Adding Zero
Interlude

Unproblematic Prose

Further to my posts on the preposterous Carolyn Guertin and Jacques Derrida’s unhinged and fraudulent prose, this may be of interest. It’s from a lecture by Keith Windschuttle, author of The Killing of History: How Literary Critics and Social Theorists Are Murdering Our Past. It’s a longish extract, but bear with me. I think it’s worth your time and, perhaps, grimly amusing. Windschuttle points out how “unproblematic prose” and “clarity of presentation” are regarded by some – guess who - as the “conceptual tools of conservatism.” Thus, if you prefer arguments that are (a) comprehensible and (b) able to withstand scrutiny, you must be a conservative, i.e. The Enemy. On the other hand, if you denounce such bourgeois trifles, you’re “radical” and very, very sexy.

“Though all the great historians I just mentioned were wonderfully clear writers, postmodern academic fashions have declared clear writing to be ideologically contaminated. The editors of one recent collection of postmodernist essays inform us: ‘The ideal of a transparent, tempered and accommodated prose’ is ‘the approved mode of expression for the society and values of the newly empowered middle class.’ (Innovations of Antiquity, ed. Ralph Hexter and Daniel Selden, New York 1992). Another has declared ‘unproblematic prose and clarity of presentation’ to be ‘the conceptual tools of conservatism.’ (Mas'd Zavarzadeh, Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, cited by John M. Ellis, Against Deconstructionism.) Since today's typical postmodernist academic would rather be declared to have a communicable disease than labelled ‘middle class’ or ‘conservative’, let me give you an example of what now passes as acceptable prose style among the postmodernist fraternity (and sorority).

This is from a gentleman named Homi Bhabha, a former professor of English at the University of Chicago, who has now been appointed to Harvard. He is writing about nineteenth century attempts by Britain to establish governments in its colonies that mimicked the government of the imperial centre. Rather than examining the evidence of how these colonial governments actually worked in practice, Bhabha instead gives us a deconstruction of the concept of ‘mimicry’. He writes: ‘Within that conflictual economy of colonial discourse that Edward Said describes as the tension between the synchronic panoptical vision of domination - the demand for identity, stasis - and the counterpressure of the diachrony of history - change, difference - mimicry represents an ironic compromise. (To) adapt Samuel Weber's formulation of the marginalising vision of castration, then, colonial mimicry is the desire for a reformed, recognisable Other, as a subject of a difference that is almost the same, but not quite. Which is to say…’ (From Tensions of Empire, ed. Frederick Cooper and Ann Laura Stoler, University of California Press, 1997)

I won't try to translate these sentiments into English. How could anyone talk seriously about the vision of castration? Let me simply point out that they are representative of their kind, containing the usual quota of invented terminology and postmodernist clichés – ‘difference’, ‘irony’, ‘the Other’ - not to mention the obligatory reverent citation of approved gurus. Writing of this kind should remind us of George Orwell's observation that muddled prose is usually an ‘instrument for concealing or preventing thought.’ Unfortunately, in academic life today, this kind of prose is routinely adopted by the most successful people in their fields. This happens to be a very effective tactic to adopt in academic circles where there is always an expectation that things are never simple and that anyone who writes clearly is thereby being shallow. Obscurity is often assumed to equal profundity, a quality that signals a superiority over the thinking of the uneducated herd. Moreover, those students who put in all the work needed to comprehend a dialogue of this kind very often become converts, partly to protect their investment in the large amount of time already committed, and partly because they are bound to feel they have thereby earned a ticket into an elite. Obscurity is thus a clever way to generate a following.”

The full lecture can be read here.

Comments

rightwingprof

Har! IOW, if you can write, you're a conservative.

David

Rightwing Prof,

Or harbouring “uneducated” rightwing tendencies. But, yes, that seems to be the gist of it.

So, presumably, if a person uses terribly bourgeois things like reason and evidence to make a point or win an argument, that person must be rightwing, and therefore evil. Elsewhere in the same lecture, Windschuttle names the various academics and educational advisors who claim that truth and reality are “authoritarian weapons” and that disinterested scholarship is merely “an ideological position” favoured by “traditionalists and the political right.” It’s a wonderful way of dismissing political dissent and never having to engage with inconvenient arguments.

And I wonder what mathematicians and structural engineers would make of this claim. Is there such a thing as a rightwing calculation, or a rightwing bridge – I mean a bridge that’s rightwing because it doesn’t promptly collapse?

