Friday Ephemera
Crumbs

Let’s Play Bamboozle!

Further to this, a few more thoughts on postmodernist prose.

Behold_my_mystique_2It’s sometimes argued, not always convincingly, that the opaque and technocratic language of “critical theory” is necessary in order to “interrogate [the] tacit presumptions [of common sense] and provoke new ways of looking at a familiar world.” And, furthermore, that “some of the most trenchant social criticisms are often expressed through difficult and demanding language.” The implicit gist of such claims - which are remarkably short on persuasive examples - is that if you find this kind of language “difficult” it’s your own damn fault for being an unsophisticated heathen. A version of this argument goes something like this: “You wouldn’t mock specialists in quantum chromodynamics just because their work can be difficult to follow, so why don’t you give theorists of rhetoric, who are every bit as clever and important, the same benefit of the doubt?”

There is, of course, a difference between prose that’s difficult out of necessity – because it deals with fine or esoteric distinctions or describes ideas that are primarily conceptualised in mathematical terms - and prose that’s politically loaded and gratuitously difficult for less edifying reasons. As, for instance, when Ralph Hexter and Daniel Selden insist that clear writing is bourgeois and ideologically contaminated, being as it is, “the approved mode of expression for the society and values of the newly empowered middle class.”

There are plenty of writers who grapple with technical or unobvious ideas, and the good ones make it as easy as possible for the reader to follow the thinking and determine whether or not it’s sound - and if not, to determine where the doubt or error is. Such-and-such a mistake happens there. Or, this doesn’t follow from that. Or this other thing could be the case. This preference for transparency starts a process of critical thinking, or is at least amenable to it. It also entails honesty and the risk of public correction, as opposed to posturing and the hope one won’t be rumbled. This is a matter of no small importance, especially if the ideas in question are supposed to justify an adamant political worldview. Clarity invites dispute, possibly refutation, and refutation of one’s politics can, for some, be intolerable.

I have shelves of books on fairly esoteric physics, including explanations of quantum chromodynamics, and most of the authors of those books express their ideas with admirable transparency, to the extent that even I can follow them, albeit inelegantly. So far as I can recall, none of those books contains a barrage of non sequitur comparable with the following, from Jacques Derrida’s 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.

Nor can I recall any physics textbook that defies comprehension quite as wilfully as Caroline Guertin’s essay, Wanderlust: The Kinesthetic Browser in Cyberfeminist Space, much of which reads like this:

The shuffling and unfolding of the information of her body in sensory space is enacted across a gap or trajectory of subjecthood that is multiple and present. Subjectivity is the lens and connector through which the spatio-temporal dislocation gets focused and bridged. The gap is outside vision — felt not seen — and always existing on the threshold in between nodes. Like the monster’s subjectivities, all knots in the matrix are linked.

At this point readers may wonder what, exactly, a “gap or trajectory of subjecthood” is - and why it’s both “multiple” and “present”. Readers may also wonder why this should be preferable to, or different from, one that’s multiple while absent, or singular while absent. Or singular while present. Alas, nowhere in Guertin’s essay are any answers forthcoming. Perhaps she, like Butler, is “interrogating [the] tacit presumptions [of common sense] and provoking new ways of looking at a familiar world.” But if so, it seems we must take that on trust. Those who follow Guertin’s work will see that an awful lot is asserted and countless names are dropped, but very little is explained. It does, however, sound terribly impressive, as if it ought to mean something. Now imagine for a moment that you’re a first year student, eager to impress. Are you going to be first in the class to raise your hand and ask whether your professor is, in fact, mouthing utter bollocks?

Ideals of clarity are surprisingly hard to find in the writing of Caroline Guertin or Derrida, or Lacan, or Judith Butler, where assumptions are often hidden and loaded claims are made as if they were axiomatic. If anything, the primary intention seems to be to inflate, propagandise and bamboozle. (It’s perhaps worth noting that when, on rare occasions, Butler’s politics are stated clearly, what’s revealed is often absurd, doctrinaire or reprehensible. As illustrated by her insistence that it’s “extremely important” to “understand” the clerical terrorist groups Hamas and Hizballah as “social movements that are progressive, that are on the Left, that are part of a global left” and thus, by implication, deserving of support.) 

