The Bad Writing Contest

Press Releases, 1996-1998

The Philosophy and Literature Bad Writing Contest ran from 1995 to 1998. For an essay giving background on the contest, click here.



We are pleased to announce winners of the fourth Bad Writing Contest, sponsored by the scholarly journal Philosophy and Literature.

The Bad Writing Contest celebrates the most stylistically lamentable passages found in scholarly books and articles published in the last few years. Ordinary journalism, fiction, departmental memos, etc. are not eligible, nor are parodies: entries must be non-ironic, from serious, published academic journals or books. Deliberate parody cannot be allowed in a field where unintended self-parody is so widespread.

Two of the most popular and influential literary scholars in the U.S. are among those who wrote winning entries in the latest contest.

Judith Butler, a Guggenheim Fellowship-winning professor of rhetoric and comparative literature at the University of California at Berkeley, admired as perhaps “one of the ten smartest people on the planet,” wrote the sentence that captured the contest’s first prize. Homi K. Bhabha, a leading voice in the fashionable academic field of postcolonial studies, produced the second-prize winner.

“As usual,” commented Denis Dutton, editor of Philosophy and Literature, “this year’s winners were produced by well-known, highly-paid experts who have no doubt labored for years to write like this. That these scholars must know what they are doing is indicated by the fact that the winning entries were all published by distinguished presses and academic journals.”

Professor Butler’s first-prize sentence appears in “Further Reflections on the Conversations of Our Time,” an article in the scholarly journal Diacritics (1997):

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

Dutton remarked that “it’s possibly the anxiety-inducing obscurity of such writing that has led Professor Warren Hedges of Southern Oregon University to praise Judith Butler as ‘probably one of the ten smartest people on the planet’.”

This year’s second prize went to a sentence written by Homi K. Bhabha, a professor of English at the University of Chicago. It appears in The Location of Culture (Routledge, 1994):

If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to “normalize” formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality.

This prize-winning entry was nominated by John D. Peters of the University of Iowa, who describes it as “quite splendid: enunciatory modality, indeed!”

Ed Lilley, an art historian at the University of Bristol in the U.K., supplied a sentence by Steven Z. Levine from an anthology entitled Twelve Views of Manet’s “Bar” (Princeton University Press, 1996):

As my story is an august tale of fathers and sons, real and imagined, the biography here will fitfully attend to the putative traces in Manet’s work of “les noms du père,” a Lacanian romance of the errant paternal phallus (”Les Non-dupes errent”), a revised Freudian novella of the inferential dynamic of paternity which annihilates (and hence enculturates) through the deferred introduction of the third term of insemination the phenomenologically irreducible dyad of the mother and child.

Stewart Unwin of the National Library of Australia passed along this gem from the Australasian Journal of American Studies (December 1997). The author is Timothy W. Luke, and the article is entitled, “Museum Pieces: Politics and Knowledge at the American Museum of Natural History”:

Natural history museums, like the American Museum, constitute one decisive means for power to de-privatize and re-publicize, if only ever so slightly, the realms of death by putting dead remains into public service as social tokens of collective life, rereading dead fossils as chronicles of life’s everlasting quest for survival, and canonizing now dead individuals as nomological emblems of still living collectives in Nature and History. An anatomo-politics of human and non-human bodies is sustained by accumulating and classifying such necroliths in the museum’s observational/expositional performances.

The passage goes on to explain that museum fossils and artifacts are “strange superconductive conduits, carrying the vital elan of contemporary biopower.” It’s demonstrated with helpful quotations from Michel Foucault’s History of Sexuality.

Finally, a tour de force from a 1996 book published by the State University of New York Press. It was located by M.J. Devaney, an editor at the University of Nebraska Press. The author is D.G. Leahy, writing in Foundation: Matter the Body Itself.

