In defence of bad writing?

Lewis Binford

Will at Nomadic Thoughts has an inter­est­ing post on Lewis Binford. One pas­sage which caught my eye is this one:

One thing about Lewis Binford’s writ­ing is that it is some­time (ok, often) hard to under­stand. He him­self has even admit­ted that he does this on pur­pose, because if he writes clearly and the reader imme­di­ately under­stands what is being argued, then there is a risk that it will be blindly accep­ted and per­petu­ated as received know­ledge. By bury­ing his mean­ing in com­plic­ated prose Binford forces the reader to con­sciously decon­struct his argu­ment by read­ing slowly and reread­ing even more slowly.

How many assump­tions in this piece of admir­ably clear writ­ing by Will, or in Binford’s own words in a quote picked up by K. Kris Hirst, should be chal­lenged are here?

I’ll start with the assump­tion that read­ers are largely uncrit­ical and dif­fi­cult text helps encour­age crit­ical read­ing. I don’t think he’s right. In fact the very fact that I’m debat­ing this at all would sug­gest that there isn’t a uni­form accept­ance of clearly expressed ideas. In con­trast I’d argue that by writ­ing clearly you make assump­tions and argu­ments expli­cit. Further there is no evid­ence provided to sup­port this idea, but there is strong evid­ence against it. Across Europe aca­demic depart­ments are becom­ing more Anglophonic because pub­lish­ing in Slovakian, or even German, doesn’t mean that you’ll be read by a more crit­ic­ally engaged reader, more that you’ll be read by fewer readers.

This leads to a second assump­tion that Binford makes. He assumes read­ers have only one source of inform­a­tion about his work. This is plaus­ible, as he’s the guy who’s writ­ing it, but it only truly works in a Platonic Academy out­side of time, space and the need to eat and sleep. In one dis­cip­line alone there is simply no longer the time to read all papers. If someone is draw­ing work from fur­ther afield, and most authors do, then there’s simply far too many papers to read. I don’t mean that to sug­gest archae­olo­gists are too lazy to keep up with their field. There are simply too many papers to phys­ic­ally read and too few hours in the day to prop­erly digest them. So we pri­or­it­ise. I rarely read any­thing on mon­ast­i­cism, because it’s not a field I work in. Similarly a church his­tor­ian mov­ing into archae­ology prob­ably isn’t going to have Binford’s work on the Numamiut on the top of her read­ing list. What she may well do though is read about Binford’s work in another book on archae­olo­gical the­ory. If there’s a ser­i­ous point per­haps she would read Binford’s own work, but a brief encounter with that wouldn’t really sell it. Then comes the judge­ment are there enough heart­beats left in her life to spend many of them read­ing one author, or four who have expressed them­selves clearly? A lot of cri­ti­cism of Binford these days isn’t of his work, but of what people have read in books that men­tion his work. Now ima­gine if you’re an archae­olo­gist who isn’t a Big Name. Precisely how much impact will obscure prose have? If you don’t want to make an impact, why publish?

Will the edited high­lights of his work accur­ately report what he’s say­ing? He assumes read­ers will not replace poor prose with their own assump­tions of what he’s say­ing. Hodder’s cri­ti­cisms of pro­ces­su­al­ism have been labelled as attacks on a straw man. There are a few reas­ons why this could be. Hodder has his own points to prove. Processualism could be more flawed in a his­tor­ical envir­on­ment than the more anthropologically-minded archae­olo­gists real­ise. Another is that Hodder simply could be read­ing a dif­fer­ent text to the one that Binford though he wrote. The more obscure text is, the more room there is for double mean­ings or ambi­gu­ity. This may be a good thing — ideas can advance via imper­fect rep­lic­a­tion, but it’s a strange cove who expends effort in being mis­un­der­stood if they sin­cerely wish to advoc­ate what they are pro­pos­ing.

There is also a fourth assump­tion, related to the second. He assumes the cas­ual reader is not worth writ­ing for. There’s all sorts of prob­lems with this. One is that who is a cas­ual reader? People with what is ini­tially a cas­ual interest in archae­ology or his­tory can become avid research­ers, but prob­ably won’t if the art­icles they read are effect­ively big “Sod Off” signs. However even that misses the point. Should we really be only writ­ing for the worthy, who­ever they are? Not every paper can be made access­ible or should, but there is a dif­fer­ence between using tech­nical lan­guage because it’s effi­cient and pre­cise and using jar­gon simply for the sake of erect­ing bar­ri­ers. If archae­ology is to be pub­licly fun­ded, and aca­demic archae­ology is, then is there an eth­ical oblig­a­tion to make out­put no more dif­fi­cult than neces­sary? If we’re not pro­du­cing a pub­licly access­ible out­put then what is the jus­ti­fic­a­tion for fund­ing aca­demic archae­ology? Is it merely a cheaper way of keep­ing Dons off the streets where they’d be hass­ling shop­pers for loose change or a copy of Antiquity?

One big advant­age of poor writ­ing which is rarely men­tioned by its pro­ponents is that it is an excel­lent way of writ­ing about things you haven’t thought through. If you write clearly then you have to under­stand your sub­ject, only with waffle can you hide ignor­ance and smuggle dodgy con­cepts. I think that writ­ing well is neces­sary for the reader, but it is also the best way of get­ting to grips with your own research as writer. I’d say on this occa­sion Binford has it exactly wrong. If the writ­ing is suf­fi­ciently clear it can­not be ambiguous.


When he's not tired, fixing his car or caught in train delays, Alun Salt works part-time for the Annals of Botany weblog. His PhD was in ancient science at the University of Leicester, but he doesn't know Richard III.