Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) is one of the most widely cited theorists of modernism, modernity, and media. His 1936 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Technological Reproducibility” is required reading in nearly every college seminar on media studies or film studies, and his work on Baudelaire and the flaneur—the archetypal urban wanderer of nineteenth-century Paris—has become definitive of modernist experience within literary studies. Benjamin’s writing compels and confuses. It’s cultural criticism, but in the register of allegory rather than argument. It rewards rereading but evades any single, clear meaning. Here’s a taste of it, one of my favorite bits of the “Work of Art” essay, about the relationship between film and older art forms:
How does the cameraman compare with the painter? To answer this we take recourse to an analogy with a surgical operation. The surgeon represents the polar opposite of the magician. The magician heals a sick person by the laying on of hands; the surgeon cuts into the patient’s body. The magician maintains the natural distance between the patient and himself; though he reduces it very slightly by the laying on of hands, he greatly increases it by virtue of his authority. The surgeon does exactly the reverse; he greatly diminishes the distance between himself and the patient by penetrating into the patient’s body, and increases it but little by the caution with which his hand moves among the organs… Magician and surgeon compare to painter and cameraman.
Benjamin’s writing has meant a lot to me ever since I was an undergrad at Florida, taking classes in cultural studies and modernism. I rarely write a chapter or essay without citing him. But he means even more to me now, as I work in a great but temporary academic position and think about future job seasons and the possibility that I will never land a tenure-track job. Benjamin is the patron saint of failed academics.
In 1919, Benjamin earned his doctoral degree at the University of Bern in Switzerland. But to get a professor position in a German university, he also needed to write a passing Habilitationsschrift, a kind of postdoctoral thesis. Benjamin’s Habilitationsschrift, entitled The Origin of German Tragic Drama, was rejected in 1925. Art historian Jeanne Willette suggests that the thesis was “an uneasy but innovative work—ahead of its time in its willingness to combine exacting research with poetical interpretation,” and thus unacceptable to the traditional faculty at the University of Frankfurt am Main. Benjamin found some success in writing and publishing after the rejection, but he never became a professor. His story reminds me that failure in the academic job market is not failure in life, and that writing well outside the academy is possible.
I thought of Benjamin and his modernist style of criticism as I read Eric Hayot’s new essay in Critical Inquiry, “Academic Writing, I Love You. Really, I Do.” Hayot’s essay defends academic writing in the humanities from critics who vilify it as overinflated, elitist, and “flabby.” The piece also breaks every rule of academic writing I’ve ever encountered. It begins with five pages of aphorisms drawn from various academic writing guides—William Germano’s The Thesis and the Book, Helen Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing, William Zinsser’s On Writing Well—presented without comment. Its thesis statement, if it can be pinned down at all, does not appear until the seventh page. Its argument is presented through a kind of Platonic dialogue. Its evidence for the beauty of academic writing is another series of quotations, annotated with only the most minimalist of commentary. Worse still, the speaking “I” intrudes at the most inopportune times, sharing stories about high school dances and infiltrating even the title, making it sound more like a BuzzFeed post than a Critical Inquiry article.
I don’t know if I share Hayot’s love for academic writing, but I definitely love this essay.
Hayot is not himself a failed academic—far from it. He’s a full professor at Penn State and author of multiple books. Still, this essay takes up a position at the margins of academia, defending the complexity and “ornamentation” of academic writing while critiquing the institutional structures—especially of graduate school—that shunt writing to the side or mystify it. Hayot’s not afraid of footnotes, jargon, or Fredric Jameson, the staples of mainstream humanities scholarship. But one character in his dialogues suggests that academic writing could be different—not something less, as the proponents of “lean,” “plain,” “unadorned” writing would recommend, but something more:
“What if instead of going on about how footnotes and italics are bad, scholarly writing would take advantage of all the resources of print, including underlining, bolding, printing in columns, colors, and so on.”
“Like House of Leaves?”
“Sure, why not? But if you could be even 5 percent more adventurous than we are now, which is a long way from Danielewski, you might actually get some interesting stuff. And if you tried, and you didn’t, then that would be interesting too.”
I hear this call to be 5% more adventurous. I want to do it too.
