Eat Clean Food

Imparting Knowledge

Further to my article on the ludicrous Carolyn Guertin, here’s another example of how not to impart knowledge to soft student brains. From Jacques Derrida’s 1994 book, supposedly on the relevance of Marxism, Spectres of Marx, the State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, & the New International:

“Capital contradiction. At the very origin of capital. Immediately or in the end, through so many differential relays, it will not fall to induce the ‘pragmatic’ double constraint of all injunctions. Moving about freely (aus freien Stucken), on its own head [de son propre chef], with a movement of its head but that controls its whole body, from head to toe, ligneous and dematerialised, the Table-Thing appears to be at the principle, at the beginning, and at the controls of itself. It emancipates itself on its own initiative: all alone, autonomous and automaton, its fantastic silhouette moves on its own, free and without attachment. It goes into trances, it levitates, it appears relieved of its body, like all ghosts, a little mad and unsettled as well, upset, ‘out of joint’, delirious, capricious, and unpredictable…”

“But also at stake, indissociably, is the differential deployment of tekkne, of techno-science or tele-technology. It obliges us more than ever to think the virtualisation of space and time, the possibility of virtual events whose movement and speed prohibit us more than ever (more and otherwise than ever, for this is not absolutely and thoroughly new) from opposing presence to its representation, ‘real time’ to ‘deferred time’, effectivity to its simulacrum, the living to the non-living, in short, the living to the living-dead of its ghosts. It obliges us to think, from there, another space for democracy. For democracy-to-come and thus for justice. We have suggested that the event we are prowling around here hesitates between the singular ‘who’ of the ghost and the general ‘what’ of the simulacrum.”

Now it’s possible you find this meaningful and “skilfully poetic”, as others claim to do, and you might argue that I’ve taken these passages out of context and thus obscured some deep and elegant insight. In fact the sequence of many paragraphs appears arbitrary and I suspect one could rearrange them in any number of ways to much the same effect. And if you think I’ve been unfair and scoured for the most “difficult” passages, please feel free to read a much longer extract here, from which these passages were taken. Caution is advised, however, as prolonged exposure may induce fits of nausea or hilarity, or an urge to bite one’s own fist. Those who survive will, no doubt, be rendered very, very clever.



It's a kind of dreary poetry. One can make no sense of it otherwise.

The form is dying out, though. It's a bit difficult to find discussions either about this material or of the same flavor that postdate 1999. Guertin's dissertation dates from '96. Unfortunately, unlike the real fashion world, academic fashions win tenure. The system cannot eject them like last year's hemlines, and they hang on longer than they ought to.


"Unfortunately, unlike the real fashion world, academic fashions win tenure. The system cannot eject them like last year's hemlines, and they hang on longer than they ought to."

Now *that's* poetic. Very nice!


Time to do away with tenure, then, methinks. But it’s amazing for how long this nonsense has cast its shadow, being copied and repeated - largely, it seems, for fear of appearing stupid. How many students became stupid or dishonest in order to appear clever, or to get grades, or get jobs? And how many students abandoned their studies because they couldn’t bring themselves to pretend?

And then there are the assertions of Derrida enthusiasts. If you read the comments linked above, you’ll see admirers reduced to speculating as to his meaning and motives, using endless flattering adjectives as they guess wildly. One reviewer even stressed the “pleasure of reading” Derrida’s prose, which made me inhale my coffee.

I think it was Martha Nussbaum who said Derrida's work was “pernicious” and “simply not worth studying.” And I remember Mark Goldblatt describing him as “an intellectual con artist” who’ll be remembered “not for what he himself has said, but for what his revered status says about us.”

Sounds about right.


WTF was that about? Wait a few minutes while I roll some reefer madness and give it a second read. I have a sense that it is a humungous anagram that only has meaning if all the words are re-oranised by a hallucinating, gibbering pothead.

Damn, it's only 9:30AM and I have promised she who must be obeyed not to experiment before noon...



I had to read this piece a couple of times.

How silly I thought. David has posted two paragraphs of completely meaningless text. Then I thought you'd made some terrible mistake and had simply run the original French text through some dreadfully inept online translation software.

How stupid of me.


Stuck Record,

It’s funny you should say that. During one discussion with a Derrida enthusiast, I waved a page of typically impenetrable prose and asked for a rendering in meaningful language. “It sounds absurd,” I said. After a pause I was told, “Oh, it must be a bad translation.”

“But here’s another book,” I said, “with a different translator, and it still reads as gibberish. And here’s another. Surely they can’t all be mistranslated, and so incompetently? Surely someone would have noticed, not least Derrida himself, or his publishers?”

I’m still waiting for an answer to that one.


I would love to witness a conversation between that Derrida enthusiast and that translator. It would be like watching snakes fight.

I have never witnessed tenure function correctly. In my experience, it creates degenerative workplaces. To attract a talented lawyer or engineer into a lower-paying academic job, tenure has probably been necessary. But these humanities people? Please. Thrown into the workforce, Guertin would be lucky to be able to call herself a radical cyber-barista.


