Fun_People Archive
30 May
Philosophy and Literature Bad Writing Contest

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From: Peter Langston <psl>
Date: Fri, 30 May 97 11:24:56 -0700
To: Fun_People
Subject: Philosophy and Literature Bad Writing Contest

Forwarded-by: (Jean Tenenbaum)
Forwarded-by: Timothy Virkkala <>

	--Bad Writing Contest Winners--

We are pleased to announce winners of the third Bad Writing Contest,
sponsored by the scholarly journal Philosophy and Literature (published by
the Johns Hopkins University Press) and its internet discussion group,

The Bad Writing Contest attempts to locate the ugliest, most stylistically
awful passage found in a scholarly book or article published in the last
few years.  Ordinary journalism, fiction, etc. are not eligible, nor are
parodies: entries must be non-ironic, from actual serious academic journals
or books.  In a field where unintended self-parody is so widespread,
deliberate send-ups are hardly necessary.

This year's winning passages include prose published by established,
successful scholars, experts who have doubtless labored for years to write
like this.  Obscurity, after all, can be a notable achievement.  The fame
and influence of writers such as Hegel, Heidegger, or Derrida rests in part
on their mysterious impenetrability.  On the other hand, as a cynic once
remarked, John Stuart Mill never attained Hegel's prestige because people
found out what he meant.  This is a mistake the authors of our prize-winning
passages seem determined to avoid.

* The first prize goes to a sentence by the distinguished scholar Fredric
Jameson, a man who on the evidence of his many admired books finds it
difficult to write intelligibly and impossible to write well. Whether this
is because of the deep complexity of Professor Jameson's ideas or their
patent absurdity is something readers must decide for themselves.  Here,
spotted for us by Dave Roden of Central Queensland University in Australia,
is the very first sentence of Professor Jameson's book, Signatures of the
Visible (Routledge, 1990, p. 1):

 "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)."

The appreciative Mr. Roden says it is "good of Jameson to let readers know
so soon what they're up against." We cannot see what the second "that" in
the sentence refers to.  And imagine if that uncertain "it" were willing
to betray its object?  The reader may be baffled, but then any author who
thinks visual experience is essentially pornographic suffers confusions no
lessons in English composition are going to fix.

* If reading Fredric Jameson is like swimming through cold porridge, there
are writers who strive for incoherence of a more bombastic kind.  Here is
our next winner, which was found for us by Professor Cynthia Freeland of
the University of Houston.  The writer is Professor Rob Wilson:

 "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."

This colorful gem appears in a collection called The Administration of
Aesthetics: Censorship, Political Criticism, and the Public Sphere, edited
by Richard Burt "for the Social Text Collective" (University of Minnesota
Press, 1994).  Social Text is the cultural studies journal made famous by
publishing physicist Alan Sokal's jargon-ridden parody of postmodernist
writing. If this essay is Social Text's idea of scholarship, little wonder
it fell for Sokal's hoax.  (And precisely what are "racially heteroglossic
wilds and others"?)   Dr. Wilson is an English professor, of course.

* That incomprehensibility need not be long-winded is proven by our
third-place winner, sent in by Richard Collier, who teaches at Mt. Royal
College in Canada. It's a sentence from Making Monstrous:  Frankenstein,
Criticism, Theory, by Fred Botting (Manchester University Press, 1991):

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

* Still, prolixity is often a feature of bad writing, as demonstrated by
our next winner, a passage submitted by Mindy Michels, a graduate
anthropology student at the American University in Washington, D.C.  It's
written by Stephen Tyler, and appears in Writing Culture, edited (it says)
by James Clifford and George E. Marcus (University of California Press,
1986).  Of what he calls "post-modern ethnography," Professor Tyler says:

 "It thus relativizes discourse not just to form--that familiar perversion
 of the modernist; nor to authorial intention--that conceit of the
 romantics; nor to a foundational world beyond discourse--that desperate
 grasping for a separate reality of the mystic and scientist alike; nor even
 to history and ideology--those refuges of the hermeneuticist; nor even less
 to language--that hypostasized abstraction of the linguist; nor,
 ultimately, even to discourse--that Nietzschean playground of world-lost
 signifiers of the structuralist and grammatologist, but to all or none of
 these, for it is anarchic, though not for the sake of anarchy but because
 it refuses to become a fetishized object among objects--to be dismantled,
 compared, classified, and neutered in that parody of scientific scrutiny
 known as criticism."

* A bemused Dr. Tim van Gelder of the University of Melbourne sent us the
following sentence:

 "Since thought is seen to be 'rhizomatic' rather than 'arboreal,' the
 movement of differentiation and becoming is already imbued with its own
 positive trajectory."

It's from The Continental Philosophy Reader, edited by Richard Kearney and
Mara Rainwater (Routledge, 1996), part of an editors' introduction intended
to help students understand a chapter. Dr. van Gelder says, "No undergraduate
student I've given this introduction to has been able to make the slightest
sense of it. Neither has any faculty member."

* An assistant professor of English at a U.S. university (she prefers to
remain anonymous) entered this choice morsel from The Cultures of United
States Imperialism, by Donald Pease (Duke University Press, 1993):

 "When interpreted from within the ideal space of the myth-symbol school,
 Americanist masterworks legitimized hegemonic understanding of American
 history expressively totalized in the metanarrative that had been
 reconstructed out of (or more accurately read into) these masterworks."

While the entrant says she enjoys the Bad Writing Contest, she's fearful
her career prospects would suffer were she to be identified as hostile to
the turn by English departments toward movies and soap operas.  We quite
understand: these days the worst writers in universities are English
professors who ignore "the canon" in order to apply tepid, vaguely Marxist
gobbledygook to popular culture.  Young academics who'd like a career had
best go along.

* But it's not just the English department where jargon and incoherence are
increasingly the fashion.  Susan Katz Karp, a graduate student at Queens
College in New York City, found this splendid nugget showing that
forward-thinking art historians are doing their desperate best to import
postmodern style into their discipline.  It's from an article by Professor
Anna C. Chave, writing in Art Bulletin (December 1994):

 "To this end, I must underline the phallicism endemic to the dialectics of
 penetration routinely deployed in descriptions of pictorial space and the
 operations of spectatorship."

The next round of the Bad Writing Contest, results to be announced in 1998,
is now open with a deadline of December 31, 1997.  There is an endless ocean
of pretentious, turgid academic prose being added to daily, and we'll
continue to celebrate it.

Dr. Denis Dutton <>
Senior Lecturer in the Philosophy of Art
Editor, Philosophy and Literature
University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand

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