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Sokal and beyond
August 18, 2008 1:22 AM   Subscribe

Truth's Caper : essay by Simon Blackburn on Sokal's Hoax.
posted by Gyan (175 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

 
Interesting essay, but lo-o-ong. I was happy to see a member of the pro-science side explain what's so uncomfortable about the Sokal hoax.
posted by grobstein at 2:07 AM on August 18, 2008


An excellent review. Towards the end Blackburn seems to acknowledge the futility of certainty by accepting Wittgenstein's point that the best foundations we can get are those that "stand fast" rather than rock solid certainty. But earlier in the review he had nailed his colours to the flag:

The United States has had its wake-up call, and may have others just as loud. It has been told, brutally, that disagreement matters, and that if our grasp of what we need to defend is feeble enough, there are people out there only too happy to wrest it away from us. It has reacted even more brutally to that alarm by declaring war on people who had nothing to do with it in the first place, and then conducting that war with counterproductive barbarity. It has learned that there is not much common reason that is everyone's birthright -- that when disagreement comes, people cannot afford to shrug.

Well this seems fishy. Its as if he is suggesting that academics' tolerance of these unorthodox approaches to truth somehow left us increasingly open to attack. I don't think attempts to empathise with our enemies weaken our position one bit. If we do heed this wake-up does he propose we further baton down the hatches and insist on the singular truth of orthodox understanding of the world, or do we acknowledge that there are many value systems by which other people are able to lead fully human lives? I don't see why the latter should have anything to do with shrugging. Surly, we need to recognise the danger of any myopic claims to universal certainty, be they religious, scientistic or whatever.

Clearly Sokal's hoax showed that there is a load of bullshit that comes with post-modernism. But lets not through the baby out with the bathwater. Its not as if Thomas Kuhn has suddenly admitted SSSR was just a big joke.
posted by verisimilitude at 3:29 AM on August 18, 2008


SSR - sorry.
posted by verisimilitude at 3:32 AM on August 18, 2008


Postmodernism is an indication of the decreasing relevance of literary theory. Of course, experimental psychology will need to reinvent literary theory eventually.
posted by jeffburdges at 5:47 AM on August 18, 2008


You know, about a third of the way into this I really started to feel like he was using the hammer of the Sokal hoax to drive the Torx screws of whatever it is that's stuck in his craw because, as everyone knows, you don't use a Philips screwdriver to drive a Torx screw.

A few years later and the Sokal hoax wouldn't have happened. The domain socialtext.com would have dried up and blown and way and $25 later there would be socialreview.com with the same staff and same meaningless drivel. The problem is not that people are shrugging and saying whatever. People with crackpot beliefs routinely have them taken down in public. And they go, "la la la la I'm not listening la la la la!" and life goes on.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 5:49 AM on August 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


O God please let's not have this debate again. The inevitable self-righteous howls of "repeatable results! hard numbers! SCIENCE! SCIENCE! SCIENCE!" are just unworthy of us.

As an evil postmodern relativist to the bone, I found Blackburn's argument pedestrian and his treatment of the political implications of postmodernism (for lack of a better word) thoroughly unconvincing. People who wish to convince us of the existence and availability of capital-T Truth and Absolute Morality need to do a lot less handwaving about it and just get to the proof.

"If on the cage of an elephant, you see the sign 'Tiger,' do not believe your eyes."
- Kozma Prutkov
posted by nasreddin at 6:03 AM on August 18, 2008 [12 favorites]


I thought it was a pretty fair article. It seems to me that he blames scientists partially for being a bit dogmatic on how they approach scientific ideas (see his story about his daughter) and defends the editors for publishing the article based on faith that the author submitted the article with good intentions.

The thing is, in the realm of science itself, it's absolutely necessary o have repeatable results and hard numbers. The criticism that has come from outside the realm of science has been, rightly, that science is not always the answer to every question, and that from time to time, scientific discoveries...whether true or false...are just as based mindset of the scientists themselves as they are in the facts being explored.
posted by Deathalicious at 6:30 AM on August 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


The Sokal Fallacy: The claim that authors do in fact have final say over the meaning and significance of their work (in stark contrast to hermeneutics), especially if they are in on the joke and their scientific credentials are used as a bluff.
posted by Brian B. at 6:51 AM on August 18, 2008 [3 favorites]



The Sokal Fallacy: The claim that authors do in fact have final say over the meaning and significance of their work (in stark contrast to hermeneutics), especially if they are in on the joke and their scientific credentials are used as a bluff.


