Bad Writing

Originally published in the Weekly Standard 4 (May 10, 1999): 36–39. Revised and reprinted in Theory’s Empire: An Anthology of Dissent, ed. Daphne Patai and Will H. Corral (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), pp. 354–59. Pagination below is from the revised version. © 2005. All rights reserved.  

Bad academic writing is nothing new. Back in 1912, the critic Brander Matthews damned the scholarship of his day for its “endless quotations and endless citations and endless references,” its “entangled” facts, its shameless taste for “interminable controversy over minor questions,” its careless assumption that every reader had an “acquaintance with the preceding stages of the discussion.”  

But though it still commits these faults more often than not, bad academic writing nowadays has become something worse than an aesthetic offense. Matthews may have been right to complain about his contemporaries’ neglect of style. Academic writing in our own time, however, exhibits a disregard, not merely for style, but for truth. Once upon a time, no matter how badly they wrote, scholars imagined that they were contributing to knowledge. But no longer. Much of the scholarship now published in the humanities—primarily in English and comparative literature, but increasingly in history, musicology, art history, and religious studies—has no other purpose than to confirm the scholar’s own status and authority. It is not a contribution to knowledge, but to political power.  

Consider, for example, Judith Butler. Every year since 1994 the journal Philosophy and Literature has held a Bad Writing Contest, asking its readers to submit “the ugliest, most stylistically awful” sentences they’ve found. And this year’s [1999] winning entry comes from Judith Butler, a full professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and author of five books including her widely quoted Gender Trouble (1990).  

Best known for this book’s idea that gender is a performance rather than the expression of a prior reality, Butler is on practically everybody’s short list of the most influential “theorists” now writing. She is routinely placed in the company of Friedrich Nietzsche, Martin Heidegger, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida. Here is her award-winning 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 [End of page 354] 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.[1]When Philosophy and Literature announced Butler’s victory on December 22, 1998, the story was carried in over forty newspapers and magazines. The New York Times, US News and World Report, the Chronicle of Higher Education, the Economist, the Chicago Tribune, the Times Literary Supplement, the Toronto Globe and Mail, and the Wall Street Journal all reported the contest, and National Public Radio broadcast a segment on it.  

And then, in the February 1999 issue of the New Republic, Martha Nussbaum demolished Butler’s pretensions as a thinker, calling her work sophistry rather than philosophy, a parody of original thought. Although trained as a philosopher at Yale, Butler is read and respectfully cited “more by people in literature than by philosophers,” leading to the question whether she “belongs to the philosophical tradition at all.” In its chic and willful obscurity, Butler’s writing is an example of “hip quietism,” Nussbaum concluded, which “collaborates with evil.”[2]  

The combination of popular press mockery and Nussbaum’s reproach was too much, and Butler took to the op-ed pages of the New York Times on March 20 [1999] to defend herself. Scorning Philosophy and Literature as “a small, culturally conservative academic journal,” she aligned herself with “scholars on the left” who focus on “sexuality, race, nationalism and the workings of capitalism.” Although she agreed that even leftist scholars “should be able to clarify how their work informs and illuminates everyday life,” Butler insisted that academic writing needed to be “difficult and demanding” (her words) in order to “question common sense”—the truths which are so self-evident that no one thinks to question them—and so to “provoke new ways of looking at a familiar world.”[3]  

If the only choice is between academic obscurity and the pseudo-clarity of “common sense,” who wouldn’t choose the former? But who said that's the only choice? In the limited range of options she offers us, Butler reveals much about the real politics behind bad academic writing.  