As Martha Nussbaum explains in her critique of Butler,

Why does Butler prefer to write in this teasing, exasperating way? The style is certainly not unprecedented. Some precincts of the continental philosophical tradition, though surely not all of them, have an unfortunate tendency to regard the philosopher as a star who fascinates, and frequently by obscurity, rather than as an arguer among equals. When ideas are stated clearly, after all, they may be detached from their author: one can take them away and pursue them on one’s own. When they remain mysterious (indeed, when they are not quite asserted), one remains dependent on the originating authority. The thinker is heeded only for his or her turgid charisma. […]

In this way obscurity creates an aura of importance. It also serves another related purpose. It bullies the reader into granting that, since one cannot figure out what is going on, there must be something significant going on, some complexity of thought, where in reality there are often familiar or even shopworn notions, addressed too simply and too casually to add any new dimension of understanding. When the bullied readers of Butler’s books muster the daring to think thus, they will see that the ideas in these books are thin. When Butler’s notions are stated clearly and succinctly, one sees that, without a lot more distinctions and arguments, they don’t go far, and they are not especially new. Thus obscurity fills the void left by an absence of a real complexity of thought and argument.   

The basic issue, I think, is this. Given how postmodernist prose is so often fixated with alleged power relationships and loaded with political ambition, it matters quite a lot that the key assumptions and assertions are clearly argued and open to testing. The chain of thinking and points of reference should be clear and contestable, even by non-specialists. But very often what we find is exactly the opposite and the effect is not to “convey nuance,” as Butler claims, but to obscure basic assumptions and their tendentious nature. Taken very broadly, postmodernist prose doesn’t so much argue as presume the reader’s agreement. In turn, readers who find the alleged conclusions agreeable, not least politically, may not be too fussy about how those conclusions were arrived at. What we have, it seems, is a license to preen and assert, unopposed by outsiders. Thus, we arrive at sentences such as this, from Bombs and Bytes: Deleuze, Fascism and the Informatic by Anustup Basu, a Cultural Studies Fellow at the University of Pittsburgh’s Department of English:

To be mediatised literally means to lose one’s rights. Hence, what happens to the idea of government by the people and for the people if the ‘false’ is produced as a third relation which is not the synthetic union of two ideas in the conscious mind of the citizen or the general intellect of the organic community, but is a statistical coming together of variables?

If you think you misread that sentence, try reading it again.

Butler tells us that her opaque prose, like that of her colleagues, is necessary to “defamilarise” assumptions of sexuality or whatever and thus avoid the “oppression” that’s allegedly inherent to more commonplace language. In much the same way, Frank Lentricchia and Thomas McLaughlin have claimed, unconvincingly, that everyday language is (in some never-quite-pinned-down-but-allegedly-systematic-way) acting in the service of capitalism, patriarchy, etc. If memory serves, no actual proof of any systematic problem is offered by the authors, and it’s not at all clear why PoMo bafflegab would be any kind of solution to an allegedly systematic problem that hasn’t actually been shown to exist. (Postmodernist prose is nothing if not a home to the unargued maxim.) And, at risk of stating the obvious, one can address cliché and default association without habitual recourse to question-begging syllogism and technocratic claptrap.

If our usual terms and phrasing have obscured something important or become loaded in some disagreeable way, how can the solution be a form of inflated and elitist language that is itself opaque, mannered and self-referential? The favoured rhetorical framework of postmodernist assertion is prone to its own ideological bias and adversarial role-play, not least when it favours politics over aesthetics, “subversion” over truth and cleverness over scruple; and the more one argues from within that framework, surely the more likely bias and delusion is? As Rick Hills points out, prejudice is simply disguised. Then patted on the back.

Peter Risdon casts an eye over Judith Butler here.

Be subversive. Push the button.

Comments

Alcuin

You make some good points. It is a mystery how such drivel ever gained traction with supposedly intelligent people.