One of my favorite recent pieces of scholarly writing is Paul K. Saint-Amour’s 2013 article in ELT, “An Interlude: We Have Never Been Modernists.” It’s a four-page counterfactual piece which imagines that Queen Victoria died in 1840, instead of ruling until 1901, and explores the consequences for literary periodization. In doing so, it skewers many of the shibboleths of modernism, indirectly pointing out that nineteenth-century writers too were experimental and innovative; they too wrote manifestos and responded to the social, political, and technological upheavals of modernity.
Hayot and Saint-Amour both published their strange little essays in mainstream scholarly journals, which suggests that at least sometimes, there is room in academic publishing to be more adventurous in our writing. Another option is to go outside academic publishing entirely, as writers like Anne Helen Petersen have done. Petersen, like many of the critics of academic writing Hayot dissents from, believes that “much of academic writing prides itself on being as inaccessible as possible… you can’t understand it unless you’ve had at least five years of graduate school.” At media outlets like BuzzFeed, on the other hand, her ideas about media and cultural studies have “space to breathe.” Petersen is quick to point out, though, that she left academia not because she independently decided it was a bad fit, but because
no one wanted to hire me! I want to be super explicit about that because I think people will assume that because of all the writing I do, both on and off the internet, that I somehow had some cornucopia of choices and was like “show me the money.” OH MAN I WISH. I get so much satisfaction from teaching, but there was no way to keep doing so—and continue the writing I find fulfilling—and make a sustainable salary.
Between the terrible job market and traditional academics’ distrust of cultural studies and internet writing, Petersen found herself forced out. Sometimes, there is no room in academia for adventurous writers. Sometimes there’s no room for anyone at all.
One of the best things about Hayot’s article is how it punctures the problematic language that people use when expressing contempt for academic writing. In particular, critics of academic writing style use the metaphor of fat in a way that is often cruel and that betrays a deeper unease with appetites, desires, and excessive bodies.
“I think all the stuff on lean writing, cutting the fat, avoiding flab, and so on, bothers me because I was fat for a long time, and I was so ashamed of my body.”
“Does that matter to the critique?”
“I don’t know, but it matters to me.”
I think it does matter to the critique, and it matters to me too. Those who disapprove of “flabby” writing imply that fat is a sign of overindulgent gluttony, a personal vice, and that leanness is a sign of virtue. These are metaphors we should be wary of.
Hayot also suggests that the censure of ornamented academic writing, and the demand that we write in a “plain,” “unadorned” fashion, might have something to do with gender. I think this too is an important point. The critics seem to think we should emulate Hemingway rather than Woolf, that a spare, masculine prose style is preferable to an “ornamental,” feminine one. Avoid “adornment,” “floweriness,” and “vanity” at any cost. Write like a man, not like a dressed-up, made-up lady.
As smart as I find these insights, and as much as I love “Academic Writing, I Love You,” I’m still hesitant to fully sign on to it. And the reason is because I teach Writing and Research courses for undergrads, and I find it extraordinarily difficult to help college students enter into or even understand academic discourse in the humanities. I’ve used Graff and Birkenstein’s They Say, I Say, perhaps the clearest and plainest guide to the structures of academic writing in print; I’ve scoured JSTOR and Literature Online for articles about our primary sources that are accessible to college students; I’ve designed reading guides to help students approach scholarly articles in literary criticism. And I’ve often failed. I simply cannot find enough examples of scholarly work that are clear to students.
Many professors would tell me that it’s because students are not the audience for scholarly work. We’re writing for each other, not for them. We’re trying to add to the storehouse of specialized knowledge; if you’re looking for literary criticism that’s accessible to students, try a textbook or an anthology. I hear and understand this point of view. And yet, I can’t shake off Petersen’s point that “you can’t understand [a lot of academic writing] unless you’ve had at least five years of graduate school,” and that this is a problem. I want more than three people to read what I write. I want my students, and other people’s students, to understand what I do. End the complaints about linguistic “flab,” “floweriness,” and “jargon,” but I still want to reach people who haven’t had five years of graduate school. And I continue to wonder whether these virtues—adventurousness, clarity, playfulness, “poetical interpretation”—are better served within or outside the structures of academic writing.
 Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, transl. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 2007), 233.
 I would partially exempt Helen Sword’s Stylish Academic Writing from this critique, however. Sword does recommend the Writer’s Diet test for readers, an online engine to determine if one’s prose is “flabby or fit.” But she also argues for “stylish” writing, an attribute that is undoubtedly gendered feminine, even though this stylishness encompasses clarity and avoids “jargonitis.”