Difficult language — some thoughts

This post was originally written on 15th April, 2009.

Judith Butler
Judith Butler‘s prose style has often been criticised as ‘hard’ and unnecessarily perplexing. To some frustrated scholars, her thoughts must be very muddled and therefore can only be translated into dense passages.
Bulter argues that the difficulty of her language is in fact a component of her argument. Reading her theories carefully (and sometimes wrongly), the reader is forced to experience what she is describing. Since what she is describing is deliberately challenging, the obscure language that she employs actually serves to mirror and even enact the ideas she is trying to express/provoke. This, I believe, is an example of iconicity: form and meaning conjoined.
Butler’s explanation is admirable enough. Her manipulation of language to disrupt easy communication also exhibits a hint of postmodernism. But I cannot help but wonder if this conscious language choice is not a bit elitist and even wasteful. Who is Butler truly speaking to? Only those few who are equipped with the appropriate intellect and ample patience?
There is a motto: Keep It Short & Simple (KISS)*. KISS, and it is more likely that people will understand you. In Butler’s case, understanding (which implies closure and resolution) is clearly not the main point. The open-ended meandering process is. But is it possible that this could be done in an all together more accessible language?
*Albert Einstein: ”everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler”. Leonard Da Vinci: ”Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication”.
10 Responses “Difficult language – some thoughts” →
Shadowy figure
April 15, 2009
Not having read Butler I’m really not one to comment, but to me it would seem natural that the artist gets to decide his or her style and the readers can ignore her work if lacking patience or other facilities to process it. But only in an ideal world would there be a clone of Judith Butler writing exactly the same work as she is sans over-complicated language, so the non-patient readers in our universe are left yearning…
I was unable to read James Joyce’s Ulysses because it went right over my head. Your mileage may vary, but I don’t blame Joyce for it, but myself.

April 16, 2009
I’m not in a position to comment on Butler, not having read her writings, but there’s always the possibility her theories and arguments are really so complex that simple language won’t do them justice. Not everything can be expressed in easier terms without getting distorted to some extent or losing finer details.
Simplifying complicated language is itself a translation and like all translations, something is lost in the process.

But I’d be interested to see for myself how difficult Butler’s language is. Could you quote some examples?
April 16, 2009
Apparently, Butler was voted number one ‘bad writer’ in an annual contest for ‘the most stylistically lamentable passages found in scholarly books and articles’. The contest was organised by the academic journal Philosophy and Literature in 1999. The ‘winning’ sentence comes from an article Butler wrote for Diacritics:

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 questions of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural tonalities 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.

Can anyone ‘translate’ this into ‘easier’ language?
Shadowy figure
April 16, 2009
Best. Sentence. Ever.
To simplify it, I’d just leave out everything except the essential: “Moving away from structuralism… brought the questions of temporality into the thinking of structure.”
April 17, 2009
“The move from a practical approach by which language is manipulated to sabotage author-reader relations in ridiculously perplexing ways to a point of total unreadability in which author-reader relations are characterized by abuse, frustration, and even more abuse brought the questions of language accessibility into the thinking of readers, and marked a shift from the common sense that regards language as a tool for facilitating communication to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of sounding pretentiously intelligent inaugurate a renewed conception of language functionality as bound up with the contraptions and strategies of the meandering of speech.”
Seriously, I don’t know how to simplify Butler’s “sentence”. Simpletons like me only know how to complicate things, as demonstrated above.
April 17, 2009
Kevin, you are brilliant at complicating things! I had fun reading your sentence. How much time did you spend on writing it?
April 17, 2009
I can’t remember exactly but not much. Just couldn’t help it…
naperville mom
April 17, 2009
Omigosh! This could easily beat Butler’s sentence.:)
naperville mom
April 16, 2009
Like Kevin, I haven’t read much of Butler’s to be able to comment on this but the award-winning sentence you’ve attached is sooo funny actually:) Whatever happened to fluidity of speech?
April 17, 2009
K.I.S.S. can also stand for ‘Keep It Simple, Stupid’. Having grappled with one or two Butler essays myself I wouldn’t call her stupid, but the decision to adopt that prose style might be.
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2 thoughts on “Difficult language — some thoughts

  1. Hmm, a great set up for a close & crushing critique, but the essay doesn't get down & dirty w/ the text. I was hoping for a series of backhanded compliments, like in Chaim Bertman's book reviews; else a crushing frontal assault–a la John Dolan or Dale Peck.

    I feel like you turned in half the assignment. Don't tell me the dog ate the other half!


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