Intellectual Nonsense and the Fear of Rationality

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We are sometimes alone. In those solitary moments when we attempt to make sense of the world, we may harmlessly come across certain books which strike us as vague and obscure, written by ‘philosophers’ and critics whose knowledge of politics, literature, and cognition appears extensive, backed up with thrilling and unique terminology and numerous hand-picked quotations from physicists and biologists. Looking at such prestigious scientists with their theories and experiments, we might even say ‘Where’s my theory? I want one too,’ with the profound thoughts of postmodern or poststructuralist authors neatly filling this theoretical void.

But things are not as they seem. We are beyond doubt at the wrong side of the library, as the following brief survey of a selection of po-mo supporters will hopefully show. Through a combination of word-play and fractured syntax, these charlatans have released a madness on the world. It should go without saying that the works of the following authors are not necessarily and entirely filled with the exploitation of scientific and philosophical concepts (what Deleuze said about education, for instance, seems sensible enough, if not common sense). But the overwhelming tendency amongst all of them is to produce intentionally and aggressively obscure work largely to intimidate their (mostly privileged and Western) audiences into deeming it insightful, radical, and clever.

But before we observe the wreckage, a few general comments can provide an important framework. Anthropologist Mary Douglas observes in The World of Goods that the standard techniques to maintain intellectual superiority are ‘to erect barriers against entry, to consolidate control of opportunities, and to use techniques of exclusion.’ As certain graduate students of politics and critical theory are aware, the person trying to maintain an illusion of intelligence must work to control the discourse, ‘Otherwise, his project to make sense of the universe is jeopardized when rival interpretations gain more currency than his own, and the cues that he uses become useless because others have elaborated a different set and put it into circulation.’

The rhetorical barriers often appear quite sturdy. After all, if what the postmodern and poststructuralist enthusiasts are actually saying (beneath the layers of catchphrases like ‘symbolic centre,’ ‘interpolated,’ ‘what Baudrillard called,’ ‘différance,’ ‘problematized,’ ‘logocentrism,’ ‘How, then, are we to proceed?,’ ‘s/Subject,’ ‘heterogeneous structure,’ along with the obligatory poetic French or German phrase) can be understood by the person who cleans their windows, then of what use are their jobs? Placing production into the hands of workers, for instance, does not need to be spelled out in polysyllables and can be articulated in terms a child would easily understand.

The widespread unequivocal trust in postmodernist ramblings may reveal something else: that we are afraid of words, afraid of ‘those big words which make us so unhappy,’ as Stephen Dedalus said; afraid too, perhaps, of digging too deep into what Hume called ‘the mysteries of nature.’ Perhaps the sweeping generalisations and comprehensive ‘theories’ of the postmodernists and ‘semiologists’ allow us to feel more at ease, safe in the knowledge that the Marxist’s iron laws of history have offered us the best explanatory account of human affairs.

Of course if by ‘theory’ we mean ‘a well-substantiated explanation of some aspect of the natural world, based on a body of facts that have been repeatedly confirmed through observation and experiment’ (as the American Association of the Advancement of Science puts it), then the use of the term in departments of literature and politics is misleading to say the least.

Though quick to assure us they are more radical than thou, the proponents of postructuralism, the Lacanian ‘psychoanalysts,’ are rarely found, strangely, at community and activist organisations struggling to defend the kinds of oppressed people (perhaps the ‘subaltern,’ for the initiated) they claim to support, preferring to sit in their offices or bedrooms with annotated copies of Spivak and Gasiorek, whose writings, to borrow a phrase from Forster’s A Room with a View, ‘won a great victory for the comic muse.’

Alan Ryan puts the matter well: ‘It is, for instance, pretty suicidal for embattled minorities to embrace Michel Foucault, let alone Jacques Derrida. The minority view was always that power could be undermined by truth … Once you read Foucault as saying that truth is simply an effect of power, you’ve had it … But American departments of literature, history and sociology contain large numbers of self-described leftists who have confused radical doubts about objectivity with political radicalism, and are in a mess’ – hence why your favourite graduate Marxist reading group gathers round the fire to chant the odes of Deleuze and Foucault.

