ShillingsburgAcademic writing is so horrible!

Look at the second sentence below, for example,

“To summarize, we can say that the lexical part of a text, its sentence in Searle’s terms, is iterable, though subject to error in iteration. As a script act, however, a text is not iterable because script acts, like utterance in Searle’s terms, are “agented acts” with specific historical and temporal contexts that constitute or indicate the things that go without saying in specific utterances and that point to or even determine the meaning of the word.”

(From Peter L. Shillingsburg’s From Gutenberg to Google: Electronic Representations of Literary Texts, p. 18.)

I don’t give a toss what anyone says, that is unacceptably poor.

The thing is, academic authors get a pay-packet at the end of the month whether what they write is horrible to read or not. If Shillingsburg’s supper depended on whether he clearly communicated what he had to say, do you think he’d publish such sentences?

I wouldn’t mind but what he’s saying is good — I mean the guy’s worth reading. For example, from above he goes on to say . . .

“A text is more than it’s linguistic components of letters, spaces, and punctuation, for it includes bibliographic codes as well [. . . A text will] change and develop through history, even when neither the physical nor the linguistic text has changed [. . .]. I return to our friend with the Communist Manifesto to illustrate [this]. Suppose that on visiting his home you find on the coffee table the first edition, in more or less worn condition but still intact. Does that text function now as it did when first available in 1848? Has its meaning taken on a difference because of events a few months later in France when the working man’s revolt was put down or because of events in the Soviet Union in second decade and/or the last decade of the twentieth century? And does that text function in a different way because of who your friend is and why that book is on his coffee table? And suppose it a facsimile of the first edition, instead of the real thing. Or suppose instead that your friend called you over to the computer and proudly displayed the ease of calling up the full text of The Communist Manifesto, with the ability to print it out at the push of a button? Would that change your experience of the work? What would be the new aspects of the experience? Would they be advantageous or adventitious?” (Ibid, pp. 18-19.)

As I say, it’s good stuff (it’s totally true what he says, of course, in the changed circumstances he sketch-identifies lots of things would change in the way you experienced the text).

Rather odd Gollum-like sculpture in the grounds of University College Cork

Rather odd Gollum-like sculpture in the grounds of University College Cork

Perhaps I’m being a bit cranky. I try to do whatever writing I want to get done in the mornings (and at the moment I’ve lots of stuff to do [I’m coming up to the end of the first term for the MA in Digital Arts and Humanities at UCC]) after which I’m pretty useless. I can read novels, watch movies, listen to political reports (or sports chatter), cook and the like, but I’m not up to untangling unnecessarily complicated academic sentences.

And bad writing. A couple of pages before — to offer another instance — Shillingsburg says that the prolongation of life for deteriorating newspapers from the acid paper period is “of extreme importance” (ibid, pp. 13-14).

Really? Extreme! Is the situation really ‘extreme’?

Dial it down, man — I’m sure there’s nothing extreme about it. It might be urgent, it might be something that needs prioritising, but ‘extreme’ is simply too… well, extreme! Important is all it is — take a chill pill, Shill.

In fairness, Shillingsburg is far from the worst. At least I can make out what he’s saying (and, as I’ve acknowledged, what he’s saying is worth making out). But so much academic writing is simply unreadable! Academics make no effort at all at composition, it seems to me, really working at sentences and paragraphs and pages as someone crafting a communication ought to — ironically — not even when they are actually writing about the significance of sentences and paragraphs and pages!

They’ve no incentive to.

The dustbin of history is going to get filled to the brim with all their wasted yards of words.

Below is a grand skit on academic gobbledygook (Samuel Beckett speaking through the character of Lucky in Waiting for Godot)

[There is a PS (or update) to this post too — see below the video — which please look at also]

PS: It is now the following morning and I finished reading that Shillingsburg chapter (chapter 1 of From Gutenberg to Google) and I feel bound to report it’s excellent; consequently, I’m feeling guilty about what I posted last night; I feel I may have been too harsh and too cranky. I was feeling a bit guilty anyway which is why I began today by not writing (even though I have much to do) but by reading — giving Shillingsburg the best of my day — I wanted to give him a fair trial. And, as I say, what I read this morning was crystal clear and very well written. So I feel I ought to acknowledge that and bow my head and say that what I wrote last night tells you more about me than it does about Peter Shillingsburg.

Straight after that section which I wrote about in the post above which made me put away his text mumbling “Fuck this for a crappy game of chess” (and go blogging like a cranky cat), he got to the heart of what he wanted to say [which is to say, 20 pages in, he got to the point] and it is writing as clear and as straight forward as anyone could want:

“…the editor of any text has a very complex responsibility. Perhaps the most obvious is that the new text emerging as a result of editorial work should declare itself for what it is: a new iteration of some previous iteration as found in some previously existing physical object [. . .]. To do this the new text should state where it was found; it should announce what exactly was done to the text in the editorial process; and it should say what differences exist between the source documents and the new documents. It should say not only what lexical differences but also what bibliographical or visual or material differences have been introduced. To do that it should describe the physical objects that were used for the sources of the text. And of equal importance, the new text, insofar as its lexical text is to have been identical to that of the source text, should in fact be identical to it. In order to do that, there must be multiple proofreadings. And finally all of this work should be conducted in the editor’s full realization that nothing he or she does is neutral. It all has a meaning. The colour and shape and weight of the new edition say things about the function and value of the text contained. Deliberate decisions, not adventitious accidents, should govern these matters.

“Let me emphasise that I am not saying new texts must be identical to their source texts; that is, I am not saying that editors are supposed to bring forth new texts that fully represent the old texts that are being edited. On the contrary, I am declaring that new texts cannot be identical to old texts nor fully represent them and that an editor’s responsibility is to be as self-aware as possible about the possible effects of editorial intervention and to be as explicit and articulate as possible about those effects, even before they cross some imagined lines between transcribing and editing or between editing and adapting. These are matters that do not take care of themselves. They are not matters that the computer or TEI mark-up or multi-frame presentations or any other electronic gizmo is going to handle for the editor. It will take conscious effort by the editor. Discriminating readers need to know which text they are using and what relation it bears to the history of alter-texts of the same work.” (Ibid, pp. 19-20.)