May 2011

Amitava Kumar

Denis Dutton Is Dead

Theory vs. Literature

Note: The philosopher Denis Dutton (1944-2010) was a founder of the website Arts & Letters Daily but a part of his fame, or notoriety, was attached to his stewardship of the Bad Writing Contest. Dutton declared that his interest was in finding the “most egregious examples of awkward, jargon-clogged academic prose.” The Contest awarded its “prize” to such writers as Fredric Jameson, Homi Bhabha, and Judith Butler. There is much to complain about academic writing but there is also a great deal of anti-intellectual angst directed at such prose, especially if such prose is deemed “theoretical.” My task here is neither to praise Dutton, nor to bury him, but to bring to attention academic writing that is difficult to categorize, or is challenging in a new way, or is noteworthy for its inventiveness.

On the website of the University of Chicago Writing Program, there is a link that you can use to generate a random academic sentence. When I last clicked on it, this is what I got: “The idea of the proper-name effect allegorizes the de-eroticization of normative value(s).” The site also says that if you are “the do-it-yourself type,” you may write your own sentence. You are to choose one word from each of the four drop-lists, and then all you need to do is click on “Write It!” If the result doesn’t please, click on “Edit it!” (If you start enjoying what you’re doing, there’s also a third button that is called “Reset.”)

I will now list some of the words and formulaic phrases in each drop list. One: “the public sphere,” “the gendered body,” “power/knowledge,” “agency”; Two: “discourse,” “politics,” “legitimation,” “construction”; Three: “post-capitalist hegemony,” “the gaze,” “pop culture,” “civil society”; and Four: “epistemology,” “emergence,” “logic,” and “culture.” Simply by choosing a word or phrase from each category, it is easy to write sentences like the following: “The emergence of civil society may be parsed as the legitimation of the public sphere.” This was among the more intelligible results I got. When I clicked on the cheerful and encouraging “Edit It!” link, I got the following, rather perfect, result: The legitimation of civil society may be parsed as the emergence of the public sphere.

All this is funny, at least for a short while. When an academic friend of mine posted the above-mentioned link on her Facebook page, another friend asked in the comments section whether she could use the sentence generator to complete her dissertation. That joke was a wonderfully precise one. More than anyone else, it is the academic initiate, the graduate student or, in some cases, the young scholar seeking tenure, who must reveal his or her proficiency in the use of the sacred tongue. Style is assumed to be a feature only of senior living, a part of what you do later in your career, when you have acquired the necessary academic credentials. And till you have amassed the capital of years of professional membership, the luxury of innovation or originality is frowned upon as irresponsible and excessive. Recitation by rote is encouraged. It is to assure all, or at least some of us, that we belong to a community, or at least a tribe with shared rituals and a common language. In a rather obvious way, then, the academy is the original random sentence generator.

I know, I know, I’m saying all this, and I agree with it, but I also get a bit defensive about the academy. So, let’s start all over again.

Consider this sentence: “If such a sublime cyborg would insinuate the future as post-Fordist subject, his palpably masochistic locations as ecstatic agent of the sublime superstate need to be decoded as the ‘now all-but-unreadable DNA’ of the fast industrializing Detroit, just as his Robocop-like strategy of carceral negotiation and street control remains the tirelessly American one of inflicting regeneration through violence upon the racially heteroglassic wilds and others of the inner city.”

This quoted extract appeared in a Sacramento Bee article entitled “No Contest: English Professors Are Worst Writers on Campus”; the writer David Foster Wallace cited the above extract in a review-essay in which he also quoted Orwell who had famously opined that when reading art criticism and literary criticism “it is normal to come across long passages which are completely lacking in meaning.” Wallace went on to say that the “pleonasm and pretentious diction” as well as the “opaque abstraction” found in a lot of academic writing had as its real purpose “concealment” and its main motivation was “fear.”

That is what he said he was tempted to believe, and I’m too, but not without asking further questions about what exactly is being concealed and what particular set of easily recognizable fears beset academic souls. One can linger with the popular speculation that the rise of more arcane forms of theorizing in literary or cultural studies in the Western academy was directly proportional to the diminution of real political power as well as popularity that the left intelligentsia enjoyed under Reagan and Thatcher. But the more intriguing question here is why Wallace, a writer whose work best represented a near-scholarly rigor in search for complexity, didn’t cut us academics any slack? With his interest in language (its philosophy and play, but also, more broadly the difficulty of representation), his broad range of references, his intellectual interest in popular culture, and yes, his footnotes (Wallace’s 1996 novel, Infinite Jest, runs to 1,079 pages and includes 100 pages of footnotes.), wasn’t he really one of us?

