On the “bad academic writing” trope

Yet another article on the scourge of opaque academic writing is making the rounds, and someone on Facebook got mad at me for being so dismissive of it. After all, surely I must admit that sometimes academic writing is needlessly complex and jargony? Right? Right?! But I don’t have to admit anything.

What I wonder is not whether the generalization is justified, but why it is an issue suitable for discussion in the mainstream press. Further, though the critique is aimed at “academic writing” in general, the proverbial “howlers” are almost always in the humanities.

Why are the humanities singled out? The reason is twofold. First, it reflects a belief that specialized knowledge in the humanities simply does not exist. Any humanities research that is not immediately accessible to an undergraduate is therefore an elitist imposture. Second, there is little doubt that there is a political agenda at work, given the ire directed at the influence of “Theory” in humanities writing — which is almost always a left-wing enterprise.

So no, I won’t “admit” that sometimes “academic writing” is bad, because in the public sphere, such rhetoric functions to delegitimate the humanities. There is a serious discussion to be had about the accessibility of our work, etc., but that is a discussion for us to have, on our own terms — not the terms set by a tediously cliched article in the Atlantic Monthly.

30 thoughts on “On the “bad academic writing” trope

  1. The usual “take this example” strategy, where some random paragraph is ripped from its context and offered to the reader as unintelligble. The same could be done with a half-paragraph from Kant or Spinoza. Or indeed, from a business or economics text.

  2. I am an example of “the public”, I do not have or want the knowledge to participate in in a discussion with academics in their field. On the other hand articles written by academics for public consumption are readable and interesting, i.e. the NY Times science, health sections.

  3. I’m the publisher of a left wing critical theory and culture studies imprint out of the UK and I receive a great many submissions from academics that are filled up with opaque prose, sentences that have to be painstakingly decoded before meaning can be ascertained and that, once the meaning is found it turns out to be either self-contradictory and incoherent or, at best, tenuous.

    The reason for this, as far as I can tell, is because of a contradiction in the history of theory itself, namely the arrival of post-structuralism and other deflationary political philosophies after the failure of May ’68, and because of how critical theory is received at University. When philosophy becomes critical theory, especially in America, it shifts from being about arguments and inquiry to being about rhetoric and identity. The end result is that writers embrace radical sentiments but eschew thorough going argumentation.

    The difference between the complexity of Spinoza and the kind of complexity found in the monographs submitted (and rejected) by our imprint is that Spinoza aimed at a systemic understanding of the world. In communication departments (which is where critical theory lives now) this sort of approach is frowned upon in favor of an approach where theories are selected based upon their supposed utility for a given text or a given moment. This is what I’ve come to think of as the toolbox of theories approach, and it is a necessarily eclectic and even disjointed approach to theory and or philosophy.

    Now, I realize that what I’m saying is directly in opposition to what you’ve said above. What I’ve done is offered a gesture towards alternative explanations for the seeming opaqueness of much academic writing. I look forward to a clear and concise rebuttal that engages my arguments and, when necessary, demands clarification while refuting my mistakes. What I expect in the current academic climate, however, is a doubling down on the initial assertion and, if this doubling down was written for an academic journal, I’d expect quite a lot of jargon to be lifted out of context (a favorite is the term ‘neoliberal’) to shore up the dismissal of what I’ve said rhetorically.

    I look forward to this exchange rising above my expectations.

  4. There is a great parody article waiting to be written where someone takes a bit of theoretical physics and non-linear algebra, etc., out of context, then ridicules it before realizing that the authors are Einstein, Feynman, John Nash, and so on…

  5. Brennanbreed; Of course, this has already happened, only it was a physicist who wrote a parody of postmodern theory and sprinkled in bogus physics and this passed muster even though the writing was intentionally meaningless and/or in error. It was called the Sokal Affair.

  6. Um, yeah, Doug, I think brennanbreed probably was making a point relating to the l’Affaire Sokal. More generally, I think your explanation of why there is opaque and badly-argued academic prose in the humanities today is too idealistic. I think Gender Trouble, for example, openly takes something like the toolbox approach that you describe; and I think its prose is needlessly difficult. But I attribute a lot of that difficulty to the fact that Routledge doesn’t edit its books. I would surmise that a more thorough look at changes in education, the university population, and the political climate in the academy would help in understanding the rise of Theory Potpourri books and articles. Maybe that overlaps with your “how critical theory is received at the University.”

  7. Feels ironic that Adam praised Zero as an example of accessible writing for non-academics by academics and in comes an editor at Zero being a giant “actually” dick.

    The only person Sokal hoaxed was himself.

  8. But Gender Trouble had a huge influence, including outside of academia, despite its opaque prose. That’s something that is often forgotten in these discussions — and perhaps another reason why she is singled out as horrible and incomprehensible.

  9. Josh,

    I guess I missed the point of brennanbreed’s allusion to the Sokal affair. As to Judith Butler’s opaque prose and the toolbox approach to theory, all of this probably deserves more space and time than either of us can manage in a single thread. I’m sure that the political climate at University does contribute to the toolbox approach to theory being popular.