I gather from your "shelves of books on fairly esoteric physics" that you are blessed with a scientific training - unfortunately all to obviously lacking in current culture. The crucial advantage that such training gives is in appreciating that it only takes a single contrary fact to utterly destroy a Theory and most of the reasoning behind it. Yet "critical theorists", faced with such a reverse, simply dismiss the fact as having no bearing on the matter, as did the Pope when asked by Galileo to actually look through his telescope at Jupiter, or would an Iranian Mullah touring Auschwitz.

For a member of our elite of smug sanctimonious prigs (such as their presciousnesses on Newsnight Review) to admit that that have not read Proust would engender instant opprobrium, though just what good Proust is in informing life choices I have yet to figure. However for one of said prigs to admit to not knowing what the "observer problem" is or what it means, despite the fact that is probably the deepest question possible, would probably engender supercilious mirth at the grotty little nerd who asked the question.

The hubris with which these people apply the 10% of their sad little minds that are actually available to the conscious human (the remaining 90% calmly carrying on making decisions that are later rationalised, often risibly) to the largely instinctual, intuitive, irrational but deeply effective concept of "common sense" would seem to cast doubt on their possession of such a quality at all.

David

Alcuin,

“I gather from your ‘shelves of books on fairly esoteric physics’ that you are blessed with a scientific training…”

Actually, no, I’m not. Most of those books were bought by my other half; I just have an interest in some of the subject matter. But that’s sort of my point. A reasonably intelligent person can read those books about QCD or gravitation or whatever and follow the general thinking and ask reasonably intelligent questions, and perhaps find out more. I can spot the bits that aren’t clear to me and ask for clarification. Where claims are made, they’re generally supported with explanations and verifiable points of reference. If push came to shove, I could even check the maths.

But I’m not at all sure the same can be said for many of the “theorists” mentioned above and elsewhere in the archives.

BackwardsBoy

All this talk about alleged postmodern thought reminds me of a phrase we used in Alabama, "If you can't dazzle 'em with brilliance, baffle 'em with bullsh*t".

georges

I know consensus can be boring. But David's experience is pretty well my own. I am not a trained scientist, but I enjoy pop science books, especially about astronomy and astrobiology. David Grinspoon's "Lonely Planets: The Natural Philosophy Of Alien Life" is a wonderful read, for instance. Ward and Brownlee's "Rare Earth" is also a fairly easy read.

Straightforward prose isn't sufficient to make you right, of course. When I first read "Rare Earth", even as a non-scientist, I could see flaws in W & B's argument. But that's the point. People raise objections to W & B's argument, and these objections force them to rethink, refine, improve.

I'm not against difficulty. The Late Beethoven String Quartets are obviously much more difficult to take in than a Coldplay song. But most of us can see how, if we put aside the time to listen attentively to a good recording, old Ludwig's music might start to speak to us. I'd never rubbish difficult classical music just because it doesn't have immediately appealing catchy choruses.

On the other hand, I bought a copy of "A Thousand Plateaus", widely considered to be the greatest masterpiece of Postmodern philosophy. I was up for it. I really tried. I read and re-read the opening chapters. But there was no "Beethoven effect", no reward for hanging in there. Not for me, anyway.

Anna

Richard Dawkins on Jacques Lacan --

"You do not need the mathematical expertise of Sokal and Bricmont to assure us that the author of this stuff (Lacan) is a fake. Perhaps he is genuine when he speaks of non-scientific subjects? But a philosopher who is caught equating the erectile organ to the square root of minus one has, for my money, blown his credentials when it comes to things that I don't know anything about."
http://www.physics.nyu.edu/faculty/sokal/dawkins.html

rightwingprof

Having been a reviewer on several academic journals, I have more than a few times written something like, "This is meaningless drivel" on a submission and given it to the editor. Over the years, there have been more and more of those submissions.


David

Georges,

“I’m not against difficulty.”

