gilbert aside in 1930 and explaining how to filter Ulysses to make it potable. I thought that was wicked cool as an undergraduate; now I just find it pompous and boring.


Janes_Kid 10.29.03 at 9:04 pm

When one, in IE, uses >view>text size>largest your page is unreadable.


chun the unavoidable 10.29.03 at 11:34 pm

I would suggest to alkali fats that he read the remainder of my comment, which I think goes a long way towards explaining Jameson’s method.


alkali 10.30.03 at 1:20 am

chun the unavoidable writes:

I would suggest to alkali fats that he read the remainder of my comment, which I think goes a long way towards explaining Jameson’s method.

(“fats”? Well, I suppose I could lose a few, but really … hey, wait, how do you know?)

In any event, the remainder of chun’s comment is reproduced below:

Thus [Jameson’s writing is] not easily summarizable and not reducible—the negation of that reduction providing not the text or the data of that imaginative level: but instead presupposes a reconstruction of the negation to the horizon of the concept—a concept further elided by “prior knowledge”—of “authorial intent,” which requires the reader to sublimate his reinvested energy before the expressive determinacies and exigencies of form, properly figured and allegorized in the absent whole of what is, in the final analysis, only the negation of the negation.

Two possibilities:

1. You’re having me on. If so, please confirm.

2. You actually think that sentence has meaning. If so, you are mistaken.


john c. halasz 10.30.03 at 2:24 am

Someone once asked Alfred North Whitehead why he didn’t write more clearly, and he answered, with perfectly British aplomb, that, if he thought more clearly, he would write more clearly. The only real justification for difficult writing, prescinding from aesthetic matters, is the difficulty of the thinking it labors to express. But if it is a matter of lining up the ducks of one’s pre-established ideological position, to signify one’s belonging to the “elect”, then it is a fraud.


Paul 10.30.03 at 1:15 pm

Akali, I could be wrong, but I read Chun’s first comment as a piss-take.


john c. halasz 10.30.03 at 10:27 pm

How about applying an efficiency test, an hermeneutical version of Occam’s razor: If the hermeneutical effort required to understand an explication is greater than that required to understand what is to be explicated…


thea 11.01.03 at 4:57 pm

In the same line – what about James Joyce and Ulysses or Finnegan’s Wake? I would argue that any work which requires a companion work that is larger than the original work is, perhaps, not really good writing.

But, I’m of the school that Joyce was waging a large practical joke upon the literary world to make just this point.

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