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“For me the postmodern attitude is that of a man who loves a woman who is intelligent and well-read: He knows that she knows that he cannot tell her, "I love you desperately", because he knows (and she knows that he knows) that that is a line out of Barbara Cartland. Yet there is a solution. He can say: "As Barbara Cartland would say: I love you desperately.”—Umberto Eco 1983
“Suppose you are an intellectual impostor with nothing to say, but with strong ambitions to succeed in academic life, collect a coterie of reverent disciples and have students around the world anoint your pages with respectful yellow highlighter. What kind of literary style would you cultivate? Not a lucid one, surely, for clarity would expose your lack of content. The chances are that you would produce something like the following: We can clearly see that there is no bi-univocal correspondence between linear signifying links or archi-writing, depending on the author, and this multireferential, 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. This is a quotation from the psychoanalyst Félix Guattari, one of many fashionable French 'intellectuals' outed.... ”—
scientist and polemicist Richard Dawkins, Postmodernism Disrobed. A review of Intellectual Impostures published in Nature 9 July 1998, vol. 394, pp. 141-143.
Above we read an assertion without evidence. Dawkins posits that an intellectual impostor with nothing to say would write in a certain way. But where’s the proof? I guess whoever’s reading this book review is assumed to already know what Dawkins (Sokal/Bricmont) are talking about and agree with his implications: namely, that postmodernists have nothing to say, and that they cultivate an obtuse literary style to obscure the fact (and that this somehow also attracts followers).
Who says “chances are”? Dawkins’ attack amounts to a flame.
Here is a not-unusual passage written in that other famously obtuse jargon, mathematics:
The prototypical example of a
C*-algebra is the algebra
B(H)of bounded (equivalently continuous) linear operators defined on a complex Hilbert space
x*denotes the adjoint operator of the operator
x: H → H. In fact every
*-isomorphic to a norm-closed adjoint closed subalgebra of
That’s from Wikipedia’s article on
C* algebras. I think the language is similarly impenetrable to Guattari’s. But mathematics = science = good and humanities = not science = bad, at least in the minds of some.
Here is an excerpt (via @wtnelson) written for teachers of 4–12-year-olds, 40 years ago, by Zoltán Pál Dienes:
psychologically speaking, relating an object to another object is a very different matter from relating a set of objects to another set of objects. In the first case, perceptual judgment can be made on whether the relation holds or not in most cases, whereas in the case of sets, a certain amount of conceptual activity is necessary before such a judgment can take place. For example, we might need to count how many of a certain number of things there are in the set and how many of a certain number of these or of other things there are in another set before we can decide whether the first and the second sets are or are not related by a certain particular relation to each other.
Clear as mud! Clearly Z. P. Dienes was an intellectual impostor with ambitions to collect a coterie of reverent disciples.
I don’t know enough about postmodernism to opine on it. I just get annoyed when putatively sceptical people casually wave it off without proving their point.
(And if you’re going to point me to the Sokal Affair or Postmodernism Generator CGI, I’ll point you to At Whom Are We Laughing?.)
In Lacan: A Beginner’s Guide, Lionel Bailly describes his subject as “a thinker whose productions are sometimes irritatingly obscure”. He goes on:
Most Lacanian theory [comes from his] spoken teachings…developed in discourse with…pupils…. [Various modes of presentation which are appropriate in speech] make frustrating reading. …leading the reader toward an idea, but never becoming absolutely explicit…difficult to discover what he actually said…thought on his feet—the ideas…in his seminars were never intended to be cast in stone…freely ascribes to common words new meanings within his theoretical model…Lacan, despite the fuzziness of his communication style, strove desperately hard for intellectual rigour….at the end of the day, it is … clinical relevance that validates Lacan’s model. [Lacan being a psychoanalyst and his ideas coming out of that work.]
So there’s an alternative hypothesis from an authority. Bailly admits the communication style was poor and gives reasons why it was. But rather than judging the work on rhetorical grounds, we should judge it on clinical merit—the ultimate empirical test!
Compare this to Dawkins. Besides the suppositions I already mentioned, he chooses words like: “intellectuals” within scare quotes; ‘anoint’, ‘revere’, ‘coterie’—to undermine the intellectual seriousness of his targets. Who are the empiricists here and who relies on rhetoric?