You are assigned, among other things, an academic article to read over the next week for an upcoming tutorial. Given that there are coursework and assignments aplenty, this one gets left until the night before. Then you open the PDF and see that there are 28 pages. Warily scrolling to the end, you hope for five pages of notes and the same again of bibliography. Better still, perhaps the final page of prose only consists of three lines. Yet, you keep going and watch as the words trickle down to the very bottom of the last page. After letting out a sigh, you return to page one and read a first line that sounds something like this: “Structural authority (from now on, ‘authority via the structural’) operates in, through, alongside, and beyond discursive landscapes of transmitted knowledge and subjective portrayal, often (re)enforcing the non-integration of the narrativised other.”
The rational response to this kind of impenetrable prose is to wonder “why did I even take this subject?” or “if I were cleverer, I would understand it.” However, the appropriate reaction is “why can’t these people write in plain English?” Is it not the purpose of speech – written or spoken – to elucidate a thought and communicate it to an audience? Furthermore, if one has been accepted into a prestigious university with a functional admissions system, they have already proved to be sufficiently able to handle complex ideas. No doubt all undergraduates have been given the same advice: keep your writing clear, avoid convolution, and minimise jargon. I also venture that everyone was left wondering, “it’s a shame those whom we are required to read have not accepted these same principles.” This disparity is my topic here. As I approach the final semester of my honours year, it is time to lay out my thoughts on the curse of pseudo-complexity which pervades some academic writing.
I was first turned onto this topic in the second semester of my second year. The lecture was “Public History: Or, How My Love Affair With History Went Sour”; the lecturer was Professor Gerard De Groot, without whom I would not have switched degree. It was an incredible hour. He not only affirmed my thoughts on the discipline, its problems, and its possibilities, but also how best this can be rectified. Public history has its perils, worst of all a demand for sensationalism over truth. However, if scholars do not at least act as if history can be accurately portrayed to the popular audience, then they resign themselves to redundancy. I cannot have been the only one to have left the lecture theatre with a sense of confidence after hearing an academic argue that, if a student finds a text incomprehensible, it is the writer’s fault for failing to communicate rather than the reader’s stupidity.
As one of the formative texts on his opinions about academic history, Prof De Groot cited “Patriarchal Precedents: Sexuality and Social Relations” by Rosalind Coward. The text begins:
“When we turn our attention to theoretical discourses, our gaze falls on what the discourse itself sees, its visible. What is visible is the relationship between objects and concepts that the discourse proposes. This is the theoretical problematic of a given theoretical discipline. It will render visible only those objects or problems that occur within its horizons and upon its terrain. Only these objects and problems are significant for the theoretical discipline, and have a place in its overall structure. Other objects and problems are therefore insignificant; they fall into the interstices of the structure, they become invisible. The theoretical problematic, through its criteria of relevance or appropriateness, defines what is excluded from the field of visibility.”
As if it needed to be said, the influence was not a positive one. To quote Stephen King from “On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft”, one “learns most clearly what not to do by reading bad prose.”
A few weeks after Professor De Groot’s lecture, I had to read a 38-page article (not including notes) which is as close to “Patriarchal Precedents” as I have been or would ever wish to be. Exhibit A is Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s essay “Can the Subaltern Speak?”:
“Some of the most radical criticism coming out of the West today is the result of an interested desire to conserve the subject of the West, or the West as Subject. The theory of pluralised ‘subject-effects’ gives an illusion of undermining subjective sovereignty while often providing a cover for this subject of knowledge. Although the history of Europe as Subject is narrativised by the law, political economy, and ideology of the West, this concealed Subject pretends it has ‘no geo-political determinations.’ The much publicised critique of the sovereign subject thus actually inaugurates a Subject…”
So as not to straw man the matter by picking a section from the depths of this dense jungle of jargon, I have gone for the opening. Believe me, it gets worse. It really is saying something that when my tutor came to discussing this article and the class was asked “does Spivak think that the subaltern can speak?”, silence echoed in the office. I tried to read it twice and did not have a clue. Rather, the self-flagellation of the second read left me with but one conclusion: there must be a religious sect out there which administers this sort of thing as atonement for the sins of its congregation.
Exhibit B is, I feel, a cheap one. An easy target. Yet I do not think I could tackle the issue of awful academic writing without addressing the infamous incomprehensibility of Judith Butler’s award-winning sentence. As you read, remember that this is a single 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.”
