Prose style and ideology

by Rob Horning

14 September 2005


Journalistic and academic prose styles seem fundamentally at odds, an antagonism that crops up, for example, when magazines cover some “Bad Writing” contest or wrench some theoretical point about current events made by an academic (usually in the humanities or social sciences) out of context. Often they’ll point out how needlessly arcane academic writing is, how turgid and wordy and portentious it sounds, inferring that, since most people can’t make out what it means immediately, that it actually in fact means nothing. The implication seems to be that academics are lazy writers; they stubbornly refuse to express themselves clearly and are too wrapped up in their fanciful ideas to bother communicating them clearly to an audience. They mask the simplicity of their insights with all sorts of jargon that performs a gatekeeping function, which makes academics the enemy of the free transmission of ideas; they purport to teach but really they are guarding their turf, trying to inflate that turf’s perceived value with fancy doubletalk.

But what that perspective ignores is the idea that complex ideas necessitate complex prose, that in order for a reader to come to the same sort of insight that the writer is trying to convey, she must be thinking as hard while reading as the writer was while writing. The burrowing, tail-chasing intricacy of social theorists’ sentences demands a reader concentrate in an entirely different way than a newspaper article does. It retards the flow of ideas, it forces careful consdieration of language, not its efficient consumption. Fluid readable prose may well discourage the kind of persistent, critical thought that would ultimately be required (and be widespread throughout a populace) in order to challenge the status quo. Frederic Jameson, who writes sentences as dense as anyone’s, makes the case that such writing mirrors dialectical thinking, its abstractions necessary for placing idea in the context of the totality of soociety in all its conplex intertwinings, and poses this question, which is even more pertinent now than when he asked it 35 years ago: “What if, in this period of the overproduction of printed matter and the proliferation of methods of quick reading, [those ideals of clarity and simplicity] were intended to speed a reader across a sentence in such a way that he can salute a readymade idea in passing, without suspecting that real though demands a descent into the materiality of language and a consent to time itself in the form of the sentence?”

Technology has enabled us “to overproduce printed matter,” to print more ephemera today than ever (this blog, as always, included). And the methods for speeding consumption of information have become only more and more refined. This serves two ends: It permits people to consume more, allowing for more consumption, and by extension, more economic growth for its own sake. And it discourages deep thought, reinforcing the notion that any thought worth having is immediately clear and accessible, is spontaneously felt. This is why certain poetry can be so reactionary, especially when it demands an immediacy of thought and feeling, and a spontaneous interconvertibility between the two. Practice allows thought to become feeling, an instinctual response, but it then also shields thought from analysis, and thus from change. Ideas critical to the established notions, the “common sense” so carefully achieved by the effects of power by those in position to control the social forces of production and the institutions that preserve and reproduce it, will always require difficult convoluted sentences to expresss them. The powers that be always work, Orwell-style, to efface ideas hostile to them from received language, from everyday expression, from what we immediately respond to as accessible and clear. What is “clear” is a careful production, is built into to a reader’s habitus, which is itself the product of all the existing prevailing powers under which one is raised, whose ideological premises ones absorbs deeply precisely because we are unaware we have absorbed them. Long, thorny sentences, full of codicils and corrections and conditions, force us to think outside of those premises, or to at least dredge them out of our unconscious and into view for questioning, a difficult process that we subjectively register typically as boredom or incomprehension or frustration at language’s sudden opacity. If we surrender at those symptoms, we’ll never attain a perspective from which we can be meaningfully critical of the conditions we live in. Boredom is the status quo’s best defense. It will always appear to be dull and boring to mount the efforts to dismantle it. Just ask any labor-beat reporter.


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