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November 28, 2003


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» Bad Writing from Matthew Yglesias
Charming John Holbo post on the "Bad Writing" debate. Key excerpt:Suppose I write a bad poem, and you point out this awkward fact. And I fire back: 'well, you know a lot of physics is just equations and stuff. I'll... [Read More]

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Let me second Chris Bertram's recommendation of John Holbo's posts (one two) on bad writing. Despite their brilliance, I don't want to take up the thankless task John offers me. In part that's because at this time of year I have quite enough thankless ... [Read More]

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In Loads of Learned Lumber John Holbo has a long, but amusing, post snarkily dissecting several lame defenses of badly written literary criticism. Literary criticism is people interested in books writing things - possibly books - for other people inter... [Read More]

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Chun the Unavoidable

I intend to offer a lengthy reply to this stimulating bit of writing, but, as always, I think your main problem is that you're focusing on a very narrow and unrepresentative sample of what literary scholars actually produce and making unwarranted generalizations about the whole from it.

Chun the Unavoidable

How could one like Roger Kimball? Have you ever read Tenured Radicals? Besides David Horotwitz's Radical Son, this is easily the worst book ever written.

Chun the Unavoidable

Also, when I wrote above that "Tenured Radicals was the worst book ever written," I mean, of course, that I find it to be so.

There are problems in the study of literature that require a technical vocabulary. Is this vocabulary often used in an arbitrary manner? Is it occasionally used only for its own sake? Sure. Of course it is. What kind of damn-fool question is that? But your mistake is that you don't realize, probably because you don't read enough representative work in the field, that the overwhelming majority of literary criticism published is straightforward philological and historical explanation and interpretation.

In other words, the stuff that gets all the attention isn't the real stuff.


"Whoever knows he is deep, strives for clarity; whoever would like to appear deep to the crowd, strives for obscurity.  For the crowd considers anything deep if only it cannot see to the bottom:  the crowd is so timid and afraid of going into the water."
-Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science


Thanks for the comments, Chun. I quite expected to hear from you about Roger Kimball in particular. Well, maybe we'll argue about it at length some time. I do agree that Tenured Radicals is not a satisfactory book. I do like quite a number of pieces Kimball has written for NC, however.

More or less at random, here's a nice essay on Kierkegaard:


In general, I regard Kimball as an often engaging, often vexing intellectual opponent and an occasional philosophical ally against various forms of egregious stupidity. And I think his stern, brisk yet florid style - with the inevitable, multiple epigraphs - is rather winning.

As to your point about technicality. The thing to be said is this: no one is complaining about legitimate technicality. And no one is complaining about the sober semi-technical work lots of scholars are no doubt doing. Probably I should emphasize more that I don't think everyone in English departments are evil idiots. I really don't think that, although no doubt sometimes it sounds that way, and then I deserve to be called up short and made to explain myself.

The thing people - like myself - object to is the likes of, say, Judith Butler defending her Bad Writing on the grounds that it is necessarily technical. It simply isn't. This of course takes some showing. No one need take my authoritative word on it. But I think it's true. Butler's writings are sweeping in metaphysical scope, impressionistic and gestural in their formulations, highly dogmatic in nature. She does not argue. She makes claims. She uses terms like 'performative', which she borrows from Austin. And it is a technical term. But she does not use it in Austin's technical sense. She uses it as a stage prop. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. it depends on whether the theatrical performance is artistically successful. But the play cannot be defended on the grounds that Butler is doing something technical. It simply isn't true.

You are right that I read the bad stuff, and that sort of poisons the well of my good will. But something does need to be done about the fact that there is apparently an inverse relation between status and quality. The high status stuff is bad philosophy and the low status stuff is probably mostly solid and sturdy and respectable scholarship. I've asked you this question before, I know. To what degree is this the way things are: sort of stood on their head, that is?

Chirag Kasbekar

I'm still VERY annoyed that I couldn't understand a WORD of what Spivak wrote in "Can the subaltern speak?"

Literally not a word. Left me stunned.

Have she and her friends invented a new mathematics? Do they really think they have?

