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The late Denis Dutton ran a much-loved competition from 1995 to 1998 called the Philosophy and Literature Bad Writing Contest, in which he lampooned the acrobatically obscure scribes of academe. A similar competition should exist for art writing, particularly press releases, though crowning a single victor may prove difficult given the glut of preposterous prose. But every once in a while a sentence comes along and energizes us with its singular lack of meaning, the tinny sound made by so many letters, marched into so many words, all profaning the artworks they are meant to elevate. One such sentence arrived today from Sikkema Jenkins & Co and was immediately spotted by Ben Sutton:

Leslie Hewitt uses the language of photography to interrogate the function of memory by calling to attention the displacement in time and location that occurs in its realm.

One might say whoever penned it uses the language of null language to interrogate the function of meaning by calling to attention the displacement of adjectival structure and direct objects in its realm. But don’t get too worked up — things could be worse. Judith Butler, who won Denis Dutton’s competition in its final year, earned her laurels for a sentence appearing in “Further Reflections on the Conversations of Our Time,” published in the journal Diacritics:

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

For further reading on how to not bend it like Butler, Dutton’s “Language Crimes” essay for the Wall Street Journal is a great place to start.

Worst.Press.Release.Ever is a sometime feature on Hyperallergic.

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Mostafa Heddaya

Mostafa Heddaya is the former managing editor of Hyperallergic.

8 replies on “Worst.Press.Release.Ever: Word Salad”

    1. Thanks for sharing that piece. One bad sentence clearly does not disqualify someone from being a capable writer, or in Butler’s case, both that and a major scholar whose body of work I do take seriously.

    2. Butler inadvertently points to a weakness in the left. As she notes, all of the “winners” in this contest are from the left while the giver of the award is from the right. That, of course, suggests that the award is utterly tendentious and disingenuous. But it also points to what seems to me to be an unavoidable truth: theorists, especially those on the left, write in a barely intelligible jargon that cannot be read by laymen–even well-educated laymen–and therefore will have no effect whatsoever on the world. As theory, such texts may be excellent. As goads to action, as works of activism, as documents leading to positive change in the world–these texts are nothing. Maybe that’s what their authors want. It is surely what those who hold power in this world want.

  1. I don’t see how Judith Butler relates to a gallery press release, particularly since her Bad Writer award was in 1998 (not exactly newsworthy). It’s like comparing dense theoretical apples to gallery assistant-penned oranges. I used to make fun of bad gallery press releases too until I had to write them. It’s not easy sitting at that front desk-Don’t make it harder on her.

  2. The best (or worst) thing is you know there are a thousand people smiling and nodding after reading that…

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