Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Bad Writing

Jeff, at The Différance Engine, has a post up entitled Judith Butler: Tear Her for Her Bad Writing. The post begins as an examination of the possibility that academic blogging might be an antidote to academic obscurantism (citing Acephalous on whether blogging can derail academic careers), and/or a forum for conversational expression of ideas under construction (citing Melissa Greg, Feeling Ordinary: Blogging as Conversational Scholarship). No discussion of academic opacity is complete, of course, without a reference to The Joke That Would Not Die, Judith Butler's "victory" in the Fourth (and, apparently, last) Bad Writing Contest 1998, and Jeff's is no exception. Jeff makes a number of interesting connections between overbaked prose and blog research, so go read his post. I'm cross-posting over here to air some thoughts about the facile notion that Butler's prose is "bad writing."
In the February 22, 1999 issue of The New Republic, Martha Nussbaum, Ernst Freund Distinguished Service Professor of Law and Ethics at The University of Chicago, wrote an article about Judith Butler entitled The Professor of Parody, in which she took Butler to task for thinking and writing about the anti-feminist political constraints imposed by ordinary language instead of concerning herself with the real lives of actual women. In the course of the article, Nussbaum quotes Butler's winning entry in the Bad Writing Contest and purports to rewrite it in what she presumably considers good writing.
Butler's original was drawn from “Further Reflections on the Conversations of Our Time,” an article in the scholarly journal Diacritics (1997)
The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

Nussbaum's rewrite:
Marxist accounts, focusing on capital as the central force structuring social relations, depicted the operations of that force as everywhere uniform. By contrast, Althusserian accounts, focusing on power, see the operations of that force as variegated and as shifting over time.

Nussbaum comments: [Butler] "prefers a verbosity that causes the reader to expend so much effort in deciphering her prose that little energy is left for assessing the truth of the claims."
Assuming without deciding that the rewrite is better writing than the original, a little attention to Nussbaum's version reveals that it both trivializes and misstates Butler's point. For starters, Nussbaum identifies as Butler's main point an assertion about views of how capital structures social relations that Butler puts in a subordinate clause on the way to saying something else. Nussbaum's "clarification" is of the Fox News variety--it can be understood without effort but conceals its claims and leaves us without the means to assess their truth.
I think Nussbaum's misinterpretation of Butler is more than confusion about Althusser. (I am not well-read enough to opine on whether Butler has correctly characterized two strains of Althusserian thought, or on whether Nussbaum correctly identified one of those strains but not the other as "Marxist".) Butler's writing in the celebrated passage, bad or not, is difficult. Nussbaum clearly does not care what Butler is saying and so does not take the time and energy to be sure that her paraphrase is accurate. Moreover, Nussbaum knows that her easy version will supplant the difficult original, and that few if any readers of The New Republic (where Nussbaum's version was published) will bother to compare the two. This is why Nussbaum's gloss, like Fox News, is so pernicious.
Further, Nussbaum's statement impedes understanding of Butler's point: for example, Nussbaum refers to capital as a "force structuring social relations," once thought to be "everywhere uniform" in its "operations." But this description of capital as an operating force imports into what Nussbaum calls the "Marxist" view the temporality that Butler says is an insight resulting from the newer view of hegemony. Nussbaum's use of the word "force" rather than, say, framework, or "crystalline order" (Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, Literary Theory: An Anthology), obliterates much of the distinction Butler is making.
A reader turning to Nussbaum for help in understanding Butler would come away more bewildered than ever. A reader relying entirely on Nussbaum (or an extended gloss on Butler of the same quality) to find out what Butler had to say would conclude that Butler's ideas were superficial and banal when, in fact, the ideas expressed were Nussbaum's, if anyone's. For an extended example of this phenomenon see Derrida's reception in the US. My own appreciation of Derrida was derailed for several years by my reliance on secondary clarifiers, both well-intentioned and malevolent.
Maybe Butler's ideas are banal (or maybe not), and maybe her writing is bad (or maybe not), but Nussbaum's rewrite proves neither. Instead, it demonstrates the danger and difficulty of paraphrase.
None of this even addresses Butler's contention in Excitable Speech that a demand for "ordinary language" can be and often is a form of censorship. This censorship can take several forms: there is the well-known preference in the mainstream media for sound bites over careful explanations, effectively distorting discourse and silencing the non-obvious. There is the refusal to acknowledge that new ways of thinking are worthy of consideration by established academic disciplines: as Nussbaum smugly remarks of Butler, "Trained as a philosopher, she is frequently seen (more by people in literature than by philosophers) as a major thinker about gender, power, and the body" (emphasis added). "[O]ne should ask whether it [writing like Butler's] belongs to the philosophical tradition at all." Any student of Continental philosophy who has looked for a home in a US philosophy department understands the censorious nature of that observation.
Another kind of censorship is demonstrated in Nussbaum's TNR article where, in addition to ridiculing Butler's prose, she labels Buter a "hip defeatist" for writing and thinking rather than acting. Lamenting the supposed passage of the good old days when feminists cared about the lives of real women, Nussbaum complained:
Something more insidious than provincialism has come to prominence in the American academy. It is the virtually complete turning from the material side of life, toward a type of verbal and symbolic politics that makes only the flimsiest of connections with the real situation of real women. Feminist thinkers of the new symbolic type would appear to believe that the way to do feminist politics is to use words in a subversive way, in academic publications of lofty obscurity and disdainful abstractness. These symbolic gestures, it is believed, are themselves a form of political resistance; and so one need not engage with messy things such as legislatures and movements in order to act daringly.
My own understanding of the idea being dismissed here is that efforts to make feminism seem reasonable in established academic or "common sense" terms are doomed ultimately to failure because feminism does not "make sense" in the patriarchal tradition dominating our language and thought. This theoretical conclusion does not counsel inactivity; instead, it cautions feminists not to get drawn into unwinnable arguments to try to convince others they are right before taking action. If, indeed, the linguistic and intellectual cards are stacked against feminist ideas (which I'm inclined to believe but Nussbaum, an Aristotelian, may not be), then it is a waste of time to argue with The Man on his own terms (the Master's tools, etc.) In this sense, Butler's intellectualizing is no more defeatist than Nussbaum's; maybe less so in that Butler at least appreciates the irony of her own position.

