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ERIC Number: EJ872620
Record Type: Journal
Publication Date: 2010-Jan
Pages: 15
Abstractor: ERIC
Reference Count: 23
ISSN: ISSN-0010-0994
Reconsiderations: We Got the Wrong Gal--Rethinking the "Bad" Academic Writing of Judith Butler
Birkenstein, Cathy
College English, v72 n3 p269-283 Jan 2010
It is hard to think of a writer whose work has been more prominently upheld as an example of bad academic writing than the philosopher and literary theorist Judith Butler. In 1998, Butler was awarded first prize in the annual Bad Writing Contest established by the journal "Philosophy and Literature," and early in 1999, was lampooned in an editorial in the "Wall Street Journal" by Denis Dutton, one of the chief architects of the contest. Quoting Butler's award-winning sentence, Dutton claimed that Butler's "inept," "jargon-laden" prose was typical of the obscurantist writing being admired and emulated in the most elite circles of today's academic humanities. In 1999, the same year Dutton took Butler to task in the "Wall Street Journal," the feminist moral philosopher Martha Nussbaum published a harsh, widely cited critique of Butler in the "New Republic," claiming that Butler's "ponderous and obscure" writing, like that of other postmodern feminists, breaks with the normal communicative practices that characterize "both the continental and Anglo-American philosophical traditions." Surprisingly, then, many who defend Butler's writing and the type of theoretical discourse it represents agree with Butler's critics that her writing is inaccessible when judged by normative standards of accessibility. While Dutton, Nussbaum, and others condemn Butler's alleged inaccessibility to mainstream readers, Butler and many of her allies praise that alleged inaccessibility on the grounds that it has the subversive potential to liberate those very same readers. But is Butler's writing really that inaccessible and unintelligible? Does her writing really depart from common standards and conventions of clarity? The author's own view is that, far from breaking from recognized standards of intelligibility, Butler's writing conforms to those standards in ways that are missed by both her detractors and most of her defenders, Butler included. Though Butler's writing certainly does have unclear moments, it would not have had the wide impact it has had were it not for its ability to consistently make recognizable arguments that readers can identify, summarize, and debate. Butler's writing has succeeded in circulating as widely as it has in academic circles and beyond not because it breaks with the traditional pattern of "trad[ing] arguments and counter-arguments," as Nussbaum insists, but precisely because it makes systematic use of this classic argumentative pattern, and does so in ways that all writers (and readers) can learn from. (Contains 3 notes.)
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Publication Type: Journal Articles; Opinion Papers
Education Level: N/A
Audience: N/A
Language: English
Sponsor: N/A
Authoring Institution: N/A