The Value of the Unreadable

By Shalyn Hopley

“Hybridity reverses the formal process of disavowal so that the violent dislocation, the Entstellung of the act of colonization becomes the conditionality of the colonial discourse…”

                                 —Homi Bhabha from “Signs Taken for Wonders”

What is Bhabha trying to say? It took me re-reading the sentence three times, rereading part of the article, looking up a word or two, in order to understand, and even now I feel quite hazy about it. As an English major, I come across theory quite often, and while I am often a frequent participant in discussions on the reading, I clam up when it comes to theory because regardless of the time I spend with a theoretical work, I am always convinced that I don’t understand or misinterpret theory. This feeling springs not from a lack of exposure, but rather the complexity of most theoretical writing. I often struggle to find a thesis, let alone understand all the underpinnings of a theoretical argument.

Claire Potter’s blog, “Why Do We Need To Write and Publish So Much Theory?” from The Chronicle of Higher Education, grabbed my attention mainly as someone who has tried to answer this question for herself when spending hours on an essay or reading through an especially dense essay. Potter expounds upon the preponderance of theory in academia from the perspective of being a history professor. She admits to liking theory and often reading dense theory-related books while on her summer vacation. Her post was inspired by a recent vacation where she picked up a theoretical (and unreadable) book. Long-winded run-on sentences and complex syntax pervade the majority of theoretical works written today. The increasing inaccessibility of theory-based writing concerns Potter; she observes that theory is being written solely for an “inside crowd” of academics. Theory, for the most part, is convoluted and lengthy rather than concise, making it intimidating to readers new to a subject. Potter ends by asking the title question, rather than answering it.

Theory is booming in all subjects. Theory is the “hot trend” in all my English classes at Clark University, a trend reflecting the rise of theory in literary studies since the early nineteenth century and the beginning of Formalism. Nearly every class offered, from basic survey courses to high-level seminars, has a theoretical twist to it; “Eighteenth Century British Literature” has a focus upon gender and feminist theory; “Fictions of Empire” takes a post-colonial look at the fiction written by Indian authors after the legacy of the British Empire. I am even currently taking a course entitled “Contemporary Literary Theory,” a class that reviews movements in literary theory from Formalism onward. Now while I am all for the employment of literary theory in enriching class discussions and student papers, theory often brings out vague feelings of anxiety in me. After having been given thick articles on “alternity” and “semiotics,” I have come to associate a theoretical work with hours spent decoding words I have never come across and piecing together meaning from segments of paragraph-long sentences.

One might try to justify the complexity of theory by suggesting theoreticians write in a complex manner to force readers to spend time considering and grappling with a concept. I find this to be untrue; if my academic life can be any indicator, a complicated article often gets less attention from students than a more readable article. Theory published today does not have to be heavily jargonized to make the reader spend time with the article. The ideas behind the theory should be what the reader is thinking about for a long period of time not the grammar and sentence structure. I think that Potter is getting at the same point, that quality theory is driven by ideas not by jargon and a style of writing that obscures more than it clarifies.

Potter’s concern about unreadability can be seen not only as a concern about the quality of theoretical writing but as a concern about who theory is trying to reach. If theory is written without the audience in mind—or even with only an elite academic audience in mind—then it is cutting off the average student, the lifeblood of academia. In my experience, students are encouraged when they write for academic purposes to be as clear and concise as possible. Theory, in my opinion and I believe in Potter’s, should be reminded of this maxim if it is to continue to be an important part of what students take away from their education.

Shalyn Hopley is a junior at Clark University majoring in English. Clark University is home to the Lambda of Massachusetts chapter of Phi Beta Kappa.