Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Bad Writing and Bad Thinking

Judith Butler--one of "cultural studies"'s many dim luminaries--won Philosophy and Literature's lamentably defunct Bad Writing Contest back in '98 with the following sentence:
The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations 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.
Ye gods. This is actually about par for that I'm wondering how this sentence beat out all its (un)worthy competitors...

The thing about P&L's contest, though, was that it was never really about bad writing--not entirely, anyway. It was about bad thinking, and about bullshitting as scholarly method.

And that's the real problem with cultural studies and its kindred '-ism's. That cluster of academic dross is defined more by its method than by its subject matter--and its method is something like free associative, self-absorbed quasi-literary interpretation. Sure, the writing is bad--but bad writing can sometimes reveal interesting thoughts. The problem here is that, if you take the time to dig down through the bullshit, all you find is more bullshit. The scientist observes, formulates a hypothesis, then bounces that hypothesis off of the facts to see whether it accurately represents a real tendency in the world. The literary critic formulates an interpretation, and then shows that he can spin all the rest of the data in a way that is consistent with his interpretation. As a friend of mine was recently pointing out to me, this is a test of the interpreter's cleverness, not any actual test of the hypothesis.

There's just no there there...or damned little of it, anyway.

Few positions of this kind catch on if there's absolutely nothing to them at all, and this crap isn't entirely devoid of ideas. Push them on it, and these folks can sometimes produce intelligible sentences about their topics, some proper subset of which actually have a shot at being true. But (a) the truth-to-bullshit ratio is way too low to make this vein intellectually profitable to mine, and (b) serious thinkers try to make their thoughts easier to understand, not more difficult.

To understand what's going on here, it is crucial to understand the following: folks in this sector do not value clarity of expression. Their goal is not to state their ideas clearly. Rather, their goal is to produce writing that has a certain ring to it--it must sound difficult and obscure...but that's not enough. Read enough of it and you realize that, not only are they all trying hard to sound deep and smart, but they are all trying hard to sound like each other in more subtle ways, too. Go read a mess of it and test my claim; I'll be happy to admit it if I'm wrong.

What you get in this sad, intellectually bankrupt sector of the humanities is a bunch of way-less-than-first-rate intellects all gripped by a tangle of way-less-than-first-rate problems and addressing them with way-less-than-first-rate theories. The result is an intellectual swamp that, among other things, sucks in poor, unwary undergraduates and fills their heads with ideas that are worse than nothing at all--theories and conclusions and methods of inquiry that actually make them dumber, less capable of clear thought. Some of them then go on to grad school and eventually wander out of the swamp, zombie like, uttering nonsense with confidence so complete that it borders on contempt. They wander on out into teaching positions from which they infect another generation of undergraduates with the nonsense virus.

The actual intellectual core of all this, such as it is, is thin and implausible gruel indeed. Perhaps the most favored move is to launch ad hominems at any opponent who questions your general theoretical orientation--anyone who disagrees with your theory must be a racist, or a sexist, or a homophobe, or and "ablist" or some other terrible thing. Surround this with some vague, hand-wavy references to other inscrutable second- or third-rate intellects (Adorno, Foucault, whoever), pluralize every noun and verb (there is, e.g., no knowledge, but there are "knowledges", apparently), make sure your sentences are so rambling and godawful that by the end the reader has lost track of the beginning, and you're ready to bullshit your way to tenure! Congratulations--you are a sophist.

This sort of thing survives in part because people who encounter it casually are inclined to think something like "hey, it sounds pretty hard; for all I know, there are interesting ideas there." Few take the time to dig in far enough to recognize its extremely low truth-to-BS ratio. Furthermore, since leftist politics are at the core of it all, and since the right loathes it, many liberals mistakenly conclude that they ought to defend it, not realizing that the politics buried in it are illiberal indeed.

It's not clear whether this crap will eventually be crushed under the weight of its own ponderous prose, or whether, instead, it's reached a kind of critical mass that will allow it to be self-sustaining. I worry that it's the latter. Critical theory, cultural studies, postmodernism and the rest of this mess provide a fast and easy way to sound profound. Get a feel for the lingo, say the right kinds of things, and you can suddenly be treated as an intellectual. You needn't actually learn anything difficult; just get the cant down pat. It's not about clearly formulating ideas or carefully analyzing arguments--it's about using the right words and free association. Just make sure your claims are lefty enough and that you never, ever suggest that anything is real rather than "socially constructed," and you can be treated like one of the big boys without doing any of that dreary book learnin'.

Well, there it is. I've got no punchy ending.


Anonymous Kevin Cassidy said...

There's funny irony in not having a punchy ending about bad writing. If intentional, very well done.

11:01 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Heh heh...that's more like crankiness and stubborn refusal to play the game than it is cleverness, I'm afraid...

11:31 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The article I have been looking for!
Sadly, this stuff is on my current syllabus and I cannot for the life of me understand how both professors and students can all be so obtuse as to not even question an idea that is presented to them.
I finally lost it at, "If you think you don't like theoretical concepts you just havent found the right one yet." Never mind that this is completely unscientific because unfalsifiable, it is also very far removed from liberal open-minded thinking.
When I talked to my very impressed colleagues after a lecture on Butler I mentioned that I found it all rather one-sided and limiting. Their response was, "well yes, but it should be because she's right."
And this from university students...

9:19 PM  
Blogger Unknown said...

Wonderful Article. Concise summary of the BS we're witnessing in academia. When it comes to clarity of communication, the way I see it is if I can't grasp the thrust of the sentence after a few reads, I move on. If I am able to grasp Kant, Nietzsche and Leibniz, then I should be able to grasp these feminists without much difficulty. That I occasionally can't says more about their ability (or lack thereof) to express ideas clearly and tendency to create a word soup of erudite terms they barely understand.

9:57 AM  

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