    I’m curious as to why you think Sokal “hoaxed himself.” I’m willing to reconsider my opinion on Sokal, which has shifted already since 1996. I tended, at the time, to hold that it was possible for the “postmodern theory” in Sokal’s piece to have merit even if the science in it was phony. I’m far less sure of that now.

  10. My God, Social Text was not a peer-reviewed journal! If he had sent it to a peer-reviewed journal, they would have asked a real scientist to look at it and that person would have seen it was nonsense. It was a total set-up — he proved what he wanted to prove because he totally set up the conditions so that only one answer was possible. A charitable reading of the situation from the journal’s perspective is that they ran the article because they were hungry for dialogue with scientists and were thrilled that Sokal was engaging in it. He lied to them, abused their trust, and then publicly mocked them — and somehow he’s a hero. It’s utter idiocy. And the fact of having been misused in a purposefully nonsensical article has no possible bearing on the value of the “postmodern theory” he pastiched.

    Any further positive references to the Sokal hoax will be deleted. Repeated attempts will result in banning. This is non-negotiable.

  11. Kant’s first critique was basically ignored for years because it was hard to read. It’s a mess, with repetitions, meandering thoughts and lots of jargon. But then it became one of the most influential books of all time, even though a minuscule percentage of humans have read it, and even fewer have understood it. The Prayer of Jabez, on the other hand, sold nine million copies and is extremely accessible. Have you read it? The prose simply crackles with intensity.

    My point: a text’s importance has no correlation with its readability or popularity. You simply can’t make an argument about the worth of all texts based on style alone. You have to look at each individual text, read it carefully, think about it, and then argue about it.

    I still like my idea about an article that excerpts complicated equations and then laughs at them because they are impenetrable. Jargon exists for a reason, and not all texts are written for all audiences.

  12. “Kant’s first critique was basically ignored for years because it was hard to read.”

    What? It sold out and had to be reprinted repeatedly during Kant’s lifetime. It was promptly reviewed, responded to, etc. Had a very favorable reception. KRV did not fall “dead-born from the press” like Hume’s “Treatise”; it was a successful and influential work of academic philosophy essentially immediately. There’s a reason Kant wrote the “Prolegomena” to be a guide for teachers: there were people who wanted to teach his work soon after it appeared.

  13. Adam has the basics of it correct. Further, Sokal gave a self-congratulatory interview in Lingua Franca that was printed the same day (?) as the Social Text issue. If he wanted to hoax—a genuine hoax—he would have waited to see how his article was taken. Chances are, like most articles published in Social Text, it never would have been read by anyone. He hoaxed himself into thinking he hoaxed the pomos. I assume he made quite a bit of money and has some degree of undeserved fame. Good one, Alan.

  14. If you’re letting through positive Sokal references sneak through, I might as well try my hand.

    Adam’s right that the weakness of the Sokal hoax was that he sent it to a non-peer reviewed outlet, which basically took it his claims on trust since Sokal did not pretend to be someone else and they knew he was a top physicist. Sokal chose a soft target and abused their trust, and that meant those sympathetic to post-modern philosophy thought his supposed hoax was dramatically unsuccessful.

    But I don’t think that fatally compromises the point he was trying to make. Adam tries to defend the integrity of the production process of the kind of philosophy Sokal mocked as follows: “If he had sent it to a peer-reviewed journal, they would have asked a real scientist to look at it and that person would have seen it was nonsense.” Is anyone here really that confident that presses known for publishing this kind of continental philosophy send out manuscripts that deal with physics to actual physicists? I highly doubt it, but I’d like to hear if I’m wrong.

    After all, Sokal basically cribbed most of his egregiously bad examples of physics-abuse from the published writings of French philosophers. It seems safe to say that those who published Lacan, Kristeva, etc, did not send their work to be peer-reviewed by physicists, and it’s also likely that the American presses who published the work in translation did not send it to be peer-reviewed by physicists, otherwise the works would be replete with editorial footnotes giving the reader a heads up that the math/physics was not reliable.

    Sokal’s hoax was badly executed, but he was drawing on a large and consistently poor body of work (poor in its representation of the relevant questions in physics or math) that appeared to have systematically bypassed a thorough review process, and that was Sokal’s complaint – look at all this crazily wrong stuff that is being published by these French people, and taken on faith by these American people!

    I’ve read plenty of books or articles by English/American academics who work in continental philosophy that make reference to quantum indeterminacy, for example, and I would bet something big and kinda sorta important to me that none of those manuscripts were never sent to a “real scientist” to be peer-reviewed, as Adam suggests they might.

    The only counter-example I can think of would be Badiou’s stuff on set mathematics. The press probably didn’t have it peer-reviewed by a working mathematician, but I’m sure he has friends who are mathematicians and who read the manuscript and commented on it and discussed it with him over a long lunch or dinner party on the left bank.

