Rita Felski, an English professor at University of Virginia, tweeted a question: “[G]enuinely curious: why the academic tic of repeatedly using the phrase ‘of course’ in one’s writing? Its main function seems to be to create an in-group and exclude others. Also used to bolster one’s claims via appeals to a higher authority: ‘of course, as Lyotard argues…’.”
There is an irony in this question in that it seems to answer itself by its exclusive nature. Putting a question about an academic habit invites answers almost entirely from the academic community. This suggestion may be disproven by the fact that I, a non-academic, provided my own answer (which I will expand upon later), but I consider myself an exception. I’ve long had an interest in academic writing, specifically that special brand emanating from the humanities departments. This shouldn’t really surprise given my long-documented interest in style. Style we consider “bad” is every bit as worthy of study as that which we consider “good,” and when we do examine the bad, we do not need to go for the jugular with our Orwellian jaws right out of the cage.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Felski’s question is a good one, but in presupposing her own conclusion, she made a wrong turn. What ensues in this essay is an outsider’s perspective on the gnomic, cloistered verbiage oozing from every window of the non-science faculty departments. One should not take this perspective to be in any sense authoritative, final, or even all that helpful. This, to disclaim outright, is an exercise in depravity and decadence, a pursuit of pure enjoyment; one man’s luxuriating feast on the rich, gout-inducing professorial prose. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
My appreciation for academic—hereafter theoretical—writing came about slowly. In college I was not very keen on the kind of learning that took place in the classroom. I felt my time was better spent trolling the stacks in the library, reading whatever struck my fancy. I considered myself of a literary bent, so I read literature. I read numerous plays, satirical novels, noir, realist, and transgressive fiction, and lots of poetry. This curricular off-roading sounds eclectic, but in truth it was narrow. My concept of what constituted “literature” did not actually venture beyond canonically recognized forms—the drama, the novel, the short story, etc.—and my experience in the classroom reinforced this narrowness. My professors were liberal across the board in their politics, but very conservative in their aesthetics. Whenever an experimental (or, God forbid, an ironic) vein was mined in writing classes, by me or anyone else, it was almost always met with skepticism, either because it did not suit their tastes or they thought that we, as dumb students, were fucking around with kerosene. They were technically competent teachers, but they were also unbearable provincials whose concept of artistic writing did not venture higher than the Kenyon Review or lower than the New Yorker.
Though I’d written scores of forgettable papers, the creative potentialities of the essay form never occurred to me until career anxieties in senior year forced them to. It turns out that I had a taste for it. I took eagerly to studying as many of its variations and innovations as I could intake. This seems to have been a divergent outcome from my generational equals in the blogosphere who prized thoughts over style. That, I guess, is the obvious course of action, but it was on my own, and very much Offline, and our mutual distrust and enmity was destined. But I digress.
So it is ironic that it was only after college that I discovered theoretical prose in my mad pursuit of mastery. True, I discovered it as a target, a counterexample of what not to do; but those familiar with my psychology will know how much more compelling that made it for me.
A year after she published Sexual Personae, the last academy-derived phenomenon for … a while, Camille Paglia published her unusual essay “Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf” in 1991 for the journal Arion. Though framed as a review of two academic books, the essay veers very quickly, almost immediately, into a scorched earth indictment of the entire academic scene. The two books by David A. Halperin and John J. Winkler were afflicted with the “Big Daddy syndrome” that had taken over American campuses, “a searching for authority by supposedly free, liberal, secular thinkers.” The authority they found was in postwar French thought, particularly Michel Foucault, Jacques Lacan, and Jacques Derrida, against whom she directs what I can only read as very cathartic, long pent-up ire. Foucault had a “clever but limited mind that is good at inventing acrostics, crossword puzzles, and computer programs.” Jacque Lacan was a “tyrant,” his writing “ugly, ponderous, aggressive, labyrinthine.” Derrida was “a Gloomy Gus one-trick pony” and his method “masturbation without pleasure.” Paglia makes it clear that America’s own postwar academic pantheon—Norman O. Brown, Harold Bloom, and Geoffrey Hartman, etc.—as well as its popular culture made French thought obsolete before it was even imported. But imported it was. For Paglia the reason is simple:
The French invasion of the Seventies had nothing to do with leftism or genuine politics but everything to do with good old-fashioned American capitalism. The collapse of the job market due to recession and university retrenchment after the baby-boom era cause economic hysteria. As faculties were cut, commercial self-packaging became a priority. … [T]he French bigwigs offered to their disciples a soothing esoteric code and a sense of belonging to an elite, an intellectually superior unit, at a time when the market told academics they were useless and dispensable.
