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Michael Scrivener Louis Finkelman THE POLITICS OF OBSCURITY: THE PLAIN STYLE AND ITS DETRACTORS ". . . the authority of a statement depends so litde on its comprehensibility that it can actually be increased by obscurity." Walter Benjamin1 "He who does not know how to communicate, or communicates badly, in a code that belongs only to him or a few others, is unhappy, and spreads unhappiness around him. If he communicates badly deliberately, he is wicked or at least a discourteous person, because he imposes labor, anguish, or boredom on his readers." Primo Levi2 Strunk and White propound the plain style on aesthetic and practical grounds; Orwell, on moral and political grounds.3 The plain style has largely carried the day in newspaper journalism, in technical writing, and in Freshman Composition papers. While writers often fail to achieve the plain style in these forms of literature, they usually attempt it. According to a recent study of Orwell, "by the 1960s the tradition of which Orwell has been regarded as the twentiethcentury master, the tradition of the 'familiar' style represented by Dryden, Swift, Defoe, and Hazlitt—informal, conversational, clean, fastmoving —had won the allegiance of most educators and intellectuals."4 One notable exception, one preserve where writers can flourish without using the plain style, is academic writing, most notoriously now literary criticism. A glance at almost any literary journal shows that writing about writing is rarely spare and elegant. Typically, it is made up Philosophy and Literature, © 1994, 18: 18-37 Michael Scrivener and Louis Finkelman19 of mystifying abstractions and technical jargon, strung together in meandering sentences, "the most turgid, needlessly abstract, high sounding, and pompously pedantic expository prose," according to Henri Peyre.5 That other academics, such as natural scientists, rely on jargon in their often hermetic prose is not as scandalous, but one rightly expects good writing from literary academics.6 How obscure is the prose in literary criticism today? Here are some specimens, extracted more or less at random from recent articles and books. The examples are genuine but we prefer not to identify the sources because it would be unfair to identify arbitrarily only certain authors; modern criticism is filled with such prose. ? From a recent book: "Michael intercedes within this diversification to promote the recovery ofits denotation before the interpolation of Burkeanism and the reorientations initiated in Edinburgh and Glasgow." ? From an article by an established critic: "Absolute irony is a double movement: stabilizing itself in a linguistic self, a masked production, a doubling from which one can—the ironist, whoever he or she might be, hopes—come to see the writing's madness." ? From a recent essay by a well-published scholar: "In embracing this conception of the subject in history, we discover intricacies of interpretation that allow neither simple absolution nor easy condemnation of Victorian middle-class women on gender and class issues." ? From an article on a Romantic poem: "That the equation between death and non-being (and the corollary opposition between death and being) is a Symbolic construct rather than a given of the Real is demonstrated by the fact that in certain rare instances people break free of this equation." We did not have to search high and low for these examples, which are typical of contemporary literary criticism. The third example is actually readable and in context understandable, but even here the author does not write as clearly as one would like. There are four words ending in "ion"—always a bad sign. A plain style rewrite might be: "If one understands how social and sexual inequality distorts people's choices, then one cannot easilyjudge Victorian middle-class women." The first two examples are beyond our powers of revision; in context, the 20Philosophy and Literature difficulties remain. The fourth example is less opaque if one is familiar with the notoriously obscure psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Indeed, without understanding Lacan's basic ideas, one can make little sense of the entire article. The article was not, however, published in ajournai specializing in Lacan. Nevertheless, conceding for argument's sake the indispensable value of Lacanian concepts, we feel this sentence has flaws according to the standards of the plain style: the syntax is tortured; the parenthetical...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1086-329X
Print ISSN
0190-0013
Pages
pp. 18-37
Launched on MUSE
2011-10-05
Open Access
No
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