October 21, 2008
Further to ongoing rumblings about classroom monoculture, political grooming and the disrepute of certain subjects, this may amuse. Software developer Chip Morningstar ponders academic insularity:
Every day I have to explain what I do to people who are different from me - marketing people, technical writers, my boss, my investors, my customers - none of whom belong to my profession or share my technical background or knowledge. As a consequence, I’m constantly forced to describe what I know in terms that other people can at least begin to understand. My success in my job depends to a large degree on my success in so communicating. At the very least, in order to remain employed I have to convince somebody else that what I'm doing is worth having them pay for it.
Contrast this situation with that of academia. Professors of Literature or History or Cultural Studies in their professional life find themselves communicating principally with other professors of Literature or History or Cultural Studies. They also, of course, communicate with students, but students don’t really count. Graduate students are studying to be professors themselves and so are already part of the in-crowd… They publish in peer reviewed journals, which are not only edited by their peers but published for and mainly read by their peers (if they are read at all). Decisions about their career advancement, tenure, promotion, and so on are made by committees of their fellows. They are supervised by deans and other academic officials who themselves used to be professors of Literature or History or Cultural Studies…
What you have is rather like birds on the Galapagos Islands - an isolated population with unique selective pressures resulting in evolutionary divergence from the mainland population. There’s no reason you should be able to understand what these academics are saying because, for several generations, comprehensibility to outsiders has not been one of the selective criteria to which they’ve been subjected. What’s more, it’s not particularly important that they even be terribly comprehensible to each other, since the quality of academic work, particularly in the humanities, is judged primarily on the basis of politics and cleverness. […]
For instance, the cleverness that allows Duke’s Professor Miriam Cooke to argue, or rather assert, that the oppression and misogyny found in the Islamic world is the fault of globalisation and Western colonialism, despite the effects predating their alleged causes by several centuries. Professor Cooke also claims “polygamy can be liberating and empowering.”
The basic enterprise of contemporary literary criticism is actually quite simple. It is based on the observation that with a sufficient amount of clever hand waving and artful verbiage, you can interpret any piece of writing as a statement about anything at all… “Deconstruction” is based on a specialization of the principle, in which a work is interpreted as a statement about itself, using a literary version of the same cheap trick that Kurt Gödel used to try to frighten mathematicians back in the thirties.
Indeed. And this is the process by which any number of phantom subtexts are detected, and by which the alleged “feminist philosopher of science” Sandra Harding comes to imagine that it’s “illuminating and honest” to refer to Newton’s Principia as a “rape manual”.
Morningstar goes on to provide a helpful, and pretty accurate, guide to deconstruction.
Related: Let’s Play Bamboozle!