On Writing: Dazzle Or Baffle

It’s unfortunate that academics rarely grasp the shithole they’re in until someone dumps a pile of vomit on their heads, forcing them to make the choice of whether to duck. But then, it can get warm and comfy in that hole, and require something particularly disgusting to cause an academic to take a hard look at why they do.

Laura Kipnis was forced into this unpleasant situation, things just got worse from there.  But it wasn’t for naught, as Kipnis explains when being interviewed on writing.

How did you learn to write for a more general readership?

Kipnis: I’d shown one of my videos at the big cultural-studies conference at Illinois, then for some reason the organizers asked me to write something for the volume — that first huge cultural-studies reader. I said I wanted to write on Hustler magazine,  which I was a little obsessed with at the time, and to my surprise they said sure. So that came out and caused a bit of a stir because it raised class issues in relation to porn, which wasn’t something being talked about at the time, certainly not by feminists. Then Joy Press, who was an editor at The Village Voice, asked me to write a cover piece on Larry Flynt timed to the Milos Forman biopic about him that had just come out. Which was the first time I was really edited. It was like going to writing school for a year crammed into a couple of days of editing.

I’d written a bunch of academic essays by then, and I had no idea how full of godawful academic tics my writing was. I’d never considered myself a real academic — I’d never had to write a dissertation or jump through any of those disciplinary hoops, but I was writing horrible jargon anyway (these were the “theory” years). It was both helpful and also deeply humiliating to have someone point out that people outside of academia wouldn’t understand those veiled references to Foucault. (I remember another editor mocking a passage I wrote critiquing someone who was critiquing someone else. She told me that was the essence of academic writing, and was to be avoided.)

My writing education continued when I started writing pieces for Slate and other places where you get seriously edited in a way that you don’t for academic publications. What I learned is that there’s a level of sloppy writing you can get away with in academic writing that you simply can’t put over in journalism.

This one answer is jammed to the gills with great stuff.  Note that I just used the phrase “great stuff.” Never would one find such a lowbrow colloquial phrase appear in scholarship. Nor would the trite phrase, “jammed to the gills.”  It would violate the command that academic writing be prolix and pretentious, create the appearance of high-minded thought at all times, even when saying nothing new or actually thoughtful.

If it does nothing else, it inflicts pain on the reader, for whom the moderated language of academia is a reminder that no matter how brilliant or insipid the ideas, the presentation matters most.  Which is the academic equivalent of, “if you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.” Works every time.

But the final paragraph of her response speaks volumes:

To be honest, I find myself almost unable to read academic writing at this point, especially the left-leaning, social-justice seeking, politically invested versions, even when I share the politics. So much of it is mutual stroking for the already persuaded, addressed to a cognoscenti who share your ideas and parlance. Writing for wider venues is actually a lot more challenging; at least that’s been my experience.

Not to suggest that she wasn’t being honest before (yet another tic?), but having struggled to try to be generous enough in my development to read social justice academic writing, if only to determine whether there is any basis in fact or theory that makes any sense at all, I too find it unbearable.

It’s not just that it’s “mutual stroking for the already persuaded,” though it certainly is. Nor is it just because it’s “addressed to a cognoscenti who share[s] [the writer’s] ideas and parlance.”  We all do that to some extent, as to do otherwise would compel us to reinvent the wheel every time we express a thought.  As a matter of necessity, we take for granted a basic understanding of the concepts and perspective before going at something a bit deeper.

No, what makes my head hurt is that the writing strings jargon words together into sentences that have no meaning.  Word jumbles of social justice vagaries, usually interspersed with one or more logical fallacies, whether false analogies, anecdotes or strawmen, that only the most ardent sycophant can love.

There is a school of thought that if you have something worthwhile to say, just say it in normal, comprehensible words. Clarity matters. If you have something to say, why obfuscate?  If your concept matters, why bury it in meaningless jargon.