Timothy Burke

Chun, I've mulled this over before, and I honestly would like to know: how do you make satisfying claims about what is typical or normal or representative in a particular discipline or type of scholarly work? It seems to me that John has very accurately skewered not just the essays in this collection but also a type of reason or argument which is much more widespread, particularly the kinds of claims about the purpose of criticism that Brooks makes and the incoherencies of the way Brooks links that to a mapping of the actually existing public sphere.

Short of a comprehensive survey of every work of scholarly literary criticism published in the last two years, how do we make these kinds of judgements? Personally, I can only say that the criticisms that John offers seem to me to apply not merely (with devastating accuracy) to the defenses of "bad writing" in this book but to a very widespread array of arguments and work that I read or know of. But I don't know how to go beyond saying, "Seems right to me", save to begin the laborious work of cataloguing thousands of scholarly publications.

I think to some extent that this is the very best, smartest point John makes in this essay, amid many smart observations: that the essays in this volume either reflect that the authors literally do not understand the more sophisticated kinds of arguments against "bad writing" (or "bad theory") or that they refuse to understand them, and offer a bad faith portrayal of all such arguments as being right-wing demands for simple-minded thinking. There's a frustrating lack of charity here, an inability to say, "Ok, so perhaps you have a point or two", when the first thing that happens when I get together with many of my critical theorist and literary critical friends and colleagues is that we all confess we don't understand 90% of Bhabha or Deleuze or Butler et al. Now the difference after that point is that I go on to say that some of these folks are saying much less than they seem to be (Bhabha or Spivak); some of them are saying things that could be said better and are using obscurity as a bludgeon or substitute for argument (Butler) and some are saying virtually nothing and don't even know that they are (a substantial number of third-tier critical theory/lit crit writers). My friends are sure that there's gold in them thar hills, and that their own lack of comprehension is only a promissary sign of the intellectual labor that will be required to extract it.

I feel that saying, "Well, John, this really isn't typical stuff", comes close to being the same kind of see-no-evillism that some of this anthology indulges in. It seems to me that the ground floor of this discusssion has to be, "Bad writing and bad theory are both real phenomena, and reasonably widespread in the humanities". Once we get there, I'm perfectly happy with going on to say, "But the very best work, work which is generative of its own sustainable intellectual traditions, is not like this at all, and it is this work that we should take to be more meaningfully representative of literary criticism today".

Chun the Unavoidable

I haven't read the anthology in question, and I don't know if Timothy has either. Having said that, I think that you can easily make a normative judgement about work in the field by reading in it, as I do.

I don't mean to claim that I read even a significant percentage of all the literary criticism written in one year, but I do read enough to know that these "debates" that scholars in other disciplines and middlebrow cultural observers (by which I mean people like Kimball, not our host) get so worked up over simply do not apply to the selection of material I read for my research and general interest. Scholars either don't care or are not affected by what are perceived to be these "megatrends" in theoretical work.

I won't make tiresome Kuhnian analogies about "normal science" and such, and there is undoubtably a distressing level of idolatry in literary studies. Timothy's critical theorist friends might be professors at Swarthmore or people he knew at Johns Hopkins. Their "'higher' status" means that they have more invested in being closer to the top of this perceived status hierarchy, which is why they might need to believe in the intellectual seriousness of a Bhabha or Butler more than the majority of practicing literary critics (I don't really have an opinion about the intellectual content or the style of either of these killer "B"s, personally, so don't take that as an endorsement of Duttonesque neocon claritism--it's merely an instance).

Maybe there's no "bad writing," only "bad reading." To try to answer John's original question, it's not that the "'high' status" stuff is worse than normal criticism, it's just that it has to be controversial (and probably opaque) in order to achieve that status. Of course if you can't necessarily pin down someone's argument, you can at least be persuaded that it's because you don't understand it. In most cases, this is obvious bullshit. But it is true, sometimes at least, that work can be beyond the understanding of all but a very few people, only to be appreciated much later.

I don't claim that this is particularly insightful, but it also seems to be a fairly obvious explanation of the "bad theory" phenomena.