A typical defence of such authors is that they do, in fact, occasionally write revealing critiques of imperial or neoliberal power. Firstly, considering their wages and position of relative privilege, it’s fair to say that they better had say something interesting every once in a while! But secondly, these defences miss a more crucial point; that their actual presentation and writing style renders needless confusion, not least because the majority of the time they speak in riddles to deflect instant rebuttal. Or, they fabricate an understanding of classic philosophical works before setting their own misinterpretations of texts as a gauge to separate the worthy from the unworthy (‘You mean to say you don’t see, as Žižek does, Leibniz’s monadology as a prescient critique of the atomising effects of social networking sites? Then get out!’).

Surely one of the most stupid things to have emerged in the two billion years of organic evolution is the feminist ‘philosopher’ Luce Irigaray’s argument that E=mc2 is a sexist equation because ‘it privileges the speed of light’ – a patriarchal force, like capital letters – ‘over other speeds that are vitally necessary to us.’ Her critique of fluid dynamics is also inspired, no doubt, by her revolutionary spirit: fluids have been shamefully neglected by physicists, she argues, since ‘masculine physics’ privileges rigid, solid things over fluids.

Though their doctoral ‘research’ may beg to differ, obscurantist writers like Irigaray are in fact kicking feminist movements in the teeth by associating them with the irrational, careerist sub-disciplines of Princeton and Yale’s comparative literature departments. To get a sense of what similar contributions by other paid academics are like, any ‘postmodern generator’ paints a fairly accurate picture (http://www.elsewhere.org/pomo/). A quick game of Žižuku will also suffice (http://blog.talkingphilosophy.com/?p=219), as will faking your way through Hegel (http://pervegalit.wordpress.com/2012/06/09/how-to-fake-your-way-through-hegel/).

Woody Allen’s short stories also often touch on the related theme of pseudo-intellectualism. The Whore of Mensa does this brilliantly, as does My Philosophy: ‘I remember my reaction to a typically luminous observation of Kierkegaard’s: “Such a relation which relates itself to its own self (that is to say, a self) must either have constituted itself or have been constituted by another.” The concept brought tears to my eyes. My word, I thought, how clever! (I’m a man who has trouble writing two meaningful sentences on “My Day at the Zoo.”) True, the passage was totally incomprehensible to me, but what of it as long as Kierkegaard was having fun?’

Similar uses of parody as a means to expose pretension and obfuscation seem to have presented themselves to the young James Joyce, who was asked by Father George O’Neill at the oral examination for his English BA at University College, Dublin, ‘How is poetic justice exemplified in the play of King Lear?’ Joyce answered, ‘I don’t know.’ ‘Oh, come, Mr. Joyce,’ O’Neill prodded, ‘you are not fair to yourself. I feel sure you have read the play.’ ‘Oh yes,’ replied Joyce, ‘but I don’t understand your question. The phrase “poetic justice” is unmeaning jargon so far as I am concerned.’ He later told his close friend Francini in Trieste that ‘Ideas, classifications, political terminologies leave me indifferent; they are things one has passed beyond. Intellectual anarchy, materialism, rationalism – as if they could get a spider out of his web!’

As Richard Ellmann records in his monumental biography, Joyce, unwilling to embrace the church, state, or intelligentsia, ‘went through a series of violent changes and emerged from them sombre and aloof, except with the few friends to whom he exhibited his joy, his candour, his bursting youth; even with these he was a little strange, never wholly companionable because each time he laid bare his soul he importuned greater loyalty, until friendship became for them almost an impossible burden of submission.’ Joyce’s parody poem of T. S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ also reveals with a typically subversive wit his intellectual allegiances. Even at the age of 16, in an essay entitled ‘The Study of Languages,’ Joyce had detected in the distasteful ‘tidier’ Matthew Arnold (whose spirit, along with that of Raymond Williams, to this day shines with a soft, tender glow through the halls of English Literature departments) a mind of ‘little opinion.’

Arnold’s brother, Thomas, demonstrates a greater penetration than his brother when he explores in one of his letters, with stirring honesty, the hostility which the radical mind must feel towards society: ‘Take but one step in submission, and all the rest is easy … satisfy yourself that you may honestly defend an unrighteous cause, and then you may go to the Bar, and become distinguished, and perhaps in the end sway the counsels of the State … All this is open to you; while if you refuse to tamper in a single point with the integrity of your conscience, isolation awaits you, and unhappy love, and the contempt of men; and amidst the general bustle of movement of the world you will be stricken with a kind of impotence, and your arm will seem to be paralysed, and there will be moments when you will almost doubt whether truth indeed exists, or, at least, whether it is fitted for man. Yet in your loneliness you will be visited by consolations which the worlds knows not of; and you will feel that, if renunciation has separated you from the men of your own generation, it has united you to the great company of just men throughout all past time; nay, that even now, there is a little band of Renunciants scattered over the world, of whom you are one, whose you are, and who are yours for ever.’

