Obscurantism

Obscurantism is a writing style that is deliberately difficult to understand, and academic writing is simply full of it.

After many years of reading and writing in both molecular biology and applied linguistics, I have come to the conclusion that much academic writing is unnecessarily obscure and often deliberately difficult to read. Over the course of my career, I have studied everything from philosophy to physics, macro-economics to literary theory, and in all that study, I have very rarely come across an idea that was in itself difficult to understand. Over the years I have become convinced that, outside of advanced mathematics and theoretical physics, there are very few ideas in the natural sciences, and exactly zero ideas in the humanities and social sciences, that are difficult to understand when properly explained and well exampled. I have struggled to read many difficult texts in a range of fields, and almost always, once I had figured out the ideas in the texts, I realized that the ideas were not in themselves difficult, but rather, that they had been presented in a way that was dense, overly abstract and poorly exampled, if exampled at all.

Micheal Billig has recently published a great book on this subject, Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences, and in it, Billig takes particular aim at the orgy of nouns in social-scientific writing. Nouns seem like a weird target at first, but Billig builds a convincing argument that social scientists are writing texts that are filled with abstract nouns doing things to other abstract nouns, but completely depopulated of living breathing human beings, and as a consequence, social scientists are writing texts that are difficult to understand and so abstract that they can actually be misleading. In Billigs view, overly abstract and conceptual writing is often meaningless, and at times, completely unfounded. But this kind of writing is pernicious, in part, because moving around and connecting abstract concepts together like parts of some crazy machine looks complex on the page, but is actually much easier than writing clear, accurate social science texts populated with real human beings.

Clear writing is hard work, and it is the author who must do this work; the author should be working, so the reader doesn’t have to. If the author writes well, the reader should have no problem understanding almost any idea immediately. Difficult writing is almost always bad writing and there are plenty of bad writers working in philosophy, sociology, literary criticism, and so on.  As Billig explains, obscurantism is both lazy and cowardly:

It is actually harder to write the social sciences using simple words than it is by mobilizing the big noun phrases and izations. If we use ordinary words, then typically we must clarify what we mean, without hiding behind stacks of syllables.
(Billig 2013: 212)

But my biggest problem with obscurantism is that it is elitist. It’s a power play using language. It shuts people out of important discussions that impact their lives. One of my favorite authors is the late French sociologist, Pierre Bourdieu. In his ground-breaking book, Language and Symbolic Power, he shows how language is not neutral but always bound up tightly with power, wealth and privilege. (Bourdieu 1992) It is terribly ironic then that Bourdieu’s own writing is so dense, abstract and unexampled that it is almost impossible to read at times. (cf. Billig 2013: 42) Who would have the time and training to figure out Bourdieu’s dense texts beyond other privileged academics? Bourdieu was a great thinker and he would certainly be much more widely read if he hadn’t written in such an obscure way.

Philosophers and sociologists have filled shelves with texts about how people use language to exercise power over others, but like Bourdieu, these same authors write in ways that are unnecessarily difficult and obscure, as if they can’t follow the logic of their own analysis, and I think this inconsistency may often come down to a basic question of courage. Using simple language is not without risk. We are all so used to thinking that difficult writing signals complex thinking, that in contrast, simple, clear writing can appear simple-minded:

[In the academic world] if students and their teachers try to use simple, clear language, rather than big specialized concepts and phrases, then they will risk appearing as if they were inadequate, untrained and, most importantly, as if they did not belong.
(Billig 2013: 63)

So in my writing for The Socialist Entrepreneur, I intend to take the risk and to work hard to write as clearly as I can. I want The Socialist Entrepreneur to be useful for people who are thinking about starting worker-owned businesses, and overly abstract and difficult writing would be a complete failure in this respect. I have spent my adult life reading dense theoretical texts piled high with obscure abstract concepts, so I find this kind of language creeping into my own writing like a bad mental habit. Obscurantism is pernicious. I have to work hard to avoid it, but avoid it I will.

Of course, I am not rejecting abstract concepts altogether, and neither is Billig; that would be counterproductive and really impossible. Indeed, the word ‘obscurantism’ itself is an abstract noun and I used it because it encapsulates a key idea in this essay. Abstract concepts serve an important role in how we think, but they need to be kept in check with lucid explanations and clear examples. Otherwise, they dance away from you, taking over your writing, and then, before you know it, nobody knows what they hell your talking about anymore.

Billig, Michael (2013) Learn to Write Badly: How to Succeed in the Social Sciences. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Bourdieu, Pierre (1991) Language and Symbolic Power. Cambridge: Polity Press.

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