Bad academic writing is called by its perpetrators “difficult” in the same way indulgent parents call their rotten children “difficult.” “Delinquent” would be apter in both cases. Jonathan Culler and Kevin Lamb have proferred the standard excuses in Just Being Difficult? Academic Writing in the Public Arena, which I haven’t read and doubt I could bring myself to read, and on which John Holbo has done a far better demolition job than I could in any case. Holbo quotes a paragraph from Culler’s introduction that gives the flavor:
The claim not to understand might seem an innocent posture that people would seldom adopt willingly, but in fact it is one of considerable power, in which authorities often entrench themselves. Eve Sedgwich has described the “epistemological privilege of unknowing,” whereby “obtuseness arms the powerful against their enemies.”
Pot, kettle. As Holbo says, “If these jerks are going to pretend not even to understand why some people are a bit cheesed off about how badly Homi Bhabha and Judith Butler write, just turn that trick on its head. Don’t even offer the courtesy of a fair debate, if that courtesy will only be abused by willful refusal to respond seriously to serious points. Thank you for being such a pain.”
Few ideas are so difficult that they can’t be expressed in a few sentences or a couple of equations. One doubts that these deep thinkers are up to anything so recondite as, say, GÃ¶del’s theorems of formal undecidability, the proof for which David Berlinski managed to summarize clearly in three pages and about which Ernest Nagel wrote a very short and lucid book.
Legendary bad academic writers like Butler and Bhabha are quite capable, when the chips are down, of turning a respectable English sentence. In fact they tend to reserve their best prose to reply to complaints about their bad academic writing (Butler’s New York Times op-ed on the subject; costs $2.95, but trust me, it’s clear, if silly). They write that way on purpose. They’re hiding something.
Humanities departments are trade unions, and trade unions exist for two reasons: to restrict the supply of their labor, and to increase the demand for it. Of course there is no ultimate demand for Bad Academic Writing, in the sense of actual readers. Yet there is ongoing ancillary demand, from Bad University Presses and Bad Academic Quarterlies. They have quotas to meet and space to fill, while being generally exempt, thanks to generous endowments and still more generous taxpayer sponsorship, from the tiresome obligation to turn a profit. New and cogent thoughts on literature and philosophy will not float these subsidized outlets, not by a long shot. What is needed, and supplied, is a formula for generating an indefinite number of ways to say the same thing. Bad Academic Writing, like so many other bad things, is your tax dollars at work.
There remains the problem of supply: literary criticism and philosophy require no special training, unlike, say, pipe fitting. Modest erudition and a little elbow grease suffice. When T.S. Eliot, asked what a suitable method for criticism might be, answered “to be very intelligent,” he was making the same point in a more flattering way.
To the professionals in the field this state of affairs is deeply unsatisfactory. Doctors have medical boards, lawyers have bar exams, what’s a poor humanities academic to do? The First Amendment unluckily prevents the issuing of licenses to practice philosophy or criticism, so other means are resorted to to keep out the amateurs like, say, T.S. Eliot. These means are tenure and an arcane lingo. If you don’t use the lingo you don’t get tenure, if you don’t get tenure you’re not a professional, and if you’re not a professional you can be safely ignored. Better luck next time.
No matter how you scramble the language of “rearticulations,” “social relations,” “structural totalities,” and “enunciatory modalities,” it always comes out the same: as a critique of post-industrial capitalism. Try this yourself at home. The words are father to the thought, and it is seemlier to make writing a certain way, rather than thinking a certain way, a requirement for guild membership. If it’s hegemony you want, well, I got your hegemonic power structure right here.