with apologies to Raymond Queneau (and Judith Butler)
In 1998, the following sentence won first prize in the now legendary Bad Writing Contest, sponsored by the academic journal Philosophy and Literature. It was taken from Judith Butler's paper "Further Reflections on the Conversations of Our Time" in Diacritics (Volume 27, Number 1, Spring 1997, pp. 13-15 ).
The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.
I don't want to get into the controversy over the social function of the award itself, or over the literary merit of this sentence. There is really no such thing as absolutely good or absolutely bad writing; but any piece of writing may be better or worse. These are useful categories because they suggest that no sentence is perfect, that there is always room for improvement. There is, in any case, always something to be learned from trying to say the same thing differently.
In this post, that is precisely what I propose to do. I want to take Butler's sentence apart and put it back together again in a variety of ways. I don't want to claim that all these sentence are equally good, nor that mine are better than hers, nor even that all of my attempts say exactly the same thing. I will leave it to the reader to decide whether and how her point is being badly misconstrued or elegantly paraphrased.
(Please note, however, that these are not exercises in paraphrasing Butler. Many of them, owing to their recycling of her exact words, would be considered plagiarism, even if she was cited as the source. I will take up this delicate issue in a later post. What I'm trying to do here is to imagine how Butler herself could have reworked the "offending" passage.)
I have chosen this example because the kind of point Butler is making is a very standard one in contemporary research in the humanities and the social sciences. It is about the changing body of theory that is trying to come to terms with society. It is a report on "the state of the art", as it were, and like most such reports it tells you what was once thought quite natural to think, and what it is no longer tenable to suppose. As an academic writer, you will find yourself having to say this sort of thing very often. This exercise is intended to help you decide how you want to do that.
You are here catching a glimpse of the sort of thing that runs through an editor's mind when correcting an academic text. I'm trying to make very explicit how much of a difference editorial revisions can make.
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Variation # 1
First, let us try as objectively as possible to assign each proposition in Butler's original to its own sentence. In turns out that this gives us eight separate declarative sentences:
There has been a move away from a structuralist account.
This structuralist account is one in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways.
We have moved toward to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation.
This has brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure.
It has also marked a shift away from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects.
The new theory provides insights into the contingent possibility of structure.
This inaugurates a renewed conception of hegemony.
Hegemony is bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.
This indicates part of the reason, whether justified or not, that Butler won the Bad Writing Contest. If you write a sentence that could be rewritten as eight independent sentences then you are very likely trying to do too much too quickly. It means you are qualifying every concept you introduce within the sentence that introduces it. You are doing with a sentence what one normally expects of a paragraph. That said, there may sometimes be good reason for it and, more importantly, the point may be so peripheral to the main topic of the paper that the sort of work we're doing here isn't worth the trouble.
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Variation # 2
Let's now try to put these points together as straighforwardly as we can, trying to do what we assume Butler was trying to do, but doing it with several sentences instead of one.
On a structuralist account, capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways. There has, however, lately been a move away from this account toward a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation. This has brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure. It has marked a shift away from Althusserian theory and brought insight into the contingent possibility of structure. After all, Althusserian theory takes structural totalities as theoretical objects. But what we see now is the inauguration of a renewed conception of hegemony: one in which it is bound up with the sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power. And these sites are, of course, utterly contingent ones.
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Variation # 3
Here's a not very different attempt. I have tried to make the language a bit more natural and less redundant ("relations in relatively" and the "theoretical objects" of "Althusserian theory") and I have a personal aversion to the way we "think" various notions, as in "into the thinking of structure". I prefer to "conceptualize" in such cases.
Capital was once understood to structure social relations in rather homologous ways. But hegemony is today best approached in terms of power relations that are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation. This also implies a shift away from Althusserian theory, which has traditionally taken structural totalities as objects. On our renewed conception of hegemony, according to which it is bound up with the sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power, the possibility of structure comes to appear as an increasingly contingent one. That is, we must bring the question of temporality into our conception of structure.
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Variation # 4 (Intermission)
This one is just for fun. See if you think it captures the sense of Butler's original.
Remember the old days? Remember when everyone knew that capital structured society with a nice, even heat? Well, you can kiss those days goodbye because power is getting it together and repeating itself all over again. It's a question of time now. So we'll have to ditch our old Althusserian ideas about structural totalities as theoretical objects. Hegemony is so mixed up with the places and ways that power sells the old product in new wrappers that the question is whether structure is even possible. And, if it is, then whatever the structure IS will sure as hell depend on all kinds of things we may as well just start guessing about now.
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Variation # 5
This one is my suggested edit. It is what I imagine I would have suggested if I had been asked to line edit Butler's paper.
It was once taken for granted that capital structured social relations in rather homologous ways. Since then, however, a number of developments have forced a reconceptualization of hegemony in terms of power relations that are subject to repetition, convergence and rearticulation. This reconceptualization has come to include a shift way from the Althusserian idea that structural totalities could be taken as theoretical objects. On the contrary, with the introduction of a temporal dimension, hegemony comes to be inextricably bound up with the sites and strategies through which power is rearticulated, making the very possibility of structure a contingent one. This contingency, then, becomes a defining moment in our current understanding of hegemony.
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Variation # 6
This one tries to isolate the normative judgement implicit in the shift that Butler in any case seems to endorse. It's one thing you might consider whenever you are firmly in agreement with developments in your field, i.e., when you feel good about being complicit in them.
The structuralist account of hegemony is inadequate because capital does not simply structure social relations in relatively homologous ways. Instead, temporality must be taken into account when thinking about structure. Hegemony must then be seen as a form of structure in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation. Likewise, structural totalities can no longer be construed as theoretical objects (as Althusser did). Structure is a contingent possibility and this is central to the new conception of hegemony, which is tied precisely to the sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power. These are the loci of the relevant contingencies.