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Theory, Sophistry, Bullshit, Style

Now academized here.

Where questions of style and exposition are concerned I try to follow a simple maxim: if you can’t say it clearly you don’t understand it yourself.
- John Searle

Sometimes the obvious is the enemy of the true.
- Gabriel Stolzenberg

I'm away to go study Derrida, mostly because I really want to know if he's the most brilliant comedian to ever work in academic philosophy. But the first thing about him one has to face is not his rejection of power; not his work in developing structuralism; nor even that he was continually demonized as a nihilist: no, the first thing about him is that he could not (or would not) write well.

And, bizarrely, this foible is at the heart of the most popular dismissal of the unsettling work that Derrida and other postmodernist theorists have flung at us. Taking Searle's maxim (above), the critique goes: they're obscure, therefore they're all speaking shite.

It is suggested that there is a subculture in academic thought uniting the disciplines/buzzwords "Cultural Studies", "postmodernism", "poststructuralism", "La pensée 68", "post-colonial studies" and "Critical Theory" (or even just "Theory"). I hope that this grouping looks as artificial to you as it does to me, but for the sake of this I'll grant it subsistence under the umbrella postmodernism (though the principal buzzword of our time, “Continental philosophy”, is also commonly misused for the purpose)

It is suggested that it is the ruling tendency in loads of humanities departments, and it is further suggested that there is nothing to them: the backlash has been swinging for ages, with a great number of well-written things arguing that the whole (putative) thing is a outbreak of disguised scepticism, or anti-rationalism, or just shoddy, meaningless pretension. There's real bile involved, for an academic abstraction of themes. The detractors will not mind being designated pomophobes.

What self-important shit!

Postmodernism defies definition in part because it is a diverse (and potentially bogus) classification; in part because the term is often used pejoratively, often disowned by those labelled with it; but more fundamentally because any definition of it is self-defeating – to define is to set a fixed semantic limit, and the denial of this objective standard of meaning is a basic thesis of the thing. There is, and can be, no postmodernist manifesto. Here's some themes, though:

  • Breathtaking openmindedness:
    • Semiology as method of inquiry (obsession with signs, language)
    • Semantic relativism as to texts (we apply, not extract meaning).
    • Cultural relativism (rejection of inter-society epistemic hierarchy, all that).

  • Reality viewed as a product of texts (that is, our cultural environment: stories, theories, values, and the “metanarratives” built from these):
    • Scepticism about values in hierarchy (there's a crap joke about "good writing" in here)
    • Non-naturalism,
    • Anti-humanism
    • Fervent belief in power of ideas,
    • In reading as a political act
    • in the importance of unread theorists (pretension)
    • "I define postmodern as incredulity toward metanarratives." - Lyotard
    • Obsession with power (Foucault)
    • Rejection of objectivity, absolute science (Feyerabend)

    And, most pertinently for our purposes:

  • A highly abstract, technical, ironic, and insular writing style. The postmodern theorist places themselves “under erasure”.

  • That is,
  • Being difficult.

Actually, on the note of scepticism, compare:



I’ve dipped into what they [postmodernist theorists] write, out of curiosity, but not very far, for reasons already mentioned: what I find is extremely pretentious, but on examination, a lot of it is simply illiterate, based on extraordinary misreading of texts that I know well (sometimes, that I have written), argument that is appalling in its casual lack of elementary self-criticism, lots of statements that are trivial (though dressed up in complicated verbiage) or false; and a good deal of plain gibberish.
- Noam Chomsky


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.
- Judith Butler

Right. Well, we obviously do have a problem. Why is there so much jargon, though?

Allegation #1: The French Deception

They know themselves that their ideas are empty, so they smokescreen with intelligent-sounding nonsense. Take away the convoluted vocabulary and the impenetrable syntax and you are left with little or nothing – except what is perhaps the most extraordinary religious movement which history has known.
- Richard Webster

Suggestion is: massive obscurantism on the part of many thousands of people working in and around academia. That is, that postmodernism is intentionally and radically counterfeit. This is patently the lowest rank (the grandest scale) of conspiracy theory, and one held by folk who characterize their enemies as the anti-rationalists. Chimes with the Classical smear-campaign run on the Sophists, another movement derided as rhetorical frauds.

Allegation #2: Keeping up with Profs Joneses

Postmodernism as unintentionally elitist: a culture of “bad” rhetorical habits meeting ordinary self-interest to produce confirmation bias and hot air. Practices are reinforced when the peer community, worried about the need to impress, endorses each other even where discourse is turgid and/or hollow. This theory is also quite silly, though is at least human-sounding. More sympathetically: academics are taught in jargon, and much of what we read is laden with it; we mimic this, first of all, because a distinctive jargon is customary in all fields: the convention that contains the other conventions.

