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…