11.0082 bad writing wins

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Tue, 3 Jun 1997 23:51:51 +0100 (BST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 11, No. 82.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

Date: Sat, 31 May 97 12:26:21 EDT
From: Norm Holland <NNH@NERVM.NERDC.UFL.EDU>
Subject: The Annual Bad Writing Contest (fwd)

One of the more entertaining moments in the Internet year is the announce-
ment of the winners of the Annual Bad Writing Contest, conducted by
Dennis Dutton, at the University of Canterbury, Christchurch, N.Z. Hence
my forwarding of this only semi-psychological post.

Let me remind PSYARTers that son John Holland has devised (with help
from Dad) a program that churns out this kind of critical prose--as much
of it as you can ever use. See


--Best, Norm


From: Denis Dutton <FINA012@csc.canterbury.ac.nz> (141)

--Bad Writing Contest Winners--

We are pleased to announce winners of the third Bad Writing
Contest, sponsored by the scholarly journal Philosophy and Literature
(published by the Johns Hopkins University Press) and its internet
discussion group, PHIL-LIT.

The Bad Writing Contest attempts to locate the ugliest, most
stylistically awful passage found in a scholarly book or article
published in the last few years. Ordinary journalism, fiction, etc. are
not eligible, nor are parodies: entries must be non-ironic, from actual
serious academic journals or books. In a field where unintended
self-parody is so widespread, deliberate send-ups are hardly

This year's winning passages include prose published by established,
successful scholars, experts who have doubtless labored for years to
write like this. Obscurity, after all, can be a notable achievement. The
fame and influence of writers such as Hegel, Heidegger, or Derrida
rests in part on their mysterious impenetrability. On the other hand,
as a cynic once remarked, John Stuart Mill never attained Hegel's
prestige because people found out what he meant. This is a mistake
the authors of our our prize-winning passages seem determined to

* The first prize goes to a sentence by the distinguished scholar
Fredric Jameson, a man who on the evidence of his many admired
books finds it difficult to write intelligibly and impossible to write
well. Whether this is because of the deep complexity of Professor
Jameson's ideas or their patent absurdity is something readers must
decide for themselves. Here, spotted for us by Dave Roden of Central
Queensland University in Australia, is the very first sentence of
Professor Jameson's book, Signatures of the Visible (Routledge, 1990,
p. 1):

"The visual is _essentially_ pornographic, which is to say that it has
its end in rapt, mindless fascination; thinking about its attributes
becomes an adjunct to that, if it is unwilling to betray its object; while
the most austere films necessarily draw their energy from the attempt
to repress their own excess (rather than from the more thankless
effort to discipline the viewer)."

The appreciative Mr. Roden says it is "good of Jameson to let readers
know so soon what they're up against." We cannot see what the
second "that" in the sentence refers to. And imagine if that uncertain
"it" were willing to betray its object? The reader may be baffled, but
then any author who thinks visual experience is essentially
pornographic suffers confusions no lessons in English composition
are going to fix.

* If reading Fredric Jameson is like swimming through cold porridge,
there are writers who strive for incoherence of a more bombastic
kind. Here is our next winner, which was found for us by Professor
Cynthia Freeland of the University of Houston. The writer is
Professor Rob Wilson:

"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 a fast deindustrializing 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 heteroglossic wilds and others of
the inner city."

This colorful gem appears in a collection called The Administration of
Aesthetics: Censorship, Political Criticism, and the Public Sphere,
edited by Richard Burt "for the Social Text Collective" (University of
Minnesota Press, 1994). Social Text is the cultural studies journal
made famous by publishing physicist Alan Sokal's jargon-ridden
parody of postmodernist writing. If this essay is Social Text's idea of
scholarship, little wonder it fell for Sokal's hoax. (And precisely what
are "racially heteroglossic wilds and others"?) Dr. Wilson is an
English professor, of course.

* That incomprehensibility need not be long-winded is proven by our
third-place winner, sent in by Richard Collier, who teaches at Mt.
Royal College in Canada. It's a sentence from Making Monstrous:
Frankenstein, Criticism, Theory, by Fred Botting (Manchester
University Press, 1991):

"The lure of imaginary totality is momentarily frozen before the
dialectic of desire hastens on within symbolic chains."

* Still, prolixity is often a feature of bad writing, as demonstrated by
our next winner, a passage submitted by Mindy Michels, a graduate
anthropology student at the American University in Washington,
D.C. It's written by Stephen Tyler, and appears in Writing Culture,
edited (it says) by James Clifford and George E. Marcus (University
of California Press, 1986). Of what he calls "post-modern
ethnography," Professor Tyler says:

"It thus relativizes discourse not just to form--that familiar
perversion of the modernist; nor to authorial intention--that conceit
of the romantics; nor to a foundational world beyond discourse--that
desperate grasping for a separate reality of the mystic and scientist
alike; nor even to history and ideology--those refuges of the
hermeneuticist; nor even less to language--that hypostasized
abstraction of the linguist; nor, ultimately, even to discourse--that
Nietzschean playground of world-lost signifiers of the structuralist
and grammatologist, but to all or none of these, for it is anarchic,
though not for the sake of anarchy but because it refuses to become a
fetishized object among objects--to be dismantled, compared,
classified, and neutered in that parody of scientific scrutiny known as

* A bemused Dr. Tim van Gelder of the University of Melbourne sent
us the following sentence:

"Since thought is seen to be 'rhizomatic' rather than 'arboreal,' the
movement of differentiation and becoming is already imbued with its
own positive trajectory."

It's from The Continental Philosophy Reader, edited by Richard
Kearney and Mara Rainwater (Routledge, 1996), part of an editors'
introduction intended to help students understand a chapter. Dr. van
Gelder says, "No undergraduate student I've given this introduction
to has been able to make the slightest sense of it. Neither has any
faculty member."

* An assistant professor of English at a U.S. university (she prefers to
remain anonymous) entered this choice morsel from The Cultures of
United States Imperialism, by Donald Pease (Duke University Press,

"When interpreted from within the ideal space of the myth-symbol
school, Americanist masterworks legitimized hegemonic
understanding of American history expressively totalized in the
metanarrative that had been reconstructed out of (or more accurately
read into) these masterworks."

While the entrant says she enjoys the Bad Writing Contest, she's
fearful her career prospects would suffer were she to be identified as
hostile to the turn by English departments toward movies and soap
operas. We quite understand: these days the worst writers in
universities are English professors who ignore "the canon" in order
to apply tepid, vaguely Marxist gobbledygook to popular culture.
Young academics who'd like a career had best go along.

* But it's not just the English department where jargon and
incoherence are increasingly the fashion. Susan Katz Karp, a
graduate student at Queens College in New York City, found this
splendid nugget showing that forward-thinking art historians are doing
their desperate best to import postmodern style into their discipline.
It's from an article by Professor Anna C. Chave, writing in Art
Bulletin (December 1994):

"To this end, I must underline the phallicism endemic to the dialectics
of penetration routinely deployed in descriptions of pictorial space
and the operations of spectatorship."

The next round of the Bad Writing Contest, results to be announced in
1998, is now open with a deadline of December 31, 1997. There is an
endless ocean of pretentious, turgid academic prose being added to
daily, and we'll continue to celebrate it.
Dr. Denis Dutton
Senior Lecturer in the Philosophy of Art
Editor, Philosophy and Literature
University of Canterbury, Christchurch, New Zealand
Phones: 64-3-366-7001, ext. 8154; 643-348-7928 (home)