The humanities are crap at writing

Dear Humanities Peers, This Is iRrAtionaL

A year ago, when I was a Master’s student, I complained to a clever friend (also a web developer) about one of the texts I had to read for university. I told him it was horrible to read, that I could barely understand what the author wanted and I wasn’t entirely sure I got the point.

“Why didn’t the author draw a picture?” he asked me.

I thought, wow, this guy really doesn’t get it. He’s never been in the humanities! So, I set about explaining that this was a Serious Text and the humanities needed no illustrations, that books with pictures were more difficult to make, that the concept was too subtle to be shown through images, that… well, basically, I threw every single reason I could basically come up with at him and as I went through each one I realized that it was absolute crap.

The real answer is this: the humanities are bullshit at writing. And they are crap at explaining.

It’s a paradox. We’re all Men of Letters around here, or People of Culture. Words are the tools of the trade, explanations and debates are what we do. We throw ideas, we juggle concepts and yet we seem to be unable to find a single damned good editor who will cut that 7-line sentence into smaller pieces and make it comprehensible at a first reading. And I’m not talking about people who aren’t good at what they do, either. I’m talking a generalized, pathological issue: the Men of Letters find themselves unable to string together two sentences in such a manner as to allow a lay person to follow their point.


Here’s Some Trees From That Forest We Can’t See


Don’t believe me? Here’s some quotes illustrating the problem. And this isn’t at all about the quality of the ideas in the text, it’s about the insane level of complexity the sentence and paragraph structures reach. I’ll start with my own professors, because I know them and I know their works. They know their stuff, but they’re often close to unreadable.

Second year of undergraduate studies, Victorian Literature. Ioana Zirra’s textbook “Contributions of the 19th Century – the Victorian Age – to the History of Literature and Ideas”:

What J. Hillis Miller identifies as the general starting point for the Victorian writer’s subjective structure of identity, i.e., the painful momentary separation or alienation of one member of the community who will become (apotheotically) reintegrated at the novel’s end into the social system corresponds with Frye’s characterisation of low-mimetic literature as a kind of comedy in which the sharing of the etymological ”comos” is foregrounded; Frye also mentions the new order triumphantly installed at the end of comedy as a qualitatively superior avatar of the same ruling social type which has been only momentarily tested or disturbed (by the, psychoanalytically speaking this time, confrontation of society with its other) only to be reborn in a perfected form (which, speaking in critical theory or ideological Marxist terms, is tantamount to ”the legitimation” of society). (chapter 4)

That is a single sentence, my friends. And it takes a bit of re-reading to understand what it says. I remember re-re-reading it before the exam and thinking, “Wow, I hope she doesn’t ask any punctual questions, because I can barely remember what some terms are.” She did. I didn’t do so well.

Another quote, this time from Sorana Corneanu’s book, “Regimens of the Mind: Boyle, Locke, and the Early Modern Cultura Animi Tradition”, which I’m reading right now. It’s a splendid book and I love the topic, because right now I’m very interested in rationality, but I am honestly having difficulty following her.

Epicurean echoes in this general moral sense can also be detected in Thomas Sprat’s History of the Royal Society (1667), which includes a section on the way experimenting itself is “usefull for the cure of mens minds.” It can be that, Sprat argues, owing to its active nature. The passions of men’s minds (the “violent desires, malicious envies, intemperate joyes, and irregular griefs, by which the lives of most men become miserable, or guilty”) are mainly due to idleness, so that the “medicine” lies in “earnest employments” coupled with “innocent, various, lasting, and even sensible delights.” (page 80)

More humane in sentence structure, but full of quotes from the originals, often in their nigh-original spellings (I say nigh-original because I have the suspicion that the obsolete long S-es were replaced with the normal ‘s’ that is still in use today). The book contains long paragraphs, often spanning more than half a page. If you’re not used to reading English from back when ‘useful’ was spelled with a double ‘l’, your reading gets difficult, it slows down. Involuntarily, you can find yourself pausing a bit at the quotes as your mind is trying to signal that there’s something different in the text now than there was a second ago.

But are my former professors alone in this disease of complication? Definitely not. Let me quote Ricoeur’s “Oneself as Another”:

This sinister — though not exhaustive — enumeration of the figures of evil in the intersubjective dimension established by solicitude has its counterpart in the series of prescriptions and prohibitions stemming from the Golden Rule in accordance with the various compartments of interaction: you shall not lie, you shall not steal, you shall not kill, you shall not torture.

Yes, you can read it. Fluently? No. And that’s not just me. I’ve run across some goodreads reviews in my search for Ricoeur. One claimed that ’15 pages per hour are a good pace’. Is it just because his ideas are so hard to get?… No. It’s also the language.

Jacques Derrida is similarly hard to read: he even coined the term différance as a deliberate homophone of différence. Come on, reader, spot the difference! Or maybe I should mention Bourdieu (“the habitus is the work product of inculcation and appropriation necessary for those products of collective history that are the objective structures (eg, language, economics, etc..) able to reproduce The form of lasting dispositions in all organisms (which can, if you will, call individuals) permanently subject to the same packaging, then placed in the same material conditions of existence” – I’ve picked a random quote from Google, I don’t even care much where it’s from).

So, here I come and ask: why.

Let me make this clearer: WHY!

