Emory University English professor and new National Endowment for the Arts research director Mark Bauerlein is getting to be one of the IWF’s favorite intellectuals. He’s not only a distinguished scholar of American literature (his specialty: the poetry of Walt Whitman), but he hasn’t been afraid to jump into the public arena. Just a couple of weeks ago, The Other Charlotte heaped kudos on Bauerlein for his incisive, talked-about article for the Chronicle of Higher Education pointing out the dominance of the academy by political liberals, who have created a ghetto of the likeminded that not only trounces dissent but is impervious to the realities of political life outside academe.
Bauer’s newest target is campus postmodernists–those self-important, jargon-laden “theorists” who have driven student enrollment in college humanities courses into the cellar with their relentless pseudo-Marxist radical ideology and their books and articles that are so poorly written that you can’t read them. In an article in the journal Philosophy and Literature Bauerlein skewers Just Being Difficult?: Writing in the Public Arena, an anthology of essays by the most egregious of the postmods who complain that they just don’t get no respect off-campus, where almost no one reads their books or cares about what they think.
What really riles the postmods is that back in the late 1990s, Dennis Dutton, a philosophy professor in New Zealand who now edits the wonderful Arts & Letters Daily website (and is a friend of Both Charlottes), ran a Bad Writing Contest that poked fun of the just awful prose that postmods insist on writing. The 1998 winner was Judith Butler, a radical feminist and professor of rhetoric (of all things!) at UC-Berkeley, for this wonderful sentence in a journal called Diacritics:
“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.”
Wouldn’t you love to have had Prof. Butler as your freshman English teacher?
Second prize went to Homi Bhabha, another English professor and a “postcolonialist” expert at the University of Chicago, for this:
“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.”
Butler and her pals and Homi’s homies were Not Amused. Hence “Just Being Difficult?”–a little late on the uptake five years down the road but still mad as hell that Dutton–along with millions of other guffawing readers once the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the New Republic, the Weekly Standard, Lingua Franca, and Salon got wind of the story–enunciated his take on enunciatory modality. It was the biggest instance of academic humiliation since ebonics.
As Bauerlein points out, the postmods didn’t, maybe, blame themselves a wee bit for the Bad Writing awards. Instead the culprits, as they write in “Being Difficult?,” are us. We just don’t get the idea that it’s not really “bad” writing, but “difficult” writing because it expresses heavy-duty concepts that are way over our heads. We non-academics are supposed to shut up, buy their books, and be impressed. As one of the contributors, John McCumber, weighing in on the “metaphysics of clarity,” writes (as summarized by Bauerlein): “the language of ‘good writing’ is inadequate to ‘the experience of women and minorities…who are bound to speak an unfamiliar language as they acquire equal rights and political power.”
Oh? Why don’t I have any trouble getting through Thomas Sowell, John McWhorter, and Gertrude Himmelfarb?
As Bauerlein points out, the postmod proseurs simply circle the wagons defensively and assume that they’re right and we’re wrong:
“The back cover says that the volume ‘provides scholarly, thought-provoking examination of the debate over difficult academic writing,’ but in truth there is no more…debate. Outside the tiny group of academic theorists, the question is closed. When [Harvard postmod goddess] Barbara Johnson writes that “the role of academic literary criticism . . . is always to risk a certain ‘badness’…, she speaks only for herself and a few colleagues….
“The editors compound the isolation by inviting not a single dissenting voice to weigh in. The back cover proclaims an equable attempt ‘to inform and deepen the debate by asking what values, history, politics, and stylistics are implicated, on both sides,’ but everyone here is a theorist, believes in theory, and resents anti-theory tastes. The editors might have asked a critic of bad writing to repeat the case or compose a reply, but a few paragraphs of their introduction reveal that they don’t consider their antagonists worth the time. Conservative positions turn up in caricature or in snotty asides. Rey Chow reduces them to a ‘theory-attacking ritual’ in which ‘Language exists . . . only in order to be a conduit’…. When in Lingua Franca James Miller observes that good writing promoter George Orwell’s novels sold over forty million copies, [Michael] Warner remarks, ‘You can almost hear the Berlin Wall being brought down, like the walls of Jericho, by the chirping of the cash registers at Barnes and Noble.'”
As Bauerlein points out, the critics of the postmods’ bad grammar, bloated sentences, cheesy jargon, and huffy self-righteousness have included not only conservatives but well-regarded leftist writers and intellectuals such as Martha Nussbaum and Katha Pollitt, who argue that the postmods will never get their radical views taken seriously unless they can communicate them clearly. That hasn’t stopped the postmods from sniping at their critics and continuing to shrink university humanities enrollments with their regimes of ideological tyranny. Bauerlein concludes:
“Until humanities professors acknowledge just how much the enterprise…has dwindled, they won’t regain outside respect. The Bad Writing Contest ran its course, but other undignifying stories will arrive in turn. 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? Every spring and fall, practitioners must justify humanities inquiry to people who haven’t been acculturated to the theory outlook. When future professors present to deans their hiring plans, recruit undergraduates to the major, answer questions from journalists, and submit research proposals to foundations and government agencies, will today’s theorists have supplied an effective, noble agenda?”