Bad academic writing as status performance

From “On Intellectual Craftsmanship,” an essay from The Sociological Imagination that I love:

In many academic circles today anyone who tries to write in a widely intelligible manner is liable to be condemned as a ‘mere literary man’ or, worse still, ‘a mere journalist.’ Perhaps you have already learned that these phrases, as commonly use, only indicate the spurious inference: superficial because readable. The academic man in America is trying to carry on a serious intellectual life in a social context that often seems quite set against it. His prestige must make up for many of the dominant values he has sacrificed by choosing an academic career. His claims for prestige readily become tied to his self-image as a ‘scientist.’… It is this situation, I think, that is often at the bottom of the elaborate vocabulary and involved manner of speaking and writing. It is less difficult to learn this manner than not. It has become a convention–those who do not use it are subject to moral disapproval.

…Desire for status is one reason why academic men slip so readily into unintelligibility. And that, in turn, is one reason why they do not have the status they desire. A truly vicious circle–but one out of which any scholar can easily break.

…To overcome the academic prose you have first to overcome the academic pose.

….Most ‘socspeak’ [that is, sociology speak] is unrelated to any complexity of subject matter or thought. It is used–I think almost entirely–to establish academic claims for one’s self; to write in this way is to say to the reader (often I am sure without knowing it): ‘I know something that is so difficult that you can understand it only if you first learn my difficult language. In the meantime, you are merely a journalist, a layman, or some other sort of undeveloped type.’

…..The line between profundity and verbiage is often delicate, even perilous.

There are, of course, other explanations besides status for academic writing being unintelligible to the uninitiated. For instance, jargon could be one response to outside political pressure — one can imagine academic radicals like Hardt and Negri burying their politics in the grave of their prose. As people like David Graeber have argued, academics are permitted to espouse the most radical politics they can imagine, just so long as their audience is massively restricted by the social barriers embodied in their writing style. And as Mills also indicates, academic style is often something less than a means of attaining status; it can function simply as a condition of disciplinary belonging or group membership.

Alas, I don’t have time to give a good analysis of the politics of academic style, one more contextually specific than this one. But I like the idea that style is the vehicle for academics’ self-undermining desires, for a “vicious circle” of unrealized status or political involvement. Academic writing is an object of attachment and not just a communication medium. “Pose” not only “prose,” as Mills puts it. And a “pose” based on the logical fallacy that Mills points out: that readability is superficiality. My experience is that Graeber’s plain-spoken academic language is admired for that very reason (like in his book on value), and total incomprehensibility is generally scorned, but there is also prejudice, I think, against academics who are always too plain-spoken and seem not to “get” the subtlety of more baroque arguments. This points to a further contradiction in academic writing, which Mills knew but didn’t exactly say: academic writing becomes the vehicle for contradictory social dynamics; that is, our desire to communicate and our desire to produce community (or distinction) are often at odds with each other when we evaluate academic writing.

Finally, I note for further thought Mills’ hypothesis that, by becoming an academic, one is not just sacrificing income, but also the dominant values of the society that one is in a way rejecting, by opting out of (what’s ludicrously called) the “real world.”