Franklin

This style of postmodernist argument hangs on in fields where things don't have to work, namely, the humanities and arts. Like most artists, I thought of myself as a liberal for many years. But as someone who cares about beauty and perennial qualities, it turned out that there was a group of people who thought of me as aligned with all kinds of conservative iniquity. This group of people have been dismissed even by self-described leftists, such Alan Sokal. Their marker isn't so much liberality as religious extremism, although in this case it's the secular religion of the late modernist project.

In any case, I have encountered this many times, and I have some quick responses. One is that I would rather be thought of as a conservative than an idiot. Two takes advantage of the fact that people using "conservative" as a pejorative tend to be much more bothered by the attribution than thinking people: just point out that pomo lingo and its affiliated "reasoning" is the language of the entrenched class of academics (it works even better when they have tenure), a secure, hierarchical position obtained by ideological conformity, and in the case of art, one that enables a multi-billion dollar market driven by an in-group of moneyed elites. They just hate that.

David

Franklin,

I’ve encountered quite a few people who deploy the word “rightwing” to denote pretty much anything outside their own narrow and implausible conception of the world. Still, it’s nice to know that rationality and evidence are now to be dismissed with the same pejorative label.

And, yes, there’s something faintly ludicrous about supposedly egalitarian middle class academics creating one of the most politicised, impenetrable and elitist ideologies I can think of. A tower of pretension and conformity from which they can denounce any “hegemony” but their own.

Jamie Anderson


It's sad that PMT has so befuddled academia, as Windshuttle really deserves a bollocking and nobody seems able to give it to him.

randall g

I just finished William Shirer's "Decline and Fall of the Third Reich" and I highly recommend it. While long, it is very clear and well written, and Shirer does not shy away from judging the barbarity of that regime. It was published in 1959. He says in his afterword (written in 1990) that academic historians have mostly been cool to this book. I suspect he understates things.

TDK

"It's sad that PMT has so befuddled academia, as Windshuttle really deserves a bollocking and nobody seems able to give it to him."

Please tell us why he deserves a bollocking?

Jamie Anderson

"Please tell us why he deserves a bollocking?"

Windshuttle went through all the documented cases of killings between aborigines and settlers in Australia's colonial period. He came to the conclusion that more whites were killed by blacks than blacks by whites. When it was put to him that not all killings of blacks would have been documented his answer was that if they were not documented they couldn't be counted.

I agree with him that many historians have exagerated the number of aborigines killed during Australia's settlement but to say "if nobody documented it, it didn't happen" looks like bad history to me.

georges

David. I thought you might find this interesting:

It's by Noam Chomsky, from

http://www.cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/chomsky-on-postmodernism.html

It's entirely possible that I'm simply missing something, or that I just lack the intellectual capacity to understand the profundities that have been unearthed in the past 20 years or so by Paris intellectuals & their followers. I'm perfectly open-minded about it, & have been for years, when similar charges have been made - but without any answer to my questions. Again, they are simple & should be easy to answer, if there is an answer: if I'm missing something, then show me what it is, in terms I can understand. Of course, if it's all beyond my comprehension, which is possible, then I'm just a lost cause, & will be compelled to keep to things I do seem to be able to understand, & keep to association with the kinds of people who also seem to be interested in them & seem to understand them (which I'm perfectly happy to do, having no interest, now or ever, in the sectors of the intellectual culture that engage in these things, but apparently little else)...

There has been a striking change in the behavior of the intellectual class in recent years. The left intellectuals who 60 years ago would have been teaching in working class schools, writing books like "mathematics for the millions" (which made mathematics intelligible to millions of people), participating in & speaking for popular organizations, etc, are now largely disengaged from such activities, & although quick to tell us that they are far more radical than thou, are not to be found, it seems, when there is such an obvious & growing need & even explicit request for the work they could do out there in the world of people with live problems & concerns. That's not a small problem. This country, right now, is in a very strange & ominous state. People are frightened, angry, disillusioned, skeptical, confused. That's an organizer's dream, as I once heard Mike say. It's also fertile ground for demagogues & fanatics, who can (& in fact already do) rally substantial popular support with messages that are not unfamiliar from their predecessors in somewhat similar circumstances. We know where it has led in the past; it could again. There's a huge gap that once was at least partially filled by left intellectuals willing to engage with the general public & their problems. It has ominous implications, in my opinion.

