Dustbins of history, landfills of theory

Tuesday, 30 September 2008 — 11:54pm | Literary theory, Literature

Scholars of the theoretical humanities (by which I mean the philosophical and literary species) would be wise to heed the post at Gene Expression bearing the belligerent and self-explanatory title, “Graphs on the death of Marxism, postmodernism, and other stupid academic fads.” The short version: an empirical scan of the JSTOR database reveals that many of the great buzzwords of theory, from “psychoanalysis” to “deconstruction”, are plummeting in prevalence in scholarly articles and citations. The author clarifies the methodology in a follow-up post, and then goes on to produce a set of graphs on “scientific approaches to humanity”, which I take to mean “investigations of material determinism and how far it extends.”

Naturally, this won’t amount to a hill of beans to the apologists who deny the existence of an empirical reality outside discourse and have no use for the positivist prejudices of the hegemons who have the nerve, the nerve to quantify things. Well, it’s their loss.

As someone who studied both the hard sciences and literary theory in considerable measure, I am compelled to make a few quick remarks of my own. If theory in its present incarnation is indeed collapsing, I lay the blame on what I like to call the Two O’s (ooh!): overextension and obscurantism.


Literary studies have a reputation as a rotting graveyard where discredited ideas go to die. Cognitive psychologists chased Freud out of town, and economists did the same to Marx. Lo and behold, pick up a stack of undergraduate English papers and you can wallpaper your study with Freudian-this and Marxist-that.

I don’t see this as a problem. In fact, I find it perfectly understandable. The magic of literature is that you can remove or replace the external, referential reality signified by the words on the page, and you still have something worth studying. So it’s no surprise that homeless theories set up camp under literature’s big tent as relevant case studies of how we construct representations of the world and understand it through metaphor—never mind if those representations are “true”. (This is also my position on religion.)

On top of that, it is imperative for students to develop some fluency in the jargon of the history of ideas, whether those ideas remain current or not, because formerly empowered discourses served as the basis for existing work in the discipline. If you know your Freud, you will never run out of things to say about Alfred Hitchcock.

Why, then, are some of the most reliable workhorses falling out of fashion? I pin it on inflated delusions of political relevance—a bubble now ready to burst with disillusionment.

There is no doubt that what the study of literary artifacts tells us about the construction of signs has an important role to play in our understanding of how language shapes the documents—scientific, historical, or otherwise—that we ordinarily do not regard as “literary”, viz., the reader has no contractually agreed-upon disposition to suspend belief. The trouble occurs when theorists, intoxicated by the Whorfian extremities of linguistic relativity, mistake it for the irrelevance of the observable world. At that point, the applicability of the philosophical tradition cowering under the literary umbrella becomes suspect.

As a consequence, we are now stuck with a tenured radical left that no longer challenges hegemonic power structures with empirical inquiry and cool logic, but regards those trusty instruments of free thought as part and parcel of a subversive imperial project to eradicate other cultures under the socially constructed banner of global development. However noble the intentions of these theorists may be, this is a position of grave moral poverty, and it will not stand.

Admittedly, “scientific approaches to humanity” also have a record of overextension. There is a lot of bad science out there, most of which involves the advancement of spurious social claims unsupported by the evidence that actual scientific rigour would demand. (This is equally the fault of irresponsible journalism and a persistent incentive to secure grant funding by exaggerating the applications of trivial results.) But scientifically motivated excesses like the Nazi regime’s specious taxonomy of race have a built-in fail-safe mechanism: they leave themselves open to summary rejection by scientific means. The misapplications may be perverse, but the methodology is sound.

Now consider this: as soon as you ascribe to the total relativism of much postmodern theory and its insistence on reading texts against themselves, and are so bold as to apply those lessons to every text in sight, you surrender any and all intellectual grounding for discrediting Holocaust denial. How d’you like them Godwins?

Obscurantism (I)

Theory is hurt, more than anything, by the stubborn refusal of many theorists to express their ideas clearly.

