04w49:2 Bad Writing, or, Academic Prose

by timothy. 0 Comments

Good Reads Mailing List | 2004 week 49 number 2 (bad writing, or, academic prose)

Helena Echlin’s article which I posted in the last email, has drawn criticism from a friend of mine about how unfair it is for her to pull one sentence out of context in order to build an argument around it. His full reply and my own to it I’ll post on my site later, but for now, I need to send out the link to this article, which involves the charge of “the out of context sentence”. It is based on Denis Dutton’s Bad Writing contest, which awards based obfuscated sentences. The 1999 winner was Judith Butler, for this 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.

Clearly Helena’s example doesn’t measure up, but as Mark Bauderlein argues in this goodread,

Culler calls it irresponsible to pull sentences out of context … even if we do take Culler’s point at face value, it is a challenge to imagine any context in which Butler’s winning sentence would not be an example of bad writing. Culler’s explanation may give it some sense, but it still sounds windy, pretentious, and clogged.

This article is a review of a recently published book defending bad writing by those theorists Dutton’s contest was parodying. Once again, thanks to Erin O’Connor, who posted this link on her blog today. – Timothy

Bad Writing’s Back | Mark Bauerlein
“The cheap partisan spirit reinforces the point made by Dutton, David G. Myers, Katha Pollitt, and others that the jargon and bloat of theory prose excludes every readership but other theorists – a damning claim given that the theorists purport to labor for social justice.[…] The controversy called for more humor and less hauteur, more admission and less theoretical wriggling. That would require theorists to thicken their skins and behave with modesty and balance, a tough act for people who in their own small universe run seminars, departments, and lecture series with the surety and vanity of pop culture icons […] We should apply the pragmatic test to today’s theorists. What if in the end nobody abandons common sense and adopts the theory habit? Butler aims to ‘provoke new ways of looking’ and Culler repeats Emerson’s dictum, ‘Truly speaking, it is not instruction but provocation that I can receive from another soul,’ but what if nobody is provoked? […] the theorists’ recondite language cuts them off from real politics […] only certain disruptions thwart common sense and alter the world. […] If you propose to explode certain attitudes and beliefs, and to do so by disrupting their proper idiom, then you must compose a language compelling, powerful, memorable, witty, striking, or poignant enough to supplant it. Your language must be an attractive substitute, or else nobody will echo it.”


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emailed by Timothy on Monday 29 November 2004 @ 7:11 PM

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