Steve Fuller on bad writing

Steve Fuller, a social epistemologist I have some acquaintance with (and who is extremely controversial for defending intelligent design in the Dover school board case), has for some time had one of the more interesting takes on “bad writing” in the humanities. One of his earlier diagnoses appeared in Philosophy & Literature ten years ago; a more recent one appears in the middle of his curious (and, I might add, extremely readable) 2005 book, The Intellectual. This from the middle of an imaginary dialogue between “the intellectual” and “the philosopher”:

Intellectual: … Difficulty is illegitimately manufactured whenever an absence of empirical breadth is mistaken for the presence of conceptual depth. Say you restrict yourself to speaking in the name of Marx and Freud, and then address things that cast doubt on what they said, such as the absence of a proletarian revolution or the presence of post-Oedipal identity formation. Not surprisingly, you end up saying some rather complicated and paradoxical things. But you have succeeded only in engaging in some roundabout speech that could have been avoided, had you availed yourself of a less sectarian vocabulary. But the continental philosophical game is mostly about deep reading and roundabout speech. By the time you have gone to the trouble of learning the relevant codes, you will have become an ‘insider’, capable of wielding a sort of esoteric power by virtue of that fact alone. This is a trick that the US continental philosopher and queer theorist Judith Butler learned from Plato.

Philosopher: All I know about Butler is that a few years ago she won the ‘Bad Writing’ contest awarded each year by the editors of the journal Philosophy and Literature. So she must not have been that successful.

I: Au contraire. In fact, the editors played right into Butler’s hands, though neither she nor they appreciated it at the time. An accusation of ‘Bad Writing’ boils down to the charge that the author doesn’t know what she’s talking about. In fact, of course, it implies only that the accuser doesn’t know what the author is talking about — and hopes that others share this problem.

P: But why worry about Butler’s literary malfeasance in the first place?

I: Exactly the point! That she is accused at all is already a major concession to her power. (This is why intellectuals like to make accusations: we want to force the accused to reveal the power they’re trying to hide.) So all that Butler had to do after her opponents’ opening blunder was to use the least force possible in displaying her power, preferably by conveying magnanimity. In short: don’t insult the accuser. Butler managed this is no less than The New York Times. She portrayed difficult writing as a kind of self-sacrifice that few have either the will or the opportunity to perform. The reader was left believing that Butler and her fellow travelers write as great explorers sailing to uncharted regions under the flag of Humanity.

P: Once again, I detect a note of sarcasm in your analysis. So what’s the point?

I: The point is that accusations of ‘Bad Writing’ merely refinrce the sort of difficult writing championed by Butler and others influenced by continental philosophy. The real problem isn’t that Butler doesn’t know what she’s talking about. The problem is that what she’s talking about isn’t best served by what she knows. She has clearly raised some important issues relating to gender identity, especially once the biological basis of sexuality is called into question. These issues are bound to loom large in law and politics in the coming years, especially as developments in medical research and biotechnology allow for various cross-gendered possibilities that go well beyond cross-dressing: suppose people could easily undergo a sex change or be equipped to performa role traditionally restricted to one sex – such as carrying a pregnancy to term? However, you can’t get very far addressing these questions if you’re armed with little more than a pastiche of recent French post-structuralist thought.

I put in bold the parts that I find most interesting. I particularly like the analysis of “bad writing” as a kind of performative speech act – one which is based on shared incomprehension on the part of its utterer as well as their audience, one which, in a sense, projects ignorance and incomprehension into the writer when in point of fact it exists primarily in the reader. This is an important compromise position between two overly dichotomous positions on “bad academic writing” — one of which reduces charges of “bad writing” to a misleading rhetoric that hides other political projects (of advocating a more culturally conservative role for the humanities, for example); the other of which would view bad writing as simply “bad” according to purely linguistic and stylistic criteria (themselves probably unanalyzed). One is too dismissive of the fact that some people actually can’t make head or tail of a given text; another takes for granted that all texts should be equivalently readable. Fuller, in contrast to these positions, interprets “bad writing” accusations as products of a judgment about the writing itself, but one that is the product of a particular community of readers with local norms of intelligibility.

The other things that I find stimulating here are: (1) the idea that the complexity of some academic discourses is unnecessary and arguably even spurious, because it is a product of overly constrictive premises; (2) the idea that one examine important intellectual problems without knowing that one’s methods or prior knowledge are poorly suited to the task. I guess this is a particularly provocative accusation when it comes to Butler because she’s become so canonical, and I don’t really see what Fuller is suggesting she ought to have done instead (and calling her work a post-structuralist “pastiche” is excessive), but I rather like the idea that one’s scholarly habitus can turn into a (valorized, misrecognized) intellectual disability. That seems to me very plausible.

One thought on “Steve Fuller on bad writing

  1. hi again Eli,

    Nice post. This post from my friend Matt describes “I don’t understand” as a conversational powerplay in Italian political circles in the 70s, you might be interested:

    I know for me I get a lot of mileage out of “I don’t understand” as a power play in all kinds of contexts for all kinds of reasons.

    This is barely related, but my sense with regard to a lot of folks’ complaints about elements of continental stuff is that there’s an aesthetic and expressive thing going on that the complainers aren’t in on. I don’t mean to say it’s just style, though. Think of religious speech. When a devout religious person speaks of their faith, I think they feel a sort of satisfaction. That feeling is bound up with a feeling of satisfactory explanation. When a religious person explains something by appeal to religious faith they appeal to a religious statement for support. (“why did that person die?” “It was god’s will”) This use of religious sorts of statement doesn’t provide explanation understood in one sense, because the statement doesn’t have a clear content in terms of reference to the world, but it does provide explanation in another sense – it feels satisfying, it plays the conversational and emotional function of explanation; it may have gaps and involve assumptions but none that are troubling. But only for some people.

    I think a similar thing goes on some of the time with really heavy continental thought. That sounds like it’s a dismissal, and in some cases it is, but that’s not all I mean. I think there’s a level of legitimacy here – there are narrative conventions and emotional expectations to standards of speech and writing, and these standards vary. So for instance “language speaks the subject” might serve in some academic locales as an adequate statement in support of some explanation – it may have gaps and involve assumptions but none that are troubling – but doesn’t in others.

    Sorry if I’m not being clear, sometimes I’m a bad writer. 🙂


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