Playing the Rube
Bunting, Wrong Again

Very Big Language

Further to yesterday’s post on Judith Butler and her opaque prose, I thought I’d add a few thoughts. One commenter, Dr Dawg, has argued that Butler is making a point, albeit badly:

“If any of you is really having a hard time with the passage quoted, I'll translate it into two-syllable words for you. I agree that she could have made her point in clearer language, indeed I wish she had, but that doesn't mean there is no point there to be found.”

I think this misses an important point. The issue, I think, hinges on whether you regard the opacity of Butler’s statement, and of many others I’ve highlighted, as a result of ineptitude or something more deliberate. Is it a mistake, a technical necessity, or a stylistic affectation and convenient camouflage? It seems to me that mere clumsiness doesn’t explain the prevalence and uniformity of those “mistakes” among leftwing PoMo academics. It seems much more likely that this habitual and remarkably uniform obscurantism is a determined effort – specifically, an attempt to hide the slightness of certain ideas and their various assumptions and contradictions.

The issue, as I see it, is one of bad faith. Hiding a small and tendentious idea, or no idea at all, inside Very Big Language is not a promising indicator of good character, honesty or wisdom. As I’ve argued elsewhere, one might suspect that the unintelligible nature of much postmodern ‘analysis’ is a convenient contrivance, if only because it’s difficult to determine exactly how wrong an unintelligible analysis is. In this respect, one might see the PoMo phenomenon as not so much a loose collection of often disreputable ideas, but more as a rhetorical tactic employed by narcissists, ideologues and academic shysters.



It's a cute thesis. Dr Dawg says by refusing to engage with her argument but instead attacking her method you are guilty of ad hominem. He was dumb enough to acknowledge the writing was unclear; a more thoughtful PoMo might have claimed the writing was completely transparent.

He's basically arguing that you cannot assert such writing is vacuous unless you acknowledge it is meaningful enough to engage with it. A logically absurd requirement.


Time for a quote

A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.
Antoine de Saint-Exupery


Ah, the place smells classier already.


Not at all. I think it's quite possible, as I noted elsewhere, for a postmodernist to write lucidly. Richard Rorty is a prime example, and there are many others. And reading Judith Butler as I have, I can report that she's not always as "opaque" as the passage excised and displayed here.

In any case, I don't believe that all such stylistic difficulty conceals wisdom: far from it. When "theory" was first bursting forth on the literary scene, I recall reading a grant application from a young hopeful; in one single sentence, and it was not a long one, I found no fewer than ten words that I had never seen before in my life. I have (no point being modest) no mean vocabulary, so I smelled fraud, or at least an earnest desire to impress.

I don't see that in Butler. She writes for other specialists, after all, and uses a specialized language. In the case at hand, she is arguing that Althusser's structural Marxism suffers from a fundamental weakness: it sets up atemporal categories as an analytical framework, and looks at power relations in society generally as a series of copies of the economic power relations within capitalism. She says, and I'm with her on this, that such social power relations are a far more complex series of phenomena. Their forms are, for example, not necessary (as structural Marxism asserts), but contingent.

I can just picture some of you people at a lecture on General and Special Relativity. "What this about about 'curved space,' Al? 'Time dilation?' You on drugs?"

I could go further with Butler, but I suspect this may not be the place. David's post is, in any case, just more broad, dismissive abuse aimed at what is in fact a wide variety of thinkers and writers, some with genuine contributions to make, some not so much.


I can just picture some of you people at a lecture on General and Special Relativity. "What this about about 'curved space,' Al? 'Time dilation?' You on drugs?"

When I obtained my degree in Maths and Philosophy I had to prove I understood Godel's Theorems but I only had to pretend to agree with Post Modernism. Obviously the problem lies with me.



I never understand how Godel can prove a theory that says that every theory rests on unprovable axioms.


I'm also not a fan of Minkowski space.


All I can report is that, if someone "pretends" PoMo with me, I'll have an easy time smoking him or her out. You'll just have to take my word for it.


