What do we write to convey?

Academic writing can seem freighted with agendas other than communicating sense, even as academics split over whether inaccessible writing conveys brilliance or a failure to fully digest one’s reading and ideas.

Increasingly, I incline towards the latter. Or at least I know that’s what causes me to write in vague, overly-referential ways, drawing in and dragging on others’ words as I gesture towards meanings glimpsed but never adequately reached. 8 months into my PhD, my supervisor said I wrote like a bad translation of Poulantzas, the Greek Marxist, or it could have been Althusser, the French one; I was reading both at the time. I don’t think I was offended. But I do remember being struck by the idea that one could and should write differently – that prose didn’t mean obtusely rearranging a limited set of words and phrases.

Still knowing this and writing better are two quite different things. (I recently came across this sentence in a 2009 article I wrote about a women’s bathhouse: “in encounters involving people mutually unfamiliar, particularly encounters with a more agonistic, vertiginous cast, attentiveness to the other and to where the other’s sometimes only faintly legible interactions might lead was, participants suggested, essential.” In other words, people pay attention when they’re having edgy sex with those they don’t know.)

As I get older I feel more strongly that writing should be open and inclusive – a more active relationship than simply being accessible or accessed. Teaching first year PhD students, I encourage them to think about academic work as entering a conversation. What makes a good (or bad) conversationalist? Along with the politics of who gets to speak, who gets heard, and what gets talked about (or not) are other, related qualities: listening, interacting, having something interesting to say, not simply repeating what others have said. But what often gets omitted is conversing in a way that enables – even better, stimulates and encourages – others to participate. Individuals can close down conversations by importing unshared assumptions: everyday talk which veers off into chat about an unfamiliar movie or person; academic writing and talk that uses terms and references not only impossible to follow but not intended to be followed – like the obstacles a frontrunner throws down to thwart opponents who, skirting around the wreckage, trail ever further behind.

Other times, in other conversations, unfamiliarity become the entry costs of taking part: You cannot join this discussion of emancipation, imitation, speaking, property, materiality, gender or the state until you have invested in knowing the texts and characters it will draw on.

But, one might think, this is the reasonable and inevitable character of educated conversations, where what is said builds upon an edifice of previous conversations stretching back (if far too often in narrowly European ways). How can conversations develop, how can nuance and distinctions be established, if participants must keep rehearsing the same terrain; where nothing can be taken for granted; where there is no common ground?

And doesn’t the expectation of clarity or transparency miss the point? Academic writing doesn’t necessarily aspire to represent what is, as if the material world can be imitated point for point in thought, but to create. From this perspective, elusive or elliptical ideas are often generative, stimulating excitement, beauty, sensation, pleasure, action, fear as well as thoughts.

I am not arguing against technical or specialised conversations, which depend on a detailed and intimate shared knowledge; nor do I want to dismiss the claim that academic work has a far richer purview than simply conducting ideas. When it comes to developing dissident or subordinate modes of thought, separation or entry conditions may also be necessary – at least temporarily, as accounts of feminist, Black and other “counter-publics” have explored.

At the same time, for an academic sector that depends on the ability to move between national languages, too little attention is paid to moving between conceptual ones. Of course, translating texts from English, say, into Italian involves interpretive choices as words located within one constellation of meaning become words embedded within others, bearing different histories and associations. But the task of translation presupposes that the general cast of what is written can be carried into other national languages. As academics, we quote writers confidently, despite being fully aware that the language we may read is not the one they wrote.

Yet, when it comes to translating conceptual ideas, producing them in other registers, including other academic registers, there seems far more reticence. Here, conversion gets read as a form of dumbing down, extracting bare bones from more complex and sustaining meat and fat. It reminds me of the injunction sometimes given to first year law students not to rephrase statutory language since any rephrasing or summarising does violence to the legal meaning of the text. But if ideas and concepts are important, their importance should not depend on obediently following an authorial “source”.  Indeed, to the extent that ideas are about social life, it seems a strange turn of events if such ideas can only be comprehended through the trademarked discourse of a particular writer or school of thought.

Many of us are concerned with ideas about power, coercion, hope and social change. Yet, like life after the tower of babel, the proliferation of academic languages in the social sciences and humanities can stun shared conversation. What also, importantly, can get stunned is the capacity of literatures to complicate and challenge each other as siloisation leads ideas intelligible to one crowd to be heard as noise by another.

Academic noise is not entirely due to unfamiliar traditions. Work can appear – if not unintelligible – than naïve, foolish or deeply misled when paradigms and epistemological commitments diverge. Like observing another’s religion, academics wonder how someone can believe in the fact/ norm distinction or the agency of things.

But whether it comes from unfamiliar concepts or disliked modes of thought, what worries me is that perceptions of academic “noise” stop critical and progressive academics being able to enter into shared conversations. Dissident ideas may require space, even privacy; epistemologies rooted in particular social experiences, such as dispossession, may be inevitably excluding. But too many current conversations exclude for far less valid reasons.

A few years back, I researched community spaces oriented to strangers, including communities organised around public speech and public sex. These “everyday utopias” developed shared norms and to some extent shared languages; but to the extent they were committed to a non-evangelical contact between strangers, they also had to support forms of communication across difference, to find ways for people to communicate knowing one person’s deeply meaningful gaze might be another’s unintelligible blink or slightly creepy stare.

Progressive and critical scholarship has long favoured difference and otherness, speaking up for the stranger, the visitor and the unfamiliar – even as some argue that power differentials and content are more important than simple diversity.  Yet, when it comes to academic difference, an ethics of hospitality, interest and pleasure all too often seeps away, replaced by a drive for “robust” competition and combat between academic paradigms and traditions.

How can we change the terms of academic engagement, to create not only more openness but a desire for contact between different critical and progressive frameworks and literatures – as a contact that is neither colonising nor evangelical? How can we be open to the unfamiliar academic other?


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