These timeless struggles between clarity and honesty on the one hand, and obfuscation and pretension on the other, can often be detected in the classic misgivings between analytic and continental philosophy. In Invitation to Learning, Russell says the following of Hegel’s Philosophy of History: ‘[It] is a very important book indeed, judged by the effects it has had, and a totally unimportant book judged by any truth it may contain. [It is] important, partly because it presented a pattern in history – a scheme, a system – according to which historical events were supposed to have developed, which of course people like. It is a simple formula and they think “now we understand it all” … I think the course of history is subject to laws and is probably for a sufficiently wise person deterministic; but nobody is wise enough. It is far too complicated and nobody can work it out; and the person who says he has done so is a charlatan.’

The renowned Jewish philosopher and Talmudic commentator Emmanuel Lévinas falls clearly onto Hegel’s side. One of his many studies of the phenomenological school of philosophy bears the exciting title Discovering Existence with Husserl. Like Hegel’s Phenomenology, its words would no doubt be welcomed amongst small groups of mid-teens narrating their first experiences with LSD: ‘To say one doubts reflection is to suppose that reflection at least gives us this doubt itself. Furthermore, when one says that states of consciousness are modified by reflection, one presupposes that the non-modified states are known, for otherwise one could not even suspect the modification, nor even the possibility of reflection itself.’ Lévinas’ internationally celebrated study continues in much the same rhetorically inflated vain, having been translated into a number of languages, though not, oddly, Hebrew. But perhaps this is for the best – the Jews have suffered enough.

Though his suspicious gaze was cast primarily on eloquence, Francis Bacon’s remarks could easily be seen as a valuable lesson to contemporary cultural, literary, and critical studies: ‘[M]en began to hunt more after words than matter; and more after … tropes and figures, than after the weight of matter … [and] soundness of argument.’ Along with Judith Butler (winner of the journal Philosophy and Literature’s 1998 ‘Bad Writing Competition’), the theological jargon of corporate-speak falls prey to a love ‘words’ over ‘matter,’ with its talk of ensuring that it’s the responsibility of employers to continually provide access to low-risk high-yield benefits and promote personal employee growth whilst collaboratively administering economically sound user-centric materials and to authoritatively negotiate market-driven technology, assertively integrate high-quality synergistic infrastructures to exceed customer expectations and stay competitive in tomorrow’s world.

But unlike economists, postmodernists typically reject the rationalist tradition of the Enlightenment, promote a cognitive and cultural relativism which views science as merely a ‘narration’ or social construction (Paul ‘anything goes’ Feyeraband and Thomas Kuhn come to mind), and engage in theoretical speculations removed from any empirical test. It is not at all clear that any substance can be taken from these views, as Alan Sokal (he of the eponymous affair) and Jean Bricmont’s devastating study Intellectual Impostures makes clear. Through exposing postmodernist’s abuse of scientific concepts to lend their own work an aura of prestige, they follow closely in Bacon’s footsteps, as do the words of Michael Albert in a review of the book: ‘There is nothing truthful, wise, humane, or strategic about confusing hostility to injustice and oppression, which is leftist, with hostility to science and rationality, which is nonsense.’

Sokal and Bricmont reveal the infectious nonsense in the works of Deleuze, Derrida, Guattari, Irigaray, Lacan, Latour, Lyotard, Serres, Virilio, Baudrillard and Kristeva. The savage debunking these authors receive in Intellectual Impostures provides the reader with vital intellectual self-defence: If Baudrillard writes that modern warfare takes place in a non-Euclidean space, then I shall know he is a member of the Clown Brigade and will be very careful with him. Equal caution should be paid when we read Derrida, who often appeared to say (if he can be understood at all) that the world should be interpreted from a purely textual perspective, thinking as he did of ‘the text’ as an object of profound, even mystical power, to be regarded with fear and awe, and not simply a product of behaviour (like cave etchings or an artist’s canvas).

It is equally ‘difficult to see,’ write Sokal and Bricmont, observing Lacan’s posturings, ‘how the mathematical notion of compact space can be applied fruitfully to something as ill-defined as the “space of jouissance” in psychoanalysis.’ Where Irigaray sees too much masculinity in science, Lacan can’t get enough: Trying, in his words, to ‘mathematize’ everything in sight, he even likens ‘the erectile organ’ with the square root of -1. ‘Thus the erectile organ comes to symbolize the place in jouissance … as a part lacking in the deserved image: that is why it is equivalent to the √-1.’