“Thrown into the workforce”? Heaven forbid. Imagine the damage to the economy. Surely you mean thrown into a volcano, or onto jagged rocks?

Herbie, NY NY

HDerrida reads like Sokol's parody: Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,'' in the Spring/Summer 1996 issue of Social Text.



Sokal, and PoMo generally, is covered in the articles below:




From an interview with John Searle:

With Derrida, you can hardly misread him, because he's so obscure. Every time you say, "He says so and so," he always says, "You misunderstood me." But if you try to figure out the correct interpretation, then that's not so easy. I once said this to Michel Foucault, who was more hostile to Derrida even than I am, and Foucault said that Derrida practiced the method of obscurantisme terroriste (terrorism of obscurantism). We were speaking French. And I said, "What the hell do you mean by that?" And he said, "He writes so obscurely you can't tell what he's saying, that's the obscurantism part, and then when you criticize him, he can always say, 'You didn't understand me; you're an idiot.' That's the terrorism part." And I like that. So I wrote an article about Derrida. I asked Michel if it was OK if I quoted that passage, and he said yes.




Thanks very much for the Reason interview. This made me laugh, though: “Foucault was often lumped with Derrida. That's very unfair to Foucault. He was a different calibre of thinker altogether.”

I’d agree that Foucault was – largely, though not always – more comprehensible than Derrida, but that didn’t make his contorted and tendentious ideas any more convincing. Or indeed his politics.



Derrida, towards the end of his life, wrote more and more about religion. I wonder if generalized obscurity tends to lead people inevitably towards theology rather than philosophy.

One thing. I'm a huge fan of Scritti Politti, who have a song called "Jacques Derrida". Also, there's a movie about Derrida with music by Ryuichi Sakamoto. Maybe it's Derrida's influence in these areas that will outlive his contributions to philosophy.


I once considered writing an Iron Butterfly parody song called "In-a-Gadda-Derrida", featuring some snippets of Jacquie-boy's most impenetrable prose.

Apt, considering that the original song title was variously reported as "In the Garden of Eden" or "In the Garden of Venus", as mumbled by a singer on LSD, drunk, or both.


As a footnote to the above, readers may appreciate Mary Jackson’s ruminations on Deleuze and the passing of gas.


“Belching in public is considered rather vulgar. Ladies, and to a lesser extent, gentlemen, should be discreet about their belches, and, in particular, should not attempt to say the word ‘archbishop’ when they happen. Especially if an archbishop is present.”


Maybe Foucault, Derrida, Bourdieu, et al use the same translating service that produced this?


It would explain a lot.


Time to do away with tenure, then, methinks.

I'd almost agree with you, but if tenure were removed, then the purge would be complete. My thesis advisor was a wizened old Spaniard, devout Catholic, Jesuit-trained, encyclopedic memory, and had absolutely no regard for modern theoretics. He was smart enough to untangle it based on his incandescent understanding of the history of philosophy, but he was too much the old-world gentleman to tell Jonathan Culler, whose office was just down the hall, that he was slavering after a very naked emperor.

That guy would be removed post-haste because he's not politically correct. There are numerous other conservative or at least non-moonbat professors on campus who would be summarily dismissed as well, were it not for tenure.

Tenure was put in place to prevent political purges, which college professors are so incredibly tempted to do. It keeps the idiots in place, but it also keeps in the good ones.


I think you're wrong to present this as a left-right issue. The revolutionaries who wrote the American Constitution understood the value of clarity. Sokal is a man of the left, and he hates all this PoMo stuff because it's a distracting blind alley which doesn't help the poor and downtrodden at all.

I once saw Noam Chomsky speak, and he was asked about Derrida. He replied that he had tried to read his books, but he couldn't understand what Derrida was saying. Since Chomsky is a professor of linguistics, this was pretty damning.



It’s true that anti-rational obfuscation can serve pretty much any dubious agenda. If one can disassemble rational thought and flatten all values – and do it in the name of “progress” or “fairness” or “social justice” – then one is ‘free’ to believe whatever one wants, regardless of any logical or evidential refutation. It’s a scoundrel’s wet dream. Religious ideologues have even been known to appeal to epistemic relativism, though generally as a rhetorical ruse. And it’s obviously true that many on the left reject relativism and obscurantism for political as well as intellectual reasons.

But it remains the case that the most vocal and persistent proponents of PoMo obfuscation and its assorted ills are of the left - very often the far left. The development and propagation of postmodern political “thought” is overwhelmingly a leftwing project, endorsed primarily by people on the left to advance supposedly leftwing beliefs. The fact that other left-leaning people dissent, however vocally, doesn’t alter this.