Why exactly are we doing this? Why are we, as humanists, accepting this situation in which our most profound texts must be our most obscure? Why do we never draw pictures? Why do we speak in winks and subtleties, in references which everybody should get (but maybe not all do), why do we seldom explain, why do we seldom bother to make our texts readable, pleasant, to let ideas shine through?

The humanities are crap at expressing themselves. We have no easy way to introduce new people into the system. We have few places where our core concepts and trends are explained in a friendly, easy manner. I see communities of programmers easing new people into programming languages, into concepts, into ideas and methods, providing help and support. What do we do? We huddle close together and sniff snobbishly at those below us – or, if we don’t, we just lose ourselves in our ivory towers.

A year ago, when my web developer friend suggested that we’re doing it wrong, I thought he was committing a sort of sacrilege. An academic book in the humanities is Something Special. It’s meant to be complex and hard to read, it’s not for everybody to understand. It wouldn’t stoop so low as to have pictures, or friendly diagrams, or a very comprehensible style. It’s not something you read easily and it shouldn’t be.

Well… Let’s stop there for a second. Why not? How much of the value of our ideas would be destroyed by saying them in a simpler way? Would Derrida’s theory of the infinite chain of signifiers be rendered invalid if I were to say it in a simple sentence? Or, God forbid, write it as computer code?[1]  If the answer is ‘yes’, something is obviously not right. It means that what we’re doing here is like a strange sort of art, like a Glass Bead Game that is very sophisticated and scholarly and referential and beautiful, but ultimately random and aimless. The theory somebody exposed would matter too little, as long as it held close to our standards of how things are done.

Or maybe the answer is ‘no’. Derrida’s theory would still be Derrida’s theory. Ricoeur would still be Ricoeur. The humanities would not tumble and fall. In that case, why do we do it to ourselves? Why do we write impossible books and articles?

Look at science books. Do you know what stands out first? Structure. Clear chapters and subchapters, paragraphs, short sentences. Clarity. It’s funny how clarity in communication is not a staple of people who have to do with philology and books, but of engineers and programmers, of scientists and anybody but us. Heck, if you have wikipedia open to compensate for not knowing enough physics, Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity is easier to read than Derrida or Ricoeur.

At one point I thought this was natural. It’s how the humanities do it. Right now I find it a headache and just a generally wrong direction to be wandering in. Why are we doing this?

Maybe we have a sort of Freudian… erm… phallic envy. Programmers and scientists are so difficult to understand that everybody respects them. Maybe we want to prove that we’re the same. We can be difficult as well! We can be pretty incomprehensible to the layman. It’s not all ease and empty words, it’s hard!

Or maybe we’re so damned high up on our high horses that we can’t take lessons. Screw editors, our egos need to be fed. No word of ours shall be changed, no phrasing can possibly do but our own. We are the rulers here and we take no directions, we let nobody impose anything on us!

A sadder case would be if we can’t act any differently. If indeed many people out there are right and we can’t, in fact, keep our ideas coherent enough in our heads that we can express enumerations as bullet-point lists. Maybe we can’t draw a simple rectangles-and-arrows sort of logical image that would help others understand our theory. Maybe we simply can’t put stuff in a table because our brains are muddled from too little maths. We can’t tell what we’re all talking about, so we’re wandering about in the dark, touching things – and whenever we come across something that seems new, we coin a new word. Or we come up with a new theory. We change the meaning of something. Instead of trying to come closer together and get some sort of general map of the things we deal with, we indulge in strife, in an aspiration for uniqueness which are so blinding that we barely see past our own noses. The world goes on and we wonder why nobody cares, why nobody realizes what amazing treasures our own little corner of knowledge holds.

Or perhaps this is the way it’s always been done? For all of our supposed innovation, we’re sticking to old norms that have always been around. This is the way texts before us have been written and this is how we will write – if we were to write more freely, more simply, more coherently, using smaller words and providing clearer explanations, we might lose our respectability.

But in the end, this is how it is: with just a few rare exceptions (like Linda Hutcheon or some of the fanfiction-theorizing authors I encountered in my reading for my MA paper), we suck at writing. Our heroes suck at writing. Our professors and colleagues and all those around us suck at writing. Instead of seeing this as the handicap it really is, we treat it like a badge of honor. Instead of searching for simplicity and elegance of style, we search for big, pompous words. We hide behind notions invented by bigger names than our own and dodge criticism by becoming obscure.

What we’re actually doing is turning a weakness into a subtle art and we’re either not noticing that we’ve done so, or we’re pretending it’s a quality.

Who’s willing to make the overdue change to readability already?


Footnote 1: I've wanted to do this ever since I understood what Derrida was all about.
There's something about this one theory that reminded me of my high school Turbo Pascal
classes. I could just see the crazy code flying.
-create a Word class, with one variable for spelling and one for pronunciation
-add a pointer variable, which you call Meaning. Have 'Meaning' refer to another Word.
-put in a number of Words and make certain that all their Meaning variables point to other
Words (no NIL references)
-start a while loop, saying that the meaning of the word is equal to Word.Meaning; the meaning
should, of course, be a Word, so it can be referred to by your pointer.
-the end condition for the while loop is 'when Word.Meaning is not a pointer'

Congratulations! You now have a system in which every word's meaning refers to the meaning of
another word, never taking you to any actual, real thing that would be what the word really
means. You can go on forever and ever searching for that meaning.

In other words, yeah. You've got an infinite loop. Welcome to Derrida 1.01.

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