A modest but effective example of the sort of thing Eliot had in mind is the annual Bad Writing Contest sponsored by the scholarly journal Philosophy and Literature. Previous winners have included the Marxist Fredric Jameson and the postcolonial theorist Homi K. Bhabha. This year’s winner is Judith Butler, a celebrated “Queer Theorist” who teaches at the University of California at Berkeley. Hailed by one admirer as “one of the ten smartest people on the planet,” Professor Butler won with this sentence published in the journal Diacritics:
The move from the 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.
Although it is sobering to reflect on how many other worthy contenders there are for the prize of bad writing—anyone familiar with contemporary academic writing could easily produce dozens of examples equally as absurd—still most readers will acknowledge that Professor Butler has that certain je ne sais quoi that makes for really horrible, teeth-grinding prose. It’s a mixture, we’d say, of about equal parts pretentious polysyllabic verbiage and politicized menace. It’s the same sort of thing that distinguishes the efforts of Professors Jameson and Bhabha.
Like all such performances, Professor Butler’s is partly infuriating, partly pathetic. One alternates between irritation and pity. But her Op-Ed piece in The New York Times defending bad writing is pure comedy. We especially liked her quotation from the German philosopher Theodor W. Adorno: “Man is the ideology of dehumanization.” “Taken out of context,” Professor Butler allows, “the sentence may seem vainly paradoxical. But it becomes clear when we recognize that in Adorno’s time the word ‘man’ was used by humanists to regard the individual in isolation from his or her social context. For Adorno, to be deprived of one’s social context was precisely to suffer dehumanization. Thus, ‘man’ is the ideology of dehumanization.” Q.E.D. As a self-declared radical, Professor Butler would of course strenuously oppose Nick Gillespie’s celebration of the cultural free market. But we suspect she would agree with the sentiment behind his assertion that “one man’s ‘pap’ is another man’s Proust.” Which is yet another reason to regard it with suspicion.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 17 Number 9, on page 3
Copyright © 2021 The New Criterion | www.newcriterion.com