Style, bad prose, and Corey Robin’s theory of public intellectuals

Ten years ago, before I started doing research in France, I wrote my MA thesis about the politics of “bad writing” in the American humanities. Empirically, my major case study was about a “Bad Writing Contest” run by the late Denis Dutton, which dedicated itself in the late 1990s to making fun of (ostensibly) bad academic prose. The winners were always left-wing critical theorists like Homi Bhabha, Judith Butler and Fredric Jameson.

I ended up concluding that the Bad Writing Contest was a scene where low-status-academics got to symbolically denounce higher-status academics, so in that sense the whole affair was basically about status dominance; but I had put the project behind me, until I was reminded of the topic by Corey Robin’s recent comments about Judith Butler as a public intellectual. I’d like to focus briefly on his main claim: that Butler’s seemingly inaccessible writing style did not prevent her work from being culturally generative and iconic. As he puts it:

It is Gender Trouble—that difficult, knotty, complicated book, with a prose style that violates all the rules of Good Public Writing—that has generated the largest public or publics of all: the queer polity we all live in today.

To be clear, Robin’s view is that Butler’s success as public intellectual was neither because nor in spite of her prose style, but rather that success was altogether orthogonal to prose style. He proposes that “it’s not the style that makes the writing (and the intellectual) public. It’s not the audience. It’s the aspiration to create an audience.”

I can’t avoid thinking that Robin is too hasty here to dismiss “style” as a force in the social world. Here I would stay close to the usual readings of the “linguistic turn” and the work of Mikhail Bakhtin or Roland Barthes, and insist that style is not external to the production of social relations in writing. Rather, it is intrinsic to their being.

One could make Robin’s argument more persuasive, accordingly, by not drawing such strict distinctions between style, empirical audiences, and aspiration-to-create-publics. If style mediates social relations in texts, then one’s “aspiration to create an audience” must necessarily occur in and through style. And an aspirational audience, moreover, cannot spring from nowhere; it is at best a symbolic tranformation of existing social realities.

We can speculate about all the different ways that this occurs, or we can actually do ethnographic research on readers of critical theory, as I did in my 2008 paper on literary theory classrooms. I didn’t do research on Butler’s readers specifically, but I can imagine that for some readers, the prose of Gender Trouble can be transfixing precisely because of its difficulty, or can be a rite of passage because of its difficulty, or an important moment of socialization; or perhaps it can come to constitute an incomprehensible locus classicus. One time I actually heard a queer studies ethnographer declare that he had had to read Gender Trouble to be in the field, but that it was commonly understood to be impossible to make heads or tails of.

In any event, Robin goes on to draw some conclusions about the generativity of public intellectual work:

In the act of writing for a public, intellectuals create the public for which they write.

This is why the debate over jargon versus plain language is, in this context, misplaced. The underlying assumption of that debate is that the public is simply there, waiting to be addressed.

But again, style mediates potential readerships as well as actually existing ones. I agree that “jargon vs plain language” is an unhelpful way to frame the issue, but it remains the case that style is massively consequential in  facilitating relationships with readers. Let’s be sympathetic, though, and reformulate Robin’s view as saying that through its very style, public intellectual work can generate new publics and reorganize existing audiences. And I would certainly agree with him that Gender Trouble – in and through its style – has helped generate a “queer polity.” Let’s grant Robin’s claim that public intellectual work at its best is generative: that it can bring into being new publics, as Butler’s work has.

But we need a second big qualification here. Robin’s focus on an “aspiration to create an audience” presumes that we can distinguish between authors with this aspiration and authors that lack it. Ironically, though, it’s not true that this cultural generativity (or even a radically reimagined audience) was in any way Butler’s aspiration when she wrote the book. She explains herself that Gender Trouble was addressed to Anglophone feminist theorists of the 80s, a perfectly comprehensible public that was at that point already becoming institutionalized in the academy (I think) and did not need to be a particular object of authorial aspiration. Indeed, she tells us that she was quite surprised by the unexpected larger success of her book, in fact. Here’s what she wrote in the 1999 preface to the book:

Ten years ago I completed the manuscript of Gender Trouble and sent it to Routledge for publication. I did not know that the text would have as wide an audience as it has had, nor did I know that it would constitute a provocative “intervention” in feminist theory or be cited as one of the founding texts of queer theory. The life of the text has exceeded my intentions, and that is surely in part the result of the changing context of its reception. As I wrote it, I understood myself to be in an embattled and oppositional relation to certain forms of feminism, even as I understood the text to be part of feminism itself.