I am sure that there is some genuine use of specialized language in PM discourse, but as the l'affaire Sokol and other such incidents have illustrated there is much fraud and chicanery too. The need for specialist language in physics (where the primary language is mathematics) is fundamentally different from engaging social and literary issues in an accessible way. Specialist language may be useful in specialist publications aimed at colleagues, otherwise unnecessary obscurantism leads to unlamented obscurity.


"Specialist language may be useful in specialist publications aimed at colleagues, otherwise unnecessary obscurantism leads to unlamented obscurity."

No argument there. I agree completely. But the specialized vocabulary of science doesn't derive only from mathematics. New ideas may sometimes require new vocabulary. Charlatans may get away with using such vocabulary, taking advantage of people's unfamiliarity with it, but over time such people move on.

Philosophical language in all traditions--positivist, analytical, phenomenological, etc.--can get pretty abstruse, but that doesn't (necessarily) mean that we're being had. It might well mean that new and difficult-to-grasp ideas are being expressed, and current language is insufficient to the task.


I think it's quite possible, as I noted elsewhere, for a postmodernist to write lucidly.

Sorry, that made me laugh out loud. What a wonderful thing to learn.


So, let's have a go at this, then:

"At this stage, one particle, the Δ++ remained mysterious; in the quark model, it is composed of three up quarks with parallel spins. However, since quarks are fermions, this combination is forbidden by the Pauli exclusion principle. In 1965, Moo-Young Han with Yoichiro Nambu and Oscar W. Greenberg independently resolved the problem by proposing that quarks possess an additional SU(3) gauge degree of freedom, later called colour charge. Han and Nambu noted that quarks would interact via an octet of vector gauge bosons: the gluons." []

Ah, you will object: all of this can be explained. It's just technical vocabulary. But is it lucid? Is it intellectually honest, though, to giggle and guffaw at it?

PS: Lauraw has never, it seems, dipped into Rorty. Pity.



You could find out what
parallel spins
Pauli exclusion principle
SU(3) gauge
gauge bosons

and then be wiser. You cannot with PoMo. The above are shorthand for longer and more detailed explanations. In PoMo these seem to be used to obscure and impress.


That's too much of a generalization. What terms in the Judith Butler quotation cannot be looked up as well? Each has a precise meaning. I've already indicated what she was getting at. I might quarrel with her style, if, in particular, it were directed towards a lay audience. Her style in any case is not mine. But if she is communicating to others in her field, for whom her use of language is familiar, where's the harm? Whom is she trying to impress?


Dr. Dawg,

Perhaps I'm simple-minded, but ... you offered in David's previous Butler entry to translate the passage into "two-syllable words". Could you please do that? Don't worry about the two-syllable limit; just avoid all postmodernist specialist language.

Thanks very much!



"In the case at hand, she is arguing that Althusser's structural Marxism suffers from a fundamental weakness: it sets up atemporal categories as an analytical framework, and looks at power relations in society generally as a series of copies (homologues) of the economic power relations within capitalism. She says, and I'm with her on this, that such social power relations are a far more complex series of phenomena. Their forms are, for example, not necessary (as structural Marxism appears to assert), but contingent."

What I already said, with a couple of minor emendations. No fancy language here; just pretty routine philosophical concepts. Have I missed something, or have you?

irwin daisy

"If any of you is really having a hard time with the passage quoted, I'll translate it into two-syllable words for you."

It's unfortunate that a troll bounced back by way of a posting picked up from this blog by smalldeadanimals. This, a typical lefty troll who finds it most difficult to debate without hurling a general insult or two at his supposed rightwing adversaries.

Keep up the good work David.


So, from:

"‘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.’"


"The structural Marxism of Althusser--which views all power relations within society as mere imitations of the prevailing capitalist economic structure--has been superseded by the view that such relations are far more complex than can be contained within Althusser's simplistic analytical structure. Most importantly, the new view regards social power relations as contingent rather than necessary. See my footnotes for further expansion upon this point."

