Good Luck Deciphering This Academic Gibberish!

Devin Foley | August 6, 2015

Good Luck Deciphering This Academic Gibberish!

There is a special drudgery to much of academic writing these days. If you think some of it is incomprehensible, it is. But to the writer and a select circle, you are too stupid to understand it. So which one is closer to the truth?

Back in the 1990s, Denis Dutton, a respected philosopher out of New Zealand who passed away in 2010, called out the trend of overly complicated and often unintelligible academic prose by launching the Philosophy and Literature Bad Writing Contest”:

“‘As usual,’ commented Dutton, editor of Philosophy and Literature, ‘this year’s winners were produced by well-known, highly-paid experts who have no doubt labored for years to write like this. That these scholars must know what they are doing is indicated by the fact that the winning entries were all published by distinguished presses and academic journals.’”

Below is the first place winner for 1998. Keep in mind that it is one sentence.

“The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.” (Prof. Judith Butler, “Further Reflections on the Conversations of Our Time”, 1997)

It turns out that the writing style and popularity of it amongst academics is nothing new. In the late stages of the Roman Empire, academics were doing the same thing. Carl Stephenson, a professor of history at Cornell University, wrote of it in his book, Mediaeval History (1935):

“The more difficult it was to understand what the author was driving at, the more necessary it was for the refined audience to applaud the product: and the narrower the group that could play the game according to the rules, the greater the distinction of belonging to it.”

You can read more about it all here: 

As Solomon wrote, there is nothing new under the sun. 


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