Sunday, October 11, 2009

Language Crimes: Incomprehensible Writing From Academia

One of my favorite observers of crimes against language is Dennis Dutton. For a brief period in the 1990s he ran a wonderful annual contest: the best bad writing of the year. At last, someone had the balls to puncture the pompous world of academic writing, if only for a brief few years.

This laughable single-sentence paragraph won the 1998 Bad Writing contest:

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.

--Judith Butler, from her essay Further Reflections on the Conversations of Our Time, in the journal Diacritics

Dutton's reaction? "This sentence beats readers into submission."

Horrible writing doesn't have to be long-winded, however. Here's a winning writing sample from 1997:

The lure of imaginary totality is momentarily frozen before the dialectic of desire hastens on within symbolic chains.

--from Making Monstrous: Frankenstein, Criticism, Theory, by Fred Botting

Finally, a winner from 1996:

Punctuated by what became ubiquitous sound bites — Tonya dashing after the tow truck, Nancy sailing the ice with one leg reaching for heaven — this melodrama parsed the transgressive hybridity of un-narrativized representative bodies back into recognizable heterovisual codes.

--From the essay Tonya’s Bad Boot in the book Women on Ice, edited by Cynthia Baughman.

I'm sure some of these bad writing samples were written by reasonably intelligent people, but their copy indicates otherwise. Never confuse complex writing with insightful thinking.

I don't know why Dutton discontinued his annual Bad Writing Awards. I really miss them.