Total presence breaks on the univocal predication of the exterior absolute the absolute existent (of that of which it is not possible to univocally predicate an outside, while the equivocal predication of the outside of the absolute exterior is possible of that of which the reality so predicated is not the reality, viz., of the dark/of the self, the identity of which is not outside the absolute identity of the outside, which is to say that the equivocal predication of identity is possible of the self-identity which is not identity, while identity is univocally predicated of the limit to the darkness, of the limit of the reality of the self). This is the real exteriority of the absolute outside: the reality of the absolutely unconditioned absolute outside univocally predicated of the dark: the light univocally predicated of the darkness: the shining of the light univocally predicated of the limit of the darkness: actuality univocally predicated of the other of self-identity: existence univocally predicated of the absolutely unconditioned other of the self. The precision of the shining of the light breaking the dark is the other-identity of the light. The precision of the absolutely minimum transcendence of the dark is the light itself/the absolutely unconditioned exteriority of existence for the first time/the absolutely facial identity of existence/the proportion of the new creation sans depth/the light itself ex nihilo: the dark itself univocally identified, i.e., not self-identity identity itself equivocally, not the dark itself equivocally, in “self-alienation,” not “self-identity, itself in self-alienation” “released” in and by “otherness,” and “actual other,” “itself,” not the abysmal inversion of the light, the reality of the darkness equivocally, absolute identity equivocally predicated of the self/selfhood equivocally predicated of the dark (the reality of this darkness the other-self-covering of identity which is the identification person-self).

Dr. Devaney calls this book “absolutely, unequivocally incomprehensible.” While she has supplied further extended quotations to prove her point, this seems to be enough.


We are pleased to announce winners of the third Bad Writing Contest, sponsored by the scholarly journal Philosophy and Literature and its internet discussion group, PHIL-LIT.

The Bad Writing Contest attempts to locate the ugliest, most stylistically awful passage found in a scholarly book or article published in the last few years. Ordinary journalism, fiction, etc. are not eligible, nor are parodies: entries must be non-ironic, from actual serious academic journals or books. In a field where unintended self-parody is so widespread, deliberate send-ups are hardly necessary.

This year’s winning passages include prose published by established, successful scholars, experts who have doubtless labored for years to write like this. Obscurity, after all, can be a notable achievement. The fame and influence of writers such as Hegel, Heidegger, or Derrida rests in part on their mysterious impenetrability. On the other hand, as a cynic once remarked, John Stuart Mill never attained Hegel’s prestige because people found out what he meant. This is a mistake the authors of our prize-winning passages seem determined to avoid.

The first prize goes to the distinguished scholar Fredric Jameson, a man who on the evidence of his many admired books finds it difficult to write intelligibly and impossible to write well. Whether this is because of the deep complexity of Professor Jameson’s ideas or their patent absurdity is something readers must decide for themselves. Here, spotted for us by Dave Roden of Central Queensland University in Australia, is the very first sentence of Professor Jameson’s book, Signatures of the Visible (Routledge, 1990, p. 1):

The visual is essentially pornographic, which is to say that it has its end in rapt, mindless fascination; thinking about its attributes becomes an adjunct to that, if it is unwilling to betray its object; while the most austere films necessarily draw their energy from the attempt to repress their own excess (rather than from the more thankless effort to discipline the viewer).

The appreciative Mr. Roden says it is “good of Jameson to let readers know so soon what they’re up against.” We cannot see what the second “that” in the sentence refers to. And imagine if that uncertain “it” were willing to betray its object? The reader may be baffled, but then any author who thinks visual experience is essentially pornographic suffers confusions no lessons in English composition are going to fix.

If reading Fredric Jameson is like swimming through cold porridge, there are writers who strive for incoherence of a more bombastic kind. Here is our next winner, which was found for us by Professor Cynthia Freeland of the University of Houston. The writer is Professor Rob Wilson:

If such a sublime cyborg would insinuate the future as post-Fordist subject, his palpably masochistic locations as ecstatic agent of the sublime superstate need to be decoded as the “now-all-but-unreadable DNA” of a fast deindustrializing Detroit, just as his Robocop-like strategy of carceral negotiation and street control remains the tirelessly American one of inflicting regeneration through violence upon the racially heteroglossic wilds and others of the inner city.

This colorful gem appears in a collection called The Administration of Aesthetics: Censorship, Political Criticism, and the Public Sphere, edited by Richard Burt “for the Social Text Collective” (University of Minnesota Press, 1994). Social Text is the cultural studies journal made famous by publishing physicist Alan Sokal’s jargon-ridden parody of postmodernist writing. If this essay is Social Text’s idea of scholarship, little wonder it fell for Sokal’s hoax. (And precisely what are “racially heteroglossic wilds and others”?) Dr. Wilson is an English professor, of course.

