The Best of Bad Writing

Paula Simons, National Post, Jan. 28, 1999.

Every year, the scholarly journal Philosophy and Literature, based in New Zealand, holds an international Bad Writing Contest. Its aim? To ridicule the worst excesses of academic writing. Entries must be real examples from academic books and journals. The judges recently announced their prizes for 1998. And the results are as funny as they are lamentable.

The winner was Judith Butler, a professor of rhetoric and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley, whose [sic!] been described as "one of the 10 smartest people on the planet." Here's her "prize-winning" sentence, from an article published in the scholarly journal Diacritics:

"The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relationships 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."
Which means, I guess, that class systems are based, not just on money, but on differences in political power and social status. Since I'm not one of the 10 smartest people on the planet, I'm not sure.

Second prize went to Homi K. Bhabha, professor of English at the University of Chicago, for this sentence from his book The Location of Culture:

"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 classification 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."

Why do so many academics write such gobbledegook? In part, it's snobbery. By writing in a complex language only specialists can understand, they exclude the rest of us. Some of it is mental laziness. These writers haven't worked their own ideas through, but by dressing up weak arguments in bombast and scholarly jargon, they hide the fact that they don't know what they mean, either.

Then there's the current fashion in literary theory, inspired by French intellectuals like Barthes and Foucault. Stripped of bafflegab, their ideas are simple enough. You can't really understand a novel, a painting, a film, or a history text, unless you take into account the social and political context in which it was created. You can't just look at rhyme scheme or brush technique. You have to ask how sex, culture, money, power and ideology have influenced, both the artist's work, and your own reaction to it.

True. No one writes, or reads, in a cultural vacuum. But many academics have become so obsessed with cultural analysis, they've stopped writing about, or teaching about, the culture itself. Here's part of the description of a course in Canadian literary history, offered this past fall by the University of Alberta:

"We will interrogate the production of 'society' out of a non-totalized set of archival fragments or 'ruins,' and we will ask how the writing of history sets hegemonic discourses into opposition with counter-discourses."
Typically, this course in Canadian literary history doesn't demand that its students actually read any. "Foucault's Archeology will likely be the only book we will read in full, though everyone is encouraged to browse as widely as possible," reads the course guide. The reading list also includes The Location of Culture, by none other than Homi K. Bhabha, silver-medallist in this year's Bad Writing Contest. As it turns out, the course was cancelled. Maybe no one could figure out what it was about?
Paula Simons is a member of The Edmonton Journal's editorial board.
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