There is more at stake in asking this question than merely pointing out the common ground shared by the critic and the subject of his criticism. “Literary criticism vs. creative writing,” or “theory vs. literature,” and even “academic vs. non-academic,” suggest to me feuds over land. Not so much blood spilled on dusty plains as much as futile and forgotten fights from another era. That time has now passed. It is more realistic to take note of the fact that path-breaking, challenging writing has often drawn upon diverse sources in different fields. Mixed and changing forms are always being generated in every sphere of culture. The arts and the sciences are not cut off from each other, the academy does not exist in isolation from the surrounding world. No one understands this better than Richard Powers, the National Book Award-winning novelist (The Echo Maker) whose books easily connect the worlds of literature, music, genetics, computer science, and neurology. Powers told me in an interview that “the split between 'factual' writing and 'fictional' writing may be far less consequential than the split between writing that heightens our mindfulness of interdependence and writing that deadens or denies it.” Against false or unproductive oppositions, how to focus, as writers, on the difference that really matters, the difference between good writing and bad writing? Powers is willing to admit crucial differences, as is evident from his complete response below, but these differences have to be measured against the final, and clearly more crucial, distinction we should make in assessing any piece of writing:

Stylistic differences between art and academic writing begin in their different motives. At first introspective blush, criticism seems to want to assert facts that circulate beyond the observer, while literature seems to want to embody truths about the observers themselves. As a result, literature will tend to showcase voice as a necessary part of the performance, while criticism may be tempted to form an argument “in spite of voice.”

Now the best academic writing knows what many different disciplines converged on around the beginning of the 20th century: the observer is an inseparable part of the system under observation. The yardstick and its wielder are part of the measurement; the speaker and what can be spoken are reciprocally joined. Great academic stylists embrace that fact, and they use it to turn the prison house of language into something more like a beachside cottage. They know that any rich attempt to represent the world “out there” participates in those same world processes, and their style reflects that rich reflexivity. Without forgoing their search for external or even objective facts, these writers foreground their own voice and the ways that their words strive to take the curse of inescapable linguistic mediation and make a blessing of it. As Bakhtin so beautifully puts it: Every act of depicting is itself a depiction. What we say speaks us, and we are part of the truths we can formulate.

The worst academic writing is reductive, pseudo-God’s-eyed, stripped of situated speaker and seer, self-exempting in its omniscient and context-free assertions, and indifferent to its own contingency as a frail, verbal, made thing. In trying to escape or hide its contingent voice, “speaker-free” writing risks creating a voice of disembodied, monster objectivity. Destructive academic style is less interested in making us aware of the subtle reciprocity of speaker and spoken than it is in displaying its credentials of compliant group membership and advancing in the profession.

The best literary writing, knowing that every depiction also depicts the depicter, employs the full arsenal of diction, register, prosody, and syntax not merely to assert circulating truths but to give them a voicer -- to embody them. Good literary writing embraces the rich, participatory, interdependent, mutually informing network of speaker, seer, and seen, making of the knot what Wendell Berry (an essayist, critic, and poet) calls “a feelable thought, a thought that impresses its sense not just on our understanding but on our hearing, our sense of proportion… a pattern of felt sense.” Rich, reciprocal style takes to heart Archibald MacLeish’s famous dictum, “A poem should not mean / but be.” The sentences themselves become part of the world under observation.

Bad literary writing -- and it must be at least as voluminous as bad academic writing -- is reductive and diminishing in a complementary way. It is filled with precious, self-serving, insular, and narcissistic self-expression, in total denial of those collective, scientific, economic, and social forces that shape the individual protagonists. It wants only personal truths, and it pulls a veil of willful ignorance around itself to preserve itself from larger and more threatening realities that circulate beyond it. Like bad academic writing, it cares less about real, reciprocal awareness of seer and seen than in displaying its own compliant membership in its professional community. Bad literary writing is playing its own club advancement game. The split between “factual” writing and “fictional” writing may be far less consequential than the split between writing that heightens our mindfulness of interdependence and writing that deadens or denies it.

Amitava Kumar is the author, most recently, of A Foreigner Carrying in the Crook of His Arm A Tiny Bomb. He teaches English at Vassar College.