The Collapse of Chaos

19 02 2007

The following is an extract taken from the fictitious “Subcultural Sublimation, Modern Neocapitalist Theory and Libertarianism” (Parry and Abian):

“Sexual identity is fundamentally dead,” says Lacan; however, according to Drucker, it is not so much sexual identity that is fundamentally dead, but rather the collapse, and some would say the stasis, of sexual identity. In a sense, several materialisms concerning the paradigm, and hence the dialectic, of poststructural sexuality may be discovered. The subject is interpolated into a semanticist neocultural theory that includes language as a totality.

I am reminded of a joke that was quoted by Jack Cohen and Ian Stewart in The Collapse of Chaos (London: Penguin, 1994):

A yeshiva boy – a young man studying in a rabbinical college – took instruction from three rabbis. A friend asked him his reactions.
“The first I found very difficult, disorganized, and poorly explained, but I understood what he was saying. The second was a lot clearer, and much more clever. I understood part of that.”
“And the third? They say he is very good.”
“Oh, he was brilliant! Such a magnificent, resonant voice – it flowed as if from the heart. I was transported to realms beyond my imagining! So articulate, so lucid – and I didn’t understand a word.” (p6)

The above quote (the high-faluting drivel attributed to Parry and Abian) was actually produced by the wonderful “Postmodernism Generator“. I would highly recommend having a look at this fantastic pseudo-academic resource; it is thoroughly good for a laugh! I owe my finding of this site to Richard Dawkins who, in an essay entitled “Postmodernism Disrobed”¹, uses it to indicate his critique of postmodern “scholarship”. Fundamentally, of course, Dawkins’ critique is made in reference to genuine examples of postmodern scholarship, but they are not too dissimilar from the nonsense printed above.

It is worth mentioning here Dawkins’ Law of the Conservation of Difficulty. This law states that:

… obscurantism in an academic subject expands to fill the vaccuum of its intrinsic simplicity. Physics is a genuinely difficult and profound subject, so physicists need to – and do – work hard to make their language as simple as possible… Other academics – some would point the finger at continental schools of literary criticism and social science – suffer from what Peter Medawar… called Physics Envy. They want to be thought profound, but their subject is actually rather easy and shallow, so they have to language it up to redress the balance.²

An ingeniously funny prank was played by the physicist Alan Sokal in which he concocted his own nonsense piece of postmodern scholarship and succeeded in having it published by the highly-regarded journal, Social Text. Entitled, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity”, the essay is silly from start to finish. You can find it in full at this site, along with various responses to it – by the author and his publishers amongst others.

Is Dawkins correct in suggesting that everybody wishes to simply be thought profound, whether they are or not? I am certain that there are many people who do fall into the category of those who deliberately employ convoluted jargon as a means of sounding sophisticated and intelligent – but are there actually schools of thought that do this on the whole? Dawkins points to postmodernism (with which, to be perfectly honest, I am largely unfamiliar) but also intimates within his Law (as above) that Social Studies and Literary Criticism might be indicted, on the whole, as well. I have certainly found myself reading articles before (particularly in relation to poetry, for some reason) that I have felt to be particularly obscurantist, but I am also unsure of the extent to which that is simply caused by my own ignorance of the requisite terminology.

Is an abundance of terms and categories useful? In many respects, yes. As commented upon in a previous post, having this storehouse of lexical items enables us to think about certain ideas from the outside. A wine-taster who pontificates laboriously over the boutique of a Chardonnay, or a concert-goer who waxes lyrical over contrapuntal fugue, might be looked upon by an “outsider” as verbose to the point of obnoxiousness. And yet these terms (and a plenitude of others) are vital to the developing appreciation of both wine and music. Without them, there is no way to encapsulate the same ideas and, thus, to develop those ideas into grander conceptions. Is this the same with the writings critiqued so entertainingly by Dawkins and Sokal?

The chief difference between the two, in my opinion, lies in the fact that the writings that Dawkins and Sokal ridicule are often saying simple things in a particularly roundabout and convoluted manner; wine-tasters and opera-lovers, on the other hand, are expressing ideas with the only words that match them. Nonetheless, one must ask themselves a very simple question whenever they are giving voice to an idea of their own: Am I utilising complicated terminology because that is my only means of expressing a complicated idea, or am I using it because I would like my idea to appear complicated, despite the fact that it is not. I think that we have all, at times, been guilty of the latter; let’s hope that a recognition of that fact enables us all to overcome it!

¹ R. Dawkins, “Postmodernism Disrobed”, A Devil’s Chaplain: Selected Essays (ed. L. Menon; London: Phoenix, 2004), 55-62.
² op.cit., 8.

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2 responses

23 02 2007
Daniel

It seems to me, at least in “the law”, that you spend about five years learning how to make things sound convoluted, and then the rest of your life trying to make things sound simple again. Most of us never get there.

25 02 2007
Simon Holloway

Granted, there are some areas within which it is difficult to speak simply. I had a (brief) conversation last night with a fellow who was trying to explain to me the pure mathematical notion of bounded infinity (א⁰, I believe). Let’s face it: he was doing a fine job of dumbing things down to the extent necessary, but there is also only so far that you can go when the topic is a genuinely difficult and convoluted one. From my experience, in the linguistic world, the only people who sound confusing are the ones who are confused.

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