Very Big Language

Playing the Rube

Thanks to a disaffected reader, Louis Proyect, I stumbled across the website of the philosopher and critic, Denis Dutton. If my recent pieces on Carolyn Guertin and Jacques Derrida were of interest, Dutton’s site is well worth exploring. There’s an amusing broadside aimed at Baudrillard and his admirers, and a shot at deconstruction. There’s also this piece on professional obscurantism and attempts to browbeat unsuspecting students: 

“The pretentiousness of the worst academic writing betrays it as a kind of intellectual kitsch, analogous to bad art that declares itself ‘profound’ or ‘moving’ not by displaying its own intrinsic value but by borrowing these values from elsewhere... These kitsch theorists mimic the effects of rigour and profundity without actually doing serious intellectual work. Their jargon-laden prose always suggests but never delivers genuine insight. Here is... Prof. Judith Butler*, from an article 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.’

To ask what this means is to miss the point. This sentence beats readers into submission and instructs them that they are in the presence of a great and deep mind. Actual communication has nothing to do with it.”

As Dutton argues elsewhere, the objective here is to induce anxiety and play the rube - to exploit the trust of people who stare at such things, find nothing of significance, and assume the fault is theirs. I realise the idea that such a thing can happen, and happen frequently, is taboo. To recognise bad faith of this magnitude requires an unseemly kind of honesty. But, as we’ve seen, these things happen nonetheless. And they continue to happen precisely because the very idea is unthinkable.

*Judith Butler is Professor of Comparative Literature and Rhetoric at the University of California, Berkeley. She is a “leading queer theorist” and has been described as “one of the superstars of 90s academia” and “probably one of the ten smartest people on the planet.” Related, this and this.