It’s fair to say that Robin’s appeal to “aspiration” as the criterion of public intellection is a sneaky way of bringing back authorial intentionality into our analysis. But Butler notes herself that her intentions were fairly circumscribed (to the feminist theoretical field at the time) and in no way decisive. Let us then, contra Robin, not appeal to authorial aspiration as the key ingredient in generative public-intellectual work.

It seems better to me to note, instead, that every author writes for an idealized readership that never corresponds exactly to an actual audience (if any), and that any text is susceptible to becoming culturally generative, whether or not the author aspired to that generativity. Contrast Gender Trouble‘s unexpected success with Hardt and Negri’s intentionally anthemic, though similarly difficult book EmpireEmpire was a minor hit on the academic left, but it didn’t found any new polity, even though it sure seemed like it aspired to.

In sum, if we cut out Robin’s dismissal of “style” and his appeals to authorial aspiration, we’re still left with a perfectly plausible thesis: that “public intellectuals” can be distinguished from what one of my French interlocutors called “tutors of the status quo” because their work (and its characteristic style) ends up generating new discourses and thought-worlds, and new polities and publics around them. You can’t decide to be a public intellectual, on that view, because what counts is really one’s interaction with social context, even as this may take the form of rupture. Generativity vs repetition is a spectrum, moreover, but it’s not impossible to judge case by case, and Robin is obviously right that Butler’s work has been massively generative.

I wanted to conclude, nevertheless, with a rudimentary dialectical qualification to Robin’s thesis. In short: intellectual work can be generative even as it is alienating. Too often we assume that inaccessible writing is an either/or — either it’s good and generative (and the detractors are misguided), or it’s bad (and intentionally incomprehensible and its defenders are elitists). All my research in university classrooms confirms that it is almost always both: some readers are inspired, others are excluded; some have their mind blown (gender is iterative!) and others (often those with less academic capital, which sometimes correlates with race and class lines) are totally frustrated. I wish our analyses of intellectual work could all begin with the premise that academic writing is an instrument of social fracture and not only of cultural production.

Robin misses this, because he wrongly dismisses the mediating force of style, replacing it with a speculative aspiration-to-create-new-publics. Along the way, he manages to create a wrongly one-sided image of Butler’s work, as if it were purely positive in its aspirational generativity, and in no way structured by academic forms of exclusion (since “actual audiences” and “jargon” aren’t the real issues for Robin).

Don’t get me wrong — I admire Butler as a critical theorist, and the cultural circulation of her work is radically distinct from her person, fanzines aside. But we have to be attuned to the institutional reality of critical theory in the university, and Butler’s work, to me, is a also a reminder that even our great successes cast shadows and create wounds in the social body.

3 thoughts on “Style, bad prose, and Corey Robin’s theory of public intellectuals

  1. Fascinating, thanks for posting this, Eli. Wouldn’t Agamben be another example of the importance of context? I.e., his work on camps surely found such a receptive audience because of the moment. That is, with Gitmo’s Camp X-ray and its ilk, there was a sharply increased need to think about such spaces, globally, and in a sense, Agamben was in the right place at the right time. Not to disrespect his work, but to point out the relevance of temporal, external, and contextual factors to theory-in-itself.

    1. Hi Paul, yep, Agamben seems like a good example to me as well (though I don’t know a lot about his life and career to be honest). It seems to me in any event that most reasonable critical theorists understand that their relationship to a public is a matter of historical and institutional conjunctures that are outside their control. I don’t really feel that there is any disrespect involved in pointing that out (though it also occurs to me that only a deeply hierarchical intellectual culture would tell us that we MUST respect famous theorists as such…).

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