The vignette: a bad ethnographic category

Ethnographers are constantly writing what they call vignettes. What they mean by this word is short stories. The core claim of this post is that short stories are great, and we should keep writing them, but that we should stop trivializing them by using this problematic, denigrating term.

What is a vignette? Vigne is vine (in French) and vignette is thus “little vine,” which is certainly an evocative image. But what does a little vine do for ethnographers?

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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.”

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Herd overproduction and star overproduction

I’ve been thinking about certain scholars who have written, for lack of a more precise way of putting it, a lot. The sort of people who seem to write a book a year for thirty years. I don’t necessarily mean scholars in, say, the laboratory sciences, but more like the humanists, the anthropologists, the philosophers. Today a post by Brian Leiter quoting a caustic review of the prolific scholar Steve Fuller reminded me of the topic.

If one description of scholarly activity is “producing knowledge,” then logically, wouldn’t we expect that there would be such a thing as “overproducing knowledge”? Can there be an overproduction crisis of scholarship?

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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.

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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.

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