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The importance of clarity (part two)

(A few months ago, I wrote a paper called “The Clarity Imperative”. The .pdf is available here. I’m presenting excerpts from it in a series of posts (the first post can be found here, and I’ll be doing one more after this), both because I think that the issues it discusses (the relationship between clarity and rhetorical effectiveness, the democratization of knowledge, the effective communication of science, etc.)  are important and because I’m interested in starting a conversation about these issues. Please do comment if you’re so inclined. Thanks!

Two quick notes: 1) a few responses to the first post (made on various social networks, not in the comments section of the post itself) expressed annoyance with the academic style of my writing. I understand that some people don’t care for academic writing, and, in some cases, I share their distaste. However, keep in mind that these posts are excerpts from an academic paper and are thus written in a much more formal style than most of my blog posts. As such, if you don’t care for academic writing, you may want to skip these particular posts. 2) In the excerpt presented in this post, I focus primarily on Ian Barnard’s “The Ruse of Clarity“. Unfortunately, the article is behind a paywall. If you’re interested in reading it and don’t have access to academic databases, send me an email and I’ll send you the .pdf)

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The extent of the current threat to effective science communication is made explicit in Ian Barnard’s “The Ruse of Clarity”, in which he asserts that clarity is not axiomatic and thus should not be assumed to be virtuous, and that the binary of clear/unclear is reinforced by “ideological baggage” (435). In his opinion, clarity itself is an ideology because “assumptions about clarity’s obviousness, objectivity, and innocuousness in fact conceal the ideological work that is done in the name of clarity” (434). Barnard also claims that clarity “implicitly champions and abjures” (435) certain values, and that those who critique the obscurant nature of much of critical theory are secretly attacking “the politics of critical theory” (435).

One of Barnard’s targets are traditional writing handbooks that promote clear and concise writing. For example, Barnard asserts that Richard Lanham’s Revising Prose “has political motives and implications beyond the literal desire to enjoy ‘clear’ writing” (437). What these alleged political motives and implications are, though, Barnard does not tell us. He then claims that “calls for clarity in student writing intersect with complaints of obfuscation in scholarly writing in the humanities” (437) and that those who have accused theory of being “willfully obscurant” are either “anti-intellectuals”, “readers who found theory difficult and frustrating”, or individuals who “felt threatened by the ideologies of postmodernism and poststructuralism” (437). In addition, referring to students who are confused by theory, he argues that “[t]hey may use their experience of finding a text difficult to read as reason to dismiss or criticize the text, rather than to see this difficulty as exposing their own deficiencies” (443). Tellingly, Barnard provides no evidence whatsoever for these assertions. What Barnard fails to understand is that, when it comes to effective communication, the onus is on the communicator, and that, if a communicator fails to reach their audience, they cannot blame their failure on the attitudes or supposed “deficiencies” of their readers. To assert otherwise is both counterproductive and gallingly elitist.

Next, we come to Barnard’s most egregious error, found in this passage:

It is surely no coincidence that the culminating example of exclusionary and inefficient writing listed in Susan Peck MacDonald’s Professional Academic Writing in the Humanities and Social Sciences is Fredric Jameson (193–95), a familiar target in attacks on difficult writing. Tellingly, MacDonald’s supposedly scientific analysis of Jameson’s prose never addresses the substance of Jameson’s ideas, focusing instead on syntactic length, nominalization, and nonconcrete verbs in Jameson’s work. By bracketing content, MacDonald not only avoids dealing with the implications of Jameson’s argument, but also suggests that style is completely independent of meaning—as if certain ideas aren’t expressed more effectively in specific styles, as if there is one generic and universal style that is always best. (438)

These assumptions are incorrect. Studying style independently of content does not mean that one does not care about or is unwilling to deal with the content of the work under consideration. Analyzing the style of a text in a scientific manner and determining whether or not it is “exclusionary and inefficient”, unclear, or rhetorically ineffective in its presentation, on the contrary, indicates a great respect for the content of, “the implications of”, and the meaning of the text under consideration. In other words, if the text’s content is substantive and meaningful, then it must be written in a clear, precise, and understandable style that gives it the vigorous and thorough treatment that it deserves, that utilizes a manner of presentation that is both efficient and non-exclusionary, and that promotes the dissemination of knowledge.

Barnard’s final claims are that clarity is an ideology and that those who insist on clarity think that clear and precise arguments are automatically rhetorically effective. This, however, is far from true. It also supports Charney’s assertion that “critics of science often conflate methods and ideologies in simplistic ways” (568). In contrast to what Barnard asserts, it is important to bracket style and content in order to determine the most effective way to transmit the content. Additionally, this bracketing is important because it helps readers to understand the difference between an argument that is clear but not substantive or meaningful and an argument that is clear, substantive, and meaningful.

