Writing and Scholastic Style
Academic writers are often little more than figures of fun. Derided for the opacity of our jargon-filled prose we swim often unnoticed at the shallow end of the literary pond. To some degree it is our own fault because it seems to be a serious academic you need to be a seriously bad writer. Anthropologist Brian Morris commented in his inaugural lecture at Goldsmiths in 1999: "I try to write in a way that is lucid and readable ... I am continually rebuked for this and told to write in an academic style, that is with pretension and in scholastic jargon, for in academia, obscurantism is equated with intellectual profundity." Professor Morris is absolutely right and the mistake that academic authors often make is to confuse 'being clear' with 'simplistic thinking'. There is also a case to be made for the importance of complex writing and dare I say the literary value of academic work.
Sometimes difficult and abstract language serves a purpose. The two figures that loom in my mind around this issue are Theodor W Adorno and George Orwell. Adorno's prose style is legendary in the opacity stakes. In Minima Moralia, my favourite book by him, he makes a strong case for the necessity of difficult writing. "The logic of the day, which makes so much of its clarity, has naively adopted this perverted notion of everyday speech [...] Those who would escape it must recognise the advocates of communicability as traitors to what they communicate". In Adorno's view the effect of the
insistence on communicability results in the betrayal of critical thinking. It is really important to hold to the idea that understanding the world is difficult and can't be served up like a soap opera or the kitsch of reality TV.
Then there is George Orwell's extraordinary essay, 'Politics and the English Language'. I try and read it at least once a year. Orwell takes to pieces the language of totalitarian propagandists alongside a critical assessment of the writing of academics of his day like Professor Harold Laski who worked at the London School of Economics. "If thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought. A bad usage can spread by tradition and imitation, even among people who should know better" wrote Orwell in 1947. My feeling is that we academic writers need to have both Adorno and Orwell at our elbow as we work. Complex writing is necessary but so too is clarity and the virtues contained in each can be debased. Pristine clarity or abstract complexity is no protection from writing truly awful things.
The miserable plight of the academic writer is not just of our own making. While we are faced with mounting pressure to 'publish or perish' our conditions couldn't be much worse. Some people in fields where the market demand is low literally have to pay to get into print. A friend of mine recently paid £2,000 upfront to get his book out with an academic publisher. He needed to have his book published in order to compete for teaching jobs but no mainstream academic press would