Post Academic


From the digital archives: Bad Writing Contest, 1996-98 (with quiz!)

Posted in Absurdities by Arnold Pan on April 30, 2010
Tags: , ,

"Judith Butler at a lecture at the University of Hamburg, April 2007" by Jreberlein (Creative Commons)

In a week when we’ve covered such oddball yet at least a little bit thought provoking topics about writing like a literary draft, which type of writer is the best, and which theorist is cited the most often, it figures we should end the week by revisiting the “Bad Writing Contest” which made a little bit of a splash at the end of the 1990s.  You remember that, right, where some of the most influential scholars–most likely to be of poststructural and postmodern persuasions–were skewered for their difficult prose.  I’m withholding the names (though the photo here is a mighty big hint), because we’re gonna have a little fun with the winners and test your knowledge of them after the jump!

Lest anyone think that we here at Post Academic are aligning ourselves with the ideologically dubious and probably culturally retrograde judgments made by Denis Dutton and friends, we aren’t.  Sure, the winners/losers can be difficult to read, but there’s definitely a method to what appears madness that’s hard not respect and admire.  So keep in mind the following:

1. If my writing could be recognized as a “bad writing” alongside some of my Marxist, feminist, and postcolonial heroes, I would have been glad to be recognized as such.  I remember when my grad school colleagues and I first found out about the “Bad Writing Contest” and how we took it with a grain of salt, bemused though we were that the biggest names in our field might be deemed poor writers.

2. It’s not like it isn’t a tradition in critical theory and its philosophical antecdents to use complex, confusing language to interrogate complex, confusing subject matter.  Dutton himself seems to acknowledge this, though its couched in the worst bad faith possible in this Wall Street Journal piece he wrote justifying the contest:

As a lifelong student of Kant, I know that philosophy is not always well-written. But when Kant or Aristotle or Wittgenstein are most obscure, it’s because they are honestly grappling with the most complex and difficult problems the human mind can encounter. How different from the desperate incantations of the Bad Writing Contest winners, who hope to persuade their readers not by argument but by obscurity that they too are the great minds of the age.

That’s right, the whole contest really isn’t about writing, but intention, which make the whole thing less entertaining by a lot.

3. On the other hand, I’ve heard other Marxist, feminist, and postcolonial rock stars make similar complaints about their colleagues, probably as a warning to their students to do as they say and not as they do, in not becoming jargon juniors.  I do assume, though, that they do so in much better faith!

Now what you’ve been waiting for–the winners/losers–is below the fold…

For anyone who has studied lit crit and theory over the last, say, 20 years, this quiz should be a breeze, even if you didn’t know the winners/losers already–bonus points if you can list the texts.  The ones I’ve chosen are written in inimitable in style, so it probably won’t be so hard for you to figure them out

Winner/Loser #1: “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 effort to ‘normalize’ formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.”

Winner/Loser #2: “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).”

Winner/Loser #3: “The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.”

Here’s some extra credit, from one of the most prominent scholars in his field, though he might not be as in/famous for his writing style as the examples cited above…

Extra credit: “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.”

If you like, provide your educated guesses in the comment thread below.  We’ll give you the answers and a follow-up about the contest from one of the winners/losers next time.

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2 Responses to 'From the digital archives: Bad Writing Contest, 1996-98 (with quiz!)'

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  1. I know who number 2 is, and I have to give that writer a little bit of credit for having some literary touches. “Rapt, mindless fascination” is a nifty turn of phrase. It’s pleasing in its own way–theory with a spoonful of sugar.

    Number 3 has no sugar at all. The authors’ goal seems to be packing in as many heavy words into one sentence as possible. Could the author not be bothered to divide one long sentence into two? Going long is a cardinal writing sin, no matter which style you’re writing in. I know who number 3 is as well, and you can get a lot of important information out of number 3, but no wonder number 3 has such a bad rap.

  2. Len said,

    I’m going to guess the extra credit would be Donald Pease. Because I’ve heard that guy’s crazy talk and I loved writing down the strangest phrases from his lectures. Is #3 Butler? Or #1? I would guess #3 even though it doesn’t sound like her subject, because she is actually very clear underneath it all. Could she really be guilty of #1? #2 is about pornography so it has to be Jameson — er, Jenna?? Ha!


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