“Resolved: Academic Jargon Is Bad.” Please Discuss

Recently I visited a UT class session that was discussing Judith Butler. This provoked the perennial complaints about Butler’s prose—leading toward the perennial observation that she once won an award for the worst written sentence of the year.

I actually agree that prose by Butler—not to speak of her less insightful imitators and competitors who write similarly—is often unnecessarily convoluted. Once I wrote an article called “New Approaches to Religion and Culture” that (alongside quite a few other “balls in the air” that it juggled) included this quote:

There is nothing wrong with academic shorthand, technical vocabularies, or complex arguments. It is better to read a brilliant argument that needs editing than a mediocre one presented in a scintillating style. Nor should we underestimate the difficulty of challenging common sense assumptions, especially for writers who seek a hearing for new ideas at the highest levels of academia. The simple point is that it is a virtue, all else being equal, to write clearly in a way that respects readers, and that recent trends in cultural theory have been downward when judged from this point of view.*

I try to hold this rule of thumb—my “simple point”—together in the same brain with the idea that I introduced as Chomsky’s in my post on October 9th. Butler made the same point with compelling eloquence and lucidity in her response to her “award”: “If common sense sometimes preserves the social status quo, and that status quo sometimes treats unjust social hierarchies as natural, it makes good sense on such occasions to find ways of challenging common sense.” At times this challenge cannot be stated in language that seems natural and commonsensical, but rather (as Butler says, citing Herbert Marcuse) it “presupposes the collapse and invalidation of precisely that universe of discourse and behavior into which you want to translate it.”**

My article made a complementary point this way:

Although impatience with jargon may be entwined with distaste for the ideas expressed through jargon, these two are separate issues. Consider Edward Said’s complaint about theorists who use styles of “almost unimaginable rebarbitativeness” and display an “astonishing sense of weightlessness with regard to the gravity of history” (from his Culture and Imperialism, 1993: 278–79). Because these words ring so true as an indictment of much recent writing, they make it easy to forget that intellectuals who lack a sense of history may write beautifully (indeed neoconservative pundits with these traits are legion) while scholars with offputting styles may contribute indispensable critiques of them.

In any case, Butler’s “award” has always bemused me. Rather than mock her prize-winning sentence, I thought from the first time I read it that it was admirably clear and helpful. Not lovely or easy but precise and incisive. Here it is from the journal Diacritics in 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.

What does liking this mean for the prospect of my own success as a blogger? I suppose one should not bet heavily on me.


*From Mark Hulsether, “New Approaches to the Study of Religion and Culture,” New Approaches to the Study of Religion, ed. Peter Antes, Armin Geertz, and Randi Warne (Berlin: Verlag de Gruyter, 2004), 344-382.

**From Judith Butler, “A ‘Bad Writer’ Bites Back,” New York Times (20 March 1999), A15.

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