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Saturday, December 1, 2012

Bad Sentences (1)

"This is the latest of the ideas I introduce in these pages,and to commemorate it, and for future reference, I inscribe this early moment of my book with excerpts from the last pages of this play."

This is by a writer who is a super-famous Ivy-league professor, but whose prose is full of this sort of meandering sign-posting of the umpteenth degree. I have never known him to get around to a real point, although lots of people swear that he absolutely brilliant, the true heir to Emerson and Thoreau. I think he is a pontificating windbag whose pretentious posturings divert attention from the banality of his insights.

If you worship this author, please don't let me stop you. If he ever got around to his point, then I would be able to judge whether it is as brilliant as you say it is.

15 comments:

profacero said...

My favorite phrase ever was in a book I reviewed by a professor at a UC. It said "the historical materialism of [a geographical region]".

Once for an edited book I received an essay from an Ivy type person that was in such poor shape that if I edited it myself I would become a co-author. Truly, since I would have to invent not just sentences but develop ideas.

I wrote him to say this and suggest he work on it further. His response was very revealing: he said sorry, he had a new assistant who obviously did not write as well as the ones he had working on his last book!!!

profacero said...

ALSO. This may just be the non native speaker of Spanish and French in me speaking. But your author here is clearly not a native speaker of English.

In Spanish and French both, people write things that make absolutely no sense. It is straight-up padding. It is untranslatable and I do not think it means anything in the original either, it is just flourishes from what I can tell. And not always well made flourishes.

Jonathan said...

He is a native speaker of English!

profacero said...

WOW. Needs to do some reading in English, then.

Jonathan said...

Any guesses? Without googling the words...

Thomas said...

Weird. I did actually have a guess, which I immediately dismissed. Not only did I not remember his writing as being actually bad (just affectatious), I thought the associations (called up by words like "commemorate" and "inscribe" as used here), was owed my own frame of reference and not yours.

But I was right! (Googled it.) I so actually find him insightful at times, but I don't read him very often, and never found a way to use him in my reading of Wittgenstein, for example, precisely because the meandering writing you mention. He seems to think his readers (desperately) want to know what he thinks rather than learn something about what he's writing about. But this sentence is really below his standard.

Andrew Shields said...

I did a search for it, and was amused to discover who the author is. I used an essay of his on Hitchcock the last two semesters as an example of a certain kind of academic writing. I call it "the drama of experience" or "the drama of discovery": he tells you the story of how he developed his ideas. It can be an amazing performance, but I prefer "the drama of ideas": not how the author developed ideas, but a presentation of the ideas themselves. And many of my students said that, in the end, they didn't really know what point our author here was trying to make.

Of course, I have presented these ideas as a "drama of experience." :-)

Jonathan said...

That is the antithesis of the "classic style" in which the drama of experience becomes invisible. I'd like to reserve the right to discuss, sometimes, that drama, but not to the extreme that Cavell does.

Spanish prof said...

Hahaha... That book is actually the one I like from him. I haven't read his books on philosophy, and I have serious problems with his other books on film. But that book I like a lot, in part because it's so different from your typical analysis of screwball comedies as feel-good, post-depression movies. The genre, in itself, is one of my favorites.

Clarissa said...

I'm reading a scholarly volume right now (outside of our area) and it's very good, the subject is very interesting and promising. But the sign-posting is just bizarre. On page 29, the author is still announcing what she will do in the book. It got to the point where I'm laughing aloud every time she makes yet another announcement. I wonder if she will get to the point by page 100.

It really helps to see people overuse sign-posting because it helps me realize why my own sign-posting is obnoxious.

profacero said...

C - I think it was a fashion at one point. That was the dissertation revision I had to do: put in signposting. And I remember in that era all the cool young Ivy types were doing it, every invited speaker; I got the impression it was what you were now supposed to do to signify that you were really smart.

profacero said...

...and it occurs to me, it may be one of my deeper problems. You are supposed to make plans and announce them on so many levels in life. A tic from job letters, grant proposals, conference abstracts, and book prospecti, perhaps.

Jonathan said...

The problem of the grant proposal, that eats away all the time that could be used doing the project itself. The promise and deferral of more time, when the trick is to already have begun in one's finite work schedule.

And, yes, the posturing involved in trying to pass oneself off as brilliant in the 1980s. How well I remember that. Better to defer that brilliance through a savvy postponement of the real point. A lot of it was the bad influence of Derrida.

Andrew Shields said...

I don't remember who used the phrase, but I do remember being at a talk in the late 80s where I first noticed someone saying, "I would like to suggest that ..."

My immediate thought was that I was wasting my time at the talk. I don't want to hear suggestions; I want to hear claims and arguments!

Andrew Shields said...

"That was the dissertation revision I had to do: put in signposting."

Jonathan, that's reminiscent of your experiment with the signposting-free article, where nobody asked you to put any in. But in this case, profacero was asked to put it in!