On Academic Writing and Finding One's Voice
28/12/13There are fewer things I dislike more than dry academic writing. I don't have anything against academic writing per se, naturally, although I probably have a bias against certain subjects. A dissertation on the merits and demerits of Wayne Rooney's dribbling style would no doubt send me to sleep faster than a pack of double-strength Nytol and a darkened room. No, what I dislike is the kind of writing that uses impersonal, supposedly impartial language to hide the author's real intention, that of a polemic. If you want to write a polemic, that's fine. But for God's sake don't hide behind a style that makes every pronouncement sound certain or fixed. Admit that what you're doing is giving your own opinion. This kind of writing is heavy with technical terms and use of the passive. These devices distance the writer from their own statement, making it appear as if it 'happens' to be this way. The active voice takes responsibility. The passive voice abnegates responsibility, denying the action a cause.
When I was studying for my degree in Fine Art, my tutors told me to avoid putting myself into my writing. Indeed, any reference to myself was to be avoided like the plague. Quite why was never explained. I gathered that the inserted 'I', or voice of the author would make the writing too subjective. The aim of an essay was to present something as objectively as possible. This always struck me as somewhat disingenuous. At the same time our tutors stressed the ultimate subjectivity of all writing, and so a conflict developed in my mind between these opposing demands in writing. Be as impartial and objective as you can, while (at the same time) acknowledging the subjectivity of your position. Furthermore, in any use of the authorial voice, I would prioritise the author over the reader. The rhetoric of the time was that the author was 'dead', to use Barthes' phrase, and that texts were always 'unfinished', completed only with the reading by each individual reader according to their experiences, personal idiosyncrasies and personality (the subjective as supplied by the reader). When put simply, this is such a commonplace idea that it hardly bears repeating, so the essay in question was really a polemic by Barthes against the deference accorded to authors in French literature, disguised as an analysis of the shifting site of the making of meaning. Of course the greatest irony is that the author who proclaimed the primacy of the author to be dead is now held in such authorial reverence that his words are hardly ever criticised.
The other annoyance I had with writing of this sort, and still have probably to an even greater degree now, is the use of complex or technical language that serves to unnecessarily complicate the text, often rendering it effectively meaningless. Alan Sokal memorably parodied this type of writing for a specific reason. He wanted to highlight the inappropriate use of scientific and mathematical terminology, applied to non-science subjects in a form of analogy that nevertheless made nonsense of the subject at hand. He was careful to note that he wasn't criticising the ideas of the writers he attacked, merely their use of scientific language they clearly hadn't understood.
The culprits of this kind of writing nearly all come from the pseudo-science of psychoanalytic theory: Derrida, Lacan, Irigaray, Kristeva, Deleuze and Guattari. I admit I personally find many of these writers to be almost unreadable, at least in translation. I would go further than Sokal, however, in condemning their use of language generally. Strip away the fancy words and you find ideas that are either so simple that they need obscure language to appear profound, or are plain wrong. And yet they are written with the clearly authorial voice of authority, their authority. Believe me, this truly sticks in my craw.
How's that for a polemic?