When my hermeneutic chain-saw drops a rhetorical Sequoia through the roof of a building in which a roomful of tenured linguists are gathered, do the reverberations count as an essay, or is it still just 10% of course grade? Does it matter if they all have their fingers in their ears and are looking away on purpose? How about iPOD's? Walkmen? Cel phones?
If later on I show it on film to people deaf from birth it would seem obvious no sound is involved, and yet...
Is a book at the bottom of the sea still a book? Even if no one knows it's there? Is that a tangent?


Can I just say that, at least in the English-speaking academic traditions I know of, it is only in the US that arcane "high theory" is accorded quite such authority in the first place. In Australia, for example, pragmatic intellectual traditions are generally considered at least as useful or important (or is that just wishful thinking?) And I should note the existence of Deleuzian cults in particular pockets as well.

Ophelia Benson

Yeah - there's something wrong with Americans in this respect! There's some terrible deep well of credulity and naivete and willingness to be overimpressed, here, that...I just don't get.

For instance, I read a bit of the introduction to 'Just Being Difficult?' a couple of hours ago, and noticed that they (Culler and the other guy) talk about the comparatively well-known 'theorists' as 'stars.' Not just in passing, but making a point of it - making a meal of the fact that the Bad Writing Contest gave the prize to 'stars' like Butler and Bhabha and that that's no accident. Stars?! Come on! Butler and Bhabha are not stars to anyone except other theorists. But they do think of each other as stars. They talk as if Derrida were Kant and Butler were at least Fichte. It's very odd. Credulity seems so kind of...untheoretical.

W. Kiernan

...obscurity as a bludgeon or substitute for argument (Butler)...

That's what I too thought at first, or else that she's simply incapable of expressing herself clearly, like Hegel was. But from the one book of Judith Butler's I've 3/4 read so far (The Psychedelic Life o' Power, hey it's only been what, three, four years? I'm slow) I get the impression that Butler writes like that on purpose. It's a style. She's describing subjection to us and to do so more effectively she deploys that all-rusty-sharp-edges style of hers to put the reader in a subjected-upon mood, so he'll not only understand it but feel it. Kind of like if you were sitting at a jazz show and the saxophonist came down off stage and whacked you upside the head with his horn. Man, that'd convey an emotion. The tip-off was, I happened to see a short article by her about a current affairs topic which was, to my surprise, written in such simple, unadorned English that I could read it from a to z in one pass and get the whole thing.

Boy I pity anybody who has to try to digest her stuff on schedule, like say, by the end of a semester!

Ophelia Benson

Oh yeah - I think everybody agrees she does it on purpose. But that's the problem...

In fact that's one of the defenses of the bad-or-difficult writing crowd. As in this quotation from the introduction by Thomas McLaughlin, to the anthology Critical Terms for Literary Study:

"Any discourse that was out to uncover and question that system had to find a language, a style, that broke from the constraints of common sense and ordinary language. Theory set out to produce texts that could not be processed successfully by the commonsensical assumptions that ordinary language puts into play. There are texts of theory that resist meaning so powerfully - say those of Lacan or Kristeva - that the very process of failing to comprehend the text is part of what it has to offer."

It's hard not to laugh at that.

I did a comment on the whole thing at Butterflies and Wheels last month, here.


Chun, I'm quite prepared to believe that the work in literary studies which gets most of the attention from outsiders is neither the best nor the most representative. (God knows I work in a field with similar issues.) Can you point out some specific books or articles which you do find representative and not subject to these afflictions, just so the rest of us can see for ourselves?

I can't tell, though, whether you're saying that the work which gets attention on the outside also has high status within your discipline. I think so, but I can't see any way to reconcile that with your apparent equanimity about the state of the discipline.

Chun the Unavoidable

I'm saying that the work which generates a lot of controversy has proportionally less status and influence than is commonly assumed.

Some representative work (all Muse-able):

Daileader, Celia R. "Back door Sex: Renaissance Gynosodomy, Aretino, and the Exotic." ELH. 69.2 (2002): 303-334.

Atkins, Carl D. "The Application of Bibliographical Principles to the Editing of Punctuation in Shakespeare's Sonnets." Studies in Philology. 100.4 (Fall 2003): 493-513.

