Obscurantism, pretentions and vacuousness: or just, 'When academic writings don't make sense'

Writing can be hard; writing about complex ideas can be harder. But sometimes I can’t help but wonder if certain academic prose has to be this hard. Consider these two passages:

“From within that time frame I am trying to speak to you, of myself in particular, in private or in public, but of myself in particular. That time would also be that which, in principle, supposing it were possible, separates autobiography from confession. Autobiography becomes confession when the discourse on the self does not dissociate truth from an avowal, thus from a fault, an evil, an ill. And first and foremost from a truth that would be due, a debt, in truth, that needs to be paid off. Why would one owe [devrait-on] truth?”  

“In the works of Fellini, a predominant concept is the distinction between figure and ground. Von Ludwig states that the works of Fellini are not postmodern. In a sense, the subject is contextualised into a postdialectic dedeconstructivism that includes language as a whole. “Art is part of the futility of culture,” says Sontag. Debord’s analysis of precultural discourse holds that class has significance, given that postdialectic dedeconstructivism is invalid. It could be said that the subject is interpolated into a textual neopatriarchial theory that includes reality as a paradox.”  

In all likelihood you’ll have no idea what was said there. The first passage comes from The Animal That Therefore I Am, a book published by Jacques Derrida. Despite being praised as an “accomplished important work” by some, to me the paragraph just doesn’t make sense.

Now, you might be reluctant to draw this bold conclusion regarding a published work by an “established intellectual” like Derrida. But you definitely shouldn’t be when it comes to the second one, because the text is entirely generated by a computer program and it is literally meaningless. As such, you perhaps ought to be sceptical about anything that resembles the second text.

Admittedly, these are extreme examples (although it’s noteworthy that there are indeed cases of nonsense being published in academic journals: see the Sokal affair). Most of us nonetheless have wondered, at one point or another, whether certain academic texts are unnecessarily difficult— whether the writers are deliberately obscuring their writings to prevent people from understanding them. In fact, this phenomenon has already been discussed by many and the style is so prevalent that it has earned its own label, “obscurantism”.

If the whole thing sounds ridiculous, one might wonder why obscurantism is still so widespread. I think one reason is that many people still feel compelled to defend unnecessarily difficult writings, perhaps out of a sense of well-intentioned humility.   Some argue that certain texts are difficult because the ideas they express are difficult. Complicated ideas have to be expressed in complicated ways, so the argument goes. But it’s plausible that not all obscure texts are obscure because they communicate some profound insights. In fact, what’s more likely is that some people write in an obscure manner in order to appear profound, or at the very least in order to fend off criticism. It’s not uncommon to encounter arguments to the tune of “you don’t understand me because you don’t have enough background knowledge” or “you only said that because you didn’t properly understand me”. More importantly, difficult ideas can be expressed in a clear and succinct manner—those ideas are difficult not because of a contrived linguistic game, lack of coherent arguments or ill-defined jargons; they are difficult because they genuinely require rigorous intellectual engagement from the audience.  

Of course, this is not to say that academic writings are obscurantist unless they are understood by everyone irrespective of their background. There is undoubtedly a distinction between not understanding something because it’s poorly written and not understanding something because one lacks the relevant pre-requisite knowledge. For example, I don’t quite understand the following: “this review deals with low-pressure glow discharges with a hollow cathode or a hollow anode” (taken from The Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics). Presumably that’s because I don’t have a background in physics and don’t know anything about “hollow cathode”, “hollow anode” or “low-pressure glow”. The same cannot be said about the cited passage from Derrida. The problem with it seems to be exactly that we suspect we won’t understand it even if we properly understand all of its constituent concepts (by, perhaps, contextualising them in Derrida’s framework).

Now, defenders of alleged obscurantist writings might reply, “well, you don’t know that! If you haven’t carefully read all of Derrida’s works, how could you say one passage doesn’t make sense—perhaps you just lack the relevant knowledge.”

It’s certainly true that most people haven’t read everything from Derrida; perhaps neither have most of his defenders. However, it seems plausible that one could possess the ability to judge whether something would make sense once contextualised, without currently having a comprehensive understanding of that thing. Specifically, I think we can be justified in holding that certain things are obscurantist even if we don’t know everything about them. “We know enough to conclude that it doesn’t make sense,” one might say. Indeed, the unreasonable insistence that others should “read more” before offering criticisms has come to be recognised as a form of logical fallacy called the “Courtier’s reply” (though how to define “unreasonable” remains tricky). It is fallacious because it attempts to bolster an argument by referencing the alleged knowledge gap between the speaker and the audience.

Of course, what is argued here needs to be qualified. Some suggest that we should focus on the content of a text, not its writing style. This is certainly true, and it is important that we err towards charity and humility when we approach things we don’t understand. Moreover, we should caution against using charges of obscurantism as excuses to dismiss legitimate ideas that we don’t like, or don’t bother to engage with.  

Nevertheless, it seems to me that there are academic writings simply not worthy of our time. They are confusing not because they contain unreachable wisdom, nor even due to the author’s inability to express clearly— it is just the case that those texts are vacuous and intentionally deceptive.

So here is a suggestion: don’t engage with them. Don’t waste time reading them or even critiquing them. This is perhaps the most effective way to combat their influence in academia.

Some might say this is too radical. Some might suggest that not engaging with things we don’t understand is arrogant. This is true; but not engaging with things we don’t understand when there is nothing to be engaged with is not. Some might worry we will miss profound insights in case there is actually something going for those texts. For sure, our judgment about whether things are worth engaging with is fallible. It is nonetheless worth remembering that engaging with a text comes with an opportunity cost. Given that there are countless academic writings we could engage with that are potentially valuable, it’s not unreasonable to conclude that we will gain more from reading things that do not seem demonstrably obscurantist.

So, perhaps be more critical about things we don’t understand next time. Yes, sometimes we should try harder. But sometimes, maybe there isn’t anything to be understood after all.

Kida Lin

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