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.