Now, I have NO IDEA what I'm talking about re: Althusser, but evidently you do, and it seems to me that I've just paraphrased Judith Butler in a way that would make reasonable sense to an intelligent high-schooler, making allowances for my evident ignorance of the subject matter. You simply cannot do the same with the quantum chromodynamics excerpt you posted.

But now, at last, the situations are ... homologous.

With the QC quote you excerpted, pretty much any educated person can understand the basic thrust of the passage, even if they've never heard of gluons or bosons: There was an inconsistency in the behaviour of the Δ++ particle according to prevailing hypotheses, since resolved by two independent researchers who proposed a new mechanism. If the reader would like to know more, they know where to begin: with quarks and fermions. That's pretty good technical writing: conveying complex information in such a way that an educated layperson can easily understand the outlines of what's going on and learn where to find out more, if they're interested.

In the case of the original Butler quote, maybe I'm dim, but it is completely opaque to me, even given the allowances you've made for her bad style. Evidently, lots of other educated people also try to understand the passage, but its tortuous syntax just hampers understanding. Lay readers are not helped by its repeated invocations of various "structure" words (5 times!), hegemony (twice), rearticulation (twice), contingent (twice), plus its chronic use of fifty-cent words where five-cent words would do ("inaugurate" *snort*).

Now, my paraphrased Butler quote may be incorrect in its particulars (that's what comes from studying in a socially productive discipline), but I think it demonstrates that there's no need for the kind of obtuse language Butler deploys. The interested lay reader gets a basic idea of what's going on, and knows that if s/he wants to learn more, s/he can look up Althusser and/or structural Marxism.

The QC quote assists understanding and learning; the original Butler quote discourages it. It's difficult to avoid the conclusion that the pomo game is, as David describes it, simply a way of making small ideas look big.


PS: Lauraw has never, it seems, dipped into Rorty. Pity.

Here, since we're being helpful and breaking things down for each other:

"You're stupid," he sniffed.

Still laughing! You get more unintentionally funny with each comment.



Well, your translation is a little off, but no matter. The point is that Althusser's structural Marxism, with his analysis of repressive state apparatuses (like the police) and ideological state apparatuses (like education) posits various structural categories that Butler questions. She says they are timeless, whereas we really can't critique the dynamics of social power relations in such an inflexible manner. (I actually like A's expanded view of the notion of ideology, but that's an aside.) Althusser doesn't talk about "mere copies," either: he argues that unequal power relations are not confined to the economy, but are distributed across the entire social formation, and that in each sphere they tend to resemble each other in form. (That's loose, but close enough.)

Butler has a more fluid view of power relations, which I think derives from Foucault. In the infamous paragraph, she is obviously not expanding on this, simply announcing a break with structural Marxism and counterposing her sense of the contingency of power relations in society.

I hope you will agree that "necessity" and "contingency" are established philosophical vocabulary with precise technical meanings. So, frankly, is "hegemony" (Gramsci). And, as I noted, she's writing for other people who understand all of these concepts very well, just as your physicists are communicating with other physicists.

But don't get me wrong. I prefer plain writing, wherever possible, and Butler is no stylist. As always, specialists run the risk of becoming their own public. What I object to in the current exchanges, and in David's original post, is the idea that, because she doesn't write with the grace of, say, Georg Simmel, she therefore has nothing to offer. It's easy--too easy--to mock the unfamiliar. But not everything unfamiliar, as someone trying to impress the lay folks might say, is by consequence nugatory. :)


Well, no, I didn't call lauraw "stupid," either directly or indirectly. No need to get defensive. I challenged his/her notion that PoMo writing is all opaque. That's an absurd generalization, and I offered one good counter-example--there are many others.


Hey thanks, Dr. Dawg! I think we can agree to agree on some things (plain writing is good), and agree to disagree on others. I didn't pick on Butler's use of 'hegemony" and "contingent" because I objected to their use (as I did with "inaugurate" and "homologous", both words with several less pretentious synonyms), but because they were used several times in one extremely complex sentence, further deepening the reader's confusion. Reading that sentence is like venturing into a maze without breadcrumbs or a ball of string.

