Sentenced to death

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

Topics: The Simpsons, Rupert Murdoch,

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.

Christopher Hitchens is a regular contributor to Vanity Fair, the Nation and Salon News.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>