Bad academic writing: Rebecca Biron and the Mexican drug war in PMLA

In “It’s a Living: Hit Men in the Mexican Narco War,” Rebecca E. Biron writes:

Hit men in the twenty-first-century Mexican drug war engage in paid labor at the extreme end of capitalist exploitation. By “extreme end,” I mean the period of late hyper- capitalism in which transnational profit seeking trumps national as well as international regulatory systems designed to serve broad social stability. I also mean the outer limits of how capitalist interests use (up) human beings [. . .]

But “the twenty-first-century Mexican drug war” isn’t a good example of capitalism at work: to the extent that capitalism is about selling people things they actually want, with a (relatively) limited amount of state control, drugs should be legal: there’s a willing buyer, a willing seller, and no intermediary who gets hurt. Yet the state—which is conventionally associated with communism / socialism—prohibits drug use, using the logic of “serv[ing] broad social stability” and similarly bogus euphemisms.

If anything, the hit men should be considered exploited by state policies around prohibition, rather than capitalism or capitalists.

Plus, if exploitation is inherent capitalism, what kind of economic or political system doesn’t or hasn’t involved exploitation? And I’m not talking about a theoretical one: I’m talking about a real example in the real world. I don’t think any exist, at least in any meaningful sense. Although the U.S. and Western Europe certainly aren’t without warts and blemishes, both historical and contemporary, it’s notable that the Soviet Union exterminated millions of its own citizens in a calculated, industrialized fashion. The Soviet Union also engaged in foreign conquest and terror to a vastly greater extent than the U.S. did or, today, could even aspire to.

On bad writing in philosophy: Derek Parfit on Kant

“It is Kant who made really bad writing philosophically acceptable. We can no longer point to some atrocious sentence by someone else, and say ‘How can it be worth reading anyone who writes like that?’ The answer could always be ‘What about Kant?'”

—Derek Parfit on Kant, in On What Matters

(Reading reviews of philosophy is often more interesting than the philosophy itself, since the reviews tend to be more comprehensible. That was certainly true for On What Matters. Despite, for example, Tyler Cowen’s review, I still wonder if a lot of philosophy, in its quest for rigor, paradoxically cannot find rigor in a confusing world limited by our language’s ability to describe it. Recursiveness in language is great right up to the point where you have to endlessly drill down to figure out what words mean. Cowen says, “In the subject areas of On What Matters the semantics are too slack, too open to multiple interpretation, and too many of the central concepts cry out for formalization. There are not compelling new metaphors and examples to pin down the discourse.” I wonder if the semantics of philosophy in general are simply “too slack” for them to do much. Note how I say “I wonder” at the start of the preceding sentence: this is not a rhetorical device. I also wonder if technology drives culture far more than vice-versa; when I read some philosophy, I think “yes.”

Two caveats: I haven’t read enough philosophy to grok it. In addition, what philosophy I do read I often view as material for fiction rather than in its own terms. One reason I may have liked Richard Rorty’s Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity is simply because he argues that fiction goes places philosophy can’t and thus might have the intellectual high ground. )

I’m not the only one to notice bad academic writing: B.R. Myers in The Atlantic

I’ve occasionally, and probably futilely, pointed out bad academic writing, but my audience is small and the war against cliche is a lonely one, fought mostly by guerrilla cranks, misfits, and writers, frequently all embodied in the same person, and often ten against the official and indifferent edifice of institutions that are nominally devoted to literary excellence. But I’m heartened that B.R. Myers has spotlighted the problem in his Atlantic review of Every Twelve Seconds: Industrialized Slaughter and the Politics of Sight:

The author also conforms to the current academic practice of laboriously redescribing the obvious. To say that people hide what they don’t want others or themselves to see is to make a commonsense point that a small child could grasp. It verges on tautology. Yet for all his access to a rarely described world, Pachirat keeps returning to this of all points, writing in revelatory tones of a “politics of sight,” of “distinctions between visible/invisible, plain/hidden, and open/confined that, in theory, keep repugnant activities hidden and therefore make them tolerable.” In a profession where success is judged by how often one gets quoted, the author has perhaps succeeded in creating a new catchphrase, something colleagues writing on other topics may feel compelled to invoke. As in, say: “The dictator’s effort to conceal the massacre was a prime example of what Timothy Pachirat calls ‘the politics of sight.’ ”

In academia, you don’t earn points for beauty or concision, but you might be docked for confusing a distracted or dense peer reviewer. So writers err on the side of the obvious, because that’s what their incentive structure rewards. The person who gives up reading because of bad writing isn’t considered.

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