Tuesday, 18 January 2011


Or, Keep It Simple, Stupid.

I'm talking about academic writing. There's a fetish for overlong sentences stuffed with elaborate, multisyllabic verbiage, designed as a performance of academic skills, rather than as a vehicle for them. Take, for instance, Judith Butler's Gender Trouble, a ground-breaking work which (ironically) breaks down the gender binaries by exposing gender as a constant and stressful performance. 

In the introduction to the 1999 edition, she actually has to defend herself against accusations of incomprehensibility by explaining that her ideas are so radical that standard grammar and English are inadequate for her purposes. Which is nonsense. Judith thinks that she's the profoundest thinker on the planet, and that being impenetrable demonstrates that. 

I'm not saying that complex ideas don't demand complex and subtle expression - but plenty of academics revel in a learned style which privileges over-complication. It's even worse when students try to do it - they can't, because it takes years of being institutionalised. It's very helpful though: when a student uses a word like 'soteriological', my plagiarism klaxons go off very loudly indeed. 

Some academics have had some fun with this: there's the Gunning Fog Index of complexity, and Oppenheimer wrote a fine journal article on Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems With Using Long Words Needlessly. Oppenheimer got his reward and offered some wise advice:

For this he was awarded the 2006 Ig Nobel Prize in literature. At the Ig Nobel ceremony Oppenheimer gave what may be a perfect acceptance speech. Here it is in its entirety: "My research shows that conciseness is interpreted as intelligence. So, thank you".

Academically, I have the opposite problem: finding time to write anything substantial. Luckily, I'm not alone: this is an amazing (and witty) paper on the topic. Click that link or click to enlarge the complete version below: it's brilliant. 


ed said...

Bhabha always gets me. Even the 'Introductions' to his work read like white noise. Exciting when you get the hang of what he's saying, but otherwise horrible.

'Gender Trouble', however, I kinda love. Granted, she could of cut down the jargon, but it would have been a much longer book if she had. And in her defence, she's not exactly writing for a mass-audience, is she? Maybe that smacks of elitism, I'm not sure. I'm just sceptical of those who attack critical theory for being 'impenetrable'. At worse, it can lead to Richard Dawkins dismissing Postmodernism altogether because he doesn't like its grammar: http://richarddawkins.net/articles/824-postmodernism-disrobed

The Plashing Vole said...

Totally agree about Bhabha: great mind, not such a great communicator. I also really rate Butler, and drew on her work heavily for my PhD, but I still think that she lacks fundamental communication and literacy skills. It's true that she's writing for a highly specialised audience, but that doesn't mean she or anyone else shouldn't aim for concision as well as precision. I'd recommend Habermas (in either language) as a great writer as well as theorist.

Thanks for the Dawkins article. The problem with scientists against postmodernism is that someone's told them that pomo is 'against' science, so they knock down an argument that doesn't exist.

Ewarwoowar said...

Ah, now that piece is interesting. It seems to me to perhaps be the basis of a thing I heard years ago and never knew if it was true or not.

In a philosophy exam, the question was 'define bravery'. One student wrote "this" and then submitted it and walked out.

Probably fake but it's a good tale!

The Plashing Vole said...

It's possible true. The entrance exam for the post-grad only All Souls College tends to consist of questions like that and I could envisage someone responding in that vein. But a grumpy marker could say it was a glib and superficial response.

I hope it is true.

Zoot Horn said...

Good story!
But let’s stifle it with a load of pedantic waffle.
Regarding Butler’s defence of her prose… Fredric Jameson’s style in The Political Unconscious (1981) also came under some attack for its opacity, and William Dowling in Jameson Althusser Marx (1984) made a prophetically Butlerian defence of Jameson via Derrida: “Derrida cannot just ‘come out and say what he means’ because the whole ethic of coming out and saying what you mean is based on the referential notion of language whose essential and monumental falsity Derrida is trying to expose”. That the purportedly transparent, limpid style of dominant ideologies is something that Jameson’s writing in itself subverts is essentially Dowling’s point. This ‘enactment’ of conceptual disruption that some theorists try to produce through their writing is fine by me. However. Having taught this stuff for longer than I care to recall, I can say with some authority that most humans find such writing either intimidating, boring or, what’s kind of worse, unusable. The ideas contained within such writings are, despite appearances, usually, exciting, thought-provoking, challenging and eminently useful. So, what I try to do is dig the ideas out, present them in an understandable and usable form, and then send the interested parties back to the originals. In theory it works! (in practice nobody goes back to the originals). So, to summarise. Some things have to be said in the way they are said in order to emerge from the unsayable. Here’s one of my favourites from Jacques the lad:
“Now if différance is what makes possible the presentation of the being-present, it is never presented as such. It is never offered to the present... it exceeds the order of truth at a certain precise point, but without dissimulating itself as something, as a mysterious being... Already we have had to delineate that différance is not, does not exist, is not a present-being in any form... it has neither existence nor essence...”
(Jacques Derrida, ‘Différance’, from Margins of Philosophy)
How else are you gonna say that?
However, I will now appeal to that most sober and lucid of philosophers, er… Nietzsche (ahem), who kind of sums up my own approach to theory when he writes in Ecce Homo of “...a spirit who plays naively—that is, not deliberately but from overflowing power and abundance—with all that was hitherto called holy, good, untouchable, divine…” In other words, be playful with serious things. Don’t be afraid to take ideas out and juggle with them. Just because they’re hard to extract doesn’t mean they’re sacrosanct or particularly difficult to understand and use.

The Plashing Vole said...

Agreed: if we've learned anything from 20thC literary criticism and linguistics, it's that meaning i always deferred and that the 'play' of language is what's important and fascinating. But there is a danger of slipping down the rabbit hole. How, for example, could Derrida bear to use words to explain how words could never bear meaning? And trying to explain what he meant involves subverting what he said.

I shall come back to this discussion in a while, after I've read Anti-Oedipus (Deleuze and Guattari).

Is there anything you haven't read, Zoot?

Zoot Horn said...

Did you see that Horizon - 'What is Reality' or summat last night? It was about sub-atomic physics and we might be holograms and if we understand it then we don't. It's all beyond language, although it's not beyond maths because maths might BE the structure of the universe and we didn't invent maths we uncovered it when we asked the universe what it was. What did Dawkins say about postmodernism again?
Anti-Oedipus did my brain in, but I read it! A Thousand Plateaus is more fun I reckon.

The Plashing Vole said...

I didn't see the show, but I'm familiar with the concept: if we could run a universe-modelling program that's perfect down to the smallest detail, then it's logically the case that we're simply simulations in a simulation already, and we'd never know. Would it matter? Ken MacLeod's latest novel, The Restoration Game, uses this as the basis for the plot.

Zoot Horn said...

Oooh. If that is the case, then can we run a simulation of this week at a slightly faster speed, pop through a worm hole and pick up my completed marking? Or better still, my pension...