Tuesday, February 25, 2014

In Defence of Turgid Prose: A[nother] Response to Nicholas Kristof

A couple times recently, I've had to answer the very difficult question of what kind of "impact" my dissertation project might have on the world. The first time I was faced with it when I was required to present a very embryonic piece of my proposal at a university colloquium: one of my co-panelists, from the philosophy department, asked me what relevance my dissertation on medieval dream visions has to the contemporary world. The second time I've had to answer it was last week, during a phone interview for a prestigious fellowship. Both times this question came from other people working within the academic sphere, and thus people who we might assume are on "our side"--but both times, I stuttered and faltered for much of a substantive answer. It's a question that I would like to work out better for myself and become more fluent in addressing--and I can, I think. Indeed, we should want the work we invest so much time and energy in to have some sort of life-changing quality, if only in terms of the degree to which we perceive and continually re-perceive the world around us.

But that said, as most of us know, the term "impact" carries a lot of baggage in the context of the modern, corporatizing, increasingly neoliberal institution; academics in the United Kingdom have been plagued with this word "impact," often meeting with funding refusals if the impact of the research project is gauged to be minimal or, worse, politically threatening. The New York Times's Nicholas Kristof's inflammatory article from last week on why academics have become "irrelevant" and "marginalized" calls upon this very language of impact as part of its attack: "A basic challenge is that Ph.D. programs have fostered a culture that glorifies arcane unintelligibility while disdaining impact and audience." Much of the problem, he claims, is based on academic publishing's composition standards, which to him promote "turgid prose," and one should also note his embedded snub at leftism in universities, and his defense of Republican-dominated economics. He cites a Harvard historian who, as an exception to his rule, writes for The New Yorker: academic institutions produce “a great, heaping mountain of exquisite knowledge surrounded by a vast moat of dreadful prose.”

Kristoff's editorial has produced a medley of variously excoriating, thoughtful, and defiant rebuttals--including Corey Robin's, which remarks upon Kristof's complete disregard of the material conditions that prevent untenured scholars from fully engaging in the public sphere ("It’s the job market.  It’s the rise of adjuncts. It’s neoliberalism"), and Laura Tanenbaum's, which manages to say almost as much as Robin does in 2% of the word count (The very form of her brief address, in intelligible and concise prose, launches a challenge to Kristof's assumptions). The New Yorker also chimed in with the rather defeatest claim that it is not professors who are "marginalizing themselves," as Kristof suggests, but "the system that produces and consumes academic knowledge is changing, and, in the process, making academic work more marginal." Kristof's comment that academics are "slow to cast pearls through Twitter and Facebook" has inspired its own string of disgruntled pearls in the form of the hashtag #engagedacademics. A month ago, I tried to plea for more engaged and reckless politics on Facebook. And additionally, Mr. Kristof, may I hold up for your scrutiny the existence of Hook & Eye (which, though powered by women writing within the academic institution, is certainly not confined to that institution in terms of readership or concerns, as I think each contributor has demonstrated at various points).

