Further thoughts on accessibility in humanities scholarship

The issue of the relative accessibility of humanities scholarship, the role of “theory” and its terminology, and the need to reach a broader audience have all been major areas of conversation within the humanities themselves. The heyday of “theory,” for instance, is widely acknowledged to be over. Meanwhile, there has been an explosion of more accessible publications (n+1, LA Review of Books, The New Inquiry, etc.) and book series (Zero Books, Repeater Books, etc.) that apply the modes of critical analysis inculcated in humanities graduate programs in a way intended for a broader educated audience — and they have had some real successes, both in reaching that audience and in being accepted into the existing mainstream (as for instance when n+1 alumni pepper the pages of The New Yorker). And meanwhile, to pick just one major example, Judith Butler — the very embodiment of “bad academic prose” in most discussions — has quite literally transformed her prose style from the bottom up in the last decade and engaged quite intentionally with a broader public. We could also think of the phenomenon of Zizek’s broad popularity.

The journalistic discussion of “bad academic writing” never, ever mentions any of this. It judges from the outside, based on stale cliches of 80s- and 90s-vintage academic trends. It never asks the “bad academic writers” whether they have a reason for writing the way they do or whether they share concerns about accessibility. That’s why I regard the discourse as beneath contempt — not because of some misguided loyalty that rejects any critique of any humanities academic, but because the whole discourse is a transparent ongoing political hit-job.

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