At 11:14am this morning, wgeurin wrote the following in a comment to my previous blog post:
“The piece is so horribly written that into the second paragraph I was thinking it was a deliberate satire to show how bad some writing could be. Then I realized it was just bad writing.”
intered added, much less dismissively, the following:
“Thank you, Mr. Jackson. I do not intend to be impolite with respect to the writing. I enjoy reading what you have to say. However, it is also impolite to ask readers to wade through unnecessary obfuscation, circumlocution, and jargon to get to a simple point.”
These responses voice the common (and legitimate) concern that many academics and non-academic have about the love affair that some scholars seem to have with opaque and over-dressed prose.
wgeurin and intered push back against my willingness to, say, deploy words like deploy, or to unnecessarily “complexify” ideas that might be put much more simply. (I put complexify in scare-quotes to flag its highfalutin pretensions.) Both authors make a reasonable point about the importance of clarity and accessibility. But I also want to push back against their justifiable push back, at least a little bit.
For one thing, I actually like playing with different registers. There is a time and a place for all kinds of prose, from the most purple to the most jargon-riddled. In fact, I want to defend bad writing. Or, at the very least, I would argue that bad is too broad an evaluative brush.
There is the bad that bespeaks a basic lack of ability to communicate ideas effectively (and, in certain instances, affectively).
There is also the bad that reeks of mere insiderism and exclusivity.
Those two instances aren’t necessarily related, but academics certainly get trained to write for “the club” in ways that aren’t easy to unlearn or disavow. Authors who don’t know how to code-switch can’t talk to many of the interested parties that they might otherwise reach.
I also think that some (though admittedly not all) “bad writing” is just the nuancing of analyses in ways that pivot on the tiny slippages between ostensible synonyms, exploiting connotative implications and fine-grained denotative differences.
There is also the issue of over-using/deploying “passive-verbs” and of scholars carefully qualifying all of their claims into oblivion. Indeed, we could probably list many more instances of what might count as bad writing.
I actually enjoy reading certain kinds of “bad writing,” at least some of the time, especially from the scholars who often get hammered for their impenetrable prose. That’s usually anybody who invokes the notion of “performativity” or cites the work of Michel Foucault or gets described as a disciple of Cultural Studies.
The last post was my purposeful attempt to flex those specific (and specifically bad) writerly muscles. You have to be able to write it to read it. And if you’re not careful, you lose that ability. Writing a blog for The Chronicle, where a certain premium (even though maybe not enough of one for some of its critics) is placed on readability, can cause those aforementioned writerly muscles to get flabby real fast.
Of course, another point is also relevant, a point that is part of the “non-trivial tautology” that intered mentions in his/her longer response to my comment. There is a clear market value to performing a kind of writerly opacity that keeps the many out while welcoming and interpellating the chosen few. Gordon’s piece would problematize that, too. And it also demonstrates another version of my own ostensible complicity with the dynamic he decries.