I touched on this issue, and illustrated some of its practical consequences, in my discussion with Ophelia Benson:


This, on Richard Rorty, is sort of relevant too:



The descriptions "left" and "right" derive from where people sat in the States General at the start of the French Revolution. Back then the right believed in tradition, received religion and respect for your leaders. The left believed in reason, progress, anti-clericalism and liberation.

Today, when, say, Ken Livingstone swoons over a homophobic, misogynist reactionary cleric like Quaradawi, he's not being left wing. You can't get from Tom Paine and Mary Woolstonecraft to that.



Yes, I realise the labels ‘left’ and ‘right’ can be – and often are – inadequate and prone to mutate. I also realise much of the left has, at other times, advanced a rationalist approach to social change. As you say, it’s a long way from Einstein and Bertrand Russell to Foucault and Derrida, or indeed to Ken Livingstone. But the people I’ve discussed have defined themselves as of the political left, or as “progressive”, etc. Ophelia Benson raised a similar point about definitions in our long discussion, linked above.

I should point out there are people on the left whose opinions and intelligence I do admire and I can understand how appalled they might be by the state of the contemporary left, or very large parts thereof. But those people are, it seems, having their most heated and fundamental disagreements with other people on the left. And if Ken Livingstone isn’t “being left wing”, who’s going to tell him that? And who’s going to tell Madeleine Bunting, Martin Jacques, Seumas Milne and Joseph Harker – all of whom have advanced ideas derived from PoMo theories in the left’s mainstream newspaper?


Oh dear - I suppose I'll have to do it!



Well, you see the problem? Variations of this idiocy appear regularly in the British left’s mainstream newspaper and in numerous leftwing publications – The New Left Review, for instance. If you rummage through the archives here, you’ll find plenty of examples. It’s true that some milder variations can also be found across the political spectrum, but these ideas are most often and most emphatically advanced by self-defined left-leaning people in self-defined leftwing publications.


I think these faux lefties can be attacked on their own PoMo terms. Bunting's fawning over Quaradawi feels like the worst kind of exoticism, "orientalism", and romanticizing of "the other".

One point Nick Cohen makes is that, in mideast politics, the PoMos are only interested in theocrats and Qu'ran bashers. Trades union leaders, and people from the region's secular socialist and communist parties, are completely ignored by the PoMos. I don't suppose you've ever investigated the opinions of the "Worker-Communist Party Of Iran". But you could do much worse. Their founder, Mansoor Hekmat, wrote superb articles attacking PoMo and cultural relativism.

Paolo Mint

georges wrote, back in 2007:

The descriptions "left" and "right" derive from where people sat in the States General at the start of the French Revolution. Back then the right believed in tradition, received religion and respect for your leaders. The left believed in reason, progress, anti-clericalism and liberation.

Today, when, say, Ken Livingstone swoons over a homophobic, misogynist reactionary cleric like Quaradawi, he's not being left wing. You can't get from Tom Paine and Mary Woolstonecraft to that.

Y'know, that is so half-witted I would have been at a loss to account for it, "absent" further data (as we cockneys say). But the writer unmasks as a Nick Cohen fan lower down, so all becomes clear. Let's trace the logic:

1. The term "left(-wing)" comes from a seating arrangement during the French revolution.
2. "Back then" the left believed in "reason, progress, anti-clericalism and liberation."
3. But these days Ken Livingstone snuggles up to "homophobic, misogynist reactionary clerics".
4. So he can't be left-wing, 'coz you can't get from 2 to 3.
5. Innit.

Yes. But you can't get from 2 to the Terror either. Or from 2 to Stalinism, Maoism, Kim-Il-Sung-ism, etc, etc. In fact, ever since the French Revolution, which bequeathed us the term "left", it's been impossible to get from a left-wing belief in "reason, progress, anti-clericalism and liberation" to what left-wing believers in "reason, progress, anti-clericalism and liberation" have actually done, once in power. Funny that, innit?

Well, not really. What people on the left -- such as Nick Cohen, for instance -- say they want and what they really do want, or really would find themselves attracted to, given power, isn't always the same thing. What the left always want is to subvert and overthrow. Sometimes they have benign motives, or think they have. Sometimes they don't have benign motives. See Orwell's Animal Farm, which lays it all out in a way even the meanest intelligence could grasp, one would have thought. If only Nick Cohen or Christopher Hitchens or Harry's Hordes had read it.

And georges continues:

I don't suppose you've ever investigated the opinions of the "Worker-Communist Party Of Iran". But you could do much worse. Their founder, Mansoor Hekmat, wrote superb articles attacking PoMo and cultural relativism.

Ah. The "Worker-Communist" Party. That sounds promising. Firm believers in "reason, progress, anti-clericalism and liberation", no doubt. So I wonder where they'd steer Iran if they pushed the clerics aside and got their hands on the tiller of state.

But I don't wonder for long. I would suggest that Mansoor Hekmat doesn't believe in cultural relativism or PoMo because, without a firm sense of right and wrong, it's difficult to find good reasons for shooting or torturing people.

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