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Benefits of Obscurantism

Here’s a response I wrote about obscurantism in academica Funny, I was recently bloviating about a similiar subject.
I wrote about why academic writing tends to be so unsatisfying:

“It?s practically impossible to regurgitate well and say interesting/original things at the same time. Why? If you write an original paper, you are criticized for not mentioning Scholar X or Scholar Y or Theory Z. On the other hand, if you do cite Scholar X, Scholar Y and Theory Z (along with several others), you find little room left for original thought or analysis.”

Ok, this may have been a simple-minded way to put it. An academic is rewarded for indicating an awareness and mastery of the scholarship related to a particular topic. Texts replete with hyperlinks and references are centered less on the writer’s individual thoughts than on the history of the bigwigs’ debates. In fact, the hyperlinks themselves become escape hatches for the reader to follow (and if they follow it, they may never return to the essay citing it). For the academic text, the focus may be on citations; for the straightforward essay, the focus may be on thrashing out some idea. I confess I found it extraordinarily difficult to write a citation-obsessed paper and maintain a focus on my original thoughts.

I realize that Mark Bauerlein’s essay was talking more about jargon and style than originality v. scholarship. But (I would argue) obscurantism can benefit those who practice it. There is a parallel with computer programming here. Mediocre programmers write incomprehensible, stringy code that nobody else can make head or tail of. However, because the programmer is the only one who can decipher his own code, his value to the company is multiplied. This is another case where writing undocumented incomprehensible code adds to your market value.

I’d like to think that once academics attain more job security, there is less pressure to write scholarship papers and more pressure to be interesting and relevant. But it may be tough to shake old habits.

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