Do you ever look back at something you’ve written and say to yourself, “this is awful,” or “this is gibberish”?  I do all the time. I try my best to be clear here, to express an idea so that it’s adequately communicated to reasonably knowledgeable lawyers. I sometimes fail.  But at least I can take comfort in knowing that however bad my writing may be, it beats the hell out of the crap written by scholars and social justice warriors.


16 comments on “On Writing: Dazzle Or Baffle

  1. DaveL

    No, what makes my head hurt is that the writing strings jargon words together into sentences that have no meaning.

    Almost as bad is when they use a paragraph of dense jargon to express the kind of mundane idea we regularly teach to kindergartners, things like “it’s not cool to pick on the weak”.

    1. Brian

      As a general rule, depending on the field, that jargon has a purpose:

      If in a field known for trying to explain why they should be paid to explain the same common sense principles known since the Ancient Greeks sat on stone benches questioning each other (e.g., education, social sciences, social work), it’s to justify why the work is worthy of an advanced academic pedigree.

      If in a field known for advocacy of left wing politics (e.g., “Studies” departments, political science, philosophy), it’s probably a motte-and-bailey doctrine. The simple mundane idea is the motte, and hidden in the dense jargon will be something radical the author wants to use as the bailey.

  2. LTMG

    “How did you learn to write for a more general readership?” Is this code for, “How did you learn to pander to the masses?”

  3. losingtrader

    So, please explain which writing and / or speaking styles make me money, and which ones will get me laid.

    It’s already become clear repeating SHG posts ar the speed of stream-of-conciousness that would lend itself to making others believe i invented these thoughtful, er….. thoughts… isn’t working at all.

    Yes, it is all about me making money and getting laid. That’s why I started reading this blog.

    1. Patrick Maupin

      repeating SHG posts … isn’t working at all…. [I’m not] getting laid.

      I could be wrong, of course, but it seems unlikely that SHG would attempt to persuade a jury of “lay”men by reading his blog posts out loud.

      Of course, if I misunderstood and you’re reusing his material by sending written missives, I’m completely mystified by your lack of results — any of his posts should work well as love letters.

  4. Nigel Declan

    I think that when laypeople successfully read through a piece of scholarly literature, understand what the academic writing it is trying to say, then point out that the academic has not only failed to make his or her case, but that he or she has failed to make any case for any proposition whatsoever, it is taken as a major loss-of-face to the author, one that no amount of colouring books or safe spaces can fully rectify.

    1. DaveL

      Usually when that happens, the academic response is simply that the layman clearly lacks the intellectual chops to understand what was written, because by no stretch of the imagination is the emperor naked. It’s a difficult objection to overcome, not just because (as our host can attest) it is by no means uncommon for laymen to miss the point of material written for experts or professionals, but also because of the logical impossibility of proving one’s comprehension where there is nothing to comprehend.

      What’s really deadly is when a layman trolls the academics by himself publishing intentionally incomprehensible academic gibberish, such as was done in the famous Sokal hoax.

      1. SHG Post author

        I think you’re right, but it’s a vexing problem since there is as strong a possibility that the layman just doesn’t get it as that the academic is full of shit. The best solution would be for other academics (against whom the “you’re too stupid” reaction wouldn’t work) to call out bullshit within their own ranks.

        A serious problem is that academics won’t do that to each other. Even if they disagree, they use such absurdly moderated language as to conceal the real nature of their position (“In a curious exposition…”). It’s nearly impossible to find any scholar with the guts to say, “Professor Jones is totally full of shit and concealing it in nonsensical strings of meaningless jargon.”

        But then, if they did, what would I have to write about?

  5. j a higginbotham

    Ah, clarity matters. Perhaps that is why some quotes here are at best paraphrases. But why add links which don’t give the original wording or source?

    1. SHG Post author

      The quotes are quotes. We have this thing where we cut and paste quotes. And the links take you directly to the quotes that have been cut and pasted. Stop sniffing glue before commenting. Heck, stop sniffing glue altogether. It’s really bad for you and destroys your brain. I probably should have said this before it was too late.

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