But I'm still a little bewildered: you've convinced me that there is an actual idea (of whatever merits) behind Butler's cloud of verbiage, and the exchange here has demonstrated that that idea is quite easily and concisely expressible in non-technical English. Furthermore, you've argued (citing Rorty) that postmodernist writing doesn't have to be impenetrable. Fine. So why do you think Butler writes like that? It's not just bad writing--the academic literature in all disciplines is filled with everyday bad writing--but to all appearances, deliberately impenetrable writing. Going back to your QC excerpt, the writer(s) had to convey extremely technical information, but did so in a way that made their meaning clear, even to a non-scientist. As far as I can tell, it is extremely difficult to write successful obscurantist prose--prose that actually succeeds in hiding the point the writer is trying to make. It must be laborious and tiring for Butler to go to all that effort. So why does she do it?


More to the point: if "Dr. Dawg" can express Butler's ideas clearly, why can't Butler do it herself? She's the one considered an academic superstar; he's just some guy who reads Web logs. Maybe he should be the queer studies superstar instead and let her take over the sitting-in-the-basement-in-undershorts work.


"So why do you think Butler writes like that?"

That's an interesting question. I wish I had the answer. I am reluctant, however, to ascribe the style to dishonesty or a need to impress or a deliberate disguise placed upon trivial ideas. In fairness to Butler, though, she can be much more lucid than this quotation indicates--she doesn't always "write like that." Anyone can find egregiously bad pieces of writing if one goes looking for them: "Multitudinous seas incarnadine," for example. But someone should have asked her to redraft this paragraph, at least.


Just as an addendum, this article was mentioned by a commenter in the same thread that allowed me to discover this site. I was written by a fairly tough critic of postmodernism. Does it make any sense? Anyone here have a background in information theory? I would have dismissed it out of hand once upon a time, but, given my defence of what some here consider the indefensible, I feel that I need to be consistent.


Morning all. Perhaps I should explain that my scepticism of politicised PoMo began with the supposed ‘fine’ art world and its various critics, curators and academics. It became apparent that a great deal of art theory had become overtly politicised, and politicised in a fairly uniform and tendentious way. Aesthetic analysis has, in many cases, been encrusted with - or sidelined by - variations of quasi-Marxist theorising, which is often shoehorned incongruously into subjects where its validity is hard to fathom, or non-existent. (See the Art Bollocks piece, linked below.)

In these fits of theorising, the actual artistic subject matter can seem secondary to the chosen theoretical framework and its political assumptions. For quite a few practitioners the primary objective seems to be to emphasise the theoretical framework - and by extension its politics. I’ve had the misfortune of listening to people debating which particular subset of anti-capitalist thinking best describes a figurative painting. Unfortunately, this is not a terribly uncommon event.


I wish I'd kept up with artcrit--my reading stops with John Berger's "Ways of Seeing," which, you will agree, was stylish, lucid and jargon-free. Serge Guilbault's "How New York Stole the Idea of Modern Art (1983)" opened my eyes, too: I read it shortly after Barnett Newman's "Voice of Fire" was purchased by our National Gallery--a gigantic red stripe painted upon a blue background, or maybe it was two blue stripes painted on a red background. The book contains everything you need to know about the fraud known as Abstract Expressionism, perpetrated by "artists," critics and art dealers.

If PoMo has now attached itself to artcrit, it can surely be no worse than previously. In fact, having read your post on this, are we really reading PoMo here, or just more of the same?

As an aside, I was struck by the commentary on Starling's installation, "Shedboatshed," which reminded me from a distance of Ed Kienholz's "The Beanery" and of a reassembled whare nui (Maori meeting house) on an upper floor of the Te Papa museum in Wellington. The piece "provides a kind of buttress against the pressures of modernity, mass production and global capitalism," we are told, but in truth it appears to be the very opposite (never mind Starling's voyage down the Rhine): something with at least the appearance of weathered authenticity has been plucked from its context, turned into a commodity and stuck in a museum to be viewed (or consumed)as an object. Some buttress against capitalism that is.

