I’m reading a lot right now, as I finished a shitty draft of my article and am waiting for my old man to tear it apart with his teeth before I rewrite it and/or before I quit my job and go live in a tent in the woods. So I’m taking some reading days. The academic reading day is a strange beast. I’m letting myself go down whatever rabbit holes I will, because I’ve designated these two days as fact-finding days. So you start out with a keyword search on JSTOR where you’re trying to see how many recent articles refer to a 1970s book on advertising that you don’t know how legitimate it is, and then four hours later you’re reading an article about how a French scientist in 1778 figured out that fossil fuel use was going to cause global warming (<--A TRUE STORY). How did you get here from there? You can't remember, but anyway you sure learned a lot about dinosaur bones. You'd never think it, but sometimes the ol' "academic writing" strawman yields some glorious gems. There are so many truly smart people who also have literary minds and care about turning a good phrase. Harvey's "maelstrom of ephemerality" that characterizes modern life. Tovey's "e flat clarinet broomstick" that the idée fixe rides in on in the fifth movement of Symphonie Fantastique. Or the "restful detumescence" Dijkstra humorously argues paintings of dead women allowed threatened men to feel during the Fin de Siècle. Here is the inimitable Huyssen trying to get us to stop using false dichotomies when discussing the avant garde: "...the prophets of the new will remain locked in futile battle with the sirens of cultural decline." And Hochschild: "After we've asked if being cool is useful, we have to ask whether being cool is good. Is it the best we can do?" Or my dissertation adviser's many notably excellent article introductions--she's known for her "hooks"--like the one where she's at a county fair eating kettle corn and then the Confutatis from Mozart's Requiem starts blasting and she's frozen with terror but everyone around her is like "this is from Amadeus.” I remember reading one of my professor’s new books when it came out, and coming across his description of some super-angry musical manifesto from the 1960s, which he called a “hysterical screed,” and it made me laugh so hard I emailed him about it and he wrote back: “Yes, ‘hysterical screed’ is quite good isn’t it?” Ha ha ha
And not to mention, like, MARX or some shit. “All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away, all new formed ones become antiquated before they can ossify. All that is solid melts into air, all that is holy is profaned” DANG DUDE.
People who complain about academic writing USUALLY have never read much of it. I mean, it’s even a little bit sad to argue with these people because usually the anti-academia stance is born of defensiveness. “How dare someone think they are smarter than me” etc. It’s weird because I am totally comfortable with the realization that there are literally millions of people who are smarter than I am and I don’t get why this is a stressful thing for people to have to confront. No shit somebody who went to school for 10 extra years and has written six books on a subject is smarter than you when it comes to that subject! No shit you might thus find those books difficult to read! It seems so American to want to argue that point. We believe every opinion is equally valid even though that’s just demonstrably, empirically a false statement. And we believe every idea ought to be put in clear language that even the dumbest jackass who has never thought about that idea for one second can understand. Lord!
Anyway, to be fair, there is of course so much bad academic writing. Just a few days ago I LITERALLY threw a book (in anger) at my husband and said “am I right that this book is insane bullshit?” and he read the introduction and said “YES.” But if you wade through it in a focused way you find writing of great beauty; writing that gives you chills; writing that makes you laugh. When people complain about bad academic writing I just want to point out that there is so much bad writing in EVERY genre. I dare you to go pick up a Dean Koontz or 50 Shades of Grey or even something marginally classy like that recent atrocity of Curtis Sittenfeld’s or even freaking The Marriage Plot or whatever, and try to argue that those books are “well written.” Why hold academics to a higher standard than you hold all other authors? Writing ideas down that are both smart AND beautifully articulated is a pretty tall order; it seems reasonable that a lot of people only accomplish the first part. True, a lot of people accomplish neither, but that too is life my friends, we are all groping toward understanding and transcendence in our own small ways.
Part of my research entails reading all these TRULY heinous articles in journals of marketing and advertising. “Improving consumer click-through rates with varied repetition of banner ads” and shit. You want to talk about people who can’t write OR think? Look no further. The worst people in the world. Worse than an ideological dictator. At least an ideological dictator has beliefs and feelings about other people, even if they are terrible ones. There’s a cold nothingness to marketers that is not human. It is impossible to imagine these people loving their children or being amazed by a sunset or getting angry at an article about abortion, one way or the other. “The bourgeoisie has left remaining no other nexus between man and man than naked self-interest, than callous ‘cash payment'” damn, Karl Marx, you have nailed it yet again