In her addition to her remarks on Einstein’s equation, Irigaray makes some other astonishing claims. Nietzsche, for all his flaws, certainly never ‘perceived his ego as an atomic nucleus threatened with explosion,’ not least because of the nucleus’ discovery being over a decade after the German philosopher’s death (she may as well have argued that Thomas Aquinas, when not viewing his kneecaps as πr², had nightmares about his music taste contracting diabetes).

Demonstrating a peculiar disrespect towards the universe, she continues her attack on the laws of nature by asking the following question: ‘But what does the mighty theory of general relativity do for us except establish nuclear power plants and question our bodily inertia?’ Sokal and Bricmont comment of the general thrust of Irigaray’s work by suggesting her writings ‘fall straight into mysticism. Cosmic rhythms, relation to the universe – what on earth is she talking about?  To reduce women to their sexuality, menstrual cycles and rhythms (cosmic or not) is to attack everything the feminist movement has fought for during the last three decades.’

In contrast to this intellectual elitism, the anarchist prince Peter Kropotkin noted in his memoirs a passage that eloquently draws on the assumption on the universal longing for individual inquiry: ‘The masses want to know: they are willing to learn; they can learn. There, on the crest of that immense moraine which runs between the lakes, as if giants had heaped it up in a hurry to connect the two shores, there stands a Finnish peasant plunged in contemplation of the beautiful lakes, studded with islands, which lie before him. Not one of these peasants, poor and downtrodden though they may be, will pass this spot without stopping to admire the scene. Or there, on the shore of a lake, stands another peasant, and sings something so beautiful that the best musician would envy him his melody, for its feeling and its meditative power. Both deeply feel, both meditate, both think; they are ready to widen their knowledge – only give it to them, only give them the means of getting leisure.’

Similar ‘theorists’ to Irigaray also often make peculiar use of Marx’s claim that ‘capitalistic production begets with the inexorability of a law of Nature is own negation.’ How they rejoice in borrowing this and similar phrases in discussing how the ideas of their colleagues, on occasion, bring about their own negation etc.! Perhaps epitomised best through the stylish work of Slavoj Žižek, empty paradoxes and meaningless reversals are without doubt the order of the day. Anyone who has read Žižek will most likely regard his books as a dreary sub-genre of science fiction, their bizarre and often outlandish interpretations of important philosophical texts and popular culture bearing an uncanny resemblance to the work of someone born and raised in a René Magritte painting.

The egotistical and self-obsessed values of our brazenly artificial society can be critiqued quite easily without resort to the inflated jargon of Living in the End Times or The Sublime Object of Ideology: In a lecture delivered at The New School, Chris Hedges explained how ‘The fantasy of celebrity culture is not designed simply to entertain. It is designed to drain us emotionally, confuse us about our identity, blame ourselves for our predicament, condition us to chase illusions of impossible fame and happiness, and keep us from fighting back.’ He opens his book Empire of Illusion by comparing the ideologies and narratives which structure the professional wrestling industry to the mainstream media’s coverage of political elections. If he wanted to, he could have given such similarities an obscure ‘theoretical’ name before adding baseless parallels to cosmology or a footnote of Kant’s; but, lacking such temptations, he made a choice frowned upon in departments of comparative literature and cultural studies: he wrote in plain English.

As Hedges develops in his extensive journalism, popular culture, the mass media, and positive psychologists promote a surreal form of cheerful conformity, assuring us that if we close our eyes and wish for what we want, if we believe in ourselves, if we adhere to the cultural orthodoxy of saving money for fab nights out, if we unleash our hidden strengths, if we concentrate on happiness, we will be, in a sense, main characters – drinking our wine, laughing at our sitcoms, and giving each other generous eye contact; smiling protagonists in a tragic-comic episode of an ongoing series of consumerist fantasies, with the only hope of the illusion ending lying in popular efforts to take back the power of socio-political organization from a handful of privileged elites.

But the clear and sensible prose of Hedges does not impress those academics loyal to the doctrines of ‘theory,’ cognitive relativism being one of the most pernicious. As the self-appointed protector of ‘womanhood’ Germaine Greer explained in a typically scornful article against trans-women that ‘feminist fundamentalists hold that biology is a cultural creation.’ Postmodernist urges for the similar cases of moral and aesthetic relativism purposefully dodge the questions surrounding the origins of universal biological principles which structure our ‘moral grammar’ and sense of beauty (the work of John Mikhail and Semir Zeki is especially useful here).