What it really produced, according to Paglia, was a roving band of “conference-hoppers” that were “all about insider trading and racketeering.” Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, one of “theory’s most provincial conference-groupies,” writes about sex in a way that is “completely factitious and without scholarly merit.” She “managed to convert pedestrian critical skills and little discernible knowledge in history, philosophy, psychology, art, or even premodern literature into a lucrative academic career.” The essay, which takes up nearly 80 pages of Sex, Art, and American Culture, felt so sustained and devastating as to render any further thought moot. Such was the impression it had on my callow 23-year-old mind when I first read it. But even then I was curious about this Other that Paglia had created for me. I made attempts at reading Foucault and Derrida that went unsurprisingly nowhere. With no grasp of the theoretical context, let alone of the complications inherent in translating this work into English, I took exactly nothing from it, and shut myself out. But there was a whole lot I didn’t know at the time, not just in theory but in what I wanted my writing to do. If such writing served a purpose for me I was not then apparent and was going to take its sweet time in revealing it to me.
Lisa Ruddick’s 2015 essay “When Nothing is Cool” lacks the theatrics of “Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders” while being very much its spiritual descendent. It shows how theoretical language has calcified in the academy since Paglia’s essay. “These days,” Ruddick writes, “nothing in English is ‘cool’ in the way that high theory was in the 1980s and 1990s. On the other hand, you could say that what is cool now is, simply, nothing. Decades of antihumanist one-upmanship have left the profession with a fascination for shaking the value out of what seems human, alive, and whole.” Scholars have degraded “from ‘critique’ into ‘critical barbarity,’ giving ‘cruel treatment’ to experiences and ideals that non-academics treat as objects of tender concern.” As an example Ruddick focused on Judith Halberstam’s 1991 essay “Skinflick: Posthuman Gender in Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs.” “Halberstam’s article hardly represents the best theoretical work of the 1990s,” Ruddick insists. “It embodies, almost in caricature, a studied coldness that enjoyed a vogue in that decade and has influenced subsequent criticism.”
Readers who know the novel The Silence of the Lambs or Jonathan Demme’s film adaptation will recall the murderer Buffalo Bill, who fashions a cloak from the skins of his female victims. In a well-known reading of the film, Halberstam suggests that Bill is as much “hero” as villain. For he “challenges the . . . misogynist constructions of the humanness, the naturalness, the interiority of gender.” By removing and wearing women’s skin, Bill refutes the idea that maleness and femaleness are carried within us. “Gender,” Halberstam explains, is “always posthuman, always a sewing job which stitches identity into a body bag.” The corpse, once flayed, “is no woman”; “it has been degendered, it is postgender, skinned and fleshed.” Halberstam blends her perspective uncritically with the hero-villain’s posthuman sensibility, which she sees as registering “a historical shift” to an era marked by the destruction of gender binaries and “of the boundary between inside and outside.
The essay parts from Halberstam’s “more responsible, empirical work in gender studies” and instead “reads a fictional text allegorically, to suggest that there is no selfhood at all beneath our cultural stitching. For if Bill pulls each victim apart without concern for what the article skeptically calls an ‘inner life,’ it is apparently because there is no such thing as an inner life.” Ruddick goes on: “In place of compassion for the fictional victim, Halberstam offers a heady identification with the ‘hero’ who dismantles the victim to the glory of a field-honored theory about the artificiality of gender.”
To hear Ruddick say it, Halberstam’s essay satisfies every nightmare scenario about which conservatives have been warning the public with regard to tenured radicalism. And if you are in the academy and take the standards of scholarship seriously, it may give you pause, or embarrass you at how dated it is. But at the same time, the essay exposes how outsiders might interact with theoretical writing. When I read Ruddick’s essay, her anti-endorsement of Judith (now Jack) Halberstam’s piece caused me to seek it out for myself. I am not part of the academy, yes; but I have seen The Silence of the Lambs a few times, I’ve written about horror, and I’m not stupid. I have every right to engage with such work if it interests me, and I can set the terms of engagement.
The infamous essay is the penultimate chapter of Halberstam’s book Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters. It is partially available on Google Books preview. I appreciated what I was able to glean from it on two levels. First as an essay trying to reckon with the transposition of monstrosity from the individualized conception of classical and romantic literature—Frankenstein, Dracula—to a “banal” and systemic conception in postmodern life—citing Hannah Arendt’s depiction of Adolf Eichmann. “Postmodernity makes monstrosity a function of consent and a result of habit,” Halberstam writes. “Monsters of the nineteenth century … still scare and chill but they scare us from a distance. We wear modern monsters like skin, they are us, they are on us and in us. Monstrosity no longer coagulates in a specific body, a single face, a unique feature; it is replaced with a banality that fractures resistance because the enemy becomes harder to locate and looks more like the hero.” Halberstam follows with this beautiful paragraph:
Postmodern horror lies just beneath the surface, it lurks in dark alleys, it hides behind rational science, it buries itself in respectable bodies, so the story goes. … Skin is at once the most fragile of boundaries and the most stable of signifiers; it is the site of entry for the vampire, the signifier of race for the nineteenth-century monster. Skin is precisely what does not fit; Frankenstein sutures his monster’s ugly flesh together by binding it in a yellow skin, too tight and too thick. When, in the modern horror movie, terror rises to the surface, the surface itself becomes a complex web of pleasure and danger; the surface rises to the surface; the surface becomes Leatherface, becomes Demme’s Buffalo Bill, and everything that rises must converge.
