Bad Writing, Universities, and Zionism
She slinked through my door wearing a dress that looked like it had been painted on ... not with good paint, like Behr or Sherwin-Williams, but with that watered-down stuff that bubbles up right away if you don’t prime the surface before you slap it on, and -- just like that cheap paint -- the dress needed two more coats to cover her.
If a competition for unintentionally bad sentences in an academic work were established now, it might be called the Professor Judith Butler Contest, in honor of the “big-deal academic” who was awarded First Prize by the scholarly journal Philosophy and Literature in its 1998 “Bad Writing Competition,” for the following impenetrable sentence that appeared in a 1997 essay of hers:
The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.
Of course no one could ever beat that, but Professor Butler has just published a new book, Parting Ways: Jewishness and the Critique of Zionism (Columbia University Press), which begins with two sentences that could win a new competition:
Perhaps in some formal sense every book begins by considering its own impossibility, but this book’s completion has depended on a way of working with that impossibility without a clear resolution. Even so, something of that impossibility has to be sustained within the writing, even if it continually threatens to bring the project to a halt.
Sue Fondrie could not have written it better. Nor could Ms. Fondrie likely top the conclusion to Prof. Butler’s 27-page Introduction, the final two sentences of which read as follows, in their entirety:
The text is skewed by my own formation, but it means to document what can and must be done with one’s own formation, how it must be repeated in new ways, and where a departure from formation becomes ethically and politically obligatory (for reasons both internal and external to that very formation). This, then: my symptom, my error, my hope ...
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