Bad Writing Contest

The journal Philosophy and Literature (Johns Hopkins) ran a bad writing “contest” for a few years in the 1990s.   Of course, there weren’t entrants, per se, so it wasn’t like the Bulwer-Lytton parody contest or the Hemingway contest.

I assume people just sent in “nominations.”  (Here is a link to the site.)  And as you might assume, the contest was for allegedly bad academic writing.  One of the “winners” was noted literary and cultural theorist Judith Butler:

“Professor Butler’s first-prize sentence appears in “Further Reflections on the Conversations of Our Time,” an article in the scholarly journal Diacritics (1997)”:

“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.”

Indeed, anyone unfamiliar with this kind of humanistic theoretical writing would be correct to respond, “Huh?”   So let’s grant that Butler is writing for a specialized audience. I imagine a piece of writing from a journal outside my discipline might flummox me but seem transparent to those in the field.

At the same time, there are problems, I’d argue, with Butler’s prose here that can’t be accounted for in terms of specialization or “necessary difficulty.”

One problem is the length of the sentence.  Butler could easily have revised it into three sentences; pacing itself often assists the reader.  For example, would “According to structuralist theory, capital structures social relations” be less accurate (but more easily understood) than what she wrote?

Also, “homologous” means “corresponding in structure,” so we have structuralism claiming capital structures relations in structurally corresponding ways.  That’s probably too dizzyingly redundant.

Another problem: the gap between “the move” (a vague term) and its verb, “brought” is just to great.  Break up that sentence and you solve the problem without  sacrificing anything.  Make the gap narrower.

And to bring “the question of temporality into the thinking of structure” confuses–even when the sentence is in context.  “The question of temporality” could mean anything–even in context.  And “the thinking of structure” sounds as if structure is thinking, when in fact I think Butler is discussing thoughts about structure.

“A form of Althusserian theory”: I guess that’s okay, for specialists.

It seems to me that Butler contrasts a fixed idea of power-structures with a changing idea of power-structures, and that the latter (power structures) change because things (such as place, time, and strategy) change.

However, Butler enthusiasts and theorists like her might well and legitimately accuse me of oversimplifying what she wrote.  I cheerfully acknowledge that I may have done that.  At the same time, it’s probably true that writing like this is often unnecessarily difficult, even as we acknowledge the difficulty of the subject and the specialization of the audience.

Anyway, academic writing’s easy to mock; even academics think so.

And if George Orwell thought Harold Laski’s writing was bad, imagine what he’d think of Butler’s. Yikes.

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