Friday, July 13, 2012

Writing Well?

Randall Stephens

The Sokal Hoax is the stuff of academic legend. The journal Social Text published Alan Sokal's baroque send-up of po-mo, bad writing in the spring/summer 1996. Sokal gave it the absurdly pompous title: "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity." Steven Weinberg wrote about it in the NYRB later that same year:

The targets of Sokal's satire occupy a broad intellectual range. There are those 'postmoderns' in the humanities who like to surf through avant garde fields like quantum mechanics or chaos theory to dress up their own arguments about the fragmentary and random nature of experience. There are those sociologists, historians, and philosophers who see the laws of nature as social constructions. There are cultural critics who find the taint of sexism, racism, colonialism, militarism, or capitalism not only in the practice of scientific research but even in its conclusions. Sokal did not satirize creationists or other religious enthusiasts who in many parts of the world are the most dangerous adversaries of science, but his targets were spread widely enough, and he was attacked or praised from all sides.
Sokal also threw in some hairy theory and clunky sentences. For instance, he wrote seriously about the nonsensical "morphogenetic field" theory. His sophistry meant to impress. And the editors of Social Text were impressed. In a move that paralleled conceptual art, Sokal, so thought unknowing readers, was pushing the boundaries of so-called "science." 

Do academics in the humanities still prize purple prose and fantastic theories over clear writing and measured analysis? Are scholars stubbornly proud of their bad writing, as if to shout from the rooftops that their work is only to be read and understood by a cabal of fellow scribblers? Can anyone make a case for not rooting out unidentified antecedents, passive voice, misplaced modifiers, lack of agreement, or double negatives? Should there be some kind of writing standard, even for academics? 

To that last question Helen Sword says "yes." The author of Stylish Academic Writing (Harvard University Press, 2012), Sword writes about her project in the WSJ

Unfortunately, the myth persists, especially among junior faculty still winding their anxious way up the tenure track, that the gates of academic publishing are guarded by grumpy sentries programmed to reject everything but jargon-laden, impersonal prose. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Nearly everyone, including the editors of academic journals, would much rather read lively, well-written articles than the slow-moving sludge of the typical scholarly paper.
Surely, scholars in the humanities should consider their audience and what kind of message they are trying to convey. Would any author happily describe his or her work as "inaccessible," "abstruse," or "turgid"? Probably not. Yet plow through many an article in an academic journal or read a random monograph from the shelves of your university library and those words will likely come to mind. 

Some years ago in grad school I worked with the labor historian Robert Zieger. Here's one bit of advice he offered undergrads and grad students: "Use vigorous, direct language. Short sentences work. Employ concrete, precise nouns and active verbs, being careful, for example, to find active substitutes for forms of the verb 'to be' and 'to go.' Inexperienced writers often erroneously think that convoluted language, long sentences, and pretentious diction impress teachers." And still . . . many academics seem to think "convoluted language, long sentences, and pretentious diction" will impress or suitably confuse readers. That would not be too far from what George Orwell described in "Politics and the English Language" (1946): “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as if it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish squirting out ink.” 

But surely one kind of writing doesn't suit all disciplines! And so Sword observes:

Stylishness is in the eye of the beholder, of course, and stylistic preferences can vary significantly across disciplines. Nevertheless, all stylish academics adhere to three key principles that any writer can master: communication, concreteness, and craft.

Rejecting those three, I penned my own bit of over-written, jargon-laden academic unprose. It's exaggerated, I know. But, not by much!

The prevailing sequence of hybridity in the post-colonised novel lends itself, interstitially, to notions of conquest, absence, and disquietude of the en-lightened Mastermind. A mind{less}ness prevails, just as order, disorder, and value-induced reasoning through a countless series of dilemmas grows. A closer look bears repeating in rough contexts unlike those aberrant occidentric diodanous boundarylands. The transformation of agency-related modes of being, working, and cleaning demarcate and imbue the singularities of eroticizational ideation. Or, in one scholar's incisive words: 

My growing conviction has been that the encounters and negotiations of differential meanings and values within 'colonial' textuality, its governmental discourses and cultural practices, have anticipated, avant la lettre, many of the problematics of signification and judgement that have become current in contemporary theory—aporia, ambivalence, indeterminacy, the question of discursive closure, the threat to agency, the status of intentionality, the challenge to 'totalizing' concepts, to name but a few.*

And still, we have to ask ourselves, if only it were so simple. . . . 

Do the dominant Deleuzeian somnambulant regimes of some prelinguistic realities reinscribe what some are now, rightly, calling Academies of Texthibitionism? Are gleeful literary curios to blame for our unctuous, precious dreamworld of the deracinated female body? All such question are implicitly, if not explicitlessly, reiterated and conformed by the worries of a market-driven, late capitalist, zero-sum hegemon—a two-term qualifier revamp if there ever was one, to paraphrase DioxanĂ© Umbriage. 

As I have argued elsewhere, and as is made rather clearly in the notes to the notes of chapter 5, the vicissitudanal convergencies of self and the “sane” are only partially related to the singularities of a final Lacanian eroticizational ideation schema. Albeit, a brave one.


Eric B. Schultz said...

I think it's a rite of passage. Most of us have to walk through the valley of transformative hermeneutics before finding our inner Hemingway. And even then we sometimes have to ask: Why did God invent the comma and semicolon, and the eight-syllable word, anyway?

Randall said...

Eric: Well said. I like William Germano said some years back in the Chronicle about turning a diss into a book: "A real book manuscript doesn't look over its shoulder, worrying that Foucault is running after it in a hockey mask."

Gabriel Loiacono said...

Do you think this writing was a phase of the '80s and '90s? Certainly writing up to the '60s seems much more clear. Or maybe I'm just reading the best of it.

I love the term "mind{less}ness" by the way. It is so uncompromisingly self-contradictory.

Unknown said...

Maybe Gabriel is right, and the stuff people read from the 80s and 90s, twenty years from now, won't seem so bad, because only the best stuff will be read.

I love that Orwell bit, though: "a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims..."

Randall said...

That could be true about the 1990s esp. Guess we'll have to wait and see!

Philip White said...

Were he alive today, Hemingway would gladly cook the users of three-dollar words on a spit over an open fire. Historians often struggle to capture the lay reader, and writing in a an overly-complex way certainly doesn't help the cause. Write what you mean, for heaven's sake, people, instead of trawling for synonyms that you think make you sound clever!

Gabriel Loiacono said...

In my own case, I am not trying to sound clever, and I aspire to write simply and in a narrative style that can capture a broader readership. The challenge, though, is that I know my subject matter well enough that it looks really complex to me. Trying to balance clear prose with a true version of what I see in the records is hard. I am often tempted to qualify statements, to write long sentences, and occasionally to pull out $3 dollar words in order to best express reality. Well, the struggle continues!