Clarity is a tool that helps to increase an audience’s understanding of the content of an argument, but it is not nor should it be the sole determinant of the quality of an argument. Style and content must be analyzed separately in order to determine the best and most rhetorically effective way to present an argument. Barnard’s claim that clarity is an ideology, then, is baseless, as an insistence on clarity and an understanding of how it can increase the effectiveness of an argument cannot, by any intellectually honest person, be labeled as a doctrine or belief system. As Charney says, most rhetoricians are well aware that “authority does not devolve automatically on anyone who uses an objective, quantitative method” (580). Rather, an understanding of the importance of clarity is simply an indicator of an individual’s appreciation of careful and precise writing that successfully transmits and disseminates knowledge. Barnard refuses to acknowledge that criticism of willfully obscurant writing is just that: a critique of the confusing nature of the text, often including suggestions as to how it could be made clearer so that its contents will be successfully transmitted to an audience.

Barnard’s dismissal of clarity is dangerous. It threatens the effective communication of important information and persuasive arguments, scientific or otherwise. In addition, it exposes the hypocrisy of the claims regarding oppression and egalitarianism professed by Barnard and others. Nothing in Barnard’s essay helps to combat oppression or to promote egalitarianism. Barnard and others who share his ideological stance do not respect their audience enough to offer them a clear, thorough, and precise presentation of the information under consideration, even when this information could potentially empower their audience in a variety of ways. This attitude threatens both the democratization of knowledge and the effective communication of science.

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Works Cited:

Barnard, Ian. “The Ruse of Clarity.” College Composition and Communication 61.3 (2010): 434-451. Print.

Charney, Davida. “Empiricism Is Not a Four-Letter Word.” College Composition and Communication 47.4 (1996): 567-593. Print.

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12 Comments
  1. This is mostly good stuff, Miranda. But I am concerned by this claim:

    “What Barnard fails to understand is that, when it comes to effective communication, the onus is on the communicator, and that, if a communicator fails to reach their audience, they cannot blame their failure on the attitudes or supposed “deficiencies” of their readers. To assert otherwise is both counterproductive and gallingly elitist.”

    It seems to me that this cannot be right. The onus for effective communication does not rest entirely upon the communicator — the reader/listener has certain duties, too. That is, while you as a writer have a duty to express yourself as clearly as possible, your listener or reader also has to show that they are making an effort to follow in good faith.

    Of course, it is true that a great many writers will misuse and ignore their own deficiencies as writers, by pretentiously diagnosing their readers’ abilities from afar. That is surely a form of elitism. But consider the opposite extreme: a reader that is sufficiently mean, stupid, and ignorant will find your writing entirely impossible to understand, even when the text is economical, relevant, and true. In that case, the reader is the elitist, the anti-intellectual. The onus (in that case) is not upon the writer to express themselves more clearly; it is upon the reader to become less mean, stupid, and ignorant.

    That having been said, not much of this fares very well for the fortunes of postmodernists or poststructuralists. And so I doubt any of it can be used to defend Barnard. But my only point here is that your diagnosis has overstepped the mark by a touch.

    June 10, 2011
    • Thanks so much for the comment, Ben. And you’re absolutely right: that assertion is an overgeneralization and an oversimplification of the issue, and I regret that, especially because this issue is so important to me. Unfortunately, I think I let my frustration with Barnard’s article get the better of me, and, as a result, I “fought back” too hard there, so to speak. Thanks for pointing that out, and for doing so in such a thorough and clear manner- I appreciate it.

      June 10, 2011
  2. No problem, my pleasure!

    June 10, 2011
  3. I’ve just spent the last few hours reading obfuscatory-accusatory crap in Australian literary journals (odd really, that it’s deemed so acceptable to be so vague when launching serious allegations), and my first instinct was to head back to your blog to download The Clarity Imperative. T’was comforting to find it as the current topic of discussion. :D

    June 10, 2011
    • Aw, thank you :) I appreciate that a lot. And you have my sympathies: reading literary journals can be torturous. Ugh :/

      June 12, 2011
  4. e. t. #

    “Additionally, this bracketing is important because it helps readers to understand the difference between an argument that is clear but not substantive or meaningful and an argument that is clear, substantive, and meaningful.”

    See here you put “clear but not substantive or meaningful” and “clear, substantive, and meaningful”: so I say by omitting “unclear but meaningful” you give the impression you SHOULD dismiss unclear writing based on style. So ironically you do still conform to Bernard’s stereotype.

    You do say: “Studying style independently of content does not mean that one does not care about or is unwilling to deal with the content of the work under consideration.”

    But then say: “…if the text’s content is substantive and meaningful, then it must be written in a clear, precise, and understandable style…”

    Now, maybe this is simply an ambiguity because you go on: “[cont.]…that gives it the vigorous and thorough treatment that it deserves, that utilizes a manner of presentation that is both efficient and non-exclusionary, and that promotes the dissemination of knowledge.”

    So, maybe you’re simply saying clear texts are better to studying, learning, and communicating: so they must be if they’re to get what they “deserve.” Deserve here sounds a bit personified. Plus, this gives the impression again that style trumps content: the texts that deserve something would be one’s with good content. Though, *up above in the first quote I used* you might be implying that the texts with poor content are maybe going to be used as learning examples. I don’t know, though, this was unclear for me.

