Thursday, October 3, 2013

Academics don't write that badly.

Randall Munroe, xkcd ("Impostor")

A certain kind of person likes complaining loudly about the prose of tenured professors, especially in the humanities and social sciences. It's indigestible gobbledygook masking a latent charlatanism! they cry. The 1986 Sokal hoax—in which physicist Alan Sokal submitted a preposterously fake article to the journal Social Text, which was subsequently published—is a favorite "proof" of many things, but especially the stereotype that academics and their disciples venerate whatever crap they can't understand. Ross Douthat, currently a New York Times columnist, wrote an article for the Atlantic in 2005 about his time at Harvard, complaining that he was taught merely to excel at sophistry, nothing more. A slew of novelists—Kingsley Amis, A.S. Byatt, Don DeLillo, Zadie Smith, and Jeffrey Eugenides among them—have loved lampooning academic shop talk in their books. Critics point to the Postmodern Essay Generator, which algorithmically generates nonsense that sounds a bit like lit-theory. (Never mind that anyone with half a brain can call it out within two sentences.) Denis Dutton's "Bad Writing Contest" indicted Judith Butler and Homi Bhabha (favorite targets) for the crime of high puffery when they were still relatively young.

And on and on in a widening gyre. Most recently, there was a Prospect blog post called "Why academics can't write" that took up this strain. The post itself was a lot more nuanced than the title. But the problem is that the title itself is a surefire way to attract the attention of people who love griping about how the academy protects and fosters fakery; how we should throw the entire enterprise overboard; how professors should just write in a common-sense, unpretentious way that anyone can understand. They equate wordiness with untruth.

But this viewpoint is what's nonsense. Sure, some academics are bad writers. But some academics are also bad teachers, just as some football coaches are bad linemen. Saying that most academics write nonsense based on a few egregiously bad examples is not sufficient evidence to prove that the whole profession writes that way. Anyone who claims that should be forced to take more statistics classes.

I can think of just as many academics who are or were graceful, elegant writers, and a few who may even be outright prose masters: Ernst Robert Curtius, Erich Auerbach, Lionel Trilling, Isaiah Berlin, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Bernard Williams, Helen Vendler, Colin Macleod, Marjorie Perloff, Philippa Foot, E.P. Thompson, Quentin Skinner, Richard Hofstadter, Christine Korsgaard, Stephen Jay Gould, Alan Ryan, Martha Nussbaum, Carl Schorske, Jonathan Rose, Louis Menand, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Linda Colley, Andrew Delbanco, Jill Lepore, Hermione Lee, Mary Beard, Steven Pinker, D.A. Miller, and Nicholas Dames—and those are just the people I can think of off the top of my head. All professors, and every single one of them is/was a good writer. Indeed, by this measure, some of our best writers are academics.

Someone will doubtlessly think that these are the exceptions that prove the rule that universities are stuffed with jargon-addled mediocrities. But this is hardly the case. Throughout my entire college education, clarity and even elegance were held up as cardinal virtues for prose writing. And I suspect that was also true for most of the professors I just named. Even if obscurantism was once encouraged, the current trend in higher education pushes away from that. No one wants to land on the latter-day equivalent of Dutton's list.

I think the modern stereotype of the incomprehensible professor dates back mainly to the heyday of Marxist and structuralist thought, whose stylistic excesses sometimes masked (or even resulted in) self-contradiction. But even professors that might get tarred as falling victim to this tendency could sometimes be elegant stylists. Marjorie Garber and Rosalind Krauss are, each in their own ways, excellent writers when at their best. (Skeptics should read Garber's fantastic essay on the NFL in Symptoms of Culture and Krauss's beautiful article "Tracing Nadar.") Roland Barthes, in his later years, wrote in a powerful and moving way:
For me the noise of Time is not sad: I love bells, clocks, watches — and I recall that at first photographic implements were related to techniques of cabinetmaking and the machinery of precision: cameras, in short, were clocks for seeing, and perhaps in me someone very old still hears in the photographic mechanism the living sound of the wood. (Camera Lucida)
This is no more difficult to read than Proust or Mann or Nabokov, and a good deal less so than Hawthorne or Faulkner. Cardinal literary theorists could have their beautiful moments, too. The Russian formalist Mikhail Bakhtin always comes to my mind:
"Laughter has the remarkable power of making an object come up close, of drawing it into a zone of crude contact where one can finger it familiarly on all sides, turn it upside down, inside out, peer at it from above and below, break open its external shell, look into its center, doubt it, take it apart, dismember it, lay it bare and expose it, examine it freely and experiment with it. Laughter demolishes fear and piety before an object, before a world, making of it an object of familiar contact and thus clearing the ground for an absolutely free investigation of it. Laughter is a vital factor in laying down that prerequisite for fearlessness without which it would be impossible to approach the world realistically."—"Epic and Novel" in The Dialogic Imagination
And I think those who mock the most jargon-laden English professors underestimate their control of the language. The truly incompetent who have no choice but to speak in "-isms" are few in number. Those who cite Homi Bhabha's most tangled sentences probably don't realize that he's a serene, warm personal essayist. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar move smoothly between "speaking theory" and not. When Gubar writes a sentence like, "Aestheticism—far from being an elitist retreat—is an anodyne to anaesthetization, a defibrillator to the comatose," it's far more beautiful, even with the five- and six-syllable words floating around in there, than the exceedingly simple but often baffling style of the philosopher Derek Parfit. Anyone who has read Derrida and Wittgenstein side-by-side will be struck by how multi-clause verbosity can land you in a place very similar to severe asceticism.

Finally, a polysyllabic, technical style doesn't necessarily make one a bad writer or thinker. Those who decry Gayatri Spivak, Jacques Derrida, or Fredric Jameson for their verbal contortions would do well to remember that complicatedness, even when unnecessary, does not necessarily mask lies—nor is simplicity a guarantee of truth. Political advertising consultants have to speak to the masses in monosyllables; so did the totalitarian propagandists of the twentieth century—and they are/were no closer to the truth for it. Sometimes the aesthetic imagination compels a writer to harsh sentences; sometimes the truth demands a little awkwardness. Who are we to say that truth always walks about well-dressed? 

1 comment:

  1. I have often derided the Emperor's New Clothes effect that happens in undergraduate and graduate seminars when theory is under discussion. There is a real problem with mistaking obscurity for cleverness in certain humanities departments, particularly among advanced undergrads or grad students who are insecure and eager to prove themselves. And I'm not really convinced that certain theorists really need all the jargon they call upon, though anyone who's upset about that (myself included) should probably go check out latest papers in biochemistry and see whether they even understand the titles. In my understanding of college science courses, though, it seems as if there's more of a gradual working-up to the difficult jargon, and fewer instances in which it's deployed more as a status symbol than because it serves a purpose.

    I note, though, that the critics of academic jargon you cited are largely highly-educated themselves. Like Matt Yglesias's post yesterday accusing Ted Cruz of Ivy League elitism, complaining about academic jargon can be a kind of juvenile way of distancing yourself from the highly-educated elite out of a certain kind of embarrassment. It's a bit ridiculous, though: I think it's more productive to own up to your education and try to do something valuable with it.