That incomprehensibility need not be long-winded is proven by our third-place winner, sent in by Richard Collier, who teaches at Mt. Royal College in Canada. It’s a sentence from Making Monstrous: Frankenstein, Criticism, Theory, by Fred Botting (Manchester University Press, 1991):

The lure of imaginary totality is momentarily frozen before the dialectic of desire hastens on within symbolic chains.

Still, prolixity is often a feature of bad writing, as demonstrated by our next winner, a passage submitted by Mindy Michels, a graduate anthropology student at the American University in Washington, D.C. It’s written by Stephen Tyler, and appears in Writing Culture, edited (it says) by James Clifford and George E. Marcus (University of California Press, 1986). Of what he calls “post-modern ethnography,” Professor Tyler says:

It thus relativizes discourse not just to form — that familiar perversion of the modernist; nor to authorial intention — that conceit of the romantics; nor to a foundational world beyond discourse — that desperate grasping for a separate reality of the mystic and scientist alike; nor even to history and ideology — those refuges of the hermeneuticist; nor even less to language — that hypostasized abstraction of the linguist; nor, ultimately, even to discourse — that Nietzschean playground of world-lost signifiers of the structuralist and grammatologist, but to all or none of these, for it is anarchic, though not for the sake of anarchy but because it refuses to become a fetishized object among objects — to be dismantled, compared, classified, and neutered in that parody of scientific scrutiny known as criticism.

A bemused Dr. Tim van Gelder of the University of Melbourne sent us the following sentence:

Since thought is seen to be “rhizomatic” rather than “arboreal,” the movement of differentiation and becoming is already imbued with its own positive trajectory.

It’s from The Continental Philosophy Reader, edited by Richard Kearney and Mara Rainwater (Routledge, 1996), part of an editors’ introduction intended to help students understand a chapter. Dr. van Gelder says, “No undergraduate student I’ve given this introduction to has been able to make the slightest sense of it. Neither has any faculty member.” An assistant professor of English at a U.S. university (she prefers to remain anonymous) entered this choice morsel from The Cultures of United States Imperialism, by Donald Pease (Duke University Press, 1993):

When interpreted from within the ideal space of the myth-symbol school, Americanist masterworks legitimized hegemonic understanding of American history expressively totalized in the metanarrative that had been reconstructed out of (or more accurately read into) these masterworks.

While the entrant says she enjoys the Bad Writing Contest, she’s fearful her career prospects would suffer were she to be identified as hostile to the turn by English departments toward movies and soap operas. We quite understand: these days the worst writers in universities are English professors who ignore “the canon” in order to apply tepid, vaguely Marxist gobbledygook to popular culture. Young academics who’d like a career had best go along.

But it’s not just the English department where jargon and incoherence are increasingly the fashion. Susan Katz Karp, a graduate student at Queens College in New York City, found this choice nugget showing that forward-thinking art historians are doing their desperate best to import postmodern style into their discipline. It’s from an article by Professor Anna C. Chave, writing in Art Bulletin (December 1994):

To this end, I must underline the phallicism endemic to the dialectics of penetration routinely deployed in descriptions of pictorial space and the operations of spectatorship.

The next round of the Bad Writing Contest, results to be announced in 1998, is now open with a deadline of December 31, 1997. There is an endless ocean of pretentious, turgid academic prose being added to daily, and we’ll continue to celebrate it.


The entries for the second run of the Bad Writing Contest have now been tabulated, and we are pleased to announce winners. But first a few tedious words. There is no question that we have better — if that’s how to put it — entries than the last time we ran the contest. Some of the entries are stunning, and we think almost all of them deserve a prize of some sort.

This is not to say that much of the writing we would consider “bad” is necessarily incompetent. Graduate students and young scholars please note: many of the writers represented have worked years to attain their styles and they have been rewarded with publication in books and journal articles. In fact, if they weren’t published, we wouldn’t have them for our contest. That these passages constitute bad writing is merely our opinion; it is arguable that anyone wanting to pursue an academic career should assiduously imitate such styles as are represented here. These are your role models.