Nor am I. But this is the standard lie. If, for instance, you find Deleuze, Guattari and Lacan mostly ridiculous and delusional, there’s a decent chance you’ll be told that you’re “unnerved” by their “difficult” approach, or something to that effect. And there’s a good chance you’ll be told so in a condescending way. The odds of being granted a meaningful explanation of exactly what it is you’re missing and why it’s profound are, alas, somewhat slimmer.

virfil xenophon

I am always amused at the philosophical dilemma that faces the non-Western, post-modernist/post-colonial crowd as they squirm with often visible and publicly voiced anguish over the choice of writing and publishing their screeds against Western hegemony in their own native language (where no one will read them) or using the hated English of their Western cultural oppressors--the very instrument of their cultural "oppression.".

slatts

I once asked my academic sister what post-modernism meant. Whatever you want it too, she replied.

The Thin Man

The effect of reading this pomo prose is a little like listening to some child prodigy musician. The repertoire is carefully constructed to be as technically astounding as possible whilst avoiding all those troublesome but musically satisfying pieces which require the artist to demonstrate expression and emotional depth, or dare I say, soul.

How sad it must be for people like Butler to have the intellect to manipulate language and vocabulary so adroitly and yet have the work be so sterile, inhuman and boring. To have so many words and so little to say.

Or perhaps I'm being too charitable, and the Butlers of this world really are tenured hucksters playing a linguistic shell game.

David

Well, Butler is by no means the worst culprit. While her output is frequently opaque – and needlessly so – the content is, for the most part, merely tendentious, dogmatic or wildly speculative. She hasn’t quite sunk to the level of Guertin, whose “work” is a mix of unsupported assertion and Dadaist jive. (Though it goes without saying that the more opaque one’s writing is, the more tendentious and dogmatic it can be without being detected.)

Lacan, whom Butler namedrops frequently, also objected to the clarity and precision of language, especially scientific language, claiming that it serves as a vehicle for repression, “hegemony,” etc. The usual tendentious guff, and - once again - mysteriously short on evidence. Lacan’s solution to this alleged repression was to churn out indigestible prose, with all of the vices mentioned above, and a kind of pseudo-algebra, which is at best uselessly vague and more often simply absurd.

http://www.richardwebster.net/thecultoflacan.html
http://www.lutecium.fr/jacsib/pages/diagrams.html

But, again, there will always be chancers, inadequates and hokum merchants trying to play the rube. What’s dismaying is that we have an academic environment in which this kind of politicised hokum is not only tolerated, but rewarded with tenure.

rightwingprof

"Butler is by no means the worst culprit."

Mary Daly. Give GynEcology a whirl.

David

Prof,

“Give Gyn/Ecology a whirl.”

[Shudders] I remember someone waving a copy of it at me ages ago - as a joke, I think. Daly seems to be a very troubled woman and decidedly unwell. Not someone to be allowed near students, really. Male students, anyway:

“If life is to survive on this planet, there must be a decontamination of the Earth. I think this will be accompanied by an evolutionary process that will result in a drastic reduction of the population of males. People are afraid to say that kind of stuff anymore.”

http://www.wie.org/j16/daly.asp?page=3

Anna

And look –- she even has her own axe! http://www.marydaly.net/

njartist

"To be mediatised] literally means to lose one’s rights."

What the hell does "mediatised" mean? I looked it up and found "German Mediatisation: Wikipedia: 'Mediatisation was the process of annexing the lands of one sovereign monarchy to another, often leaving the annexed some rights.'" That sure doesn't fit her statement: "To be annexed or transferred from one's sovereign to another and maintaining a set of rights literally means to lose one’s rights." Huh?

Another reference indicates the use of multiple media as in: "I mediatised my artwork when I not only did the original painting of Marx in oils but I transferred it to a digital rendering and from there into a silkscreened image on a t-shirt." Is Anustup Basu saying that as one is translated through different forms of information/communication one loses rights? Is she saying she loses her rights when, for instance, her class lecture is transposed into student notes, a tape recorder, or a book?

This isn't obscurantism. This is illiteracy with a doctorate.

Lovernios

It seems to me that all this verbiage says: "We hate white males (except those white males who lie supine whith legs open genitals exposed to the whip)!"

Wonder Woman

Truly intelligent people with valuable knowledge to impart, are easily capable of conveying complex concepts in a way that a reasonably intelligent layperson can understand. Stephen Hawking is a perfect example of someone who, in my experience, can accomplish this. I know very little about space or physics but I have read every book he's written and believe I can intelligently discuss most of the concepts laid out in them. Being able to bridge the communication gap between learned professional and common listener is a gift that few academics value, anymore.

