So a PhD student in architecture at the University of British Columbia submitted his thesis with no punctuation in it – 52,438 words without capital letters or commas or periods, like a long e.e. cummings poem – and boy did conservative newspapers have fun with it. Reports of this madness were widely disseminated on social media, and the story even made it into USA Today and Gawker, which only notices Canada when we are amusingly freakish. Hilarious! What's next, somebody writing a thesis as poetry? Or dance?
Boy, people. You haven't been around universities in the past few decades much, have you? No punctuation is nothing. That's easy. I have read a few paragraphs of this thesis – it was by one Patrick Stewart and it was titled Indigenous Architecture through Indigenous Knowledge (not a particularly weird subject, either) – and it's easier to understand than the vast majority of perfectly punctuated dissertations in the humanities that are written in the code of postmodernist theory. I can make sense of "i am writing as in an oral fashion writing like i speak." I have a harder time with "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 that is perfectly punctuated.
But there are a couple of things that link the faux-naïveté of Stewart's writing – a pretence or pose or affectation like many other styles of writing – and the hermetic complexity of Dr. Judith Butler's (whose fragment of a sentence is quoted above). Both come from the same ideological place: They arise from a desire to upend ("subvert" would be the trendier word) conventional language as that language itself is seen as the repository of the institutionalized sexism/colonialism that invisibly rules the world. In other words, the language of the colonialist world is not just a neutral reflection of it, but an active enforcer of its values. To change the world, postmodernist philosophers have long held, one must start with its language – and even with its assumptions about the role of language. The idea that language must be clear and communicative, for example, could itself be called an exclusionary tactic that benefits certain cultures. Many PhD projects are actually about these ideas, folks, so it's not surprising that their language would want to reflect their precepts.
The other thing that links the faux-naïf and the headily arcane is the realization – also prevalent in academic writing since at least the mid-1960s – that intellectual inquiry is subjective, an analysis of personal biases as much as of objective fact, and that a creative or artistic style, particularly when describing art, may be better suited to express complicated ideas. This has led to a number of graduate dissertations in subjects such as sociology or philosophy or literary studies incorporating elements of memoir – the personal story of the researcher – or narrative.
The National Post and similar newspapers can be relied on to make gleeful fun of such experiments, as they seem so lax and unacademic. It's true the practice is not widely accepted in universities – only in journalism.
One can't have studied social sciences at a university in the past 50 years without having encountered these ideas. Some universities accept unconventional formats, such as a series of publishable papers, to replace the thesis. And since any document can now include audio and video files, there's nothing to stop dissertations from morphing further away from the standard stack of paper with footnotes.
Furthermore, increasingly PhDs are handed out in actual artistic fields – you can do one in creative writing, for example, and your thesis will probably be a long work of fiction. What rules of grammar and clarity should apply to it? If the thesis on art is itself art, must it be written like an encyclopedia?
Visual artists who do MFAs are often stymied by the strange anachronism of their thesis requirements: They are meant to produce a large work of art or series of pieces, enough to constitute a gallery show. That makes sense to them. But then they also have to write a long document explaining it. This does not. Why should they be trained to speak like critics or curators, when their job will be to produce the art, not comment on it?
The answer is that they have to do this as a formality. To justify giving out masters' degrees in any given topic, the university has to pretend it's an academic one, just like chemistry, and the student has to jump through the same hoops that chemists do. I have heard of art school teachers telling the MFA students, off the record, that they can write anything they want in their dissertations: No one really cares about the writing. I know one recent graduate who submitted 100 pages of postmodernist gobbledegook, written pretty much at random, and no one suggested a single change. I wonder if they bothered to read it.
One can lament the craziness of the academy, as people outside it always have, or one can accept that intellectual pursuits are creative games. Theorizing is a creative game not unlike art, and subject to just as many flights of fancy and of form.