The notion that difficult and demanding styles of writing are politically revolutionary—and that “plain” writing is hidebound and reactionary—is not just dubious, but tiresomely familiar. A variation on Ezra Pound’s modernist credo Make It New, it has been offered by every pretender to artistic and philosophical originality this century. The desire to “question common sense” is merely the self-congratulation of someone whose “sense” is different, but no less “common.” Although Butler wishes to disrupt “the workings of capitalism,” the effect of her writing is exactly the opposite. Its effect is to safeguard the power and privilege of academic capitalists—among whom she is one of the great robber barons.[End of page 355]  

The ninety-word sample that won Philosophy and Literature’s Bad Writing Contest suggests as much. It is something more than the “ugly” and “stylistically awful sentence” demanded by the contest’s rules. What Butler’s writing actually expresses is simultaneously a contempt for her readers and an absolute dependence on their good opinion. The problem is not so much her lack of concern for clarity; it’s her lack of concern for clarification. If Butler took seriously her academic responsibility—her duty to teach—she would take pains to make herself clear. Her concern, though, is not to clarify a difficult subject but to justify her position in the front ranks. Hers is not writing to be read and understood; it is a display of verbal majesty, which is to inspire awe and respect. Its one purpose is to confirm Butler's authority as a leader of the academic left.  

At first blush, it seems remarkable that such writing finds any admirers. Warren Hedges, an English professor at Southern Oregon University, once declared that Butler is “one of the ten smartest people on the planet.” But such admiration breaks down when forced to confront academic writing simply as writing. The second-prize winner in that year’s Bad Writing Contest was from a recent book by the post-colonial scholar Homi K. Bhabha: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 classifications 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.[4]Asked by the Chicago Tribune to parse and explain this sentence, Hedges admitted, “[It] doesn’t make a lot of sense to me.” Two years before, Newsweek had named Bhabha as one of its “One Hundred Creative Individuals Most Worth Watching.” How is it possible that a writer bears watching, but his writing does not? The likely explanation is this: When such writing is separated from its purpose of confirming academic authority, it just doesn't make a lot of sense.  

Academic writing wasn’t supposed to be this way. Even at its most stylistically absurd, it was supposed to seek truth. Instead, what we have in academic writing nowadays is the circulation of authority—the replacement of the ideals of scholarship and academic community with the principle of a political party.  

An instructive example of this assault on truth in the name of party occurred  in 1998 at a Yale symposium on psychoanalysis. Frederick Crews, Butler’s colleague at Berkeley, read a paper in which he criticized the circularity of Freudian theory, which confirms itself by means of evidence manufactured by the very premises it seeks to confirm. Such reasoning, Crews said, is “a scandal for anyone who subscribes to community standards of rational and empirical inquiry.”[5] [End of page 356]  

By “community standards,” Crews was invoking not an organic, social community, but rather the very principle of the university: an association of persons who are related to one another by virtue of their common pursuit of truth. During the discussion following his paper, however, Crews was willfully misunderstood by Judith Butler. Pouncing on the phrase “community standards,” Butler declared that it entails—as Crews summarized her position—“a tendency to fall in line with social ‘normativity’ in general, especially as it applies to the imposing of heterosexist values and rules on people who should be left in peace to pursue their own goals and pleasures.”  

There’s a certain truth to the distinction Butler is making. It is the distinction between a formal community like a city, in which everyone obeys the same laws, and a substantive community like a baseball team, in which everyone pursues the same goals.[6] And Crews’s understanding of rational inquiry is in fact a substantive one, implying a mode of association—the university—that exists to promote a common undertaking.  

But the lie in Butler’s response is the notion that she is somehow advocating merely formal associations among university scholars. In summarizing her attack upon him, Crews put it neatly:What was very interesting . . . about my statement of ordinary rational principles—and the point was not lost on Butler’s audible rooting section in our conference hall—was my self-alignment with social oppression. The hint was placed deftly and inconspicuously, but there it was: “community standards” meant homophobia.[7]In Butler’s university community, just as in Crews’s, everyone pursues the same good. But in her community, the standard is not a common devotion to ordinary rational principles, but a devotion to party.  

We could call this party is the “liberationist party.” What is required for membership is voluble solidarity with the party’s claim to liberate us from “social oppression.” To have any kind of career in the university today is to be compelled to sit in the “audible rooting section,” booing the likes of Crews and cheering the likes of Butler.  