    I would maybe drop “scientific manner” in paragraph three: either scientific means rigorous or you’re invoking a scientific method of text analysis you’re not explaining. Though, maybe such a method is common knowledge and I’m in the dark.

    I would drop “science or otherwise” from the last paragraph: it creates ambiguity about whether your talking about scientific arguments or explanations of scientific arguments (and between say mathematical proof and literary criticism). No doubt scientists and mathematicians would be well served by style lessons ultimately though aren’t they held to other standards of proof. Literary criticism, speculative philosophy, etc. (ISTM) are served by clarity because of the much more subjective character of their nature.

    Overall, I liked this one much better than the last one. You might also be well served–persuasion wise–by a paragraph better articulating your own “egalitarian” vision: I suppose you see clearer and higher quality information as possibly promoting a more democratic and knowledgeable society. However, I have my doubts. The familiar use of “signal” words like science and the choice of targets: post-modernism, etc., I see this as maybe a “sign” that your appealing to the bias of your audience.

    That’s not to say you can’t do take-downs of post-structualist or promote science: it just says that–that aspect of your argument seems secondary and is therefore propagandistic. So, here we are again possibly conforming to Bernard’s stereotype of clarity as ideology.

    June 18, 2011
  5. e. t. #

    Oops, that should have been:

    “See here you put ‘clear but not substantive or meaningful’ and ‘clear, substantive, and meaningful’ in opposition: I wouldsay by omitting…”

    Also, I don’t thin the bolding of “must” here:

    “But then say: ‘…if the text’s content is substantive and meaningful, then it must be written in a clear, precise, and understandable style…'”

    read as strongly as I wanted it to.

    Here that should have been “for” and a “clear” and “must” should have been bolded not italicized:
    So, maybe you’re simply saying clear texts are better for studying, learning, and communicating: so they must be clear if they’re to get what they “deserve.”

    No apostrophe in “ones” here”:

    “Plus, this gives the impression again that style trumps content: the texts that deserve something would be the ones with the good content. ”

    There also should have been a question mark later on in the only question I think I asked.

    Sorry, I always fail at proofreading. I’m not properly trained.

    June 18, 2011
  6. A couple of clippings from the Australian writer and thinker Kate Jennings, from her recent collected writings, “Trouble”.

    In a parallel development, feminist theory, which began as a spirited inquiry, became so exaggeratedly prolix and self-referential that only acolytes can understand it. The techniques used to intimidate and flatter readers are also reminiscent of cults; guardians of the faith promising esoteric knowledge in exchange for blind obedience. As well, there is a disturbing ‘clever britches’ tone; right there, on the page, these theorists primp and preen, convinced of their excellence. I am reminded of ballerina music boxes: circling tutued figurines reflected a thousandfold in little mirrors.
    Page 27

    … whenever I talk with feminist academics about muddy sentences and what that might indicate about the quality of the thought being expressed, or make a connection between inflated egos and long-windedness, or comment on the element of self-congratulation in their theoretical work, the response is usually not denial but indifference.
    Page 28

    Sigh. (Jennings is whip-smart, IMHO. And her novel “Moral Hazard”, set in New York in the 1990s, as the narrator deals with the twin dementias of her older husband and her investment-banker employers, is brilliant)

    July 7, 2011
    • Thanks for this comment, Dwight. I’m going to see if I can find a copy of “Trouble”

      July 14, 2011
  7. keith #

    “all clarity is ideological” Trinh T Minh-ha

    With much contemporary art and performative critical theory, clarity is intentionally fucked with. Words are invented and/or used with multiple meanings in the same text (Deleuze). This is not about blaming the reader for not ‘getting it’ but inviting the reader to mobilize a text through questioning and play. Generating meaning rather than consuming a clear message.

    February 18, 2012
  8. Excellent post. I’m a writing teacher, and I’ve been fascinated by this topic since I read Barnard’s article.

    One of the problems with these discussions of clarity is that they don’t distinguish between school genres and the genres of public writing.

    With school genres, the purpose is for students to experiment with pushing the boundaries of their language abilities and exploring new ideas for the sake of learning. In this context, writing is less communicative and more of a tool to facilitate student learning, so it makes sense that clarity ranks lower on the list of concerns.

    With more public genres, where writing is done to communicate with the masses and get things done in the world, clarity is certainly more important. This is especially true when working in the paradigm of the scientific method, where knowledge is constructed by disproving the assertions of other writers. A vague assertion cannot be refuted, and thus knowledge cannot be constructed from unclear writing. Why doesn’t Barnard address this point?

    PS: I’m working on a paper of my own that juxtaposes Barnard’s ideas on clarity against Joseph Williams’s. I’m also critical of Barnard, but for different reasons. Let me know if you want to see a draft. I’d be interested in your comments.

    –Dan

    May 7, 2012

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