The problem, of course, is how to talk about art at all. Mere description doesn't seem enough. On the other hand, employing art as a collection of counters in a theoretical assemblage isn't really talking about art per se. So what does sound artcrit consist of? That's no small conceptual challenge. In the meantime, please do a post on wine talk forthwith. :)


> The problem, of course, is how to talk about art at all.

It's easy. Just say whatever you want on your own dime.


Dr Dawg,

“Wine talk.”

Heh. Well, quite.

“If PoMo has now attached itself to artcrit, it can surely be no worse than previously.”

It has, and the usual creaking pretension has now been riddled with even more wilful obscurantism and plenty of quasi-Marxist twittering, which makes the experience even less life-affirming. My point is that in certain quarters it’s hard to find a critic who’s prepared to challenge Julian Stallabrass’ assertion that “Marxist ways of thinking offer the most convincing analyses of capitalism and its cultural life.” Or to challenge his equally loaded opposition of “right wing populism” with self-defined “progressives”. And despite the dominance of such thinking in certain quarters, many of those who espouse these ideas still imagine themselves to be radical and subversive.

The assumption that one can shoehorn some form of Marxism into almost any sphere of cultural criticism is not, I think, a sound one. As I’ve shown, it can result in the theoretical prejudice overshadowing the facts, the artist’s intention, and indeed the creative process. Hence we arrive at an acreage of bad ideological art and doorstop books like ‘Art Since 1900: Modernism, Antimodernism, Postmodernism’, in which leftist political theory occupies almost as much space as the works ostensibly being discussed.


Well, you won't be surprised to learn that I share Stallabrass' opinion. I'm just not certain how that practically translates into artcrit. Even a classical Marxist critic like Ernst Fischer expressed what sounded like embarrassment when dealing with the application of Marxism to music. I'm not saying that Marxism must leave whole areas of the human enterprise untouched, but I agree with you that, too often, theoretical frameworks can dictate one's observations. (I've heard that said about the theory of evolution, too, and there's something in it, although I'm a believer.)

As for this sort of thing being radical or subversive, we may actually agree. Artcrit is a site of struggle, but what's taking place is a relatively unimportant skirmish in a war that's raging largely elsewhere. As a well-mannered and very nice man asked me when I showed him the US Trotskyist platform in 1964 ("Elect Clifton DeBerry and Edward Shaw"), "What does that have to do with workers' control of the means of production?"

I suspect I'll get into trouble for this.


Dr Dawg,

“I'm not saying that Marxism must leave whole areas of the human enterprise untouched, but I agree with you that, too often, theoretical frameworks can dictate one's observations.”

As you can imagine, I’d rather Marxism did leave whole areas of human enterprise unmolested, but let’s not do that dance. :)

I suppose what concerns me is the fact that many arts and humanities students are now to some extent obliged to operate within a politically loaded framework, with language that’s tendentious and needlessly opaque, and with mandatory points of reference that are often dubious and ideological. The indices and annotations of many art criticism books and papers read like a potted history of Marxist thought and politicised deconstruction. This may be fun for those who’ve sublimated their youthful political fervour into academic theorising, but it doesn’t seem to help produce great artists or great art.

“I suspect I'll get into trouble for this.”

Trouble from whom?


The point is that all endeavours take place in political frameworks of one kind or another; and I'll take John Berger over Kenneth Clark any day. There's always a point of view. Where we seem to have agreement is that critical inquiry and reflection are key, so that the premises upon which such points of view are based should be open to question. Indeed, such questioning should be encouraged.

Trouble? From any of my political friends who wander over here who might get the idea I'm deviating or something. :)


We’ll try not to embarrass you. I wouldn’t want you to be misunderstood as counterrevolutionary, with all that might entail.

I am, by the way, actually having fun. I hope it’s mutual.


Absolutely. I'm glad I found this place.