First prize goes to David Spurrett of the University of Natal in South Africa. He found this marvelous sentence — yes, it’s but one sentence — from Roy Bhaskar’s Plato etc: The Problems of Philosophy and Their Resolution (Verso, 1994):

Indeed dialectical critical realism may be seen under the aspect of Foucauldian strategic reversal — of the unholy trinity of Parmenidean/Platonic/Aristotelean provenance; of the Cartesian-Lockean-Humean-Kantian paradigm, of foundationalisms (in practice, fideistic foundationalisms) and irrationalisms (in practice, capricious exercises of the will-to-power or some other ideologically and/or psycho-somatically buried source) new and old alike; of the primordial failing of western philosophy, ontological monovalence, and its close ally, the epistemic fallacy with its ontic dual; of the analytic problematic laid down by Plato, which Hegel served only to replicate in his actualist monovalent analytic reinstatement in transfigurative reconciling dialectical connection, while in his hubristic claims for absolute idealism he inaugurated the Comtean, Kierkegaardian and Nietzschean eclipses of reason, replicating the fundaments of positivism through its transmutation route to the superidealism of a Baudrillard.

It’s a splendid bit of prose and I’m certain many of us will now attempt to read it aloud without taking a breath. The jacket blurb, incidentally, informs us that this is the author’s “most accessible book to date.”

Second Prize is won by Jennifer Harris of the University of Toronto. She found a grand sentence in an essay by Stephen T. Tyman called “Ricoeur and the Problem of Evil,” in The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur, edited, it says, by Lewis Edwin Hahn (Open Court, 1995):

With the last gasp of Romanticism, the quelling of its florid uprising against the vapid formalism of one strain of the Enlightenment, the dimming of its yearning for the imagined grandeur of the archaic, and the dashing of its too sanguine hopes for a revitalized, fulfilled humanity, the horror of its more lasting, more Gothic legacy has settled in, distributed and diffused enough, to be sure, that lugubriousness is recognizable only as languor, or as a certain sardonic laconicism disguising itself in a new sanctification of the destructive instincts, a new genius for displacing cultural reifications in the interminable shell game of the analysis of the human psyche, where nothing remains sacred.

Speaking of shell games, see if you can figure out the subject of that sentence.

Third prize was such a problem that we decided to award more than one. Exactly what the prizes will be is uncertain (the first three prizes were to be books), but something nice will be found. (Perhaps: third prize, an old copy of Glyph; fourth prize two old copies of Glyph.)

Jack Kolb of UCLA found this sentence in Paul Fry’s A Defense of Poetry (Stanford University Press, 1995). Together with the previous winners, it proves that 1995 was to bad prose what 1685 was to good music. Fry writes,

It is the moment of non-construction, disclosing the absentation of actuality from the concept in part through its invitation to emphasize, in reading, the helplessness — rather than the will to power — of its fall into conceptuality.

Incidentally, Kolb is reviewing Fry’s book for Philosophy and Literature, and believe it or not he generally respects it.

Arthur J. Weitzman of Northeastern University has noted for us two helpful sentences from The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism, edited by Michael Groden and Martin Kreiswirth (JHUP, 1994). It is from Donald E. Pease’s entry on Harold Bloom:

Previous exercises in influence study depended upon a topographical model of reallocatable poetic images, distributed more or less equally within ‘canonical’ poems, each part of which expressively totalized the entelechy of the entire tradition. But Bloom now understood this cognitive map of interchangeable organic wholes to be criticism’s repression of poetry’s will to overcome time’s anteriority.

What can we add to that?

William Dolphin of San Francisco State University located for us this elegant sentence in John Guillory’s Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (University of Chicago Press, 1993):

A politics presuming the ontological indifference of all minority social identities as defining oppressed or dominated groups, a politics in which differences are sublimated in the constitution of a minority identity (the identity politics which is increasingly being questioned within feminism itself) can recover the differences between social identities only on the basis of common and therefore commensurable experiences of marginalization, which experiences in turn yield a political practice that consists largely of affirming the identities specific to those experiences.

Finally, the Canadian David Savory found this lucid sentence in the essay by Robyn Wiegman and Linda Zwinger, in “Tonya’s Bad Boot,” an essay in Women on Ice, edited by Cynthia Baughman (Routledge, 1995):

Punctuated by what became ubiquitous sound bites — Tonya dashing after the tow truck, Nancy sailing the ice with one leg reaching for heaven — this melodrama parsed the transgressive hybridity of un-narrativized representative bodies back into recognizable heterovisual codes.

Thanks to these and all the other entrants. If you didn’t win this time, the next round of the Bad Writing Contest, prizes to be announced, is now open with a deadline of September 30, 1996. So you’ve plenty of time to find examples from the turgid new world of academic prose.


Feel free to forward the above text to email lists or to post it, without alteration, on other web sites.