The tortured prose common in academic writing often produces both unconscious comedy and literary scandal. It stumbles across my desk or my screen every day, but a particularly striking example showed up in Gail Singer's recent review of The Girl from God's Country, a University of Toronto Press book by Kay Armatage about a silent-era Canadian filmmaker, Nell Shipman.
Armatage, who teaches film, has made documentaries, organized festival programs and otherwise operated outside academe. Yet she writes an obscurantist style that seems directed only to other professors. Singer, a filmmaker who admires Shipman and would like to admire her biographer, directs our attention (in the June issue of the Literary Review of Canada) to what Armatage says about Shipman's attachment to the Canadian North:
"We can see a socio-sexual parallel between the geography of the wilderness and the topographies of narrative in this genre, which organizes a particular spatial itinerary and social anatomy."
Is there, anywhere, a reader brave or foolish enough to explain what that means? Probably not. And why is it there? How complicated can the story of Nell Shipman be? Armatage seems to be following the first rule of postmodernism: Make simple ideas complicated, and complicated ideas incomprehensible.
Sympathetically, Singer suggests that many scholars believe their peers will judge them harshly if they don't write that way. By implication, she raises what should be a pressing question in the universities: Is it now mandatory to write badly?
Well, in a sense it can't be. Good writers work in the universities, and university presses sometimes publish good books. Denis Dutton, editor of the online Arts & Letters Daily, says he knows many lucid and lively academic writers. But for every superb stylist, he believes, there are 100 who range from adequate to awful.
How could that be? Scholars in the humanities spend much of their time writing, and are forced constantly to read the work of superb writers. Yet they pour out streams of gnarled and barbarous sentences and don't even know they are doing it. Professors in English departments, after lives spent close to the best literature, usually produce the worst prose.
The perpetrators are by no means obscure hacks beavering away in the remote suburbs of academe. Dutton quotes Paul H. Fry, professor of English at Yale. He finds this in Fry's A Defense of Poetry: "It is the moment of non-construction, disclosing the absentation of actuality from the concept in part through its invitation to emphasize, in reading, the helplessness -- rather than the will to power -- of its fall into conceptuality."
Readers may imagine (as Dutton says) that they are too ignorant to understand "the absentation of actuality." Academic theorists take advantage of the innocent reader's natural humility. In this case, Dutton suggests: "The writing is intended to look as though Mr. Fry is a physicist struggling to make clear the Copenhagen interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. Of course, he's just an English professor showing off."
Mass culture now attracts the most bizarre theorizing. When moviemakers changed James Bond's brand of vodka, Aaron Jaffe of the University of Louisville wrote that this "carries a metaphorical chain of deterritorialized signifiers, repackaged up and down a paradigmatic axis of associations."
We can classify much of this prose as pomo-babble (a word first used, I think, by John Leo in U.S. News & World Report). In pomo-babble, being incoherent isn't enough. The best pomo-babble requires a high level of jargon density. One word or two won't get you there. You need four key words in any major sentence. In pomo-babble it's appropriate to praise, for instance, a transgressive challenge to the valorization of hegemonic narrativity.
In recent years leftist academics have been enraptured by Empire, a 500-page anti-globalization book by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, published in 2000. Empire collects all possible criticisms of free trade and wraps them in prose like this: "In the logic of colonialist representations, the construction of a separate colonized other and the segregation of identity and alterity turns out paradoxically to be at once absolute and extremely intimate."
To commit a sentence like that is to subtract from the sum of human knowledge. But it is not really exceptional, and its authors are much admired for their fresh version of leftist "thinking."
This kind of academic writing has some vehement institutional enemies (the Times Literary Supplement is especially articulate) and a multitude of individuals it infuriates. In some ways, though, it's catching. Pomo-babble exhibits strong elements of paranoia, and so (sometimes) do its critics. That may be why they often depict bad prose as a plot by academics. Brian Martin, an Australian professor, invented the phrase "secret passwords at the gate of knowledge" and explained: "Jargon serves to police the boundaries of disciplines and specialities." It's like a toll collected from those crossing intellectual borders.
But conspiracy theory takes us only so far. We know that many outside academe, even some people who could never be accused of careerism, are devoted to precisely the same suffocating crit-speak.
No one knows quite how it arose, and no one knows what to do about it. Certainly there are now thousands of humanities professors (and their students) who believe polysyllabic gobbledygook is the best way to write, maybe the only way. You can't persuade them otherwise.
Crimes against language are not victimless, of course. Academic life has become a publish and perish world: Professors publish, literacy perishes. Students perish too. If they are unlucky (or not warned soon enough), they can find themselves oppressed by teachers who have no interest in demonstrating anything except their own command of an esoteric language and a few Parisian ideas.
What to do? The students fake it, usually. They pretend, for as long as necessary, to take it seriously. Northrop Frye used to say that if you don't care about being educated, a little animal cunning will get you a degree. My guess is that students confronted with pomo-babble go into animal-cunning mode, get an acceptable mark by hiding their opinions, and then find better teachers or escape to the outside world, somewhere beyond critical theory and cultural studies, somewhere that respects reality and art. All it requires is endurance, a light heart, and the ability to believe that this, too, shall pass.