Dr. Dawg:

I followed your link to the Taborsky paper and I find that to be just as dodgy as Butler's writing. Although in her case, the prose is not the problem, it's the ideas she's trying to describe. She asserts that energy "can only exist in our cosmos" when it is encoded as information. That sounds like a terrible mis-reading of quantum physics. Her description of the difference between classical and quantum physics is just plain wrong, and her attempt to "go beyond" them in a postmodern way is utterly loopy -- as if playing word games with the terminology actually reflects the reality of the physical world. If you look at her bibliography there isn't one actual work about genuine physics in it at all.

This is, to be utterly cruel, cargo cult writing. Scientists are clever. Scientists study quantum mechanics and entropy and evolution and stuff, and write papers. If Taborsky writes a paper full of words like "quantum" and "entropy" then she's being a scientist too! How clever!



Thank you! Most reassuring.

I tried to keep an open mind, but I couldn't get past stuff like this:

"What is a dyadic or dualistic world? It is a world that operates within an architecture that differentiates the actions that develop reality into two levels of physical and epistemic processes. Both of these‘worlds’ are real, they are not naive aspects of subjective idealism. Furthermore, their natures are completely contradictory and therefore, these two realities cannot merge or the resultant implosion would catastrophically obliterate our universe."

and this:

"Energy is, in its pure state, potentiality, which means that it does not exist as a discrete state. Potential energy is aspatial and atemporal, it is expansionist, it is everywhere, by virtue of the first law of thermodynamics."

I'm no physicist, but I don't think that's what the FLT actually says.

Again, thank you. I'm relieved that it wasn't just me.


It seems to me that mere clumsiness doesn’t explain the prevalence and uniformity of those “mistakes” among leftwing PoMo academics.

Not to detract from (or argue with) your point, but how does one excuse such obfuscatory writing from someone with a PhD? This "Granted, she could have expressed herself clearer" nonsense misses the issue that anyone with that much education has no excuse for such sloppy, dense prose -- unless, of course, she's doing it deliberately, and if that is the case, one must ask why one would deliberately write in such a manner.

And that, of course, leads back to your original point.


I have a background in information theory, and I had previously read the referenced paper in Entropy magazine, and a couple dozen others on related topics in semiotics and semiosis. I do have a general understanding of what those folks are try to do, even though it takes some reading to get a grasp on terms that are introduced to represent new concepts, and I do think it is an interesting problem that is worthy of further academic consideration.

On the other hand, I do consider the Angry Studies folks' use of so-called postmodern bafflegab, to attempt to hide their limited understanding of reality, which wrongly considers race, class, and gender to be of more than passing interest, to be unworthy of my time, except in self defense of course.



I agree completely about the need for clear language. But academics do tend to talk academese to each other. Various specialized jargons are set out in tangled prose. But I don't see this as politically-motivated. The dean of this kind of thing was Talcott Parsons--no left-winger.

I wish they wouldn't do it. But to suspect some deliberate political agenda ("Comrades! We must redouble our obfuscatory efforts! Only thus can we turn the masses against the oppressor!") is, frankly, the stuff of fantasy.


Obviously there are interesting problems in information theory and general systems theory, but do statements such as the ones I quoted make any sense to you? I'd be interested in your comments on the notion of atemporal, aspacial potential energy.

I, of course, would make the same arguments as you do in the first paragraph to the subject of your second. Race, class and gender would be of little interest only if people weren't oppressed/exploited on the basis of these constructs.


The difference, Dawg, in my opinion, is that the Angry Studies folks aren't helping to decrease exploitation based on those constructs, they are trying to exploit those constructs to gain unearned power of their own. It's the hegemony of the purported anti-hegemonists, that is, it's fraud.



If academics really wanted political power, they'd write more clearly. :)

Now, about that expansionist potential energy that's simply everywhere...


“But to suspect some deliberate political agenda (‘Comrades! We must redouble our obfuscatory efforts! Only thus can we turn the masses against the oppressor!’) is, frankly, the stuff of fantasy.”

That’s a pretty misleading characterisation of what I’ve suggested, and, so far as I can recall, of what anyone else here has suggested. Perhaps I can do better.

