You probably remember when Arts & Letters Daily, an excellent weblog in its own right and the source of most of my links, back when I linked things, was holding those Bad Writing Contests for terrible writing in the academic realm. In 1998, its last year, the first- and second-place winners of its last year were, respectively, our own Judith Butler and Chicago's Homi K. Bhabha. The academy wrote some angry letters about this kind of thing, but what you may not know is that last year they actually came out with a book in response: Just Being Difficult?: Academic Writing in the Public Arena, brought to you by the good people at Stanford University Press. The journal Philosophy and Literature at Johns Hopkins, which sponsored the original contest, has gamely reviewed the book; this last article has been making the rounds at the department this week.
The terrible thing is that the book appears only to confirm all the misgivings about academic writing that prompted the award in the first place. It confronts a jokey Internet gimmick with monumental humorlessness and self-importance; it pretends to offer discussion and debate but actually toes a rigid ideological line; and under the pretense of stepping back, questioning assumptions and opening new avenues of thought, it simply airs its own prejudices. Obviously some theorists are worried about encroaching irrelevance, but you do not combat a charge of bad writing by pretending to interrogate the assumptions behind the idea of "bad writing." You do it by writing well.
The most damning part in the whole article is the excerpted beginning of Butler's statement of purpose for an MLA council: two sentences, two subject-verb disagreements. It's one thing to deform language in interesting ways for particular purposes; one of the loveliest things about written language is its pliability, and even if people like Lacan and Derrida intermittently drive me up the wall, they wouldn't be half so interesting if they didn't write as they did. But when you can't even put together a simple professional statement on the order of an average business letter without screwing up your grammar, it demonstrates that the standards by which your work is judged bear no relation to those of everyday writing. The theorists might as well be on the moon.
This would be all right if it weren't for the preponderance of armchair radicals insisting that their work is somehow helping to bring about social justice. It's a weird historical accident that literary criticism has gotten embroiled with leftist politics, and now for some reason we're all supposed to pretend that cultural theory can feed the hungry and stop women from being battered and keep monomaniacal administrations from starting pointless wars. Now and then you see genuine and brave attempts to cross the bridge into actual societyI've mentioned before my admiration for Edward Said. In the developing world, too, intellectuals aren't so cloisteredMario Vargas Llosa can run for president of Peru, which maybe wasn't the best idea, but at least it's actual engagement. Around here there's a lot of pallid wanking.
I should note there's also plenty of good scholarship being done, and that the demise of the humanities is not imminent: see the Good Writing Contest here for instant. That's constructive. I don't have anything constructive, other than the (vague, personal, very minor) hope that my distaste for jargon will keep me from writing things with these particular failings. There are an infinite number of other ways that it could go wrong. It seems to be a dark month for everyone around here. All I really want is four months of peace so I can finish my novel and determine whether it has worththus determining, by implication, whether my life has worthbecause armed with this knowledge I could make some decisions. As it is, all I do is eat tofu and kvetch.