One of the things you learn when you read about the construction of freestanding towers like Burj Dubai is that the higher you build a structure, the stronger the lower levels must be. The first story must support more weight than the second, and so on. While this is completely intuitive, it’s not a consideration you easily infer from your everyday experience with plastic LEGO towers or wooden Jenga towers, where the blocks are so light that compressive force will simply never be an issue. Many theorists in the humanities seem not to have learned it.

As it happens, the principles of civil engineering apply to ivory towers as well as they do to concrete ones. The measurable decline of theoretical buzzwords in the JSTOR corpus is, I suspect, the direct repercussion of these disciplines’ architectural habit of building upwards, not outwards. I suppose you could say they start teetering.

You can see this reflected in the syntax and morphology of the obscurantists, which thrive on concatenation. Notice how readily these writers stretch every clause into unparsable verbal spaghetti and enrich their lexicon by appending suffixes upon suffixes (popular culprits include -ity, -ism, and -ize). Why say “problem” when “problematic” [n.] will do? Corollary: why say “problematic” [adj.] when “problematical” will do? And if the difference is important, why explain it?

James Miller provides a comprehensive overview of the problematic problem in “Is Bad Writing Necessary?”, where he depicts the debate over clarity as an ongoing battle between George Orwell and Theodor Adorno. I will not discuss all of the key passages here, but I do wish to focus on the argument from “technical expressions”, a common argument from Adorno and his obscurantist acolytes (among them, Judith Butler). In Miller’s paraphrase:

“It avails nothing ascetically to avoid all technical expressions.” Serious writing sometimes requires jargon: the sorts of terms that circulate in any highly evolved science. It would be absurd to demand of a physicist like Einstein or Bohr that he write in prose intelligible to the layman. In Adorno’s eyes, German philosophy has some claim to the title of science, and it certainly has evolved its own glossary of technical terms. Just because a bunch of American yahoos have never read Kant and Hegel is no reason to abandon an exacting vocabulary.


Like Adorno, today’s critical theorists have steeped themselves in the vocabulary of German philosophy, from Kant and Hegel to Husserl and Heidegger, augmented by an infusion of terms from more recent French philosophers, especially Foucault. Jargon that is intolerable to a general reader is not only a source of power; it is also a convenient shorthand for conveying the results of inquiry in most academic disciplines, from physics to sociology, and not excepting feminist theory, literary criticism, and cultural studies.

The flaws in the “technical expressions” argument are manifold.

First of all, it only pertains to vocabulary, and says nothing of tangled syntax.

Furthermore, in science we study not Einstein, but relativity; not Bohr, but the atom. It doesn’t matter if we write E = mc2 or $ = &@2. You could rewrite every convention of arithmetic to read like the recursive nests of Polish notation, where Einstein’s equation can be expressed as the truth of the statement (= E (^ (* m c) 2)), and maybe replace the numeral “2” with a bug-eyed squiggle while you’re at it. It makes no difference, because you can follow your own course of independent observation and derivation and arrive at the same proportionality of mass to energy. If we were not so keen on giving credit where credit is due, we could tear up Einstein’s original papers and rebuild them from scratch. His prose is irrelevant. The derivation exists outside of its textual expression: it is logical, not rhetorical.

In philosophical writing, a Husserlian or Heideggerian specimen of rhetoric itself becomes an object of study to be decoded; we flatteringly call these “primary sources” and insist upon consulting them in case any of the meaning has been misplaced or lost in paraphrase and translation, which happens all too often. Why? Because the meanings of overdetermined words are unclear and cannot be independently traced. We should be concerned that these writings require decoding at all. The study of philosophy, in the continental tradition especially, is thus inherently person-centric and inherently susceptible to fallacious arguments from authority.

The specialist terminology in scientific disciplines is consensual and well defined. Some people are grumpy about the criteria for distinguishing planets from dwarf planets, but they do not defy the standard; they acknowledge the presence of authority where it exists. I see no evidence of such a consensus in philosophical jargon, where you can look at this winning paragraph by Judith Butler

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.

… and, all things considered, have no idea whether the “power” she speaks of is Nietzsche’s, Foucault’s, or somebody else’s entirely. Philosophers have a nasty habit of appropriating words that are already loaded with conventional meaning. Physicists make up words like “quasars” or at least string them together in unconventional compounds (“strange attractors”, “dark matter”); when they use common words like “wave” and “particle”—and yes, “power”—the contextual definition is unambiguous.

