Accuracy in Media

At a panel on “Revision as Writing, Writing as Revision,” Modern Language Association (MLA) panelists offered tips to increase the clarity and quality of
academic writing. The panelists proposed several solutions, many of
which emphasized reducing the length of dissertations and cutting out
unnecessary or jargon-filled material. The presenters also challenged
writers to think outside the formulaic dictums of literary theory. “I
think that gender-based sex and sexuality are playing themselves out in
formulaic ways that are knee-jerk, predictable in too many
dissertations and they seem…boring,” said Professor Susan Gubar of Indiana University at Bloomington. She suggested that undergraduate writers “try to break out of certain formulaic ways of thinking.”
In a colorful speech, panelist Cathy Birkenstein-Graff of the University of Illinois at Chicago exhorted academics to adopt an “embrace your shame approach” in which
authors visualize antagonistic, cruel voices which tell them that their
theses are meaningless. Writers should “make themselves vulnerable to
that little voice that comes and visits them, sometimes in the middle
of the night, and says ‘You idiot. Nobody in their right mind is
possibly going to believe your central argument that ____, whatever,'”
she said. Writers should also visualize a voice mocking “Everyone is so
convinced that, on the contrary ____, they’re surely going to call you
totally naive. Indeed, look at from the vantage point of-blah, blah,
blah- they may even laugh at you. They may even drive you out of the
profession. If, that is, they even deem your argument important enough
to bother listening to,” she continued.

Birkenstein-Graff
argued that the best academic writers “embrace rather than push away
these painful countervoices, [these] painful counterperspectives that
inevitably arise in the revision process, using them to structure and
motivate what they themselves want to say.” In direct contrast to the
other panelists’ emphasis on cogency and understandable writing,
Birkenstein-Graff suggested that academic writers look to “Bad Writing
Award” winner Judith Butler for inspiration. According to the UI Chicago lecturer, Butler is a
“masterful, masterful writer” who “directly engages what her harshest
critics say about her work.” She held up Butler’s Bodies That Matter as a shining example.

One topical sentence from Butler’s 2004 Bodies That Matter reads “The forming of a subject requires an identification with the
normative phantasm of ‘sex,’ and this identification takes place
through a repudiation which produces a domain of abjection, a
repudiation without which the subject cannot emerge.” In other words,
someone seeking to define one’s own sexuality must abjectly repudiate
his or her real sexuality in favor of the social sexual construct. Or,
put even more simply, one cannot define sexuality without operating
within social norms. Butler later argues that the adoption of such
norms produces “consequences that [the sexed subject] cannot control.”
The book includes chapters on “The Lesbian Phallus and Morphological
Imaginary,” “Critically Queer,” and “Arguing With the Real.”

On the subject of lesbianism, Butler later writes that “Insofar as the
phallus is an idealization of morphology, it produces a necessary
effect of inadequation, one which, in the cultural context of lesbian
relations, can be quickly assimilated to the sense of an inadequate
derivation from the supposedly real thing, and, hence, a source of
shame.” Professor Butler currently teaches in the Rhetoric Department
at the University of California at Berkeley.

Professor Birkenstein-Graff openly admitted that Butler’s writings have
been repeatedly criticized by public figures as obtuse, if not “bad
writing.” In 1999, Butler received the “Bad Writing Award” from Philosophy and Literature. The journal’s editor, Denis Dutton, wrote in the Wall Street Journal that “the desperate incantations” of the
journals’ contest winners “hope to persuade their readers not by
argument but by obscurity that they too are the great minds of the
age.” “[Butler’s winning] sentence beats readers into submission and
instructs them that they are in the presence of a great and deep mind.
Actual communication has nothing to do with it,” wrote Dutton.

Birkenstein-Graff implied, however, that the attacks on Butler’s
writing came not from the construction of her sentences but because her
opponents disagreed with Butler’s theses. “But what makes Judith Butler
stand out above the crowd is that in arguing her case, she makes life
very difficult for herself by…engaging head-on the views of those who
not only do not believe that gender is constructed, but believe that
anyone who does is a bit foolish,” she said.

She concluded that many professors’ “writing suffers from an excess of
blandness, and may well in fact qualify, if not for a bad writing
award, but at least for a boring writing award, if such were ever to
come into existence.” In contrast, Butler’s sentences offer a new way
to add spice to academic papers. “If, however, we could follow the lead
of somebody like Butler, and look squarely at those who want to
critique us and shame us, our writing would be infused with precisely
the kinds of exciting, challenging tension it needs,” Birkenstein-Graff
said.

If all academic writing became infused with the “excitement” of
Butler’s work, many outside the field would probably fail to recognize
the change.




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