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Just Being Difficult?: Academic Writing in the Public Arena (Cultural Memory in the Present) [Paperback]

Jonathan Culler , Kevin Lamb

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Product details

  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: Stanford University Press (1 July 2003)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0804747105
  • ISBN-13: 978-0804747103
  • Product Dimensions: 23.2 x 15.2 x 1.6 cm
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: 1,493,999 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description


Is academic writing, particularly in the disciplines of literary theory and cultural studies, needlessly obscure? The claim has been widely circulated in the media and subject to passionate debate, but it has not been the subject of serious discussion. "Just Being Difficult?" provides learned and thoughtful analyses of the claim, of those it targets, and of the entire question of how critical writing relates to its intended publics and to audiences beyond them. In this book, a range of distinguished scholars, including some who have been charged with willful obscurity, argue for the interest and importance of some of the procedures that critics have preferred to charge with obscurity rather than confront in another way. The debate on difficult writing hovers on the edges of all academic writing that seeks to play a role in the public arena. This collection is a much-needed contribution to the discussion.

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Amazon.com: 4.0 out of 5 stars  3 reviews
5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars An Explanation more than a Defense 24 Dec 2005
By Avid Reader - Published on Amazon.com
Newspapers and magazines take glee in deriding academics. It has become a spectator sport. But calling an academic pedantic hardly seems sporting -- or particularly original.

Reading this book reminded me of why i went to college -- to explore ideas in ways that I hadn't before. It's true that the authors in this volume take rather similar positions; however, it's also true that it's a much-needed explanation of why new ideas sometimes sound new.

It also shows how writing needs to be read in context -- not only do individual sentences often need the paragraphs around them to make sense, but individual publications often need the context of other writings to make sense. Each writer shouldn't need to review or rewrite all of philosophical history at the beginning of every article or book! Authors should, in certain times and places, be able to start from the assumption that their writings speak to a particular tradition, one that not every reader is immediately familiar with.

So asking if individual sentences can be rephrased to be clearer is sometimes beside the point. Asking if Judith Butler's writings make a contribution to a philosophical tradition dating back to the pre-Socratics is the real question. After all, Plato and Aristotle wrote some texts that were meant to instruct a wider studentship and others that seemed too difficult to the novice scholar. They needed both kinds of writing. So do we.
38 of 58 people found the following review helpful
2.0 out of 5 stars Does The Word-Emperor Have No Clothes--or is Overdressed? 25 Jun 2004
By Brian Kevin Beck - Published on Amazon.com
Full Disclosure: I bring both insight and bias. You decide.