I have one more cry to add to the anti-Kristof chorus, in particular against his attack on what he deems turgid prose. Is academic writing so turgid? And if it sometimes attains a level of obscurity, is that always a bad thing? Of course, we all want to be heard and understood, and our prose should never be obscure for the sake of obscurity--only the worst kind of writers opt for flowery writing in order to doll up a weak argument. But sometimes, I submit, obscurity can serve a political purpose. Faced with a governing institution that demands we translate the value of our research into economic and marketable terms, it may be a political and ethical act to resist the urge to simplify and make our research legible to the vocabulary of merit and progress. This idea is not mine, of course--I'm drawing it from none other than Judith Butler in her excellent essay "Ordinary, Incredulous," in the brand new book, The Humanities and Public Life, published by Fordham University Press (omg, an academic press engaged in the public sphere! Shocking!). As she defiantly puts it, "[i]f obscurity is sometimes the necessary corrective to what has become obvious, so be it" (33). Her essay addresses the problem of speaking out in favor of the humanities without falling into the very language of instrumentality that is used by its detractors:
Socially and politically, we are in a bind because the imperative to 'save' the humanities often propels us into states of urgency in which we imagine that the only future left to us will be one secured precisely through those metrics of value that are most in need of critical re-evaluation. Oddly, our very capacity for critically re-evaluating is what cannot be measured by the metrics by which the humanities are increasingly judged. This means that the resource we need to save the humanities is precisely one that has been abandoned by the metrics that promise to save the humanities if only we comply. (32-33)
This is the double bind: we want to prove to funding organizations and the government that the work of the humanities is valuable. But in order to do that, we need to fulfill their criteria for what constitutes value and what doesn't--we need to speak the language that the neoliberal institution demands of us, and that language is often coded in instrumental terms of tangibility and productivity that are antithetical to the very nature of the humanities. What we do must have concrete use value that is recognizable to the broader world. But as Butler describes, much of the value of the humanities lies in their ability foster critical re-evaluation, to learn to read and reread the world and texts around us--to question and challenge the pervasive "climate of the obvious" (25) that assumes that profitable "impact" is something to be desired. So we resist "use value" and tangibility through our practices of reading and critiquing, and these critical capacities are antithetical, indeed actually dangerous, to the metrics that are offered to the humanities as saving resources. So, in short, if we want to save the humanities we have to abandon the humanities.

Butler asks, "[i]s instrumentality the only way we have of thinking about what it means to make a difference?" (29). She challenges us to think about the notion of impact in different ways, to redefine what it means to speak to the "public" and to reclaim the humanities as a valuable--I hesitate to say profitable--resource for society (and if anyone is a public intellectual, it's J.B.!). Sometimes our careful and deliberate critical re-evaluations of society may result in prose that is viewed by some, like Kristof, as "turgid." But through this putatively obscure (but actually just nuanced, evaluative, and sensitive) prose, we may learn to challenge and perhaps redefine the metrics of of the obvious that are forcing us, in this current difficult academic climate, to give an account of ourselves as academics working within the discipline of the humanities.


  1. This post raises an important point ... but the proper reaction to people like Kristof is, I think, a tricky business.

    I think it's quite right that it's very important to resist the suggestion that the only measures of worth and "impact" are economic---or within academia, bibliometric. But the shape this resistance should take isn't obvious. One shape it shouldn't take, though, is disdain for the very idea of trying to make the case that the humanities matter, or to make the case in a way that only other academics in the humanities can understand. But both these reactions are, in my experience, all too common.

    Some people, perhaps Kristof, are allergic to the very idea that critical re-evaluation of established ways of doing thing has value. But most of even the most vocal cheerleaders of the direction things are going will admit, for instance, that entrepreneurship is not, in fact, and unvarnished good if you put the question to them.

    We do think our work matters. What we need to be able to do is to say why it matters. I know that if someone tried to tell me that I'm not smart enough to understand something, I would immediately suspect that either the person doesn't know what s/he's talking about or else is trying to pull the wool over my eyes, because I think I'm a pretty smart person. So we need to be very cautious about saying anything that suggests that to explaining why what we're doing is important requires dumbing it down when talking to people who have good reason to think they're smart. How can you blame people for suspecting there's nothing there if we act in ways that suggest that the nature of what is there is ineffable, or impossible for people who pride themselves on their ability to communicate to communicate clearly? I think it's not impossible for us to explain the value of what we do, since the number of people who really think the only values are economic values is actually pretty small. We just need to do the work that Boyda describes as needing doing in the first paragraph, so that we're not wrong-footed when we get asked.

  2. Thank you, Jennifer!

    And @ddvd, thank you so much for your thoughtful comments. I completely agree with you that we need to learn how to articulate why the humanities matter--and we should certainly do so in ways that nonacademics will understand. I don't tout "ineffability," but sensitive, nuanced addressing of the issues, and a way of defending the humanities that doesn't fall into either camp of a) the humanities are valuable because they fit the metrics of instrumentality that (I think) are so often demanded of us, or b) the humanities are valuable because they stand completely OUTSIDE of those metrics, forming a kind of romanticized, isolated island. The value of the humanities lies somewhere in between those two things, and while we should always aim for clarity in prose, we should not do so at the expense of complexity.


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