Difficult Writing

A Response to Emma Vossen’s Publish or Perish

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Bart Simon is an Associate Professor in the Department of Sociology and Anthropology at Concordia University. He is co-founder and former director of the Technoculture, Art and Games research centre and co-founder and current director of the new Milieux Institute for Arts, Culture and Technology. His game studies and design research crosses a variety of genres and platforms looking at the relation of game cultures, socio-materiality and everyday life.

So I’ll start with quick praise for Emma Vossen’s piece and  the inspired and inspiring video for SSHRC. It’s a brave reflection on graduate student precarity, academic responsibility and this idea of middle-state publishing. That Emma is doing this in the context of game studies and in the spirit of inclusiveness and positive change is even better. I am a faculty member. I read it in all its middle state glory and I want to honour the valuable labour and contribution there with a response. Maybe it’s better to be outside academia for Emma’s arguments to take hold. I don’t think so. Her arguments are at the heart of our vocation as academics (and certainly as game studies scholars). Maybe Emma thinks this makes it harder for her to get an academic job, I think the opposite and many of my colleagues will agree.

I have remotely followed First Person Scholar since it began. I continue to be in awe of the passion, the energy and the thought that has gone into the project by so many students who are, already, colleagues (I only wish our “proper” journals engaged people so much). I get it and I like it. This idea of middle-state publishing. It’s a new term for me but I am sure it’s not a new idea.  Reading Emma’s piece I was flooded with memories and feelings from my own time as a graduate student. Not because I feel the need for some kind of paternalistic back-in-my-day speech but because I am remembering a debt to my advisors and my old friends on the one hand, and my students and colleagues on the other, to make good on the privilege of being tenured faculty in a public university.  It’s bad; it’s getting worse but I have these stories, by way of memories, that resonate with Emma’s well-articulated analysis of the situation.  I cannot offer much as I only have fragments but maybe they will be helpful. I also want to just focus on the issue of writing in the middle state for now. There are much bigger and pressing issues in Emma’s piece about the academic job market, financial debt, and ideologies of meritocracy but I think that needs a slightly different kind of response.

What stung me the hardest in Emma’s piece is the following: “I’m going to cut right to it — middle state publishing exists because traditional academic writing is an oppressive force that keeps our knowledge locked up in the light of academic libraries and keeps those not privileged enough to be part of the academy in the dark. Academic writing is so rarely about clarity and so often involves unnecessarily complicated or pretentious language, which can also keep the reader in the dark. As a university employee, I am complicit in this system of oppression and the hierarchies of knowledge it creates.”

Many of my colleagues might remember the notorious “bad writing” contest in the journal of Literature and Philosophy in the late 1990s. I was a grad student at UC San Diego when the debate around Judith Butler winning the “prize” hit the news. I went to dig it up — here is a solid NYT article and Judith Butler’s much talked about op ed. The debate around academic writing, power and exclusion is long and deep and connected to what used to be called the ‘Culture Wars’ (and also the ‘Science Wars’) in which game studies has sometimes been implicated. I was and am still interested in Butler’s claims about the importance of difficult language for thinking through knotty questions of social justice and the need to unsettle assumptions about “common sense” and “clarity” given that language is never transparent.  I am not sure I want to abandon the mission of writing difficult language for the reasons that Butler mentions as well as the many others who inspired and motivated me as a grad student. I guess I am still a post-structuralist (I am happy to inhabit that role). What will I call Emma’s position, “re-structuralist” perhaps?

I do agree with Emma on many things though and there is difference between the difficulty of the text and access to the difficulty of the text. This is where Emma’s political economic observations come in. Locking away difficult writing is a no no and access control in academic knowledge production has a long, fraught history. Many of us now on the inside prefer open access and work toward its universalization and its credentialing at the same time. The work is slow. It’s fair to be critical and impatient but this is, in part, a Kuhnian thing–– the old guard are retiring along with long outmoded expectations and values. Those of us who worked in open access and related reform movements in our student days are now moving into positions of power in departments, universities, associations, and journals. We should be tracking the changes more but they are happening. We may also be making mistakes in our attempts to realize reforms we always dreamed about but it’s not for lack of trying.