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Clampett said...

Thanks for this.

Am I incorrect in assuming that the root of this passive-aggressive sniping is a disagreement over the most efficient way to expand the social agency of academe?

Bitch | Lab said...

i think i love you. no. i know i love you. i love you i love you i love you.

i love you. ok. fill up a couple of screen scrolls with I love you. and i've only got to the part where you say that nussbaum fancied herself writing clearly.


Bitch | Lab said...

What is truly irritating is that Nussbaum ought to try blogging. Were she to spend, oh say, a year doing so, she will read, uncensored, just how hard it is for a lot of people, even graduates of college, to understand what she wrote.

I typically say that to anyone who thinks it's easy writing to the general audience -- because I've done that for about 15 years now in several different capacities. The good thing for me was that, unlike so many academics (and I'm not an academic currently), I've actually had the honor of getting feedback from readers.

Even when you are writing prose that nearly any academic who appreciates clear writing will tell you is just what they mean by the phrase, I have learned that it is not at all clear to most folks reading.

Ooooo. My blood boils on this topic!

Bitch | Lab said...

>>> If Structuralists saw signs as windows to a trans-empirical world of crystalline order, of identities of form that maintained themselves over time and outside of history, of codes of meaning that seemed exempt from the differences entailed by the contingencies of living examples, Post-Structuralist [sic] claims all such orders are strategies of power and social control… <<<<

this was offered as a lucid piece of prose.

I'm slayed. Truly slayed. Seriously? This would not be understood by even a degreed member of the reading public, let alone someone who didn't have a college degree.

Call me conceited, but seriously? I don't think anyone who has never actually had to write for the average college-educated bloke -- and gotten *honest* feedback -- should even speak to this issue.

OK. I'm obsesses. 3 comments in a row! But it is my pet peeve!

I'm not saying people are dumb, far from it. I am saying that academic discourse is a product of a discipline. It has a language just like plumbing has a language. When my partner comes in from turning wrenches on The Beast and shows off his handiwork, I have NO clue what he's talking about.

I realize people think academics have some sort of public mission -- I spent years on a couple of research projects fueled by that same passion.

But seriously? It ain't easy, even when every soul on that large, funded research project tries hard to be understood by the general public.

there are a lot of barriers to that understanding -- and a good deal of it has to do with social class, status, anti-intellectualism, etc. in this culture.

I dare say that tackling those things is the issue. But, it's easier to attack bad writing -- which, by the way, has been going on in my discpline (sociology) since dogs ruled the earth.

*le sigh*

OK. I exagerrate. There was a lot of navel gazing in the 50s about tortured specialist prose in my discipline.

Besides which, when folks understand it, it doesn't always mean happy happy joy joy. e.g., The authors of Small Town in MAss Society were burned in effigy when the residents of the community they studied read their work.


Anonymous said...

If Martha Nussbaum has misinterpreted Judith Butler, the fault would seem to lie largely with Butler herself. Any style of writing that overuses obscure terms distracts from the actual "philosophy", as Nussbaum explicitly points out. Furthermore, the specific writing in the aforementioned passage, by not being specific at ALL (i.e. contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power---what exactly is she referring to?) opens itself up to numerous interpretaions. This is slightly akin to Michel Foucault's criticism of Derrida which claimed that Derrida intentionally obscured his work to hide the weakness of his ideas, and then "terrorized" anyone who criticized those ideas as not being intelligent enough. Thus, Nussbaum's reworking has an implicit revelation about Butler's writing. As Friedrich Nietzsche so aptly put it: "Those who know that they are profound strive for clarity. Those who would like to seem profound to the crowd strive for obscurity". One might question why Butler chooses to write in this style at all! If she believes in her own ideas, why can't she effectively put them across (whereas scientists, linguists, other philosophers, and literary critics alike have been able to do so)! Is it possible to say that John Rawls, Noam Chomsky, Brian Greene, and Terry Eagleton are only able to convey their ideas because their ideas are inferior to Butler's???
From a purely philosophical standpoint, the cards are stacked for Butler to fail because she is so solipsistic and narrowed to her own brand of reason. She has no experience or apparent knowledge of biology, and so for her to writing biology off in her "Gender Trouble" without being aware of biologists' greatest arguments greatly discredits her already obscurely written ideas. Butler's worst enemy is Butler.
Finally, the problem with writing off our intellectual tradition and our thought as patriarchal is itself a wildly far-out claim that fails to pick out the specific problems that patriarchal thought have. Why is our thought and language, even if founded by patriarchal insitutions or supporting patriarchal beliefs, limited in use to men? Surely there cannot be a ressentiment of men founded on anger that "men got there first"??? If this is so, then Butler (and you as well if you agree with her) are culpable of an enormous genetic fallacy. Nussbaum has argued, with precision and care, that the arguments of the man Socrates, founded on sheer reason and dialectic, can be used by women to pave the way for a new future for feminisim.