David Thompson
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July 30, 2008

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Bob-B

There is a good paper here on why would be gurus need to be obscure:

http://www.dan.sperber.com/guru.htm

Horace Dunn

‘Life is too short to struggle with an author when the payoff in understanding (for instance) "performativity" seems to be no more than the banal idea that people do stuff to exhibit their gender identity that is, in this sense, "socially constructed." ‘

Yes indeed. Life is too short.

Turning to dear Prof Butler, though, I note that her New York Times piece is, for the most part, admirably clear (and even makes a passing attempt at humour). It’s curious, though, that when she writes with such clarity she somehow manages to come across as even more supercilious than when she writes her for-clever-people-only prose. And, when we read statements such as

‘Language that takes up this challenge [i.e. that finds ways of challenging common sense] can help point the way to a more socially just world’

We can see clearly that we’re being presented with vacuous generalisations and dreary conformist opinions posing as genuine intellectual discourse.

Sometimes when the wrappings fall, there’s nothing underneath at all…

David

Bob-B,

Thanks for that. It does capture the kind of status pantomime I had in mind. I’ve often been struck by how cultish and status-conscious so much material of this kind is, with endless namedropping and fawning citations of pseudo-axioms or modish non sequitur.

Horace,

As I think I mentioned before, when Derrida died, Butler wrote a pompous and sycophantic piece about him for the LRB, the tone of which was somewhat at odds with her supposedly egalitarian credentials and alleged critical wizardry. She then got sniffy with the New York Times for publishing an insufficiently reverent obituary of the old fraud. Her defence of Derrida was essentially an argument from celebrity. A celebrity acquired largely because of endless, fawning reference by other equally disreputable people.

Perhaps that tells us something.

Anna

From Rick Hills' comments after his post:

"The very plainness of the advocate of tyranny helps insure that the argument's speciousness is plain. Obscurity camouflages outrageous argument in arcana: It serves as an anesthetic of the intellectuals' sense of common decency. Here's another assertion... The Trahison des Clercs of the 1930s was facilitated by a Franco-German tradition of social theory that cloaked brutality with academic fancy dress. Prominent French, Italian, and German intellectuals -- e.g., Claudel, Schmitt, Heidegger, Luigi Pirandello, etc -- were, I suggest, far more likely to endorse Fascist and Nazi principles than English ones precisely because the English style was clearer, less arcane, less enamoured of a need to draw sharp boundaries between intellectual language and ordinary language."

David

It seems to me the problem isn’t just whether Butler (for instance) is gratuitously opaque or worth taking seriously; the problem is that the academic environment Butler inhabits tolerates, even rewards, incompetents - such as Wahneema Lubiano at Duke, or Caroline Guertin, whose “work” is wilfully incomprehensible and largely meaningless. Butler’s defence of obscurantism, feeble as it is, gives license and camouflage to ideologues, fantasists and peddlers of tat.

The problem with obscurantism and technocratic posing is that errors and dishonesty are much harder to detect. Indeed, the more impenetrable the language, the more easily a certain type of person is seduced and willing to defer. And if one can’t fathom the meaning in a given piece of prose it’s easy to assume that the fault is entirely one’s own. But this may not be the case. Elsewhere, I’ve explained how pseudo-educators like Guertin revel in being opaque, as opacity tends to make the most loaded and trivial of ideas seem more coherent and impressive than they actually are. For some there’s an incentive to be obscure and unintelligible, as it lends a status and sense of importance that hasn’t actually been earned. And by the time the reader has disentangled the clotted prose, he may simply be too fatigued to ponder the weakness of what’s actually being expressed, or to argue back. This is a fairly common tactic. It’s the postmodern way.

There will always be rogues and chancers whose “work” is trivial, tendentious or dishonest. What matters is that the academic environment is able to flush out such people and expose them as inadequate. But my impression is that large parts of the humanities - especially those entranced by “poststructuralist gender studies” and other politicised “Theory” - no longer do that, or even try to. (The Sokal hoax and the various editors’ petulant reactions come to mind. Such was their determination to expose “gender-laden and racist assumptions,” all that mattered was a conclusion that fitted their own prejudice, not whether the conclusion was remotely justified or made any kind of sense. No-one was fired, no-one resigned, and the gibberish still flows as if nothing had happened.) And if a person can earn a doctorate with a dissertation that’s in large part gibberish, as Guertin did – and do so apparently unchallenged – then the environment they inhabit needs a major overhaul. If a person can survive, even flourish, by randomly misusing esoteric terminology, as Guertin does repeatedly, that can’t be good for anyone’s probity, including students. Years of sleight-of-hand and taking liberties with meaning – or turning a blind eye to it - can blunt the critical senses and one’s grip on reality.

Adriane

If you can't explain it on the back of a napkin to a barmaid, you really don't know what your talking about...

AntiCitizenOne

David,

You might be interested in this.

http://physicsworld.com/cws/article/print/35218

David

AC1,

Thanks for that. I may track down a copy. In a way it’s dreary that the Social Text saga still has currency, or that the damn thing is still published and its editors still employed. As I said above, their reactions to Sokal’s hoax demonstrated an imperviousness to humiliation. And I suspect that’s partly a consequence of the kind of cultish pseudo-thinking in which they indulge.

Butler once described “theory” as “a critical interrogation of beliefs we already carry with us.” Which is a bit rich, really, since so much “theory” (and so much of Butler’s own output) seems utterly disinclined to “interrogate” its *own* political assumptions, or even to state them clearly so that others might take a shot. When these soi-disant “theorists” are so preoccupied with “oppositional voices” and alleged “hegemonies” (always of a particular and rather doubtful kind), there’s little apparent interest in the “hegemony” of “theory” and its own ideological assumptions.

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