Taxpayers of Oregon, Unite! You have nothing to lose but your drivel!
We’ll come back to the picked pockets of Oregon in a moment. First, another allusion to Karl Marx. Even those of our readers who, having led charmed lives, are innocent of the writings of that pestilential sage will have caught the allusion to The Communist Manifesto. They doubtless also will recognize what might be Marx’s single best line, from The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon: “Hegel remarks somewhere that all great world-historic facts and personages appear, so to speak, twice. He forgot to add: the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.”
A curious feature of this phenomenon is how the goal posts for what counts as tragedy and what counts as farce keep moving. Back in 1946, George Orwell observed that “In certain kinds of writing, particularly in art criticism and literary criticism, it is normal to come across long passages which are almost completely lacking in meaning.” Fast forward a few decades and you have the owlish gibberish of deconstruction, the inanities of postcolonial studies, and kindred exercises in polysyllabic grievance-mongering, not to mention the grimly risible productions from the repellent partisans of “gender studies.”
The late Denis Dutton, the founder of the storied Arts & Letters website, performed a public service when, in the mid-1990s, he inaugurated the Bad Writing Contest in his magazine Philosophy and Literature. Running from 1995 to 1998, this competition provided a salutary warning to parents and students of what sort of rubbish they were likely to encounter in their sojourn in the hallowed halls of academia. The winner in 1996 was the philosopher Roy Bhaskar, founder of the movement known as “Critical Realism.” Just how real the movement was you might be able to gather from a snippet of a sentence from the first prize–winning piece—yes, it’s just part of one sentence:
Indeed dialectical critical realism may be seen under the aspect of Foucauldian strategic reversal—of the unholy trinity of Parmenidean/Platonic/Aristotelean provenance; of the Cartesian-Lockean-Humean-Kantian paradigm, of foundationalisms (in practice, fideistic foundationalisms) and irrationalisms (in practice, capricious exercises of the will-to-power or some other ideologically and/or psycho-somatically buried source) new and old alike; of the primordial failing of western philosophy, ontological monovalence, and its close ally, the epistemic fallacy with its ontic dual . . .
Someone actually published this catastrophe.
A certain negative attitude, what Lionel Trilling, way back in the 1950s, called the “adversary culture of the intellectuals.”
Professor Bhaskar (who died in 2014) was moderately eminent but was no academic superstar. Several winners of the Bad Writing Contest, however, were conspicuous lights in that tenebrous firmament. Consider, for example, the winner for 1997, the celebrated Marxist literary critic Fredric Jameson, as glittering an academic cynosure as the processes of tenure produced in the later part of the twentieth century. His winning contribution to world knowledge was the opening sentence of his book Signature of the Visible: “The visual is essentially pornographic, which is to say that it has its end in rapt, mindless fascination; thinking about its attributes becomes an adjunct to that, if it is unwilling to betray its object; while the most austere films necessarily draw their energy from the attempt to repress their own excess (rather than from the more thankless effort to discipline the viewer).”
But perhaps our favorite winner from the annals of the Bad Writing Contest was the angry feminist philosopher Judith Butler, another academic celebrity, who perpetrated this gem of opacity:
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.
One thing to notice about these examples is the way they combine bloviating unintelligibility with a certain patina of menace. This is particularly the case with the specimens from Professors Jameson (what can it possibly have meant to say that “the visual is essentially the pornographic”—“essentially,” forsooth) and Butler (“hegemony,” “power relations,” etc.).
You might be tempted to think that this verbal confetti is meaningless. That is not quite right. It is evidence of cognitive failure, no doubt, and an even more thoroughgoing moral collapse. But such verbal productions are not quite meaningless. They are so prized in the academy because they are effective ambassadors of a message: not an intellectual message, to be sure. As the philosopher David Stove observed of such writing, the intellectual content of feminism, Marxism, deconstruction, etc. is 0 + 0 + 0 = 0.
But utterances can be devoid of intellectual content and still carry an emotional or political payload. And that’s the significance of such utterances from Professors Bhaskar, Jameson, and Butler and their many, many academic confrères (and soeurs). It is just possible that the perpetrators of such prose actually believe they are saying something—that they believe, we mean, that their vatic ululations possess some discernible cognitive content. The adulation that they are accorded by their peers would doubtless serve to reinforce this delusion. In their heart of hearts, however, unless they are mad, they must suspect the truth: that the nonsense they produce as a spider excretes its web has meaning only in so far as it embodies a certain negative attitude, what Lionel Trilling, way back in the 1950s, called the “adversary culture of the intellectuals.”
