Adding Zero

Unproblematic Prose

Further to my posts on the preposterous Carolyn Guertin and Jacques Derrida’s unhinged and fraudulent prose, this may be of interest. It’s from a lecture by Keith Windschuttle, author of The Killing of History: How Literary Critics and Social Theorists Are Murdering Our Past. It’s a longish extract, but bear with me. I think it’s worth your time and, perhaps, grimly amusing. Windschuttle points out how “unproblematic prose” and “clarity of presentation” are regarded by some – guess who - as the “conceptual tools of conservatism.” Thus, if you prefer arguments that are (a) comprehensible and (b) able to withstand scrutiny, you must be a conservative, i.e. The Enemy. On the other hand, if you denounce such bourgeois trifles, you’re “radical” and very, very sexy.

“Though all the great historians I just mentioned were wonderfully clear writers, postmodern academic fashions have declared clear writing to be ideologically contaminated. The editors of one recent collection of postmodernist essays inform us: ‘The ideal of a transparent, tempered and accommodated prose’ is ‘the approved mode of expression for the society and values of the newly empowered middle class.’ (Innovations of Antiquity, ed. Ralph Hexter and Daniel Selden, New York 1992). Another has declared ‘unproblematic prose and clarity of presentation’ to be ‘the conceptual tools of conservatism.’ (Mas'd Zavarzadeh, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, cited by John M. Ellis, Against Deconstructionism.) Since today's typical postmodernist academic would rather be declared to have a communicable disease than labelled ‘middle class’ or ‘conservative’, let me give you an example of what now passes as acceptable prose style among the postmodernist fraternity (and sorority).

This is from a gentleman named Homi Bhabha, a former professor of English at the University of Chicago, who has now been appointed to Harvard. He is writing about nineteenth century attempts by Britain to establish governments in its colonies that mimicked the government of the imperial centre. Rather than examining the evidence of how these colonial governments actually worked in practice, Bhabha instead gives us a deconstruction of the concept of ‘mimicry’. He writes: ‘Within that conflictual economy of colonial discourse that Edward Said describes as the tension between the synchronic panoptical vision of domination - the demand for identity, stasis - and the counterpressure of the diachrony of history - change, difference - mimicry represents an ironic compromise. (To) adapt Samuel Weber's formulation of the marginalising vision of castration, then, colonial mimicry is the desire for a reformed, recognisable Other, as a subject of a difference that is almost the same, but not quite. Which is to say…’ (From Tensions of Empire, ed. Frederick Cooper and Ann Laura Stoler, University of California Press, 1997)

I won't try to translate these sentiments into English. How could anyone talk seriously about the vision of castration? Let me simply point out that they are representative of their kind, containing the usual quota of invented terminology and postmodernist clichés – ‘difference’, ‘irony’, ‘the Other’ - not to mention the obligatory reverent citation of approved gurus. Writing of this kind should remind us of George Orwell's observation that muddled prose is usually an ‘instrument for concealing or preventing thought.’ Unfortunately, in academic life today, this kind of prose is routinely adopted by the most successful people in their fields. This happens to be a very effective tactic to adopt in academic circles where there is always an expectation that things are never simple and that anyone who writes clearly is thereby being shallow. Obscurity is often assumed to equal profundity, a quality that signals a superiority over the thinking of the uneducated herd. Moreover, those students who put in all the work needed to comprehend a dialogue of this kind very often become converts, partly to protect their investment in the large amount of time already committed, and partly because they are bound to feel they have thereby earned a ticket into an elite. Obscurity is thus a clever way to generate a following.”

The full lecture can be read here.