I was confused after reading this, for I found nothing to object to as such. But then I realized that Ruddick was looking at this essay as an academic and not as a horror fan. Halberstam’s “bad-boy” criticism is fairly conventional wisdom for the gore-hounds. Such people are naturally drawn to horror as much for its liberating capacity as for its scares. It is no turn of Gnosticism to, if not identify with Norman Bates or Leatherface, then to empathize with their struggles. If all horror was a straightforward conflict of good victims against evil predators, there wouldn’t be much emotional incentive to watch. Halberstam’s innovation was the focus on Buffalo Bill, which makes sense for his aspiring gender-ambiguity but is in fact one of the less complex monsters of the genre. The film, indeed, goes out of its way to distance Bill’s damaged, homicidal persona from other trans people. But at the same time, horror fans know you never half-ass your eccentric pet theory. You cannot educate with horror; the work of horror is the education, about your limitations, your relations with the world, and your response to the most extreme stimuli. In this respect, Halberstam’s effort is sublime.
And so my second level of appreciation rests, unsurprisingly, in its style. Going into the essay I expected the brutalist rigors of Judith Butler. Halberstam and Butler share theoretical preoccupations, but Halberstam largely abstains from the very Butlerian textual speedbumps—the of courses—that weigh down an apparent philosophical classic like Gender Trouble. Halberstam, by contrast, is elegant and confident, treating the reader as an intelligent interlocker. The essay is not so much fluid as icy, but in a way that’s reflectively fitting to the intense subject matter. It carries its own gothic qualities. If the work doesn’t offend or frighten it is not doing its job. The cold style relative to its hot content in fact echoes the framework of A Modest Proposal, the greatest work of horror nonfiction ever written. “Horror,” Halberstam concludes, reaching absolute zero, “is the relation between carcass and history, between flesh and fiction.”
The subjective, harlequin nature of theoretical writing, like bad theoretical writing, is usually an object of derision among other intellectuals. Lecturing in French, according to Mark Lilla, Derrida was “more performance artist than logician” who filled his talks with “free association, rhymes and near-rhymes, puns, and maddening digressions.” “[E]ven if we accept the coherence of his life and thought we must constantly remind ourselves that they always had one object, and one object only: Michel Foucault.” Paglia agreed. Derrida’s cryptic prose carried “a private agenda in France that is not applicable to America.” Foucault’s books are “simply improvisations in the style of Gide’s The Counterfeiters. They attract gameplaying minds with unresolved malice toward society.”
To the extent that this is a problem it is a much different problem from the one we started out with. There are many ways for the humanities to exclude those on the outside, lathering papers in of courses is not among them. Tics like that are products of thought, or rather stagnancy of thought, the key symptom that imagination and ingenuity of expression have been gutted from the process. The great sin of American academia, and maybe American society as a whole, is its stalker-like infatuation with earnestness. It cannot for one second relax or convene with humor. The prestige of the institution is too sensitive; even a muffled giggle could send cracks up the walls. Those institutions seem somehow worse off from where they were in the 1970s. But rather than appropriate rigid, poorly translated affectations from overseas, the trend seems to be turning to a great loosening of the tongue and the mind, the embracing of textual play and what Andrea Long Chu calls “committing to a bit.”:
Jokes are always serious. At an academic event, I was once asked what I had meant by the term ethics as I’d used it in a publication. I hesitated and then I said, “I think I meant commitment to a bit.” The audience laughed, but I meant it; they laughed because I meant it. In stand-up comedy, a bit is a comic sequence or conceit, often involving a brief suspension of reality—that is, to take it seriously. A bit may be fantastical, but the seriousness required to commit to it is always real. This is the humorlessness that vegetates at the core of all humor. That’s what makes the bit funny; the fact that, for the comic, it isn’t.
To the academic this may be just another problem, and in time someone may have a very Paglia-esque meltdown at its pervasive oppression. But as a spoiled brat of American letters who flies into tantrums at the slightest fealty to amber-drowned best practices, I see signs of hope. If exclusion is something to be gotten rid of, I don’t see a better way of doing that. Look at journalism, which hoards the academy’s old theories and its imperious self-possession like toilet paper and canned corned beef hash. In this economy it’s become a weird cult fortress where no one gets in and no one can leave. If the academic institutions can be vibrant again, it seems less a matter of marching through them than just opening them up. An ideal aspiration compared to hacking them to pieces if not to bits.