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UPDATE: Fashionable Nonsense?

UPDATE: A Call to Action

This thread on postmodern metabollocks has now gathered nearly 300 comments. There have been a few gallant attempts at apologia, and if you are convinced by them you will not sympathize with what I am about to say. Good luck to you. But for the rest of us, I wonder whether we could turn to considering possible courses of action.

There must be among us here students taking university courses in literature, cultural studies etc, who are subjected by their teachers to pretentious, obscurantist mindwankery of the kind we have been discussing. Any student beginning a new subject can expect to have moments of feeling overwhelmed, bewildered, at sea. If you don’t understand something in, say, physics, you ask your teachers and, if they are good teachers, they will then work hard to find ways of explaining it to you. “I know it’s difficult, let’s try looking at it another way. Here’s an analogy that some people find helpful . . .” But suppose you are a keen young student reading English Literature and a lecturer says something like the quotation I gave earlier:

We can clearly see that there is no bi-univocal correspondence between linear signifying links or archi-writing, depending on the author, and this multireferential, multi-dimensional machinic catalysis. The symmetry of scale, the transversality, the pathic non-discursive character of their expansion: all these dimensions remove us from the logic of the excluded middle and reinforce us in our dismissal of the ontological binarism we criticised previously.

Here you have a good case for suspecting that your teacher is a fake, a charlatan who has no business drawing a salary as a university lecturer. There is enough difficulty in a genuine university course without lecturers importing manufactured nonsense.

So, what should a student do when confronted with this kind of thing, either in a lecture or in a tutorial or seminar, or in a comment written on an essay, or in an exam question? Don’t accuse your teacher point blank of being a fake. Instead, use the same innocent technique you would have adopted as a child, when a Sunday School teacher told you some obvious nonsense about God. Ingenuously, wide-eyed, ask the teacher, preferably in public, what he means by his words. “Sorry if I seem dense, but I didn’t understand what you meant there. What exactly is ‘multireferential, multi-dimensional machinic catalysis.” If he answers using further mountebankery – “Well of course it means metastable aleatory auto-unification” or “Any fool can see it means subtextual dialectical desituatIonism” – persist by asking him what that means. Try to encourage others in the class to join in and preferably humiliate him. Or it might even turn out that your lecturer doesn’t deserve to be humiliated, because he secretly agrees with you and is only spouting this francophoneyism because he feels forced to by some senior professor.

If there are students here who have experiences to relate, please tell them. I met a young woman who had just obtained a good degree in English Literature at Durham University. Bright and enthusiastic though she was, I was startled to discover that she had scarcely read any actual literature at all. She knew a great deal about ‘feminist criticism’ of books, but as for books themselves her mind was largely a blank. She knew less Shakespeare than I did, and I don't know much. She is only one of many graduates in English, from different universities, about whom one could say the same.

I have just made the one suggestion, that students should ask wide-eyed innocent questions of lecturers whom they suspect of charlatanism. Others here may have better ideas, or refinements of mine. I think it is worth discussing such options because I hear many stories from students, and indeed aspiring young lecturers in departments of literature, who are close to despair because they see the subject that they love, and perhaps their future careers, blighted by the need to wade through swamps of intellectually mendacious, self-aggrandizing, pretentious metatosh.


Here's the original post

On another thread, Ballardian said (of AC Grayling’s fellow professors at NCH):

I know that many of them have a negative stance towards critical theory, for example, which isn't very good for a humanities university. It would be a shame if it ignored everything post-1960.

I responded:

Please explain what you mean by 'critical theory'. I have asked many academics who express enthusiasm for 'critical theory' (often they are arrogant enough to abbreviate it simply to 'theory'), and not once have I EVER heard anything remotely approaching a clear explanation. By "stretch beyond AC Grayling's mates" do you mean stretch to those such as accepted for publication Alan Sokal's magnificent hoax article, 'Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity'?

Ballardian then offered the following explanation:

"Critical theory" I suppose is a clumsy term. I only know anything about it with regard to English studies, where it is sometimes called literary theory, but this can be misleading too, I suppose.

Anyway, what I mean by it is the school of criticism including structuralism, post-structuralism, postmodernism and so on, which appeared around the 1960s, I think chiefly introduced into the UK by Frank Kermode at UCL. I emphasise those labels because they seem to be the most contentious. I know Grayling doesn't have much time for it, from what I've read of you, Richard, you don't either, and I remember seeing Steven Pinker making fun of the linguistic density of certain post-structuralist paragraphs during a presentation. Christopher Ricks is a known opponent of theory too (or "theory" if you like). I would give a lot (though not 18k) to be taught by Ricks, but I can't help but feel that a humanities university wouldn't be worth much without a few scruffy radicals.

I am grateful for the reply but still none the wiser. “A philosophy espoused by scruffy radicals” is not a satisfying definition, much as I like scruffy radicals. Ballardian explains one unhelpful name (critical theory) in terms of three other unhelpful names (structuralism, post-structuralism and postmodernism) followed by the even more unhelpful ‘and so on’. He goes on to mention some names of prominent individuals who are for or against it, whatever ‘it’ might be.

In the field of evolutionary biology, ‘Lamarckism’ means the view that evolution proceeds through the principle of use and disuse, followed by the inheritance of acquired characteristics. Group selectionism is the theory that natural selection chooses between groups of individuals, or other units larger than the individual organism. Mutationism means the idea that evolution proceeds by mutation alone, without natural selection. Physicists, chemists, astronomers, geologists, historians, linguists, economists, legal theorists and moral philosophers would give corresponding explanations of their various ‘isms’.

But I have never yet encountered a concise or clear definition or explanation of ‘post modernism’ or ‘post structuralism’. My scepticism is reinforced by books such as Gross & Levitt’s Higher Superstition, Levitt’s Prometheus Bedevilled, and Sokal & Bricmont’s Intellectual Impostures (published in America as Fashionable Nonsense). I look forward (very sincerely) to hearing a convincing disproof of the working hypothesis that these phrases mean nothing at all and that academics who identify with them are charlatans.




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