Monday, November 29, 2004

Bad Prose Badly Defended

The indispensible Mark Bauerlein takes a look at the teapot tempest over bad academic writing, in a review of "Just Being Difficult? Academic Writing in the Public Arena". Part of what's amusing is that the gang tackle on wretched academic prose took place in 1999, and it took until 2003 for the ego-wounded professors to make their defense.

As it turns out, the defense doesn't seem to amount to much, but it does reveal the mindset behind people who, while acknowledging that their prose is turgid and difficult, insist that that's because their thoughts are good for you, and you should swallow them, and adore the authors, even as they parade around like a naked emperor.

Bauerlein, after suggesting ways the academic theorists could have really spoken to their critics, or to the public at large who resents their tenured pomposity, then explains why the book they published suggests this isn't going to happen:

That would require theorists to thicken their skins and behave with modesty and balance, a tough act for people who in their own small universe run seminars, departments, and lecture series with the surety and vanity of pop culture icons. The evidence of this collection indicates that nothing has changed within the theorists' ranks, except for an increased sense of defensiveness. The basic charges (hokey jargon, bad grammar, airy radicalism) have been assimilated to existing lines of cultural critique (against common sense, bourgeois publics, conservative taste-making), and theorists still refuse to grant public commentators any valid and fundamental criticisms of the field. The appearance of Just Being Difficult? so long after the fact proves that the Bad Writing episode hit home, damaging the theorists' self-image as a prized vanguard of social critics. But it also confirmed a parallel self-image, the conceit of a gadfly band braving public scorn to dismantle settled notions and foul practices. What the theorists lost in public prestige was balanced by their enhanced adversarial conscience. Like the theories they embrace, theorists absorbed hostile responses as signs of their own righteousness, and while the world moves on they now make the same arguments, cite the same texts and master theorists (de Man's "Resistance to Theory" surfaces several times), and trust that their interrogations are sure to make a difference beyond the classroom and the department.

To which I reacted as any non-academic knuckle-dragger would: "Oh, I can't believe one of the heroes of these wanna-be social iconoclasts really is named 'de Man.'"