Thursday, December 02, 2004

 

Good Writing Contest

[This post is a call for nominations for a Good Writing Contest. Details are provided below.]

It is surprising that the humanities are not already extinct, given that they have been on so many endangered lists in the last two centuries. For the positivists of both the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, it was science that doomed the humanities to death. Nowadays, it is apparently "bad writing" that signals the tolling of the bell.

A few years ago, the journal Philosophy and Literature held a Bad Writing Contest, poking fun at the turgid prose produced by academics. Nominations -- which consisted of brief excerpts from academic books and journals -- were solicited on the Internet, and the contest provoked much hand-wringing about the declining state of the humanities. The same hand-wringing has subsequently produced satires like The Postmodernism Generator.

While bemusing to academics and undergraduates alike, neither the Generator nor the Bad Writing Contest are totally in jest. The "winners" of the BWC tended to be poststructuralists, and the implication was that these inaccessible writers were ruining their disciplines, walling themselves off from the public sphere and hyphenating words on a w-him. The winner of the fourth annual contest, for instance, was Judith Butler, a usual suspect in jeremiads against the crouching sins of poststructuralism. In countless whodunnits about the murder of the humanities, the answer was often that the ... well, you can take it from there.

The issue of bad writing in the humanities has recently been revived in a book review by Mark Bauerlein. (Via locussolus and Cliopatria.) The book under review is Just Being Difficult? Academic Writing in the Public Arena (2003), which defends at least some "bad" academic writers from the charge of willful obfuscation. According to Bauerlein's review, the contributors answer that they are not just being difficult by writing difficult sentences. Difficult writing, they argue, can provoke fresh thinking. A hyphen, when used deliberately, can make the familiar unfamiliar again, disrupting the intuitions of readers in a constructive way. Their defense is one that should make sense to any child of the 1980s, fan of Michael Jackson, or devotee of Isaac Hayes -- being "bad" is "good."

Bauerlein is unconvinced. In fact, he slips at the end of the review into an oracular mode, and predicts that although "the Bad Writing Contest ran its course ... other undignifying stories will arrive in turn." After thus expressing a rather fatalistic pessimism about the future of academic writing, Bauerlein resorts to metaphors of the seeping, creeping, spreading, crawling onslaught of what the review amorphously calls "the theorists":
This is the worst consequence of efforts like Just Being Difficult? They defend an endeavor that profits only theorists and that only theorists esteem. In crude terms, if these theorists win, the humanities lose. The more their practices spread among graduate students and junior faculty, the more irreverence creeps in among science faculty, university administrators, the media, and the interested public. Theorists may preserve their own standing among their colleagues, but what about tomorrow's needs?
And Erin O'Connor echoes these oracles of Cassandra in her comment on Bauerlein's "smoking essay":
... Bauerlein knows whereof he speaks. He may know, too, that the "theorists" who most need to hear him are precisely those most likely to dismiss him. But so be it: When the academic humanities are finally, definitively destroyed by the studied, self-important irrelevance of theorists' dogmatically inaccessible progressivist stance, no one will be able to complain that there were not cogent warnings of what was to come.
And so here we are again, at a juncture where to be an authentic devotee of the humanities, one must believe in their imminent demise. The hordes are coming, with their hyphens and parentheses, to destroy the Good City and the republic of letters. If and when "the theorists" win, the victory will be Pyrrhic.

Although I have not read Just Being Difficult?, I found Bauerlein's review to be well argued and finely written. But isn't that the point? Here is an English professor who writes well, and surely he is not the only one. Then why are the humanities doomed? Is it because of the "self-important irrelevance" of "the theorists"? It is more likely that both "the theorists" and their critics exaggerate the importance and the relevance of the Other. Heated exchanges about academic writing have the flavor of a family feud: both sides claim to have the family's best interests at heart, and indeed, both sides may be right. The poststructuralists got their start trying to save the humanities from one of their former stalkers -- scientistic structuralism. What happens when one takes off the sheep's clothing to expose a wolf, and finds another sheep inside?

Call me an optimist, but I suspect the humanities are more hearty and hale as disciplines than many of their disciples seem to think. I boldly predict that something like the humanities will exist as long as humanity does. And I further modestly propose that for every sentence of "bad writing" one can point to in a journal of the humanities, someone else could produce countless counterexamples of "good writing."

To test this hunch, I hereby declare, without any authority vested in me, the First Annual Good Writing Contest. (I am not aware if this has already been done, but it cannot hurt to do it again.) Spread the word, all ye humanities bloggers. Nominations can be submitted either in the comments to this post, or by emailing me at the address in my sidebar. They should include one or two "good" sentences from an academic journal or book in history, literary criticism, philosophy, or a related humanities field, published in 2004. I'll gather nominations for about a month and then post again on the results.

Don't ask me what constitutes "good," since I'm not sure what constitutes "bad" either, and the organizers of the BWC do not seem to have specified their terms. And besides, the exercise is mainly for fun. Maybe it will also edify those who worry that the humanities are dying on account of some malpractice. After all, if one sentence can doom the humanities, then one sentence can also be their reprieve.


Collective Improvisation:
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

Posted by Blogger eb on 12/03/2004 02:50:00 PM : Permalink  

Call it an exercise in self-censorship, but upon reflection I decided that my previous comment was too snarky to be attached directly to this post. As I don't want to discourage anyone in any way from participating in the good writing contest, I have removed it.

Posted by Blogger eb on 12/04/2004 03:45:00 AM : Permalink  

nice call! will submit some nominees soon.
only living authors?

Posted by Blogger sepoy on 12/05/2004 06:48:00 PM : Permalink  

Sepoy, The letter of the law is that the candidates must have been published in 2004. The spirit of the law is that the authors should be living, so as to prove that the humanities are still alive too. Looking forward to your nominations!

AJ is running a parallel contest to this one for the Best Prediction of the Decline of the Humanities. Go forth, and prognosticate disaster.

Posted by Blogger Caleb on 12/06/2004 07:36:00 AM : Permalink  

Here are my nominations...

Posted by Blogger sepoy on 12/06/2004 03:47:00 PM : Permalink  

This is a great idea. My nomination can be found here.

Posted by Blogger Rob on 12/09/2004 06:27:00 AM : Permalink  

I thought the problem with the humanities was(borrowing from Maryellen Ashcroft) the prevalence of Scarcity and Perfectionism mentalities?

And it's not like that as if the more conservative turn in US politics has not caused an increased scarcity in humanities and soft-sciences, often leading for depts to cannibalize their graduate students.

dlw 

Posted by dlw

Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 12/26/2004 02:01:00 PM : Permalink  

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Posted by Anonymous Anonymous on 10/10/2006 01:30:00 AM : Permalink  

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