Bad blood over bad writing

It isn't easy winning the Journal of Philosophy and Literature's Bad Writing Contest

It isn't easy winning the Journal of Philosophy and Literature's Bad Writing Contest. "It's tougher than winning the Oscars," says Sanford Pinsker, editor of Academic Questions, the journal of the US's National Association of Scholars. "There are so many worthy contributions out there."

Dense, obscure, often incomprehensible writing has long been a part of higher learning in the US, but a new war is being waged against academia's most ponderous. Open season was officially declared after the "Sokal Hoax" in the spring of 1996. Distressed by what he saw as increasingly lightweight ideas wrapped up in indecipherable prose, New York University physics professor Alan Sokal wrote a parody piece to "reveal that the emperor wore no clothes".

The paper eventually published in a respected journal, Social Text, was thoroughly researched and footnoted, but was essentially nonsense. The premise of the piece - called "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" - was that the laws of physics are rife with political implications and do not apply to everyone in the same way. Sokal believed either editors would be so bamboozled by the mind-numbing rhetoric, or the editing would be so lacking in academic rigour that the piece's absurd thesis would go unchallenged. He was right.

As Sokal later wrote in the journal Lingua Franca: "Fair enough: anyone who believes the laws of physics are mere social conventions is invited to try transgressing those conventions from the windows of my apartment (I live on the 21st floor)".


The story was front-page news across the US, made the newspapers in other countries, and focused attention on the chronic question which has nagged the work of humanities professors for years: is it deep or just impossible to understand?

"If such a sublime cyborg would insinuate the future as post-Fordist subject, his palpably masochistic locations as ecstatic agent of the sublime super-state need to be decoded as the `now-all-but-unreadable DNA' of a fast de-industrialising Detroit, just as his Robocop-like strategy of carceral negotiation and street control remains the tirelessly American one of inflicting regeneration through violence upon the racially hetero-glossic wilds and others of the inner city" - Prof Rob Wilson from a collection entitled: "The Administration of Aesthetics: Censorship, Political Criticism and the Public Sphere" (Bad Writing Contest, Second Prize 1997).

Hitting back in a New York Times opinion piece last month, Judith Butler - winner of 1998 Bad Writing award - claimed the journal's award targeted left-wing scholars "whose work focuses on topics like sexuality, race, nationalism and the workings of capitalism".

In fact Denis Dutton, editor of Philosophy and Literature, admits most of the contest-winners have been from the left, but claims that is merely a reflection of the times: the left, he claims, is now home to academia's most turgid writers.

"We receive nominations from all over the world and judge them without fear or favour," says Dutton, professor of art philosophy at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch. "At this time bad writing is the stronghold of the post-structuralist left. We wish we could find more right-wingers who wrote as badly."

Butler has been hit from all sides this year. A University of California professor and influential feminist theorist, she was excoriated in a recent article in the New Republic for "ponderous and obscure" writing. She has been called one of the 10 most intelligent people on the planet by one academic, but the New Republic piece argued Butler's writings were virtually unintelligible. As such, said University of Chicago law professor Martha Nussbaum, Butler's work was of little value to feminism or women in the real world.

Difficult prose does have its defenders: many feel the passages Dutton lampoons appear incomprehensible because they have been taken out of context. Further, they say, it is easy and irresponsible to humiliate professors for their jargon-filled prose which, though difficult, is widely understood by its target readership.

"It's interesting that we expect scientists to have a technical vocabulary, but when it comes to the most complex system we know of - namely, human social existence - we somehow think we don't need a technical vocabulary to describe it," says Larry Grossberg, communications professor at the University of North Carolina.

Nonsense, says Dutton. "In the sciences jargon is helpful because it uses simple terms to stand for complicated phenomena whereas in the humanities it's the opposite: people use complicated terms to express simple things."

Case in point: 1996 third-place winner Paul Fry of Yale University, who said something displayed an "absentation of actuality" to describe that it no longer existed.

Says Dutton: "That may look like the work of a physics professor, but it's actually an English professor, showing off."

So how did academic prose become so obscure? According to Sanford Pinsker, many academics have simply become the bad writers they set out to be. Without the jargon and ponderous content, he says, students quickly find themselves on the fast track to academic oblivion. "They learn to talk the talk," he says.

Prof Michael Berube of the University of Illinois, who has written extensively for the mainstream press, agrees that clear writing can spell trouble in academic circles. "I have been called `under-theorized'," he says.

Berube asserts a major factor in tolerance of bad writing has been a lack of hard-nosed editing by academic journals. "There is no sense that these journals want to make writing any clearer."

At its heart, the criticism reflects a belief that all too often impenetrable prose hides lies dubious scholarship. It raises question: does the language serve as a smoke-screen through which no argument - not even one as patently absurd as Sokal's hoax - can be seen? "You can't disagree with something unless both sides know what they are talking about," Pinsker says.