As a literature teacher, I love verbal complexity for pleasure. But as a teacher of writing and "shirtsleeves" real-world writer myself (feature articles on boating, nature, travel, social issues)--I value clarity and communicability for practicality. Not to be oversimple--just to make important but demanding material accessible to a willing reader.
And so here "I just don't know..." We've heard the criticism that much public academic writing is needlessly obscure, hence inaccessible, due to its jargon, abstraction, complex syntax, and the like. This book seeks to defend difficult academic writing. The authors claim that (1) readers may stubbornly claim not to understand. They also argue that (2) new and different perspectives need new presentations which shake us loose from the old conventional, traditional. They also (3) warn against the dangers of facile oversimplification.(And probably other arguments, some too obscurely-expressed to grasp quickly...)
Well, I'd critique the critiquers. As a freelance journalist, I must make sure the reader understands--indeed, cannot possibly misunderstand!--nd is served. George Orwell said "good prose is like a window pane." Somerset Maugham, and E. M. Forster, said that the best writers can express ideas of subtlety and complexity quite clearly. Not that each sentence is simplistic. The style may and even should include difficulties. But it does not mislead.
I also take a diachronic or historical approach. The postmodern style defended in this book often contains aerial abstractions with cloudy towers with filigree diction decorating them. Will this soon seem the momentary excess of a moment in history? (Created partially in order to create something new and hence gain power, status?) And soon to be rebalanced toward the "attainment and restraint" of good style?
(Less formally, I think that too much postmodern prose is hermetic recondite insular "hair oil"...The emperor has no clothes-or rather, is overdressed needlessly and inappropriately after all...)
I'd like to be convinced by the authors' defenses of linguistic density. But alas, and perhaps also significantly, I see no specific proofs. The book's writers offer no evidence that this difficulty is necessary. We shirtsleeves wordsmiths chant our mantra of "statistics, quotes, and anecdotes." We say but then show; we give instances of specific examples to clarify abstract claims or ideas.
And so, how I longed to see in this book just one instance of showing how the convoluted style is indeed competent and indeed compulsory. For example (!): take some issue ("vegetarianism as egalitarianism," I don't care...) Then (1) state it in clear plain windowpane-prose. Then (2) recast it in the postmodern academese which this book largely defends-I think. Then (3) unpack the latter version to show how it does confront complexities more competently than the prosaic first one. But where's the down-to-earth proof or even the demonstration in this lofty book?
Okay, I'll walk my own talk here even if the book didn't. I'll end with an example myself. It's from Judith Butler in her "Values of Difficulty" in the volume. She's discussing human rights discourse and universality, she reports how AIDS activists in the 1980's sought to enter Spanish-speaking communities to do AIDS outreach. When they asked who was "homosexual," few would respond. But when they later returned and asked who practiced anal sex with other men, many more people came forth. Then she sums up her "point" about all this.
I'll give my version (translation?) of her point here first. I'd have said, "When communicating with diverse audiences toward persuasion, make sure your cognitive and also emotional language is not simply how you see things, but is in line with how the audience sees things and feels free to respond."
But here is Butler's actual version: "To engage in activism is not to start with the concept of a shared language but to be prepared to find that communication can sometimes take place only when the terms that initiate a discussion undergo an expropriation that bears no resemblance to the original, where the term abandons the animating conditions of its own efficacy in order to live elsewhere as another term or as a term subjected to a radically unanticipated use."
Well...I find her version to be overelaborated ornateness, profitless bloating which almost apotheosizes transmogrified obfuscation. (Or, which almost puts decadent obscurity on a pedestal.) Now, I love dense diction when I write for fun in my own idiolect (a combination of Joycean wordpunplays, pidgin English, earnest illiterate, and pan-European). But when I try to do real-work (sic) writing, I seek glassine clarity the better to illuminate complexity. Sure a camera lens has a tougher job photographing clearly "a swamp at sundown" than "a beach at noon." But a good lens (or language style) can succeed some indeed. A muddy dirty lens (or one distorted with its own interfiliated lenticular elements) can not.
Is much postmodern prose the painful attempt not to clarify complexities, but to Gain Points (status, reputation, power) by advancing to something new? Only problem-it's not new, just "monstrous and extraordinary," as W. Y. Tindall used to define literary decadence...
2 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Essential Reading 24 Dec 2005
By Professor R. - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
This book does the essential task of explaining WHY writing sometimes seems difficult to those who are new to reading it. It does not promote difficulty as a virtue in itself. Rather, in a series of lucid and often eloquent essays, _Just Being Difficult?_, as the question mark in the title implies, questions the assumptions that lie behind the American expectation that all writing in English be immediately digestible by every reader of English everywhere and at all times. It suggests that this idea of a singular "reading public" is at its core anti-democratic because it's generally marshaled to suppress the free exchange of ideas rather than promote it.

The book also addresses why we tend to assume that most of us outside certain specialized fields won't be able to pick up an academic science or medical journal and read it, but that we nonetheless harbor deep suspicions over social sciences or humanities publications that discuss ideas in ways that go beyond the everyday uses of speech.

In sum, this publication takes seriously the problem of difficult language and confronts it head-on. As such, it demands a thoughtful reading by those who genuinely want to think about the connection between language and thought.
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