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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New temporalities and spatialities of “theory” in the humanities

Three recent articles in the Chronicle of Higher Ed deal with the politics of literary theory and the importation of French post-structuralist thought into the U.S. Jeffrey Williams, in “Why Today’s Publishing World is Reprising the Past,” examines a recent trend towards reprinting famous classics of yesterday’s theory scene — Fredric Jameson, Jonathan Culler, Gayatri Spivak, and the like. “The era of theory was presentist, its stance forward-looking. Now it seems to have shifted to memorializing its own past,” he comments. He explains this partly as the shift from “revolutionary,” unsettled science to the successful institution of a new “theory” paradigm, partly as a result of decreased financial support and increasingly precarious jobs in the humanities. But what seems interesting to me is the shift in temporal orientation itself. Academics play with time in so many ways. Sometimes memorializing the past becomes a strategy for making intellectual progress in the present. Other times, the fantasy of a radical break with the past is the occasion for reproducing the past without knowing it.

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