Before returning to Butler’s “sentence”, I shall offer a few other examples – the first from a geography module; the second from a random search of “academic writing” in Google Scholar; the third from a friend’s law module. Exhibit C is from Donna Haraway’s “Situated Knowledges: The Science Question in Feminism and the Privilege of Partial Perspective”:
“When female ‘sex’ has been so thoroughly retheorized and revisualized that it emerges as practically indistinguishable from ‘mind,’ something basic has happened to the categories of biology. The biological female peopling current biological behavioral accounts has almost no passive properties left. She is structuring and active in every respect; the ‘body’ is an agent, not a resource. Difference is theorized biologically as situational, not intrinsic, at every level from gene to foraging pattern, thereby fundamentally changing the biological politics of the body. The relations between sex and gender need to be categorically reworked within these frames of knowledge. I would like to suggest that this trend in explanatory strategies in biology is an allegory for interventions faithful to projects of feminist objectivity.”
Exhibit D is from a chapter (“Stepping into the Flow… Lif/ve De-comforting Academic Writing: Smooth and Striated Spaces for Being Becoming Performances”) by Anne B Reinertsen and Louise M Thomas in Academic Writing and Identity Constructions: Performativity, Space and Territory in Academic Workplaces. Under the heading, “Writing and/as Onto-epistemological Meta Meta Reflexivity”, they write:
“If the construction of a particular category results in an experience of constraint or an experience of comfort, should/can that category be ‘thrown out’ or can it be problematized, examined, critiqued? In taking this approach, we can theorize the becomingness of self, of identity constructions. This theorization can raise the possibility of other ways of becoming – ways beyond a binary categorizing experiences of constraint or comfort, beyond binary categorizing expectations of certainty or uncertainty – because some form of categorizing will always exist in the continual, never-finished processes of becoming.”
Exhibit E is extracted from N. Walker’s “Constitutional Pluralism Revisited” (2016):
“Yet the particularist position can also be detached from either of these particular forms of particularism, so to speak. It can simply involve equal recognition of the in-principle normative exclusivity and closure of both state-centred and EU-centred conceptions. Rather than endorsing one over the other, the coherence of each on its own terms may be acknowledged, including the open-ended capacity of each to absorb the other in its own normative terms. On this detached view, what we are left with when confronting the EU legal conﬁguration is quite unexceptional. It is merely a multiplicity of particular legal systems adjacently positioned, each claiming for its own purposes an exclusive and exhaustive jurisdiction even at the outer boundaries of it normative capacity—a feature of legal-institutional life with which, from the very diversity of sovereign statehood, the world has long been familiar.”
And breathe… Rather than a mere explanation, this sort of thing requires a defence. The charge: crimes against clarity.
Terry Eagleton remarked in his review of Spivak’s other work that it is a key principle within these scholarly circles to “be as obscurantist as you can decently get away with.” For most academics, I presume, this would be an insult. However, as Stephen K Roney argues in his article “Postmodern Prose and George Orwell” (and James Miller in “Is Bad Writing Necessary”) scholars like Spivak and Butler deliberately reject clear language. They regard it, like all discourses, as a tool of the hegemonic power structure (they are, after all, influenced by postmodernism), which does not allow radical ideas to be formulated.
If that were true, which I do not believe it is, then why do these scholars not abandon English all together and instead produce a new language which only the enlightened in-group understands? Are they not halfway there already? Not for the first time, George Orwell was on the right side of the matter. Clear prose – by definition, the language of the masses – is surely the way to communicate if one is to be as honest as possible, if they are to reject elitism, and if they have nothing to hide. Conversely, to quote the damning words of Richard Dawkins, “suppose you are an intellectual impostor with nothing to say, but with strong ambitions to succeed in academic life[…]. What kind of literary style would you cultivate? Not a lucid one, surely, for clarity would expose your lack of content.” While content is not my issue, the point is made – a deliberately difficult style is the best way to shield poor thinking. Light, as they say, is the best disinfectant.
Yet, it is a distinct minority in the academy who adopt this position. A more common defence – indeed one of Butler’s other justifications – is that complex ideas demand complex language. To an extent, this is clearly true. Specialist verbiage is inevitable when one is dealing with specialist subjects. Yet it is not merely technical terminology which is at fault here. The general style, convoluted and polysyllabic, is what is objectionable.
Indeed, in “Politics and the English Language”, Orwell makes a convincing case that there is not a relationship between complex ideas and a difficult style. Instead, he argues that if a topic is difficult, this should only spur the writer to present it in an even clearer way. Indeed, as Roney cites in his article, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Henri Bergson (Nobel prize winners for literature), as well as David Hume, René Descartes, Plato, Charles Darwin, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and Karl Marx all managed to be “plain, elegant, [and] clear of expression.” It is, I venture, either laziness or arrogance which leads one to shirk from this difficult task.
To make the point more directly, this principle even applies to Philosophy and Literature’s “Bad Writing Award” winner. Here is Charles Euchner’s translation of Exhibit B from academese to English:
“Structuralists say capitalism operates as a powerful ‘top-down’ system, making businesses, schools, and other institutions look and operate the same way. We now think of power as a series of smaller, decentralized interactions. Power does not come from some big force, but from countless interactions throughout society.”