The deliberate obscurantism we've discussed, which is far too commonplace, may serve a personal or professional agenda, in that it makes substandard and incoherent thinking seem much more plausible and imposing, and the writer more statusful and worth listening to. Gratuitous jargon can be a means to intimidate people, particularly young students, for the reasons outlined at length elsewhere. These things do not seem to be in doubt.

One could, I think, argue that that some of this has political implications, given some of the highly speculative and politicised subject matter, insofar as it lends fairly trivial, biased or tendentious claims an air of profundity and seriousness. It also, very often, makes the loaded nature of the subject matter and its theoretical framework much harder to detect.

How’s that?


As I said, Dawg, I have a general understanding of what the "science of semiotics" folks, if I may put it that way, are trying to do. I do not have enough understanding to explain it to others. Sorry 'bout that.



Not bad. I'm not necessarily on-side, though.

We can speculate about the motives of academics who engage in this sort of thing. I thought that there had been a suggestion here that it was done for a political purpose, even to gain "power". I proposed an alternative: that this muddy prose and these jargonistic hi-jinks are the way a lot of academics carry on, right, left and centre. Sometimes, no doubt, this is to impress; sometimes it conceals lack of content. Sometimes it's just sloppy writing, reflecting sloppy thinking. But very often it's just the way these folks talk to each other.


Further to my last comment, the ridiculous Carolyn Guertin is a suitably vivid example of what I’m talking about. (See link below.) I have plenty of examples of this tactic, not all of them so vivid, but all of them are by leftwing “educators” who are paid to advance speculative and tendentious ideas, and who do so in needlessly opaque language. Perhaps this is just a coincidence.

At first glance, one might regard Guertin’s dissertation, and much of her other work, as inscrutable but presumably meaningful. One might, at first glance, imagine that she’s saying something clever, original and important about feminism or whatever, albeit in a dense, unfamiliar and technical way. That’s evidently what she hopes her students and peers assume.

However, if one combs through her prose and carefully examines the endless non sequiturs, misused terms, empty metaphors, category errors and long, meaningless sentences, it soon becomes apparent that she’s bullshitting like a demon. This combing takes quite a lot of patience and effort. It also requires a willingness to arrive at a conclusion that is taboo, at least to her students, i.e. that one’s lecturer is bullshitting and that the “work” one has assumed to be meaningful and statusful, and in which one has invested time, is, in fact, largely nonsense. It would, I think, take a fairly exceptional student to stand up and point this out, with all that might entail.



As noted, I simply don't want to plough through Guertin's undoubtedly less-than-scintillating prose. I have a mounting reading list as it is. But here's my difficulty, which I had alluded to earlier: if I wanted to win people over to a Left agenda, the very last thing I would do is talk or write like that. Please, use the rational actor model--what would a smart leftist organizer do? Speak Aramaic?

I'm speaking as a former senior union leader who knew how to communicate. If I had talked or written like some of these folks, I wouldn't have won a single heart or mind.

I was invited to speculate earlier about motive, and thought I had, but once again, and in plainer language--it's a dick-waving contest. It's really no more sinister than that. Talcott Parsons and his homies have a lot to answer for. But trying to intimidate young people into being impressed by mishandling language to the point of incimprehensibility doesn't churn out leftists in industrial quantities. It just pisses the kids off or gets you a lot of blank stares. Trust me on this.


Dr Dawg,

I didn’t say the result of this obscurantism was to “churn out leftists in industrial quantities.” But it can make political biases and inaccuracies harder to detect and, perhaps, more readily accepted. And it can allow frauds and incompetents to retain their positions of influence.

It would be easy to say Guertin is a one-off, but she isn’t. I have a file of similar examples, all in loosely related subjects. And Guertin’s fraudulence raises broader questions about her colleagues, her peers and the institutions that employ her. Her “work” was presumably read and evaluated by supervisors and peers and yet it seems no-one spotted her deception. She is, in her sphere, treated with some seriousness, apparently. Why? How is it possible that such staggering bullshit passed undetected?

