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Volume 15, Issue 1: Poetics

The Meaning of Academic Style

Douglas Jones

People always imitate their gods. Even the most unpropagandistic art and science somehow find a way to reveal ultimate values. We tend to avoid the question, but writing style, too, shows what we find important in various circumstances. There's a time for everything, and our styles shift from personal to careful to poetic to ironic. But I'm curious about giant trends, especially in scientific and legal writing.

The odd and pervasive syntactical rituals involved in these genres of writing suggest something worldviewish is going on, something more than just circumstance. My question is, what does it mean? What does the style of standard, academic, scientific and legal prose try to reflect about ultimate reality? The style certainly stands out. It's very different from the way humans talk, and humorists can imitate it easily. Consider three genuine examples and ask what is the worldview purpose of writing in this manner? The first is from a virology journal.
Based on strong epidemiological and histopathological association, KS-associated herpesvirus (KSHV), or human herpesvirus 8, is thought to be an etiologic agent of KS. KSHV has been consistently identified in KS tumors from human immunodeficiency virus-positive and the negative patients.1
The second is from an engineering journal.
Shear bands were observed in the granular layers of deformed specimens composed of alternating layers of granular and cohesive materials. Several purely granular specimens were prepared and deformed in a specially designed apparatus in order to observe shear band formation.2
The third is from a law journal.
Though the court had frequently employed in this context the federal three-tiered framework pursuant to which courts seek a rational basis for the challenged law or apply heightened scrutiny if the law implicates a fundamental right or suspect class, the majority maintained that recent Vermont decisions reflect a very different approach.3
The problem with this sort of prose isn't just, for example, its over-dependence on the passive voice. Popular writing guides rightfully point us away from the passive, but literary masters have used it effectively. And it's not just jargon or technical language. That's understandable, too.
The problem is the metaphor behind all such writing. Academic style aims to imitate something that these disciplines find thoroughly persuasive, namely, a cosmic impersonalism. They are writing within a universe in which Truth can have no personality and is most accurately expressed in impersonal prose.
The Enlightenment preached that Truth can only be attained by objectivity, and objectivity can only be obtained by banishing personalities and bodies from our studies. The image they aim to depict in their prose is that of pure mathematics where no messy prejudices interfere with truth. Over the centuries, almost every discipline has tried to turn itself into mathematics or at least express itself in mathematical prose style (this is especially humorous in philosophy). Style imitates religion.
Imitating the impersonal also provides another benefit to Enlightenment sorts. It divorces personal character from argument. It excuses wretches. It gives us the right in every circumstance to say "ignore the person's character" and just look at this free-floating mechanism, untouched by human hands, untouched by body or emotion, the magic we call "an argument" (praise be upon its name). I'm not against argument; I've used some here. But I think we have to doubt idols without pedigrees that pose as arguments. We should always be asking, well, who said this? Is he or she a wretch? Are they faithful in the little things of life? Do they sacrifice for their spouses? Love their kids? Then why should I believe they have the trustworthiness and moral ability to tell me how the universe works? Person and argument shouldn't be divorced. The quip goes that Aristotle only called ad hominem a fallacy because of his questionable parentage. And, of course, this sort of thing needs qualification. Nonetheless, personality should always be a player.
Objectivity in a healthy Christian culture wouldn't strive for impersonality. The Lord didn't come to know His people by moving farther and farther away. He dwelt with us. He came closer. In a very important sense, then, Christian objectivity comes from closeness of persons. The more personal we become, the better we know. So why do so many of our theological works still reflect Enlightenment style? Why are systematic theologians, for example, so desperately afraid to use "I" when talking about theology? The Apostle Paul wasn't.

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