We have, in these pages, had regular occasion to peek into the dismal workshops where the witches’ brew of these semantic abortions is concocted. These opaque gems from the recent past seem almost fusty now in the age of “micro-aggressions,” “safe spaces,” and “trigger warnings.” The campus battles now seem louder, more guttural, more visceral: they feature spoiled undergraduates screaming obscenities at their college masters (though of course we must no longer call them “masters”) and agitated female professors at university rallies calling for “muscle” to shut down free debate. And yet even now a verbal sausage of such spectacular preposterousness is occasionally vouchsafed us that a titter—half of despair, half of amusement—can be heard throughout the land. And this brings us to the weary taxpayers of the great state of Oregon. For the distinction of perpetrating the latest such gift from Babel goes to Mark Carey, a dean and professor of history at the Robert D. Clark Honors College at the University of Oregon, who, with three co-authors, recently published an essay called “Glaciers, gender and science: A feminist glaciology framework for global environmental change research.” This 14,000-word knot of politically correct gibberish was published in Progress in Human Geography, “the peer-review journal of choice for those wanting to know about the state of the art in all areas of human geography research.” Note that they say all areas.
Longtime readers will remember our report in 1996 on the so-called “Sokal Hoax,” the publication of an essay called “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” in the trendy lit-crit journal Social Text. Written by the physicist Alan Sokal, it was deliberately the purest nonsense. He sent it to Social Text to make a point: that arrant nonsense could be published by today’s “peer-reviewed” academic establishment so long as it was dressed up in the right sort of trendy jargon. Sokal sprinkled lots of deconstructionist fairy dust throughout his article. “It has become increasingly apparent,” he writes near the beginning of the essay, “that physical ‘reality,’ no less than social ‘reality,’ is at bottom a social and linguistic construct,” that “scientific ‘knowledge,’ so far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it,” etc., etc. Note the masterly deployment of deflationary scare quotes around the terms of cognitive or existential achievement, as if reality were not real or knowledge, knowledge.
Sokal’s impish trick was the occasion of much consternation among the academic brotherhood, much hilarity and contempt in the world at large. When we first encountered the handiwork of Professor Carey and his colleagues, we suspected it was Sokal redux, a hoax. But no. It is utterly in earnest, but not a whit less witless than Alan Sokal’s delicious send-up. Behold: “A critical but overlooked aspect of the human dimensions of glaciers and global change research is the relationship between gender and glaciers.” Overlooked, eh? “While there has been relatively little research on gender and global environmental change in general, there is even less from a feminist perspective that focuses on gender . . . and also on power, justice, inequality, and knowledge production in the context of ice, glacier change, and glaciology.” How could this be? “Feminist theories and critical epistemologies [?]—especially feminist political ecology and feminist postcolonial science studies—open up new perspectives and analyses of the history of glaciological knowledge.” Do they now? “Given the prominent place of glaciers both within the social imaginary of climate change and in global environmental change research, a feminist approach has important present-day relevance for understanding the dynamic relationship between people and ice”—really, this goes on for twenty-four pages. The authors propose to “decipher how gender affects the individuals producing glacier-related knowledges,” “to analyze how power, domination, colonialism, and control—undergirded by and coincident with masculinist ideologies—have shaped glacier-related sciences,” etc.
And this is just what Kierkegaard would call a “preliminary expectoration.” The deep purpose of this travesty is to “decenter the natural sciences,” i.e., call into question their objective and cognitive success. Along the way, there is an abundance of inadvertently hilarious PC filigree. Quoting one authority, the authors explain that glaciers are “willful, capricious, easily excited by human intemperance, but equally placated by quick-witted human responses. Proper behavior is deferential. I was warned, for instance, about firm taboos against ‘cooking with grease’ near glaciers that are offended by such smells. . . . Cooked food, especially fat, might grow into a glacier overnight if improperly handled.” Pity competes with contempt. Pity abdicates.
George Orwell understood that bad writing was generally the sign of bad thinking. But even he didn’t appreciate quite how out of touch with reality pampered intellectuals could get.
Responding to the tsunami of ridicule that greeted this travesty, Professor Carey sniffed that “nonspecialists” were not up to understanding the intricacies of his “research.” As if. And although the taxpayers in Oregon should demand an accounting—why are their tax dollars paying for such tendentious rubbish?—so should the rest of us. For Professor Carey’s preposterous piece of politically correct pseudo-research was supported in part by a “continuing grant” of $412,930 from the National Science Foundation, that is, from the fisc supported by U.S. taxpayers.
George Orwell understood that bad writing was generally the sign of bad thinking. But even he didn’t appreciate quite how out of touch with reality pampered intellectuals could get. The bad writing we have adduced here betokens not just cognitive confusion but a deep moral failing: a failure to face up to the basic realities of our common life. So-called “higher” education in America circa 2016 is anything but “higher.” The question is, how long will a credulous public go on supporting an enterprise that is not only irrelevant to the better aspirations of our culture but is positively antithetical to them.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 34 Number 8, on page 1
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