Back to the question of writing though. I certainly don’t remember talk of the issue of difficult writing as a means of exclusion although one can see some echoes of Emma’s strong position in Martha Nussbaum’s comments in the NYT article. On the other hand, when  I was doing science studies in a sociology department, if we tried to write like Haraway or Butler for the wrong professor we’d get slapped. I guess where difficult writing was a virtue might have been during my undergrad days at Trent in Cultural Studies (we all wanted to be Foucault or Irigaray; for me it was always Baudrillard or Deleuze). But even there we could go too far. I still remember the guy in one of my classes who wrote an essay, cut it up and baked it into a cake for the professor to eat (might have been about Bataille or Derrida, I dunno). The chutzpah of that kid!  He got an ‘F’ I believe although strangely I think I consider his work a kind of middle state gesture. Was he being difficult or ironic about writing?  I can’t remember.  I remember carrying around Hakim Bey’s TAZ published in the importantly radical Semiotext(e) series that was read by both academics and non-academics alike in my day. Difficult stuff. Is it middle-state?  Oh and there was Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man in the generation before mine, again carried around and debated by budding academics and those who couldn’t care less about tenure. I was also an avid fan of Colin Wilson’s The Outsiders but maybe that was just weird.

Two things still matter to me about this: The first thing is that I think “the public” can handle whatever academics can throw at them, no matter how difficult. This is because there is no such thing as THE public – there are many publics, many audiences, many different hearts and minds to appeal to, and part of the crucial question of the middle-state has always got to be the question of whom one is writing for. Indeed one might be perfectly constructivist about this and argue that the middle-state produces its readers.  Rather than writing for this or that group, middle-state writers are producing new kinds of readership which have not existed before.  There is no reason that middle state writing should be any more or less “difficult” than writing in an academic journal, much depends on the constitution of the readership and its desire for difficulty.

The second thing though is that the middle state in the sense described above has always already been there. A good classroom lecture, for instance, is a kind of middle-state language. One is translating or mediating often difficult academic writing for folks who are encountering it for the first time but in that dialogic process a new state of readership is produced.  I think teaching is never pandering or even about making things accessible to others so much as finding a common path toward mutual comprehension of the difficulty of text, an idea, a practice. I like to make the text difficult but in a game design way. The difficulty should not be overwhelming in the classroom. It should be Dark Souls though, and students should want to endure for the pleasure of the text’s meaning. I think the middle-state should be about the collective production of a desire for difficulty rather than the obviating of it.

So unlike Emma maybe, I think I am at my best when I can pass on an appreciation of the difficulty of writing complex ideas. I’d like to think I am trying to do this in the good company of bad writers (though I will never get close). I think of Foucault’s work with prisoners, Spivak’s work with teachers in India. Oh my god, I remember Donna Haraway’s work with the old Paper Tiger Television collective.

The careers of so many academics are littered with failed and successful experiments in the middle state. Another memory. The famous sociologist Harold Garfinkel was pariah in mainstream sociology circles in his day. He and his students used to circulate mimeographed copies of papers in a kind of samizdat publication process (I think those who still have copies of these things hold them in great reverence… I held one once…  I felt the vibrations). Garfinkel’s writing is not an exercise in clarity (and he’s not even pomo) but his difficult language also became a rallying point for a whole movement within sociology and beyond. In this way, language also served as tool for collective action helping actors to identify and trust one another in an otherwise oppressive context. This function of “unclear” writing is crucial in the sciences for instance where the idea is not simply about sanctifying expertise but about facilitating a shared short-hand that enables collective action in the production of knowledge.  The exclusion of the “public” from the short-hand languages of scientists, engineers, lawyers and doctors is another huge topic with a political economy of its own that far out-angsts our preoccupations with game culture. But there is middle state for those folks also; some of the best academics do it.

So is the ideal middle-state language of First Person Scholar opening up knowledge to all? Is this game studies for the masses? No way; it’s opening new pathways and constituting new collectivities that might be capable of action in new ways.  Sometimes I think encountering academia is like discovering the Vault-Tek social experiments in Fallout–– we are still living with some weird shit that everyone forgot about (of course there’s also the supermutants feasting on human flesh at MIT but I digress). The myths and realities around academic publishing––merit and reward––persist, but First Person Scholar is not against academic writing, it is academic writing, same as it ever was. You are all in good company. Butler would be proud.


Editors Note: We would love to keep this conversation about middle state publishing and game studies going! If you would like to respond to either Emma’s article or Bart’s response please get in contact with our Commentaries editors here.