Accessibility and Complexity

Writing Tools

by Steven Ramey

Tenzan Eaghll’s post on this blog on Wednesday made a significant point. Calls for more accessible scholarly writing, which have been making the social media rounds lately, ignore the ways that critical theory often challenges assumptions, the status quo, and accepted ways of thinking, talking and writing. Not only does the challenge that critical theory presents make this work threatening to some who are comfortable with their positions of privilege and power, but the process of developing new language and ideas also can generate what some call, often dismissively, complex, even unreadable, writing.

In supporting his argument, however, Eaghll generates a problematic dichotomy. He asserts,

What this article forgets, like all others I have ever read on this subject, is that critical work in the humanities has always been ignored, at least initially, and no amount of pandering (scientific or literary) will change this. Why? Because the fields of study that cultivate critical thinking and encourage the critique of dominant ideologies will always be marginalized.

Implying that writing is either complicated and difficult to understand or amounts to pandering is overly simplistic and a false choice, as I suspect Eaghll would agree. Writing only to attract a broad public audience and measuring success of a work by the number of views or shares is problematic and limiting. However, if the ideas that develop in the critical humanities are important (and they likely can’t just be important to us), then the effort to express them more broadly, when possible, is surely useful. The pedagogical mode of communicating critical theory, which I see as an important aspect of public scholarship, is important in its own right. It is not that we will win over every person with more accessible presentations of critical theory, but my experience, most extensively with Culture on the Edge, has been that some people who are not usually counted among specialist readers will find the application of critical theory in accessible language intriguing and thought provoking. Much like the effort to engage undergraduates in the complicated works of critical theory, it is not necessarily simple to convey these ideas in an accessible fashion. While a one-time blog post is not the same as a semester-long engagement with students, of course, we do ourselves a disservice to diminish the potential of broader engagement, even as we also acknowledge the value of linguistically complicated wrestling with new ideas and language.

Eaghll also usefully highlights that many seminal, groundbreaking thinkers (e.g., Kant, Nietzsche, Derrida) had a limited audience for a decade or more, being dismissed by critics as unreadable. The selection of a few examples, though, does not prove that complex language is the only way to contribute to critical theory, even as it reminds us that complicated works can be important and that we must remain patient as they may take time to gain an audience. But it is not like these now seminal ideas suddenly became assimilated, without the significant effort of a range of scholars (e.g., editors, translators, commentators, reviewers) exploring these ideas and using them, interpreting them, applying them to engage a variety of audiences.

So while I appreciate Eaghll’s effort to highlight the value (and place) of specialized and thus complicated theoretical work, that recognition does not excuse us from putting in the effort to also engage a wide variety of audiences, in classrooms and other venues, with the explanation and application of critical theory.

Steven Ramey is Associate Professor in the Department of Religious Studies and Director of Asian Studies at the University of Alabama. His book Hindu Sufi or Sikh (Palgrave, 2008) focuses on communities who identify as Sindhi Hindus and the ways they contest dominant understandings of identities, both in India and beyond. His newest project addresses the assumptions in the language of religious labels and the ways those assumptions determine research and valorize particular constructions of religions. He blogs for The Huffington Post and the Bulletin for the Study of Religion and serves as the Series Editor of Culture on the Edge: Studies in Identity Formation, book series with Equinox Publishers.

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