In short, saying ‘it’s all relative’ is an easy way to avoid the more difficult task of naturalistic inquiry, as is repeating truisms – a game enjoyed by the proponents of postructuralism, which even Wikipedia confesses is ‘difficult to summarise,’ though it takes a shot: Adopting a standard assumption amongst biologists that science has limits, it ‘denies the possibility of a truly scientific study of “man” or of “human nature”’ (with the word ‘truly’ being noticeable), before converting this simple observation into multi-volume works reviewed with much enthusiasm by Le Monde and the TLS.

Régis Debray also achieves an astounding feat of imagination when he draws the following arbitrary connections: ‘Ever since Gödel showed that there does not exist a proof of the consistency of Peano’s arithmetic that is formalizable within this theory, political scientists had the means for understanding why it was necessary to mummify Lenin and display him to the “accidental” comrades in a mausoleum, at the Centre of the National Community.’ One wonders how many Žižuku-inspired games it’s possible to invent from this sentence. As Hobbes said in similar circumstances: ‘When men write whole volumes of such stuff, are they not mad, or intend to make others so?’

Mad or not, it is nevertheless common to hear ‘claims of chaos theory being “applied” to history or society,’ as Sokal and Bricmont add: ‘But human societies are complicated systems involving a vast number of variables, for which one is unable (at least at present) to write down any sensible equations.’ Indeed if, as the philosopher and linguist Wolfram Hinzen argues, a naturalistic account of even the simplest lexical items (house, water) is beyond our cognitive reach, then we can forget about ‘mathematizing’ political and cultural phenomena.

But the charge of cultural illiteracy and conceitedness, of course, is not reserved strictly for po-mo enthusiasts – it can also be directed at many scientists. Popular science books by Hawking, Penrose and Kaku all display similar levels of historical ignorance, their concluding feel-good chapters on the relationship between science and religion being an obvious case in point. Together with the postmodernists, they often fail to address the history and nature of science and philosophy, spouting clichés about the incompatibility of the two (the same could be said of the various forms of ‘spirituality,’ as David Webster – although himself a firm postmodernist – reveals in his scintillating and concise Dispirited: How Contemporary Spirituality Makes Us Stupid, Selfish and Unhappy). Though philosophy has fractured into various domains, much of it is simply early cognitive science (including the theory of ideas, the seventeenth century shift from ontology to epistemology, aided by Locke and Newton, and speculations on the nature of perception).

One of the greatest contemporary philosophers, Galen Strawson, opens one of his essays on metaphysics with the following Russellian statement: ‘Philosophy is one of the great sciences of reality. It has the same goal as natural science. Both seek to give true accounts, or the best accounts possible, of how things are in reality. They standardly employ very different methods. Philosophy, unlike natural science, usually works at finding good ways of characterizing how things are without engaging in much empirical or a posteriori investigation of the world. It has a vast field of exercise. Many striking and unobvious facts about the nature of reality can be established a priori, facts about the structure of self-consciousness, for example, or the possibility of free will, or the nature of intentional action, or the viability of the view that there is a fundamental metaphysical distinction between objects and their properties.’

The thoughts of Deleuze, Lacan, and Kristeva suddenly appear less overwhelming. Countering their exploitation of ‘folk-scientific’ intuitions (regarding, for instance, the nature of ‘language’ and ‘truth’) requires not only dismantling the grip of postmodernist dogmas on the humanities; it also needs what John Cooper Powys called an ‘insanely intense and incorruptible concentration on the mystery of words.’ Group study, discussion and popular activism play enormously important roles in this, as does thoughtful and individual study – since, as Cicero reports Cato as saying, ‘never is a man more active than when he does nothing, never is he less alone than when he is by himself.’ But as Aldous Huxley was all too aware: ‘Science is not enough, religion is not enough, art is not enough, politics and economics are not enough, nor is love, nor is duty, nor is action however disinterested, nor, however sublime, is contemplation. Nothing short of everything will really do.’

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One Response to Intellectual Nonsense and the Fear of Rationality

  1. DavidWebster says:

    A “a firm postmodernist”? Not sure of that… Though if I gave that impression its my fault..I’m very hostile to much of postmodernism, buy hey ho.. Like your quote at the end btw!

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