McGann, Jerome. "Herbert Horne's Diversi Colores (1891): Incarnating the Religion of Beauty." New Literary History. 34.3 (2003): 535-552

Diemart, Brian. "The Waterworks: E. L. Doctorow's Gnostic Detective Story." Texas Studies in Language and Literature. 45.4 (2003): 352-374.


"...early on in September and October, people didn't want to hear about why the people who orchestrated and executed the attacks on September 11th - they didn't want to hear explanations of why they did it. Because if you can give a reason for why they did it, that makes them rational, that makes them animated by a reason. And if you have an investment in making them out to be just pure evil, or constituently violent, or extra-human or not human, then they are not motivated by reason, they are motivated by something that's other than reason. So, in that case, no reasons can be given.

But I think that it's not only wrong to cast people in that way, even when they do heinously violent acts, but it is an opportunity to think critically about the origins of violence in our time - Where it's coming from, why it's directed where it is, what its themes are. So, in the piece that you referred to, I worry that people who try to think about explanations are very often accused of providing a rationale or justification for that action. But I think it's important to distinguish between those two. We can condemn those violent actions, but also be compelled by our international place and obligations to figure out the reasons for them."

"In holding out for a distinction to be made between Israel and Jews, I am calling for a space for dissent for Jews, and non-Jews, who have criticisms of Israel to articulate; but I am also opposing anti-semitic reductions of Jewishness to Israeli interests. The 'Jew' is no more defined by Israel than by anti-semitism. The 'Jew' exceeds both determinations, and is to be found, substantively, as a historically and culturally changing identity that takes no single form and has no single telos. Once the distinction is made, discussion of both Zionism and anti-semitism can begin, since it will be as important to understand the legacy of Zionism and to debate its future as to oppose anti-semitism wherever we find it."

That Judith Butler I tell ya, opaque as broken glass years in the sand. Laughable. I mean really.
And you know what else? I hate it when people write stuff that's over my head. Hate it hate it hate it. On the other hand, sometimes I wonder if maybe it's me, maybe I just don't get it. You know?

Timothy Burke

I think Chun's argument both makes a lot of sense and yet cannot also be left at that.

Chun's basic point is legitimately common throughout the academy, namely, that an insider or practicioner sense of a discipline or subdiscipline is always more nuanced, attentive and rich than an outsider perspective, particularly one that has come to trash and demean work. I've had the surreal experience ever since I was in graduate school of having older academics on the left perceive Basil Davidson's work as canonically typical of African history. In a way, it is, in that it captures the central premises of the "nationalist sympathizer" moment in Africanist historiography very well--but Davidson was never perceived, even at his most preeminent moments, as a scholar's scholar, as the person who shaped research and writing for disciplinary practicioners. And to be confronted at this late date with the perception that he *remains* a central shaper of the canon is from the perspective of anyone trained from the 1980s onward, just odd.

So yes, this happens a lot: our internal canons and hierarchies of value get lost when outsiders look casually askance at what we do.

However, once we're past flat denial that work which is controversial because of its obscurity, difficulty or "bad writing" exists, and instead arguing about what constitutes the legitimate, central or influential work of literary criticism and critical theory, we face a couple of problems.

First, obviously, has to do with actually existing systems of reward and incentive in academic life. There are literary critics for the literary critic, and they have power and influence within disciplinary practice. And then there are scholars who come to constitute critical practice for a larger audience, and their power and influence extends across a wider if not deeper terrain. Go check any citation index for Bhabha or Kristeva or Spivak or Butler and you're going to come back with a much larger number of citations spread across a vastly larger realm of disciplines than for Diemart or Atkins (or in my field, Hunt or Landau, to cite two scholars whose work I admire).

This is not mere paper status. "Stardom" of this kind translates into real privilege, constitutive authority and power within the academy. If we are to accept Chun's argument that this sort of work is not really terribly representative of the best of literary criticism nor even that influential, then there is something about the economic and institutional benefits this work incurs for its producers and their most devoted followers that raises a further set of questions that interest me, and I think ought to interest Chun. At the very least, there is a genealogy of influence to follow and untangle, but I think there are also deeper questions about how we judge what is "influential", and according to what metrics or goalposts.