Over a century ago Matthew Arnold mocked this sort of call to party unity:Let us organise and combine a party to pursue truth and new thought, let us call it the liberal party, and let us all stick to each other, and back each other up. Let us have no nonsense about independent criticism, and intellectual delicacy, and the few and the many; . . . if one of us speaks well, applaud him; if one of us speaks ill, applaud him too; we are all in the same movement, we are all liberals, we are all in pursuit of truth.[8] [End of page 357]You can catch some of the flavor of this party feeling in the attacks made on Philosophy and Literature’s Bad Writing Contest. In her Times op-ed, Butler observed that the contest winners, beginning with the Marxist critic Fredric Jameson in 1994 (he won again two years later), were “restricted to scholars on the left.” Writing earlier in the on-line magazine Salon, Christopher Hitchens had made much the same point, suggesting that the contest betrayed a “certain easy populist hatred for the ‘politically correct’ Left, and a certain Anglo-Saxon and anti-intellectual contempt for the French.”[9] A professor from Germany went even farther, associating the contest with völkisch anti-intellectual populism.[10] The implication is obvious: To criticize the bad writing of “scholars on the left” is Fascist.  

But you can sense the strength of Butler’s party even more strongly among those who support the Bad Writing Contest. In the two previous years, at least five young scholars had submitted entries, asking that their names not be released if they should win. In an unsigned June 1997 letter, one entrant confessed that he was “loathe to upset senior scholars in my field,” since alienating them could do “significant damage” to his career.I share this information not merely “to expose” the folly of current writing—there’s enough bad writing going around that adding one more sentence won’t really change much—but to let you know the terror under which many graduate students and junior faculty live. In the current crisis of hiring freezes and intense pressure for tenure, the need to publish is perhaps greater than any time before. Yet to publish in most journals means flinging the jargon, toeing the party line (which is somewhere to the left of gibberish), and quoting the usual suspects (Benjamin, Foucault, Derrida, Said, Jameson, Butler, etc.). I’m often appalled at my own writing, but since jargon, rather than subˇstance, gains a publication, I succumb to verbiage.[11]The problem, finally, is not that academic writing is “ugly” and “stylistically awful.” It’s rather that bad academic writing conceals the political reality of contemporary universities. No longer defined by the common attachment to ordinary rational principles, they have become institutions of one-party rule. To canvass for this party is to promote your career; to dissent from it is to put your career at risk. Young scholars must conform in their writing—and pay a protection fee to the party bosses in the form of quoting them. And “to succumb to verbiage” is really to succumb to “the terror under which many graduate students and junior faculty live.”  

In such a climate, the party leaders are effectively insulated from criticism. Philosophy and Literature’s Bad Writing Contest does in fact what Butler and cohorts always claim (and fail) to do in principle: criticize entrenched power in the name of community. It is one means—however minor and satirical—of discharging [End of page 358] the old-fashioned academic obligation to correct error and reprove negligence; that is, to criticize bad writing.

[1] Judith Butler’s prize-winning sentence appears in her essay “Further Reflections on Conversations of Our Time,” Diacritics 27 (Spring 1997): 13–15.

[2] Martha C. Nussbaum, “The Professor of Parody—the Hip Defeatism of Judith Butler,” New Republic 22 (February 22, 1999): 37–45.

[3] Judith Butler, “A ‘Bad Writer’ Bites Back,” New York Times (March 20, 1999).  

[4] Homi Bhabha, “Of Mimicry and Man: The Ambivalence of Colonial Discourse,” in The Location of Culture (New York: Routledge, 1994), pp. 85–92.

[5] Frederick Crews, “Unconscious Deeps and Empirical Shadows,” Philosophy and Literature 22 (October 1998): 274.

[6] Michael Oakeshott develops this distinction in On Human Conduct, where he labels a formal association societas and a substantive association universitas (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1975), pp. 201-06.

[7] Crews, “Unconscious Deeps,” 279.  

[8] Matthew Arnold, “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time,” in Essays in Criticism (London and Cambridge: Macmillan, 1865), p. 27. Italics in the original.  

[9] Christopher Hitchens, “Sentenced to Death,” Salon (June 25, 1997).  

[10] Joerg Gruel, “Bad Writing Contest,” PHIL-LIT, post #21063 (May 20, 1997).

[11] Private communication to Denis Dutton, editor of Philosophy and Literature (June 15, 1997).