I’m inclined to think this tells us something about the standards and bias of the circles she moves around in. Was she passed and employed because she drops the approved menu of names and arcane terms? Or was she passed and employed because her work is construed as having an approved set of political values? I can only guess at the answer, but the question seems pertinent.



Of course the question is pertinent. But I feel that to progress in this discussion I shall have to read Guertin, and see for myself if she is really a fraud (and I shall have no difficulty in detecting that) or, rather, whether she has something to say, if in the prose style of that Judith Butler quote. Please give me a little time if I must take on this task.

More generally, let me note that the language we both deplore doesn't, in itself, instill values in anyone, or even express them very well. Such writing may indeed, however, include a handy checklist of terms for approval by the academic establishment. These things, as you know, can be self-perpetuating. The notion of a department mindlessly passing on bad writing habits to the next generation of scholars is frightening indeed, and very plausible--but I just don't sense a coherent political agenda behind it. I think that is our point of difference.

Incidentally, someone raised Orwell's famous essay earlier. This should be required reading for freshpersons in all departments.


Postmodernist: Freshperson.
Engineer: First-year student.

Angry studies postmodernists may not like it, but form follows function, and ignoring that will eventually come back to smack you upside the head.


“The notion of a department mindlessly passing on bad writing habits to the next generation of scholars is frightening indeed, and very plausible - but I just don't sense a coherent political agenda behind it. I think that is our point of difference.”

I didn’t say there was a coherent political agenda. Perhaps someone else suggested that. (Though Lentricchia and other PoMo figures have announced at various times that their rhetorical ploys were intended to “exercise power for the purpose of social change.” Bad writing habits are difficult to distinguish from bad thinking habits, and I suppose making incompetent people statusful might qualify as “social change.”)

There are, I think, systemic biases, and a sort of ‘bias by accretion’, directed by no-one in particular. And it’s possible that Guertin and those like her are passed, acclaimed and employed because of their political noises rather than their ability or coherence. Indeed I suspect it’s likely.


There are also endemic biases that are related to things like the individual structural variations in each of our limbic systems, pre-frontal cortexes, &c, which commonly translate into things like predispositions for optimism or for pessimism, and, more generally, things like MMPI personality types. Human thought does not occur without physical instances of humans.

That instances of those with particular endemic biases accrete should not be surprising. Thus over the last thousands of years we have come to realize that the final test of any truth-conjecturing hypothesis is not its accretion of the like-minded, it is its effecacity across all-minded.

Actual merit, after all is said and done, does indeed, in the long run, trump claimed merit. It's just that it's a very slow process, and there is never a shortage of people trying to sabotage the effort in the name of illegitimate personal advancement.


"Butler has a more fluid view of power relations, which I think derives from Foucault."

Ah, Foucault. Now we KNOW that Butler is pushing BS. :-)

By a funny coincidence I was just reading the following passage last night:

"What, I asked, do you propose to put in the place of this 'bourgeoisie' whom you so despise, and to whom you owe the freedom and prosperity that enable you to play on your toy barracades? What vision of France and its culture compels you? And are you prepared to die for your beliefs, or merely to put others at risk in order to display them?...She replied with a book: Foucault's Les mots et les choses, the bible of the soixante-huitards, the text which seemed to justify every form of transgression, by showing that obedience is merely defeat. It is an artful book, composed with a satanic mendacity, selectively appropriating facts in order to show that culture and knowledge are nothing but the 'discourses' of power. The book is not a work of philosophy but an exercise in rhetoric. Its goal is subversion, not truth, and it is careful to argue--by the old nominalist sleight of hand that was surely invented by the Father of Lies--that 'truth' requires inverted commas, that it changes from epoch to epoch, and is tied to the form of consciousness, the 'episteme,' imposed by the class which profits from its propagation. The revolutionary spirit, which searches the world for things to hate, has found in Foucault a new literary formula. Look everywhere for power, he tells his readers, and you will find it. Where there is power there is oppression. And where there is oppression there is the right to destroy. In the street below my window was the translation of that message into deeds."
--Roger Scruton, writing about the 1968 Paris riots, in the February 2003 issue of the New Criterion

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