There you have it. Not as difficult of an idea as one would assume from reading the original iteration, the difference being that Euchner can compose clearly. In other words, he is not beset by any self-aggrandising delusions of profundity and actually understands the role of the writer – to communicate clearly, rather than to bestow upon the reader the task of translation. Indeed, who would rather read the original, especially for the length of an article, let alone that of a monograph?
So, given our universal preference for clear writing, why does it not come from those within a prose-centred profession? The cynic in me wonders– contrary to Steven Pinker’s case outlined below – that the only way someone can produce this is through an active attempt to over-complicate. At the very least, no effort is expended on clarity (the distinction is an important one). I can only suppose that to such scholars, clarity is confused with simplicity – the highest form of blasphemy. What self-respecting intellectual could possibly create something which is “simple”? This, after all, is the language of the laity. The uneducated masses, who could not possibly grasp these insightful, nuanced, and utterly profound exhortations. Rather, if they can understand it, then it cannot be knowledge.
Instead, the style is intended to ward off the ignorant. Think of it as an 18-age-rating on a film. The stark red warning, like a roadside STOP sign, announces to the naïve young customer that herein lies material that they could not possibly manage. Better to try something diluted to suit their inferior constitution. The metaphor, however, is limited – a film which was judged off limits by the censor was one I really wanted to see; an article judged by its author to be beyond my comprehension has precisely the intended effect.
However, as I said above, the deliberate rejection of clarity does not seem a sufficient explanation. Rather, a more acceptable answer can be found within constraints and incentives conveyed by the profession itself. On one level, one simply does not have to write clearly if their audience consists solely of the learned in-group. This accounts for technical terms and jargon, but this is rarely the issue when it comes to writing quality. Rather, I have couple of propositions: (1) that writing for the academy can provide an incentive to use overly complicated language and (2) that it provides little incentive to write well.
If a monograph addresses social relations in eighteenth century Peruvian peasant migrations and is going to sell for 70 pounds, it is only going to be bought by libraries and read by other academics. In short, no one from the wider audience is ever going to read it. Thus, its impact is likely to be minimal. For some, this is a call to write to be read (by turning to the popular audience); for others, at least they can be assured of the worth of their efforts if it sounds complex and important. In short, it depends on one’s conceptualisation of impact: audience size or difficulty of content.
My second, proposition – that the academy provides little incentive to write well – is drawn from several points. Firstly, is that the role of academic writing is not to be read but to build one’s resume. In ex-Harvard president Derek Bok’s book, Higher Education in America, he says that 98 per cent of humanities and arts papers are never cited by another researcher (compared to 25 per cent for the sciences). Thus, rather than to be read, the primary purpose is to indicate one’s scholarliness. Indeed, as Steven Pinker pointed out in “Why Academics Stink at Writing”, “few graduate programs teach writing. Few academic journals stipulate clarity among their criteria for acceptance, and few reviewers and editors enforce it.” In short, unlike in the marketplace, there is little incentive to write well and, I would argue, plenty to do the opposite.
Nevertheless, despite my preference to be polemical about this, I shall stay that urge and offer the best counterpoints I have found. I have, hopefully, disputed the claim that complicated ideas demand difficult language. However, there are other defences. One of the most plausible is referred to by Pinker as a “pervasive affliction of the human mind” – “the curse of knowledge.” Simply put, once you know something it is difficult to imagine others not knowing it. The result is to outline what the typical reader already knows, to presume that which they do not, and to unwittingly use terms that those outside the discipline would regard as jargon. In short, clear writing is far more difficult to produce than it is to read.
While Pinker’s point is no doubt true, I am, however, inclined to think that this is solvable in the editing stage. As Orwell suggests, “a scrupulous writer, in every sentence” they write will ask the following questions: “What am I trying to say? What words will express it? What image or idiom will make it clearer? Is this image fresh enough to have an effect? […] Could I put it more shortly? Have I said anything that is avoidably ugly?” The latter two are especially pertinent. You may initially write in the manner exemplified among the exhibits. I frequently do so, creating breath-taking sentences (not in the good sense) and attempting “look at my vocabulary” word choice. But second and third drafts are for such improvements. During the editing process, I hold Orwell’s latter two questions as axiomatic. Imagine the kind of writing style one would produce if these aims were inverted… As I remarked earlier, it is either laziness (born from a lack of incentives) or arrogance which leads one to forgo the task of clear communication.
If academics attacked their work with the same objectives, I think we would have more “they were cold” and less “viewing the subject from a tempo-situational positionality, and engaging via autoethnographic self-consultation, one could argue that an increase in thermal circulation would be conducive to an intensification in expressed comfort.”