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.- Judith Butler, “Further Reflections on the Conversations of Our Time.”
This sentence by the brilliant and famous Judith Butler won the firt prize at the Worst Writing Contest. The talented but mostly unreadable Homi Bhabha took second prize with the following monstrosity:
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.
So why do these extremely gifted thinkers write in a way that makes their ideas almost completely inaccessible even to the readers who are pretty well-versed in the academic jargon? Do they care at all that a larger reading audience becomes completely inaccessible to them as a result of these convoluted sentence structures? To my huge surprise, I discovered a while ago that there is an actual purpose and a much-discussed ideology behind this use of language.
In their book Just Being Difficult?: Academic Writing in the Public Arena (Cultural Memory in the Present), Dr. Jonathan Culler and his colleagues defend the right of academics to employ extremely obscure language in their writing. They maintain that they have no interest in attracting the kind of readership that would be put off but endless sentences, confusing verbal structures, and abstruse vocabulary.
And that is where I have to disagree. Members of academia are the favorite object of derision that even the most liberal media love to ridicule. For the far right extremists, we are the most hateful group of people par excellence. In the US culture (just like in Franco's fascist Spain), intelligence, learning, bookishness, a dedication to intellectual endeavors are seen as silly, laughable, and pathetic. Whenever a college professor appears on a TV show or in an American movie, we immediately know that s/he will turn out to be either a monster or a freak. At the very best, they will be presented as pitiful. The message our students are getting on a regular basis is that knowledge is only needed insofar as it can help them find a better job. Reading for pleasure, cultivating oneself intellectually, pursuing knowledge for any reason other than ingratiating oneself with an employer are woefully out of vogue today. Can we truly afford to turn away those of our students who might be willing to learn, think, and enrich themselves intellectually but are unable to wade through convoluted sentences of some of our leading academics?
That is why I like Terry Eagleton so much. He writes in a way that any reasonably intelligent person will be able to read and enjoy. His writing is clear, funny, accessible but at the same time incisive, lucid, and profound.
In no way does this liteary critic and philosopher try to dumb down his ideas out of some misguided need to condescend to his readers. His ideas are so powerful and engaging in themselves that making them clear to others is not that hard.
For the longest time, I was convinced that the only acceptable way for an academic to write was to imitate Homi Bhabha, Judith Butler, and other masters of the inaccessible prose. I learned to construct preciously convoluted and painfully jargony sentences. To tell the truth, I actually enjoy writing a la Judith Butler. Something in me relishes the act of creating a sentence that runs for an entire page. Or even longer. However, after I started reading those academics who make clarity and precision the central goal of their writing, I realized that all I'd been doing with my complex and incomprehensible paragraphs was aimed at building a huge and impenetrable ivory tower around myself.
Of course, it's harder for us to make our ideas understood than for those who manipulate the public with facile slogans. It is harder to analyze things intellectually than to screech about "traditional values," "American freedoms," "big governments," and "accepting Jesus as your personal savior." But unless we make the effort to make our ideas known, these meaningless pronouncements will exist in an intellectual vacuum. Younger generations will buy into them simply because there is nothing else. We need to start offering an alternative. And we need to do it in a language that has the capacity of being understood.