Friday Ephemera

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.