David

Georges,

Thanks for the link. I’ll cast an eye over it later.

Re the state of leftist intellectuals, there is among many a remarkable disinterest in things that might actually make a difference. I mean, if you want to house the homeless or whatever, you’re not going to do this by fretting about semiotics, phallocentrism or the social construction of reality. Indeed, many fashionable theories – cultural equivalence, for instance – actually work against any improvement in the fortunes of, say, women. But then a huge amount of leftist theorising – and of PoMo in particular – isn’t for the benefit of the great unwashed. More often than not, these theories are a kind of pseudo-intellectual masturbation for insecure middle-class lefties.

And it strikes me that a great many people who profess egalitarian ambitions and a love of humankind don’t actually like people very much. They don’t seem to like the choices people make, or their right to make such choices. They may like the idea of an egalitarian world, the details of which are somewhat sketchy, but they wouldn’t really like to live next door to the people on whose behalf they presume to speak. This is, and has always been, the dilemma of the middle-class lefty.

TDK

There's a difference between on the one hand arguing that no undocumented killings occurred and on the other exposing the fact that supposed documented cases were exagerated or fictitious. As far as I know, W did the latter. I'd be interested to see the evidence for the former.

The issue of undocumented deaths is problematic. For example the varying claims deaths in Iraq. Nevertheless, documentation is important in determining a range of potential values and I wonder whether his response had that in mind.

georges

Just for the record, I don't agree with Chomsky's political analysis much these days. But at least on this issue he sees, correctly, that PoMo isn't going to help the poor one cent.

Jamie Anderson

I heard him on a radio interview and he seemed pretty sure. Maybe he was trying to be provocative or simply couldn't be bothered arguing the point with the interviewer.
I was down at the library today and I couldn't find the book, though I found plenty criticising it.

On the idea that most leftists stay away from the people they claim to represent, my experience is contrary. I grew up in a working class suburb close to the city and made friends with the kids of left leaning teachers, social workers, artists and journalists (it was the 60s). On the whole I found knowing these people had a positive impact on my life, showing me that there was more to the world than the nearby factory or dockyards. The problem was they did up their houses started markets at the local church and generally gave the area a nice sense of community. This brought the yuppies and the working class could no longer afford to live there. As land values increased factories and dockyards sold the land for appartment developments and moved out of town. I've lived in a few areas where this sort of thing has happened and have come to the conclusion that hippies are the stormtroopers of gentrification.

elberry

i did a module on "post-colonial literature" at Durham ten years ago, mainly because i thought i would come across off-the-beaten-path books. Indeed i did and found most of them uninteresting; the only exception being Derek Walcott's 'Omeros'. We had a 2 hour seminar on post-colonial literary theory where we split into groups and read, very closely, short extracts of people like Homi Bhabha, and presented our findings to the group.

Not a single student could make head nor tail of it. This is because it was bullshit wrapped in bullshit surrounded by bullshit. i forced myself, line by line, throug ha paragraph of HB, as if it were Latin; and i concluded that it had almost no content at all - and what little content there was, was trite and dubious.

My initial reaction to Lit Theory was of amazed disgust and then uninterest, as towards a piece of flamboyant dog shit on the pavement. However, i felt i shouldn't arrogantly assume there was nothing to it, so i spent dozens of hours closely reading Derrida, Butler, et al. i wasted dozens of hours to confirm that initial disgust & uninterest. i was at the time reading Kierkegaard and Wallace Stevens for pleasure, so i don't lack patience.

i think one can feel very quickly if a piece of prose has content or not - it's like scent, it hits you right away - Kierkegaard, for all his difficulty, has substance and purpose and depths. False prophets like Butler, Homi Bhabha, Derrida, etc., have nothing but a seemingly inexhaustible fund of bullshit and a total absence of intellectual decency.

i am reminded of Schopenhauer's excoriations of Hegelian philosophers - they're mostly totally forgotten now, the 19th C equivalent of Butler and Bhabha, worthless charlatans, corrupters of language and thought. As Schopenhauer says somewhere (i think in 'Parerga & Paralipomena'), one day everyone will see through them and then they will slink away and pretend that all the time it had had nothing to do with them. And so it will be with Lit Theory, one day everyone will notice that the Emperor ain't got no clothes.

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