Allegation #3: Argument from Sokal’s hoax

Physicist makes some people fall on their ass; his parody passes for sincere Liberation work.

It is a good joke. But some use the affair as a reductio-ad-absurdam of all cultural studies, or all interdisciplinary critique, which it really isn't. It's instead just indication that you should never criticize from the outside (from a position of ignorance, that is), that peer review is fucking lax sometimes; and that honesty in academic research is limited by a process which doesn't need an expert in the discussed field to at least skim it. To suggest that Sokal somehow "debunked" the "movement" makes a hatchet job out of a party popper.

In response, Gabriel Stolzenberg argues with those involved in the "Science Wars" that Sokal was playing with here.

Allegations #4 & 5: The economics of thought
A highly plausible (if cynical) pair of ideas:

  • that jargon proliferates because, when a group has an advantage, they will seek to cement that advantage. (i.e. it is in the interests of each brand of academics to have their own language, so that the long, expensive training they went through to become an insider is, or is seen as, valuable)
  • And, secondly, that there is a strong market pressure towards volume of published researched (rather than “quality”, say), and that what wins journal space is what what deals with the academic flavour of the month and talks the orthodox talk. Jargon and the other hallmarks of research writing could thus be seen as a protective scholarly veneer of rigour and sophistication (or a “preference falsification”).

In the current crisis of hiring freezes and intense pressure for tenure, the need to publish is perhaps greater than any time before. Yet to publish in most journals means flinging the jargon, toeing the party line (which is somewhere to the left of gibberish), and quoting the usual suspects (Benjamin, Foucault, Derrida, Said, Jameson, Butler, etc.). I’m often appalled at my own writing, but since jargon, rather than substance, gains a publication, I succumb to verbiage.

- Anon philosopher feeling this moral hazard,
sent to Dutton's Bad Writing contest

Allegation #6: Writing to impress rather than inform
Ease might even be interpreted as lack of quality in contexts like serious research. There were another series of studies a couple of years ago (which I can't bloody find, now) which found a psychological bias towards jargon and mumblespeak.

One was an experiment in which two economics papers expressing the same propositions (as original, as well-researched as each other) were submitted to a presumably unbriefed marker. One was clearly written, with a minimum of maths, the other was “badly” written and filled with extraneous proofs. The latter type was consistently marked higher. The implication is that complexity can be impressive, blindingly so.

This suggest that the prevalence of jargon may be due, not to any dishonesty on the part of academics, but to a basic tendency of the mind to 1) esteem things which it already concurs with (“confirmation bias”) and 2) to esteem things which confound it (mysticism). (Anecdotal evidence here.)

Justification #1: The politics of clarity

Pomophobes tend to assume:
  1. that language can be neutral (that style and content are separable);
  2. that univocity prevails (that author-intention is the first and only really pertinent content of a text);
  3. and that “clear” writing can come without ideological baggage.
From Roland Barthes: In truth, [clear] writing is clear only to the extent that it is generally accepted... For to write is already to organize the world, it is already to think."

Texts are not to be thought of as divisible into form (language) and content (recovered pre-language), because form itself is shot through with cultural assumptions. We should be wary of following “clear writing” on to “good writing”, since this is a built-in snob, like “good taste” or “propriety”.

Adorno surely had it right when he wrote about those who recirculate received opinion: 'only what they do not need first to understand, they consider understandable; only the word coined by commerce (and really alienated) touches them as familiar.'
- Butler

The claim is that readable writing is so because it tends to be mere truism, reuse of existing (and thus probably politically corrupt) ideas. The postmodern progressive sees a need to form “alternative procedures” of writing, and arguments often proceed from Marxist premises – for example, that what is “ordinary” or “common sense” is likely to be politically conservative (the theory of stable ideologies) – and from there conclude that the values and idioms of “clear writing” are basically bourgeois.

A piece is readable because familiar;
familiar, because conventional;
and “conventional” implies conservative.

There is an idea, which even some philosophers (such as Stephen Stich and Brian Leiter) have taken up, which is that what is left for philosophy/the non-sciences to do is to tidy up our thinking, no more. To just resolve linguistic illusions; define; clarify; and maybe unify. Postmodernism is the will to rip off the apron and throw out the dustpan. From this perspective, a text’s being called problematic is not at all pejorative, but to be aimed for; jargon is taken to be a symptom of this struggle; groundbreaking, as it might be put clearly, is messy.

Allegations #2, #4 and #5 all suggest poor presentation habits getting reinforced – but these typically apply to all fields, and extend well beyond university. None of the attributes of “bad writing” listed above are only postmodernists. No one makes this criticism of Kant, and he more or less coined his own German to write in. Wittgenstein can often be whimsically unhelpful, as when he says things like: “I should not like my writing to spare other people the trouble of thinking.”