The examples of academic genius cited in this post, remind me of those spam emails I get sometimes...a paragraph comprised of random, meaningless words, designed to fool the algorithms into thinking it is something it's not.

David

I suppose one could argue that “critical theory” just happens to attract an unusually high proportion of people who don’t write well; but skimming through the literature, it soon becomes apparent that a great many of the authors write badly in exactly the same, deliberate way – i.e., long on namedropping and political assertion, short on argument and persuasive evidence. The same “star” names are dropped - generally with a nod of cultish authority - and there’s the same mangled phrasing, the same needless neologisms and the same tendentious air. Much of it affects a self-conscious “subversion” while being oddly generic in its tenor and conclusions. It doesn’t so much argue as presume the reader’s agreement. It’s actually quite eerie.

From Dennis Dutton’s review of Lentricchia and McLaughlin:

“What holds all the various schools and styles of literary theory together is, according to McLaughlin, ‘a shared commitment to understanding how language and other systems of signs provide frameworks which determine how we read, and more generally, how we make sense of experience, construct our own identity, produce meaning in the world. Theory, then, gets at very basic questions that any serious reader must face.’

This statement cries out for a response. Determine how we read? One would have thought that even more basic was the question of whether or to what extent we are determined at all in reading. McLaughlin’s proclamation assumes we all agree we’re determined by ‘language and other systems’; it only remains for, in McLaughlin’s list, Marxists, psychoanalysts, feminists, deconstructionists, or whoever to tell us *how*. Don’t ask *if*. Not raising certain issues of course makes everything very chummy. On the other hand, if you’re one of those people who likes to question the extent to which reading is not ‘determined’ by language, identity is not merely ‘constructed,’ and meaning is not ‘produced’ but found instead, then expect a chilly welcome in the halls of theory. Basic questions are all well and fine, but they have to be the correct basic questions.”

http://denisdutton.com/lentricchia_review.htm

Franklin

It occurs to me after reading the recent NYT article on trolls...

http://www.nytimes.com/2008/08/03/magazine/03trolls-t.html

...that postmodernism and trolling have much in common: disdain for facts, disdain for orderly argument, a strong sense of what it opposes coupled with a weak sense of what it supports or how it supports it, a love of ad hominem and otherwise fallacious reasoning, and an assumption that they are owed credibility and a forum for their ideas while doing nothing to merit either.

David

Franklin,

Well, Lyotard rejected notions of truth and clarity as synonymous with “prisons and prohibitions”. Lacan made similar noises, as did Andrew Ross, and as did Foucault, who claimed “reason is the ultimate language of madness,” implying that nothing should constrain our beliefs and political preferences, not even logic or evidence. Lentricchia was quite explicit in his belief that the postmodern movement “seeks not to find the foundation and conditions of truth, but to exercise power for the purpose of social change” - presumably at any cost to truth. And Stanley Fish, who rushed to defend Social Text after the Sokal hoax, had previously argued that theorising and deconstruction “relieves me of the obligation to be right… and demands only that I be interesting”.

http://davidthompson.typepad.com/davidthompson/2007/02/art_bollocks_re.html

When so many of the movement’s luminaries disdain rationality and coherence on ideological grounds, that doesn’t bode well for the veracity of any arguments made by their disciples.

Stephen Fox

Perhaps Dr Dawg is on his hols.
Seems a bit banal for him though, to go now when everyone else has too.
It's rather dull without him I must admit...

Molyuk

Anyone caught spouting PoMo deconstructionist drivel in public should be sentenced immediately to get a real job or face the firing squad. Pol Pot was wrong about nearly everything, but he knew what professional academics were good for: fertilizer.

Note to the gullible - the preceding is hyperbole.

rxc

I actually do have technical training, in chemical engineering, and have spent a large part of my career writing bureaucratic/technospeak for the government. This has led to a highly-developed skill of BS detection, and I find my BS detector pegging high when I read postmodern stuff. It is clearly an attempt to baffle with BS, using big words an dcomplicated sentence structures to try to impress people who have no critical thinking skills.