Of course, I would not expect philosophers who chain themselves to radical ideology (exercise: define “radical”) to ascribe to any consensus, as they regard all reified, conventional meanings to be unjust instruments of power that mask their origins. In truth, it is the pollution of meaning that hides the origins of signification.

Obscurantism (II)

What is clarity in writing? It is when the medium of language recedes as far as it can to ground the figure of the message. (B-b-but sir, McLuhan said the medium is the message! Yes, he did. I’ll get to that in a second.) This doctrine only makes sense when the ideas in the message’s “content” have an independent referential existence. This isn’t to say that the referred-to object, or signified, must “actually” exist in an empirically observable sense: what I mean is that the signified concept should be independent of its notation.

In short, clear writing is translatable. As Douglas Hofstadter explains in Le Ton beau de Marot (which I reviewed last week), language is at its least translatable when the medium is so tightly wedded to the message that the message is a self-referential statement about its containing form. The medium is the message, but different messages “are” their media to different extents. The tightest binding occurs when the medium is the object to which the message refers, and the basis on which it depends.

Obscurantist theorists write in a manner that is deliberately constructed to defy reduction, paraphrase, and translation. This is because many proponents of the postmodern school discard the idea that there is anything outside language to which we can refer. To define their terms and condense their ideas, they say, is to “do violence” to the text and play into the hands of the hegemonic structures they wish to subvert.

Consider Judith Butler’s hysterical self-victimization in “A ‘Bad Writer’ Bites Back”, a piece in The New York Times to which I half-jokingly refer as the only thing Butler has written in the English language:

[…] why are some of the most trenchant social criticisms often expressed through difficult and demanding language?

No doubt, scholars in the humanities should be able to clarify how their work informs and illuminates everyday life. Equally, however, such scholars are obliged to question common sense, interrogate its tacit presumptions and provoke new ways of looking at a familiar world.


If common sense sometimes preserves the social status quo, and that status quo sometimes treats unjust social hierarchies as natural, it makes good sense on such occasions to find ways of challenging common sense. Language that takes up this challenge can help point the way to a more socially just world. The contemporary tradition of critical theory in the academy, derived in part from the Frankfurt School of German anti-fascist philosophers and social critics, has shown how language plays an important role in shaping and altering our common or ”natural” understanding of social and political realities.

But what you cannot derive from foundations, you cannot teach. This is why the jargon of the postmodern theories that are now falling into disfavour are doomed to have about as much traction as the gender-neutral pronouns that people periodically invent to supplant “him” and “her”. One simply cannot wage a singlehanded war against linguistic convention. And if you try, you must at least dip into those loathed conventions to explain what you are doing.

There is much in Derrida that is worth a look; I have an especial fondness for his critique of the subservience of writing to speech, the logical manoeuvre at deconstruction’s heart. And there are a great many things we can learn from deconstruction, should we be so prudent as to restrict its problem domain to the study of representation, or semiotics, where the signified referents of language are welcome to sit on the sidelines. Unfortunately, most of the scholars who immerse themselves in Derrida (Gayatri Spivak, anyone?) are so eager to practice what he preaches that they wind up disseminating neither Derrida’s ideas nor their own. Eventually, those ideas will die.

Freud and Marx at least had the courage to express themselves not in ouroboric platitudes, but in language that left their respective theories and methodologies open to scrutiny. Their ideas cannot hide behind the shield of “You don’t understand”, “You must not be reading it correctly”, or “Terry Eagleton only damages himself by refusing to read and engage Gayatri Spivak’s important contribution to the theory of cultural studies with the seriousness that it deserves.” (So says Judith Butler, whose defence of Spivak amounts to, “A lot of people read her and nod their heads; ergo, she must be ‘provocative and indisputably important.'”)

Like the worst elements of religious orthodoxy, spurious theories abuse language to protect themselves from challenge by erecting a tautological wall. In the end, we are left with a localized pool of incestuous memes that know how to survive, but not how to expand their reach. Meanwhile, the rest of intellectual history evolves some legs and marches on past.


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