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If you can understand these tortured, indecipherable examples of "transgressive" academic writing, you're driving too close.

By Christopher Hitchens


In one of his toughest efforts at romantic disentanglement, Bertie Wooster has to escape from the ruthless clutches of Florence Craye, powerful and cerebral female terrorist. He is sent screaming to the arms of his ever helpful manservant, Jeeves, when he finds that La Florence wants him to read a book called "Types of Ethical Theory." Helpfully, P.G. Wodehouse furnishes a paragraph of the text (which one later buff discovered to be an extract from an actual book of the period and not an invention of the Master's fertile cerebellum). The extract is unimprovably arcane, elliptical, pompous and obscure.

From this I draw two deductions. The first is that convoluted scholastic prose has a long pedigree as a subject for satire. The second is that there is something about it that truly frightens people.

These reflections are prompted by the award of laurels in the Third Annual Bad Writing Contest, a project of the journal Philosophy and Literature (which is put out by the Johns Hopkins University Press) and of its Internet discussion circle, PHIL-LIT. The contest solicits entries of unforced ghastliness from academic journals or books. First prize went this year to the legendary Marxist-poststructuralist literary critic Fredric Jameson, for the opening stave of his book "Signatures of the Visible":

"The visual is essentially pornographic, which is to say that it has its end in rapt, mindless fascination; thinking about its attributes becomes an adjunct to that, if it is unwilling to betray its object; while the most austere films necessarily draw their energy from the attempt to repress their own excess (rather than from the more thankless effort to discipline the viewer)."

And that, as they say, was for openers. Teaching as a visiting prof in a leading English department earlier this year, I did notice that another vogue Jamesonian word (like "text" for book or "transgressive" for mildly subversive) had made its appearance. The word was "gaze," which did duty for commonplaces like "squint," "look see," "angle" or, I suppose, "perspective." There was some secret joy in the department when a portentous lecture on "The Male Gaze" was to be advertised, and the copy for the poster was dictated down the telephone to the secretaries. Hardened to any excess or indeed tautology, they had ordered "The Male Gays" from the printer and thought no more of it. Deconstruction meets the vision thing.

But I digress. Or do I? Or indeed can I? As Jameson's nomination for the prize points out, there is no natural home for the second "that" in this train wreck of a sentence. And does the shy little "it" address itself to The Visual, or to the more demanding process of Thinking About The Attributes of same? And what of the runner-up, Professor Rob Wilson? In a collection of texts titled "The Administration of Aesthetics: Censorship, Political Criticism and The Public Sphere," he pushed the boat out to this extent:

"If such a sublime cyborg would insinuate the future as post Fordist subject, his palpably masochistic locations as ecstatic agent of the sublime superstate need to be decoded as the 'now-all-but-unreadable DNA' of a fast deindustrializing Detroit, just as his Robocop-like strategy of carceral negotiation and street control remains the tirelessly American one of inflicting regeneration through violence upon the racially heteroglossic wilds and others of the inner city."

Connoisseurs will be pleased to learn that this volume was readied for the printer by "The Social Text Collective," that standby for all anti-academic pelting since its publication of a well-crafted hoax article by Alan Sokal -- the article that seemed to prove that gibberish knew no limits, modern or postmodern.

I could go on quoting from other winners in this latest derby, of which the most terse and economical undoubtedly comes from "Making Monstrous: Frankenstein, Criticism, Theory," penned by one Fred Botting of Manchester University:

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

But you get the point. Do you not? A huge number of people these days act as if they had swallowed and memorized the whole of George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language," and as if the connection between a certain clear and ordinary prose and decent, sensible opinions were as clear as day. While a few academic ratbags muck up the whole thing by acting as if they had swallowed (without memorizing) the whole of Hegel's "Phenomenology of Mind."

Added to this is a certain easy populist hatred for the "politically correct" Left, and a certain Anglo-Saxon and anti-intellectual contempt for the French. Given this open-door appeal, it's fish-in-a-barrel for the PHIL-LIT collective to come up with that most American and pragmatic of schemes -- an annual "dubious awards" fun-fest. A bit of obscurity from Roland Barthes or Jacques Lacan, a few references to "race, class and gender," a helping of seminarese, a dash of white whine and bingo. Not only does every fool get the joke, but 8 percent of the fools become convinced that civilization "as they know it" is trembling on the lip of Hell itself.

I'm not that easy a pushover for Parisian theory myself, and have made real and personal enemies by maintaining that one founding father -- the late Louis Althusser, holder of the electric chair of philosophy at the Sorbonne -- was a fraud pure and simple. Noam Chomsky has said that he must be lacking some essential gene that prevents him from understanding Foucault and the rest. Russell Jacoby, one of the radical-left critics of academe, made similar points against Fredric Jameson years ago. So the "discourse" is not just an argument between the wholesome guardians of pure English and the villainous importers of sinister continental gibberish. (If you doubt me, watch any OK, certified, "normal" academic, like Henry Kissinger or Stanley Hoffman or Zbigniew Brezezinski, strive to make an intelligible point on a chat show dedicated to subnormality.)

Look again at the last two quotations above. (I rather admit that the Jameson one is beyond salvage, even if it might have served as an introduction to a short piece on the voyeur.) But what's so tough about the Robocop extract? It's not grammatically foul, and it makes an exhausting effort to keep up with new techno-speak. Remember when academics were accused of dwelling only in "ivory towers" and taking no account of the new or common culture? As to the second brief burst, concerning desire, I rather like it. I would have punctuated it, but I still rather like it. I can imagine how the author feels. I can feel his pain, as speakers of good old English might put it without suffering a penalty.

Need, or should, the academy have a language of its own, more convoluted and obscure than the everyday? No and yes. No, because certain kinds of intellectual pretension and insecurity can only cloak themselves in mumbo-jumbo. (It is the task of other intellectuals to seek out, hunt and kill this sort of thing.) Yes, because the university must always be experimenting, and experimenting outside the customary "parameters," which include language. And yes, because it will be a sad day when the whole society decides to speak in the gruesome "business English," a compound of opinion polls, psychobabble and stock salesmanship, by which the national conversation is being swiftly and utterly overwhelmed.


June 25, 1997
Christopher Hitchens is a columnist for Vanity Fair and the Nation.