I thought the physics hoax was a wonderful moment of "the emperor has no clothes", but evidently, the coutiers still insisted that he was quite splendid, and they still do. Word games have no end...

David

The problem is that this kind of politicised pseudo-philosophy can have real influence – much of it malign. Attempts to redefine racism as an exclusively Caucasian vice spring to mind, as do many of the assumptions of identity politics and multiculturalism. Variations of the same assertions and rhetorical ploys are regurgitated in the pages of the Guardian. Not just the usual culprits, but people like Priyamvada Gopal, a lecturer in literature and post-colonial theorising whose primary aim appears to be to blame the Relentlessly Evil West™ for everything in sight, including the homophobia found among non-Western societies. (In this, she follows the moral and factual contortions of her Guardian colleague, Decca Aitkenhead, who claims that, “the vilification of Jamaican homophobia implies… a failure to accept post-colonial politics.”)

And in order to oppose “hegemony” and “the American regime,” Ms Gopal will happily side with the clerical fascists who, given the chance, would rob her of the rights she apparently takes for granted, along with those of every other woman who should fall within their orbit. Having assimilated the approved theoretical framework and its adversarial posture, Gopal treats history as if it were Plasticine to be reshaped at will, before propagating whatever “subversive” prejudice takes her fancy. Reading the lady’s articles makes me wonder what happens in her classroom.

Brian H

Gopal sees racism everywhere. She says all white people are "complicit in racist practices" but doesn't say why. It's like you said --no evidence just dogma. She said last year's Jade/Shilpa row on Big Brother was a "play-off between ugly white slags and beautiful Indian princesses --a familiar Orientalist male fantasy." What the --?

David

Brian,

If memory serves, Gopal is also a fan of reparations, on grounds that “we” will always be guilty. She’s certainly obnoxious and dogmatic, and logically inconsistent, but I think Gopal is still a relatively mild example of the phenomenon. More severe cases include Sandra Harding, who claimed that Einstein’s theories of relativity are “gender-biased” and described Newton’s Principia as a “rape manual”. And there’s Frederique Apffel Marglin, who romanticises superstition as a valid alternative to smallpox vaccination. Apparently, it’s “oppressive” to prefer treatments that actually save lives and prevent suffering over voodoo that doesn’t. (I’m guessing Marglin has taken care to vaccinate her own children, while denouncing the same treatment as some heinous imperialist tool.)

http://davidthompson.typepad.com/davidthompson/2007/07/egalitarian-epi.html

sk60

Great post.

clazy

I'm embarrassed to think I ever took Foucault's "reason is the ultimate language of madness" seriously. It's as meaningful as "buoyancy is the ultimate language of sinking." How profound! The problem with the post-modernist cast of mind is that it can't accept limits, but without limits, there's nothing. Really, they want to be unconscious. If it hadn't been for literary theory, they might be drunks or junkies.

David

Clazy,

From the Philosophical Lexicon:

foucault, n. A howler, an insane mistake. “I’m afraid I’ve committed an egregious foucault.”

http://www.philosophicallexicon.com/

clazy

I first encountered Foucault in a class on gender and lit or something like that. Of course Judith Butler was on the list (this was the early/mid 90s). I couldn't stand her, but I did kinda like an extract we read from a book by Linda Williams, "Hardcore". It was about looking, knowledge and control/power, and Williams made repeated references to Foucault. The connection between knowledge and control or power was very interesting to me at the time, so I thought I'd give Foucault a try. Williams made it seem like he had a lot to say on the matter. Well... He did have a lot to say, but I couldn't tell whether he was saying much, and in retrospect, I've realized that he and the rest of that crew disguised the banality, unoriginality or outright bankruptcy of their ideas by dressing them up in baroque nonsense. I don't know how often, when postmodernism was the topic, I would say something like, 'Oh, that's just like (stick something from the 16th or 17th century here),' and I'd be told, 'No no no, you're reading into that, you have to read it in its context, this is quite different' -- though how it was different could never be explained. Today, of course, I see that the difference was mainly the ratio of silver to dross.

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