  15. Can’t remember the last time I saw a philosopher or political theorist make a point using theoretical physics. Barad, maybe. Is this really a thing? Wasn’t Sokal’s big gotcha a comparatively uninteresting question at a conference from Hypolite to Derrida where Derrida was like, “What you talking about, Willis?”? I guess there’s Tim Morton…

  16. Craig, I’m honestly surprised. You really can’t remember the last time? Here, I’ll help. It’s a very recent example, and very near to hand – in fact, it was a book event at An Und Fur Sich! (Maybe you weren’t following along with this one.)

    Catherine Keller, Cloud of the Impossible: ch. 4 ‘Spooky Entanglements: the physics of nonseparability’, pp. 127ff.

    For a summary, see this interview that Keller gave to Beatrice.

    To be very clear, I’m not at all saying that Keller makes scientific errors of the kind that Sokal thinks is typical of brands of French philosophy. All I’m saying is: here is a prime example of a theologian/philosopher explicitly engaging theoretical physics. Further, my assumption (> 0.5 probability) would be that the chapter was not sent away to be peer-reviewed by a “real scientist”. If Catherine is reading this, I would love to be told differently.

    I appreciate her honesty in this part of the interview:
    “Q: Should we be afraid to reflect, theologically, on the meaning of scientific data, or the findings that come out of scientific research?

    A: We should be careful. We should do a lot of reading before we jump to conclusions. But I think that’s true for any form of responsible thinking. There’s a lot of great, accessible material out there today, however…. And we don’t have to be afraid that we can’t know it all. We can’t all be physicists. I’m always very knowing of my own ignorance of the natural sciences. So I’m grateful for how much is being communicated across disciplinary boundaries.”

    So, I’m sure Catherine is a responsible scholar, reads widely in the best non-technical physics literature available, maybe even reads advanced physics literature, probably talks to friends who are physicists, maybe even has friends read her manuscripts. But I doubt that those sections were sent by the press to be officially peer-reviewed.

    That doubt is simply an inference in this case from what I take to be general practice, and from what I gather (and that is very little, beyond some narrow acquaintance), it is not standard practice for presses that publish continental philosophy/religion to send out work that deals with, e.g. theoretical physics, to be peer-reviewed by practising academic physicians to ensure the accuracy of the descriptions therein.

    Which is all just to say (deep breath) that, no – if Sokal had sent his article to a peer-reviewed journal of continental philosophy, it would still not have been sent for review to a physicist, and would probably have been successfully published.

  17. If we assume that it wouldn’t have been sent for peer review, then it wouldn’t have been. Nailed it.

    Also, best practice for referring to a female scholar you don’t know personally is to use her last name, just like you would with a man. (I’m willing to forgive “Beatrice” since she’s a regular here, but “Catherine”? Your good buddy?)

  18. We can’t escape making assumptions. I hedge several times to make it clear that it’s a defeasible presumption, and I invite correction. If I should change my prior about this then, as I say in the comment, please do let me know.

    When I met Prof. Keller she introduced herself as Catherine, so… (though if you notice, I unconsciously switch it up between Keller/Catherine. And, y’know, I call all the chaps by their first name too. But I’m happy to acquiesce to blog protocol in future)

  19. Sorry to make assumptions about your closeness with Catherine Keller. But you have seriously added zero new information to this discussion so far. All you have done is repeatedly asserted your assumption. If you’re right, Sokal should have gone with a peer reviewed publication.

  20. Also, your belief that translations should be peer reviewed and have corrective footnotes added is ridiculous. You do a translation to give people access to what the person actually wrote. Translations should be faithful, not patronizing, to the original text.

  21. I’ll try one last time. If Sokal had submitted his article to, say, Critical Inquiry, or Theory & Event, do you think those journals would have sent it to be reviewed by a physicist? It’s likely that contributors here have served as editors or reviewers for those kinds of journals, and would be well-placed to say either way. Do you know of any journal that does this regularly? Are they the exception or the rule, as far as you’re aware? (If the answer is no, I don’t take that to imply anything either way about the usefulness or not of the philosophy of an article drawing on scientific literature.)

  22. Wow, a Sokal thread. After all these years. If you’re interested in something other than the usual high fiving about the postmodern emperor having no clothes on the one hand or grumbling over what a cad Sokal is on the other, John Guillory’s “The Sokal Affair and the History of Criticism” is good. It was published in Critical Inquiry, so it was probably even sent out for peer review!

  23. Adorno remarks somewhere, probably in Minima Moralia, that it is hypocritical to expect philosophers to express themselves in the language of everyday commerce. It is precisely the condition of the division of labour and specialization which is brought about through late capitalism and universal exchange that compells the theorist to write opaquely. No one balks when they cannot understand the latest mathematics or physics tract? From Adorno’s own epistemological concerns, I take this to mean that theorists must perforce be obscure so long as a totally administered society makes all of us specialists of a kind, as a way of bringing in an element of the negative into a space defined by pure positivity, a negative which like Hegel’s absolute spirit, is most critical in art and philosophy.

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