Please send entries to CONTEST/Lingua Franca /22 W. 38th Street/4th Floor/Ny, Ny 10018 By May 15, 1999. Include your name, address, and phone number, as well as your email address if possible. Entries must be no more than 250 words in length.
WHAT DISCIPLINE IS RESPONSIBLE FOR
THE WORST ACADEMIC PROSE?
LAST SUMMER, PRESIDENT Clinton presented a major syntax simplification initiative: "The federal governments writing must be in plain language," demanded the stylist-in-chief. "By using plain language, we send a clear message about what the government is doing, what it requires, and what services it offers." At the same time, Vice President Gore announced that the government would give a monthly award to the federal employee who uncovered the most horrifying example of bureaucratic prose. The award would be termed the Meleagris Gallopavo Garrulitas Terminatrix Encomium or Gobbledygook Elimination Prize. Winners would receive "a button with a turkey head on it and line through it," Gore explained.
Of course, if theres any form of discourse with a reputation worse than bureaucratese, its academese. In the late-nineteenth century, the French sociologist Gabriel Tarde noted that those in search of delightful speech should stay away from scientific congresses. And since that time, academic prose has served as an object of disdain for academic and nonacademic alike. Roger Kimball notes that "as clarity and intelligibility are scorned as simple-minded...[the] triumph of opacity has largely succeeded in transforming serious discussion of art, literature, and culture into a congeries of hermetic language games." In response, Jonathan Culler protests an oppressive "ideology of lucidity" that he believes critics like Kimball have attempted to force upon the academy.
Academic prose may be a disaster. But can anything be done? Three years ago, Philosophy and Literature, an excellent humanities journal co-edited by Denis Dutton and Patrick Henry, established an annual Bad Writing Contest. Each year, the journal has awarded a prize to the "ugliest, most stylistically awful passage found in a scholarly book or article published in the last few years." The 1998 prize went to UC-Berkeley theorist Judith Butler. The runner-up was the University of Chicagos Homhi Bhabha, who produced this remarkable sentence in his book Locations of Culture (Routledge, 1994):
If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate efforts to normalize formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.
Not surprisingly, the journals award winners have tended to come from the postmodern wing of the academy, where scholars like Bhabha and Butler have displayed an affinity for contorted syntax, a love of neologisms, and a weakness for the notion that to deconstruct linguistic categories is to reconstruct society.
But its worth pointing out that obscurantism does not belong to the poststructuralist, the Francophile, or the cultural studies enthusiast alone. It can be found wherever academics are known to congregate. Indeed, as Gerald Graff once pointed out, its far easier to understand the usually turgid Fredric Jamesons injunction "Always historicize!" than it is to grasp the drift of many pre-1970s scholars. In a not untypical sentence, Talcott Parsons, the one-time dean of sociology, wrote
The first relation is that which lies closest to positivsitic modes of thought, since for thought processes the elements of scientific methodology constitute such a norm, especially the logical, and in so far as action is rational, in the sense employed throughout this study, the same elements are normative not only to thought but also to action.
It may have been such assaults on the English language that inspired W.H. Auden to instruct Harvard graduates of 1946: "Thou shalt not sit/ with statisticians nor commit/ a social science."
With these thoughts in mind, we would like to invite our readers to submit their favorite examples of bad writing in a non-postmodern idiom. Post-modernism is, of course, a vague notion. But the editors believe that they know an example of it when they see it. Any text that is not in translation and appeared originally in an academic journal or academic book during the past fifty years is eligible for the award. Please keep the nominations under 250 words and send them to us by May 15, 1999. The reader with the best entry will receive a three-year subscription to Lingua Francaand a collection of George Orwells essays.