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Fish in a Barrel, Take 2

Okay, Exhibit B. While I found several links to the Fish piece as I scanned my feeds this morning, over at the Blogora, Jim links to an article by Jethro Leiberman, an Associate Dean at the New York Law School, called "Bad Writing: Some Thoughts on the Abuse of Scholarly Rhetoric, available through that school's Law Review. A more appropriate exhibit, given my title, as Leiberman takes careful aim at the dead horse (or the barrel-bound fish) we know and love as the "difficulty" of academic writing.

From the abstract for this paper, we are given a glimpse of what is to come: "Bloated, foggy, and enigmatic prose masquerades as profundity that escapes conventional mental grooves. In fact it is useless, unethical, and taken far enough, evil." Well, it's a glimpse only if you count the appearance of the word "evil" in the final sentence of the article, and treat this melodramatic hyperbole as a serious claim, which you might be able to do as long as you're willing to ignore the absolute lack of evidence offered in its support. Oh wait, there's logic: understanding is good, I can't understand what they're saying, so they must be evil. Ahh yes.

Leiberman's article is more sophisticated than this when he tones down the enigmatic prose and sticks to the question of difficulty. He's right, I think, to question the defense of difficulty that's taken place in recent years, although I'd argue that you only earn the right to question it by taking it seriously in the first place. More on that soon.

The article begins with a Sokal-esque parody of difficult writing (and what critique of academic writing would be complete without a nod to the patron saint of academic schadenfreude?), containing such gems as:

This familiar defamiliarization of the conventional Ordinary problematizes much of the turn to the ornate Interpretive. In this sense, the enactment comes, if at all, with foudroyant force, an irresistible tsunami of hypercathexis toward concretized Law.

No, it's not meant to make any sort of sense, although it makes a fair amount of smugness in the first couple of pages. And apparently, this smugness (is it too late, almost 10 years later now, to coin the term Sokality to refer to anti-academic performative smirking?) is called for nowadays:

In fact, I think, something else is new: of late certain academic scholars have sought to justify bad writing. It is necessary, the claim runs, to write mysterious, impenetrable, foggy prose, to embed words in a style inaccessible not merely to the lay reader but to most academic readers as well.

Well, in fact, the claim doesn't quite run thusly, but Leiberman isn't really interested in understanding the claim so much as he is in rounding up the usual tropes to array against some Platonic ideal of clarity. Sokal is one, and of course, the Philosophy and Literature Bad Writing contest is another. Lacan appears in a footnote as particularly inscrutable, of course, and Orwell is trotted out so that Leiberman can write, in sufficiently dramatic fashion, that "Euphemism allows us to gloss over the repugnant thought and avoid the evil deed that it masks." Yeah, that's not an Orwell quote. Evil deeds, indeed.

Leiberman is a dean at a law school, and the essay appears in a law review, so while you and I might think it appropriate that more than one example appear from legal writing, Leiberman satisfies himself with a single passage from a 1952 decision rendered by Justice Felix Frankfurter:

The faculties of the Due Process Clause may be indefinite and vague, but the mode of their ascertainment is not self-willed. In each case “due process of law? requires an evaluation based on a disinterested inquiry pursued in the spirit of science, on a balanced order of facts exactly and fairly stated, on the detached consideration of conflicting claims, on a judgment not ad hoc and episodic but duly mindful of reconciling the needs both of continuity and of change in a progressive society.

Oh. My. God. Impenetrable, right? Well, no. I don't know what the Due Process Clause is, although I can certainly guess. Leiberman asks "How can such language be defended?" in all apparent seriousness. I don't know the Clause or the case, but it seems pretty obvious to me that Frankfurter is suggesting that interpretation of the clause is not an individual decision, but one that should be weighed against the competing forces of the stable precedents of the law and the changing nature of social circumstance. In the footnote to the passage, Leiberman explains, "This passage is not necessarily difficult writing, but it is bad writing nonetheless; it purports to describe a method of ascertaining due process, but its oracular quality denudes it of meaning."

Its oracular quality denudes it of meaning? Oh my pots and kettles. It's hard for me to imagine that anyone reading that decision has a right to expect that a single sentence is going to "describe a method of ascertaining due process," but hey, that's just me. On the other hand, I can easily imagine this sentence appearing either at the beginning or the end of a decision that goes into far greater detail attempting to perform the method alluded to in the passage. And my point, if I may make it without overly denuding it of meaning, is that we can't really know whether or not this is "bad writing" without seeing the context for it. Leiberman describes this as "ennobled, pretty language," but I just don't see it. Perhaps it is indeed vacuous, but not on its own, and certainly not because someone says it is.

Let me say it more bluntly. There is no such thing as "bad writing" or "difficult writing," independent of a particular context. There is writing that I find bad or difficult, but that speaks to my own taste and preference and background, not to some intrinsic quality of the text itself. And that's the largest problem with this article, and indeed, this whole genre of academic anti-academicism. It's also the problem with collections that defend difficult writing, mostly because they've already given away the most obvious point: difficulty is not a textual feature, but rather a ratio that involves a host of factors, including vocabulary, register, sentence length, reader background, and textual context. A text is not difficult; it is difficult for somebody: me, you, us, them, whoever.

So to insist that writing should be difficult is to exclude most of humankind from understanding whatever it is that the difficult writers think the difficult writing purports to be saying. It is to build walls around the purveyors of such prose, not to goad outsiders into thinking anew. It dampens the spirit of inquiry for all except the initiate, and the more difficult the writing the smaller the inner circle. It mocks humanity’s hard-fought battle to think its way out of the jungle, to articulate a life worth living, to aspire through language, thought made manifest, to a richer, warmer, fairer life. Writing that is opaque, obscure, tortured — difficult writing — is humbug. Its purveyors condescend toward their audiences and are contemptuous of their readers.

By the end of this essay, it's just too easy to poke at. So let me close with a couple of final thoughts. First, there's a weird sort of entitlement operating here: I don't understand your writing, therefore you must be writing it in such a way so as to keep from understanding it. This is humbug. I don't defend difficult prose, but I defend our right to write to our audience. Yes, "the smaller the inner circle," but to think that this is a result of complicated prose, and has nothing to do with the downsizing of the humanities, is precisely the kind of euphemistic thinking that this article appears to condemn. To attribute these qualities (opacity, obscurity, torture) to a given text is to decontextualize it in a way that ignores the conditions of its production and its circulation.

And it's striking to me, and this is perhaps my second closing point, that in his swirl of metaphors for bad writing, Leiberman never once pauses to ask whether or not he's examining cause or effect. He marches forward, as any number of similar critics do, and accuses so-called difficult writers, by implication at least, of evil, never once stopping to think about why scholars might write in such a fashion. And the fact of the matter is that for most of us who toil away in the humanities, our audience will never be more than a couple of hundred readers, and guess what? That's not the result of "difficult" writing, but one of the preconditions. Most academic writing is produced for a fairly select audience, an audience that shares vocabularies and references that are going to appear opaque to the person who doesn't share them. Difficult writing is as much the result of the absence of a broader audience for academic work as it is a cause.

But then, testing that claim would require one to take even "difficult" writing seriously, rather than presenting decontextualized examples of it for our collective derision. Ah well. If nothing else, this essay provides ample evidence for the claim that writing that is clear, transparent, and obvious — easy writing — is no less capable of humbug.

That is all. Happy June.

Comments

Still reading, when I don't find your writing too difficult. This one I understood and I can't agree with you more.

Writing is an endangered species and should be preserved if possible.