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Whose Bad Writing?

From: Philosophy and Literature
Volume 23, Number 1, April 1999
pp. 174-180 | 10.1353/phl.1999.0015

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Philosophy and Literature 23.1 (1999) 174-180

Notes and Fragments

What exactly is the point of Philosophy and Literature's Bad Writing Contest? Undeniably it helps puncture inflated egos, as the nominees are usually big time academic players and the nominators obscure scribes. In that case, the awards would seem to be a welcomed bit of academic populism. However, I am disturbed by what those less charitable than I may regard as the irresponsible character of the contest, since the nominators are not compelled to advance a proper diagnosis of the nominated pieces of "bad writing." Is it that their authors are literally talking gibberish, as was allegedly demonstrated in the Sokal Hoax, or are they simply in need of stricter editors and less indulgent audiences? These are two very different diagnoses, the blurring of which has also been characteristic of the more mischievous attacks launched on trendy forms of critical theory in the overlapping skirmishes known as the "culture wars," the "canon wars," and most recently the "science wars." While I have no reason to believe that either the readers or editors of Philosophy and Literature wish to add fuel to these fires, the type of textual engagement fostered by the contest does not inspire confidence. Could it even be that the nominators shy away from attempting to explain the bad writing because they are not themselves certain what lies behind it but are afraid to reveal their own ignorance in the process?

In what follows I concentrate on the 1998 winning entry because while I think it is legitimately regarded as bad writing, its selection raises some deeper issues that the contest might usefully address in the future. But to give the reader a sense of how I think about these things, I shall briefly deliver my own verdicts on the previous two years' winners, sentences taken from Fredric Jameson's Signatures of the Visible and Roy Bhaskar's Plato, Etc.

Jameson's award winner began notoriously, "The visual is essentially pornographic" and then continues in a vaguely menacing manner. I would say that this is "bad" only in a rather old-fashioned sense: the extent to which the visual is pornographic is never made entirely clear, and so the reader remains unsure whether the metaphor is meant to be deep or superficial. I say "old-fashioned" because academics inhabiting the postmodern condition should be used to reading "into" such a semantically underdetermined text as much or little depth as would enable them to continue to engage with what the author has to say -- especially given that the sentence is the first in the book!

Bhaskar's passage, which attempts to compress the entire history of Western philosophy into a sentence, is somewhat more difficult to evaluate. However, it appears to be a clumsy instance of what Adorno called "combinatorial writing," namely, the attempt to capture the totality of a complex thought by beckoning the reader to reflect off its various parts. Bhaskar does not simply want to survey the history of Western thought in a hurry. Rather he aims to highlight the ways philosophers have resolved the age-old ambivalence between the actual and the real. For Bhaskar, the two must be kept separate in order to underwrite an "emancipatory epistemology" in which "the ought" (a.k.a. the real) transcends "the is" (a.k.a. the actual). The defense of this sort of writing, in Bhaskar's case, is that it may be the only means at his disposal to philosophize radically -- that is, conjure up in one thought that positivism, existentialism, and postmodernism are successive historical moments of the objectionable "actualist" philosophy. I am not necessarily persuaded by this view, but it has the virtue of problematizing the grammarian's cliché that a sentence expresses a complete thought.

My concern with the phenomenon of bad writing extends more than fifteen years to the very beginning of my academic career. While writing my doctoral thesis under the watchful gaze of positivism's last stand in American philosophy, I published several articles -- including in this journal -- that attempted to translate French poststructuralist thought into an idiom that analytic philosophers might appreciate. In fact, it was this...

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