Nor do I want to retreat into arguments that simply take what disciplines internally praise as the best or most legitimately representative of what academics do. Because there is another set of "widely influential" works that are also often taken as representative of what academics do and think that I'm quite proud to have the public sphere look on and find quite useful for my own practice, works that take the more Orwellian position in the "language wars" and commit to communicating clearly with a wider public (inside and outside the academy). And it is those works that I think many of the critics of "bad writing" are pointing to as proof that bad writing not only exists but is unnecessary.

Ophelia Benson

As always (well, all the times I've seen, anyway), Timothy Burke is spot-on.

This business of rewards and citations, of who is a 'star' and who is not, is as Burke says worth following and untangling. I have friends who are lit crits, or teachers of English, who tell me that they don't much like writing theoryspeak, but that's what is expected and indeed required, by publishers and even more to the point by interviewers and tenure committees. If you want to publish, if you want to get tenure, if you want a promotion, if you want to move to a more thrilling university with a better research library and a smaller teaching load - then you have to crank out the theoryspeak. So I'm told, anyway.

So, arguably, that's one reason all this mockery and teasing is a very good idea. John made the excellent point in his post that mockery does make a difference - and it can be seen as doing the prisoners of theory a favor, rather than as tormenting them. If obscurity-for-its-own-sake goes out of fashion, maybe that won't be such a tragedy for the practitioners. Maybe they secretly want us to apply pressure to the university presses and hiring committees - who knows?

"works that take the more Orwellian position in the "language wars" and commit to communicating clearly with a wider public (inside and outside the academy). And it is those works that I think many of the critics of "bad writing" are pointing to as proof that bad writing not only exists but is unnecessary."

You betcha.

Ophelia Benson

I have to add an absurdly apposite comment from a review by Anthony Daniels of a biography of Jung in (sorry) The New Criterion -

"There is nothing quite like esoteric windiness for creating a penumbra of profundity...and this no doubt explains how [Jung] became the Madame Blavatsky of psychotherapy."

An awful fate! Lesson: always be clear, lest you become the Madame Blavatsky of anything.

W. Kiernan

That first fragment of Judith Butler that "msg" quotes happens to be the very current-affairs article I read. Clear and simple, but then the subject is not a specialist one nor is the target audience made of specialists. Next I was going to copy, for contrast, a few random sentences out of Psychic Life of Power. But upon reflection that's unfair; the broad subject of Psychic Life is far more complicated than the narrow subject of a brief popular essay and it leans heavily on other scholarly works, themselves chock full of the most awful neologism imaginable. To score points off an author (or his school or politics or nation or religion), pluck a paragraph out of the middle of one of his big specialist books that will be especially opaque to non-specialists when ripped out of context. (With extra points if the author uses everyday words with special meanings specific to the field; e.g. Butler's usage of "body," by which she evidently doesn't mean the face I humbly hold aloft, the face that now greets you and smiles.) So no cherry-picked ("pit-picked"?) passages for you.

Still... still. You go read a even few pages in a row of Psychic Life of Power, and tell me there weren't a couple sentences where you had to stop and reread to make out something basic like which damn word in there is the verb. That might be excusable if she's whipping out a folio of study notes for her students to read along with her lectures. You'd think someone going to the trouble of publishing a book with a cover and an ISBN number and all would try to make it clear and persuasive, even more so for a work aimed at scholars than one written to amuse the general public.

Ophelia Benson

"You'd think someone going to the trouble of publishing a book with a cover and an ISBN number and all would try to make it clear and persuasive, even more so for a work aimed at scholars than one written to amuse the general public."

Well...I hate to keep beating this into the ground, but the reality is, no you wouldn't, not as long as reputations for stardom are in inverse proportion to the clarity of one's writing. In most fields, especially scientific ones, that is not the case, but in some sectors of the humanities, alas the day, it is.


Thanks for your discussion. I shared some thoughts on the subject a while back at http://www.yougotstyle.org/archives/cat_schoolstyle.html#000079. I was pleased to find yours here.

alexander hamilton

um, wtf? i mean, wtf?

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