12 April 2010

Postmodernist writing: the real deal

In case you hadn’t notice (and who could blame you for failing to do so), my previous ‘essay’, "Preconceptualist patriarchialism and semiotic narrative", was a pastiche of absolutely meaningless mumbo-jumbo, randomly generated by this clever program created by fellow Melbournian Andrew Bulhak (click on your browser’s ‘refresh’ button to generate a brand new configuration of po-mo keywords, hackneyed phrases and notable names). A wry dig at the abstruse terminology, liberal name-dropping appeals to authority and banal observations dressed up in profound-sounding language that are the stock-in-trade of many postmodernist and social constructivist writers, the Postmodernism Generator at least produces essays that are, as Richard Dawkins noted, “distinguishable from the real thing only in being more fun to read.”

If you think the impenetrable essays pumped out by Bulhak’s program are simply unfair caricatures of real postmodernist writing, well, have a gander at these examples of the real thing. They practically parody themselves.

We can clearly see that there is no bi-univocal correspondence between linear signifying links or archi-writing, depending on the author, and this multi-referential, 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.

- Psychoanalyst Felix Guattari

In the first place, singularities-events correspond to heterogeneous series which are organised into a system which is neither stable nor unstable, but rather ‘metastable’, endowed with a potential energy wherein the differences between series are distributed… In the second place, singularities possess a process of auto-unification, always mobile and displaced to the extent that a paradoxical element traverses the series and makes them resonate, enveloping the corresponding singular points in a single aleatory point and all the emissions, all dice throws, in a single cast.

- Philosopher Gilles Deleuze

The Einsteinian constant is not a constant, is not a center. It is the very concept of variability -- it is, finally, the concept of the game. In other words, it is not the concept of something -- of a center starting from which an observer could master the field -- but the very concept of the game.

- Deconstructionist philosopher Jacques Derrida

Still holding up to the cognitive assault? How about one more, this time by Judith Butler, a professor of rhetoric at Berkeley, who actually won first prize in the 1998 Bad Writing Contest:

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.

Alright alright, enough.

Now, I hear you protest, “But surely there are other kinds of writing that are just as jargon-laden and incomprehensible to anyone unfamiliar with that particular field, like in physics journals or financial reports.” True, the expository writing of physicists can be hieroglyphics to the rest of us. But this is because physics employs a highly technical language, largely made up of complex mathematics, which is transparent to anyone familiar with it. Physicists do not set out to obscure their ideas or information – especially not from other physicists with whom they are communicating – just so that they can cultivate an air of superhuman profundity. As for financial reports, they most definitely do not have the luxury of being stylishly incomprehensible when billions of dollars’ worth of investments, assets, credit, revenue and expenditure depend on finance experts being clear, accurate and unambiguous, at least to readers who are educated in financial matters. There’s a moral difference between unintentionally confusing people because of their ignorance of the subject matter, and intentionally taking advantage of their ignorance for one’s self-aggrandizement.

Perhaps you think that I’m picking on a soft target by quoting the above passages out of context. This would indeed be a violation of journalistic ethics if it wasn’t for the fact that one can never take plain, simple incorrectness out of context. An incorrect statement is an incorrect statement is an incorrect statement, in any context. Many postmodernist writers are notorious for their child-like appropriation of grown-up ‘science-speak’ in order to lend credence and gravitas to their emphatically non-scientific ideas. They tend to pilfer most from physics; concepts like quantum mechanics, quantum field theory, chaos theory and relativity attract postmodernists presumably because they find their complexity and obscurity (to non-physicists) easy to exploit.

But of course, this trick only works on those who can’t tell their Navier-Stokes equations from their Fokker-Planck equations. In their book Fashionable Nonsense (1998), physicists Alan Sokal (who pulled off the brilliant ‘Sokal's Hoax’) and Jean Bricmont point out the mathematical and factual howlers made by postmodernists in their clumsy attempts to enlist scientific concepts for their ideological cause. Whether it’s confusing relativism with relativity, or misusing Godel’s theorems, or misapplying feminist ideas to Einstein’s famous equation, Sokal and Bricmont expose the outright wrongness of much po-mo writing. Here’s what they think of the reputable po-mo philosopher and sociologist Jean Baudrillard:

In summary, one finds in Baudrillard's works a profusion of scientific terms, used with total disregard for their meaning and, above all, in a context where they are manifestly irrelevant. Whether or not one interprets them as metaphors, it is hard to see what role they could play, except to give an appearance of profundity to trite observations about sociology or history. Moreover, the scientific terminology is mixed up with a non-scientific vocabulary that is employed with equal sloppiness. When all is said and done, one wonders what would be left of Baudrillard's thought if the verbal veneer covering it were stripped away.

And this goes for many other po-mo writers with pretensions of penetrative sagacity.

Now, I’m not decrying the postmodernists’ infatuation with big words. Nothing wrong with flaunting a rich vocabulary. Besides, there’s no excuse for readers to be put off by words they don’t understand when comprehension is only a click away. Neither should they sneer at any display of intelligence, however much it may intimidate them. Anti-intellectualism is just as pathetic as pseudo-intellectualism. Also, verbosity isn’t the issue here; it’s intelligibility (or lack of, in this case). Requiring a dozen sentences to say what could be said with a dozen words just makes you a literary windbag. Not actually making any sense even after writing a dozen sentences makes you an epic F-A-I-L in communication. Thinking that such posturing earns you street cred makes you a postmodernist writer.

Still feel that my po-mo bashing is unsubstantiated? That perhaps I’m merely building up straw men to tear apart with my subjective polemic against a legitimate writing style? Well then, don't just take my word on the suspicious smell of gobbledygook wafting from the po-mo page. Here it is straight from the horse’s mouth:

In order to be taken seriously by French philosophers, twenty-five percent of what you write has to be impenetrable nonsense.

- Philosopher Michel Foucault’s response when asked why he was so clear in conversation but so hard to understand in print.

Talk about a self-incriminating confession!

To paraphrase George Orwell, patron saint of clear language, postmodernist language is designed to make lies sound truthful and nonsense respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. Whenever we encounter such farcical writing, let us do what that child in the crowd did when the emperor strode by naked; call it for what it is.


No comments:

Post a Comment