Denis Dutton, editor of the Johns Hopkins journal Philosophy and Literature, has been running an annual Badwriting Contest. Here are some of my favorite (winners?) finalists:
[this text is lifted wholesale--with
permission--from the 1997 badwriting site]
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 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.
"The lure of imaginary totality is momentarily
frozen before the dialectic of desire hastens on within
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."
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.
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
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
Here's the first prize winner from 1996, from Roy Bhaskar's Plato etc: The Problems of Philosophy and Their Resolution (Verso, 1994). It's all one sentence and the book's dust jacket blurb says this is the author's (a well-regarded philosopher) "most accessible book to date".
Indeed dialectical critical realism may be seen under the aspect of Foucauldian strategic reversal--of the unholy trinity of Parmenidean/Platonic/Aristotelean provenance; of the Cartesian-Lockean- Humean-Kantian paradigm, of foundationalisms (in practice, fideistic foundationalisms) and irrationalisms (in practice, capricious exercises of the will-to-power or some other ideologically and/or psycho-somatically buried source) new and old alike; of the primordial failing of western philosophy, ontological monovalence, and its close ally, the epistemic fallacy with its ontic dual; of the analytic problematic laid down by Plato, which Hegel served only to replicate in his actualist monovalent analytic reinstatement in transfigurative reconciling dialectical connection, while in his hubristic claims for absolute idealism he inaugurated the Comtean, Kierkegaardian and Nietzschean eclipses of reason, replicating the fundaments of positivism through its transmutation route to the superidealism of a Baudrillard.
You can find more "winners" in the archive at
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