Justification #2: Insularity from specialization

We might take jargon to be just the shorthand of the professional, enabling concise, precise discussion amongst pre-engaged peers.
[One reason we have difficulty reading Derrida] is that he is a Continental philosopher, with a range of reference that is not widely available outside that tradition. Many of his more impenetrable remarks turn out to be allusions to Plato, Hegel, or Heidegger, and not obscure at all to people who have those writers at their fingertips, in a way most of us don’t.
- Catherine Belsey

Academia continues to fragment into subfields with their own niche journals: an academic today whose paper is read by, say, a thousand people is unusually successful. As to allegation #1 and #2: it is likely that there is no conspiracy at play, but simply that work is written to a committed, specialist audience. What this insularity says to the stated intent of many postmodernists (to effect change in the world) is another matter.

Justification #3: Intentional writingness (complexity & indeterminacy)

A friend of mine who tries to read Friedrich Nietzsche once described the ambiguous/symbolic style of Thus Spoke Zarathustra as just “dickery”, but there is an underlying doctrine to it. Nietzsche wanted to emphasise the validity of perspectives and the fact that speech is never only one thing (the “multivocity” of language); this is writing made “difficult”, not so as to exclude, but to encourage multiple readings. This foreshadows the project which amounts to the positive element of postmodernism: it would not suit Derrida for us to ever fully understand his work, because this would assert our reading as The Reading, and this kills all the other ones.
Good prose is like a window pane.
- Orwell
but this is precisely the opposite of the provocative wall that postmodernists might aim for. Catherine Belsey explains that: “…it is important from the point of view of the case against logocentrism to demonstrate in practice that language is not transparent, not a pane of glass through which ideas are perceptible in their pure intelligibility.” Convolution makes the reader work. When reading Derrida, you are not allowed to forget that you are reading; the text’s opacity forces us to be reflective and reflexive, if not paranoid.

It's too easy to cry "Enlightenment!" (for either side: as a rallying cry or an insult). There's politics under this all, and by "politics" here I mean hidden agendas. The twenty-year old debate is not simply:


(or, if it is, then it anyway can't be separated out from other bickering, some of which is as old as rational inquiry:)

How many of you consider yourselves politically Left, or would like to? How often have you heard the complaint that there isn't a proper Left anymore? It occurs to me that the answer got lost inbetween these two camps, both of whom consider themselves socially progressive. Half the people who might have prodded us on have retreated into sullen academic radicalism, to be mocked and suspected by the other half.

Anyway, I refuse to take the pomophobe's (valid) aesthetic criticism to be the grand exposé they want it to be. As an undergrad (that is, a hick) and a sympathetic sort (that is, a mark), I reckon there's a great deal to be done before I can write off (or endorse) Jacquie D and his mates.

Here's a start: the passage that opens this blog, when unpacked, is not (just) a slightly spooky piece of wank, but actually (also) a really lucid ironic point about prejudices in the work of Plato. It even leads us to a Big Ass (Clear) Claim: that speech is just a kind of writing. Why this matters even if it is true... well, you'll have to give me a minute.

Last word:
There are three reasons why we have difficulty reading Derrida. The first is that he is a (Continental) philosopher, with a range of reference that is not widely available outside that tradition. Many of his more impenetrable remarks turn out to be allusions to Plato, Hegel, or Heidegger, and not obscure at all to people who have those writers at their fingertips, in a way most of us don't.

Second, he is very meticulous. What can seem repetitive and precious comes from a desire to be precise.

But third, it is also important from the point of view of the case against logocentrism to demonstrate in practice that language is not transparent, not a pane of glass through which ideas are perceptible in their pure intelligibility.

- Catherine Belsey

Though another dubious motive presents itself...

At the moment, to defeat the great capitalist beast, you have to create secret circles, to hide things. Things have to be hidden in such a way that they're not so easily findable or understandable, at least by the functionaries of capitalism. You have to confuse them. - Felix Kubin


  1. Not to dis Catherine Belsey, or focus on a minor point, but correct me if I'm wrong: wasn't Foucault also a Continental philosopher? Because if he was, and he found Derrida so unclear as to accuse him of "Obscurantist Terrorism," that seems like a fair reason to think that Derrida really was simply an unclear writer, even if that was not his intention.

    To jump onto another point, the idea of a "demonstration in practice" of the assertion that language is not a window into people's actual thoughts seems worthless, if one is going to do so by making texts difficult to read. Showing that a window can be caked with mud doesn't show that a window can't be reasonably transparent. Surely postmodernist thinkers understand that point, and so it makes more sense to suppose that, if they're really so unclear to people despite their efforts, it's for other reasons.


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