Good writers are often fooled by the lure of plain English. Most academics in the humanities are not duped so easily, though. They understand the power of jargon, obscurity and incoherence. Those aspiring to follow in their footsteps would do well to consider the following tips and tricks.
Titles. Once upon a time, scholars thought titles should be succinct and descriptive. Now we know better. Instead, introduce your work with an unintelligible phrase such as “Interrupted Modernity”, “Sovereign Emergencies”, “Overthrowing Geography” or “Violent Accumulation”. “Bodies that Speak” and “Empires without Imperialism” also make for great titles, even if bodies cannot speak and empires cannot exist without imperialism. Everyone knows that confusion attracts attention. Obscure quotes also make for great titles, especially if they include grammatical errors or antiquated speech. “Oh motherland I pledge to thee”, “What does not respect borders” and “Fortress Europe in the field” are good examples.
Invented words. Language is subject to your imagination, not the other way around. Change nouns into adjectives and adjectives into nouns. “Hypervisibility”, “interagentivity”, “interanimality”, “precoloniality”, “spaciality” and “subalternity” are all great words. Count the number of words you’ve invented or new concepts you’ve employed. Try doubling it.
Between, beyond and towards. Study the stuff “between empire and identities”. Go beyond the Arab Spring, beyond desire. Work towards a post-Marxist historiography or theory of counter-modernity. Write about the genealogy of something or, better still, towards the genealogy of something. “Toward a genealogy of black female sexuality” – perfect!
Shudder quotes. Language is poisonous, so it is essential to place shudder quotes around as many words as possible – the “West” and “Global South”, the “European” and “non-European” worlds, “traditional” healing practices and “modern” identities. There are no experts, only “experts”. Shudder quotes make it difficult for others to accuse you of philosophical naivety.
Verbs. Use verbs along with their passives in the same sentence as often as possible, as in “I will address the spatial and temporal re-mapping of these two distinct traumatic memories as they shape and are shaped by one another.” Scholars study the assumptions and ideologies that constitute and are constituted by aid. They try to grasp how traumatic events influence and are influenced by norms, identities and interests. This signals you have mastered the passive tense, and that the passive tense has been mastered by you.
The re-prefix. You should repeat and re-repeat verbs as often as possible with a re-prefix. Aim to frame and re-frame, imagine and re-imagine, inscribe and re-inscribe. This signals and re-signals to your readers that you are in command of revisionism.
Agency. Style is important in the humanities, but so is content. Be sure that you find agency among the downtrodden. The people of the Global South did not adopt Western knowledge; they adapted it. They did not replicate European sciences but subverted their racist agendas. Muslim women have not learned feminism from the West; they were feminists long before feminism existed.
Obfuscation. Do not write about history or even historicity, only “historicality”. Colonialism is widely understood by the general public and should therefore be avoided. Instead study “coloniality”, “semicolonialism” or “Eurocolonials”. Physical violence is blasé; real scholars write about “discursive violence”. Instead of modernity or even post-modernity, consider “transmodernities” and “nonmodernities”. Forget memory; study “post-memory”.
Complication. The general rule of thumb is to complicate simple ideas. “Living together”, in the words of one scholar, “oscillates between the tone of practical serenity and tragic pathos, between philosophical wisdom and desperate anguish”. It is both “simple evidence and the promise of the inaccessible”, while it opens the possibility of a “unified self” and “synchronous time”. If only this were more widely known, so much domestic friction could be avoided.
Prepositions. Many verbs can take more than one preposition. Be sure to use as many of them as possible. The politics of protest have not escaped the intricacies of speaking about, for and instead of others. Memory-making occurs in and across multiple spaces. Modernity is emerging in and between Europe and the Arab world.
Trends. Nothing is stable or monolithic. Everything is fluid, fragmented, hybrid, multi-directional and unsusceptible to articulation. There are multiple modernities. Memory is polymorphous. Nothing is spatially fixed or geography-bound. The line between words and things is permeable. Binary oppositions are evil. Decentre everything. Blur boundaries. Jump into an abyss so deep and profound that no one has any idea what you are talking about.
Elegant incoherence. Use the word “as” to connect unrelated ideas without having to explain why they are related. Examples include “architecture as relic”, “resistance as negotiation” and an analysis of the tension between “body as sign” and “body as corpus”.
Sites. Everything is a site for discursive production. Performance apparently positions the post-colonial female body as a particularly charged site of cultural contestation in the process of constructing a hybrid subjectivity. The body is a site of rupture and signification. The law is a site of subaltern negotiations with the state.
Interruption. Good scholars know to interrupt themselves mid-sentence for clarification. As one of them has explained, “analysis of diasporic memory – or, more accurately, remembrances – conjures other times and places”. This in turn “helps us recognise the local population as imaginers and producers (and not, at best, merely consumers) of their own modernity – or perhaps better, nonmodernity, as the modernity that unfolded”. This signals to the reader your sense of profound anguish – or rather your mastery of interruption dashes – or, perhaps still better, your mastery of interruption parentheses.
Zachary J. Foster is a PhD candidate in Near Eastern studies at Princeton University and a product manager at Academia.edu. He would like to make clear that all the examples of unintelligible academese given above are real.