North Western Winds

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No laughing matter

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Roger Scruton, on the dour impenetrability of academy’s high falutin’ “critical method” (full text here):

Take a look at the average Department of English or Modern Languages in America, at the publications of university presses in the humanities, at the learned journals and conference programs, and you will be presented with quite another vision of culture from the one that my contemporaries acquired. Western culture will still be an important theme; but it will be approached as something alien, culpable, oppressive, something to be held at a distance or, if approached, subjected to acts of sustained aggression. The teacher in a humanities department will not, as a rule, be imparting Western culture to the students, but inoculating them against it. He or she will be assuming a standpoint outside that culture, adopting ‘methods’ that allegedly distance him from the texts and works of art that he studies and which purge him of any commitment to their vision.

On the surface, these methods are highly disparate and not obviously compatible. To venture the briefest of summaries: there is the neo-Marxist approach of Fredric Jameson; the structuralism of Roland Barthes; the post-structuralist theory associated with Michel Foucault; there is feminist criticism, either in its staid American version typified by Judith Butler or in the flamboyant and anarchic vision of Luce Iragaray and Julia Kristeva (who also adds a Marxist and a structuralist flavour). There is the ‘Deconstruction’ of Jacques Derrida, the postmodernism of Jean-François Lyotard, the New Historicism of Stephen Greenblatt, the post-colonialism of Edward Said, the New Pragmatism of Richard Rorty, and the spectacular advances made by Queer Theory and lesbian discourse analysis.

However, the appearance of variety is deceptive. What these ‘methods’ have in common is far more important than what distinguishes them, since it is the thing that explains why they exist. They are united in their oppositional stance to Western culture and to the civilisation from which that culture has grown. And they share a predilection for intellectual gobbledygook. Moreover, there is a deep connection between the gobbledygook and the political agenda. The gobbledygook is a kind of alchemy, which clothes the agenda in a veil of expertise, while also rendering it immune to rational criticism. I won’t burden you with examples, and in any case, you all know the style. But here, nevertheless, is an illustrative sentence from Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak:

The rememoration of the ‘present’ as space is the possibility of the utopian imperative of no-(particular)-place, the metropolitan project that can supplement the post-colonial attempt at the impossible cathexis of place-bound history as the lost time of the spectator.

There are a lot more empty sentences where that one came from and now that Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont have compiled their sottisier (Intellectual Impostures), it is no longer scandalous to laugh at them. What the reader is immediately aware of, however, is that, whatever the sentence is about, it is no laughing matter. The style is one of po-faced, or pomo-faced, seriousness, not without a certain air of menace. The ability of writers like Sokal to laugh at such utterances is matched by the total inability of their authors to laugh at anything. Literary ‘theory’ is a joke-free zone, and never more humourless than when pretending, as Jacques Derrida sometimes pretends, that it is all a joke. For laughter, like irony, is a kind of acceptance. In the normal run of things to laugh is to forgive, since what we see as absurd no longer threatens us. Literary theory, however, is not prepared to forgive its target for anything whatsoever.

For the advocates of literary theory, Western culture is an oppressive burden that must be cast off. For this reason, their meaningless sentences contain clues to a meaning that is seldom overtly stated, but left as it were to shine through the greyness of the prose like a fire burning beyond it. In the sentence that I quoted you will recognize some of these clues: the reference to a utopian imperative, a metropolitan project, which is part of a post-colonial attempt. Words like ‘imperative,’ ‘project,’ and ‘attempt’ all indicate a call to action. Invented words (‘rememoration’), out-of-place technicalities (‘cathexis’, echoing Strachey’s mistranslation of Freud), unexplained quotation marks (‘present’) and parentheses (‘no-(particular)-place’), and references to abstractions such as space and time serve to neutralize the normal process of meaning. Only through the clues — words like ‘utopia’ and ‘post-colonial’ — can you arrive at the gist. And the gist is opposition. This writer is setting herself and her readers against the ‘colonial’ world, favouring a new utopia that will rearrange the social and cultural landscape of modern society and also deprive the old culture of its grip.

I profoundly disagree with Sokal, Bricmont, and Epstein. Gobbledygook is far more effective in propagating left-wing and progressive opinions than reasoned argument, for the simple reason that progressive opinions, once explicitly stated, expose themselves to the threat of refutation, something that they do not always survive. The purpose of the jargon is not to find novel reasons for the posture of cultural opposition, but to render that posture impregnable by putting it beyond rational debate. The many ‘methods’ that I mentioned have one thing in common, which is that they do not argue for their political posture, but assume it, and at the same time conceal that assumption deep within a protective carapace of nonsense. In this respect they are theological, rather than scientific, theories: theories designed not to establish some belief, but to protect that belief from assault.

Thank goodness for intellects like Sokal and, especially, Scruton. They are badly needed. Writing like Spivak’s ought to be thrown out. It’s drivel. And if that makes me a philistine, so be it.

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Written by Curt

March 10, 2005 at 5:49 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

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