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Philosophy and Literature Announces the
Third Annual Bad Writing Contest Winners


We are pleased to announce winners of the third Bad Writing Contest, sponsored by the scholarly journal Philosophy and Literature 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 necessary.

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 avoid.

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 criticism.

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, 1993):

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 choice 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.

Feel free to forward this message to other lists or internet sites.

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
d.dutton@fina.canterbury.ac.nz