Yeah, I think this is a good point. I have yet to see a postmodernist respond to Sokal by really putting his money where his mouth is--defending the actual article like he would any other, separately from Sokal's own intentions.
posted by nasreddin at 6:57 AM on August 18, 2008 [6 favorites]


Having edited an academic journal, here's a dirty secret: editors have to trust those who submit. If they can't then the entire thing falls apart. "Peer review" doesn't catch everything, or usually yield more than "This seems right to me" or "This guy says what I say so it's right" or "This gal is my buddy so I'm going to go easy. Oh, and footnote 89 on page 6 cites one of my articles incorrectly. Fix that." Trust, trust, trust.
posted by MarshallPoe at 6:58 AM on August 18, 2008


MarshallPoe, the point is that peer review was not used at all by Social Text. That peer review is imperfect is neither here nor there.
posted by matthewr at 7:12 AM on August 18, 2008


People who wish to convince us of the existence and availability of capital-T Truth and Absolute Morality...

I don't see where anybody's talking about Absolute Morality. In fact, I can't find the string "moral" anywhere in the linked article. It comes across rather like you're deliberately conflating two entirely different things, which is unfortunate, because that's exactly the sort of thing that raises people's hackles about the the wobblier areas of postmodern discourse.
posted by flashboy at 7:35 AM on August 18, 2008 [6 favorites]


A very good article, thank you, and it makes an excellent point about the fact that almost any journal could have been caught out this way with a paper from outside of the discipline.

There was something mentioned (just off-hand) which did bother me - that there is often this constant equation between a certain kind of post-modern philosophy, and the study of colonialism and post-colonial situations, as if the discrediting of some fuzzy philosophy somehow discredits post-colonial studies. I'm no expert, but having heard anthropologists, historians, economists, and agricultural scientists, etc, talk/write about colonialism and post-colonialism, I'd say that the forces of reason, evidence and experience are not on the side of the Niall Fergusons of the world (aka pro-imperialism) but on the side of the critics of colonialism.

The reason that this bothers me is that I'm not sure that all of the criticism against post-modernism has been solely about its methodology, but rather because of frankly ideological battles with its practitioners which were not about methods or evidence. There are also modernist echo chambers in some places of the American academe, in which evidence and good methodology are also unimportant to their conclusions.

Maybe this is something which the qualitative social sciences and social writing (including history) are particularly prone, because of the often fuzzy and debatable nature of even the best evidence. But also because of the fashions of the discipline: I know that in history, the quality of the history can often matter less to promotion than the excitingness of what you write. Because there is so much specialization, few people can really seriously evaluate each others work, and so the way you get kudos is about telling the most exciting story or conclusions - the more controversial you are, the more the attention, the more citations, and thus the better a historian, right? (This is more true in some fields than others, especially the most fashionable ones like political and cultural history.)

I think this is also true generally in the qualitative social sciences and humanities (that quality can be often measured in controversy), but it's one thing to exagerrate your opinion on a painting or the meaning of off-hand lines in a novel, and another to make claims about the way the world works based not on evidence but on the narrative power of the story you are telling. We don't live in the Discworld - narrativium does not direct how our universe works (though it's definitely very powerful in our minds), whether a post-modernist narrative, or a modernist narrative.
posted by jb at 7:36 AM on August 18, 2008 [3 favorites]


I don't see where anybody's talking about Absolute Morality. In fact, I can't find the string "moral" anywhere in the linked article. It comes across rather like you're deliberately conflating two entirely different things, which is unfortunate, because that's exactly the sort of thing that raises people's hackles about the the wobblier areas of postmodern discourse.

I think Simon Blackburn is pretty well-known for his attacks on relativism in both morality and epistemology. But, in any case, I was making a more general point.

And if you accuse me of painting with a broad brush, surely you must also apply that standard to Blackburn, who talks about "postmodernists" as if that term didn't conceal a wide range of conflicting and independent theoretical perspectives?
posted by nasreddin at 7:42 AM on August 18, 2008


Sokal did it for the lulz.
posted by kcds at 7:48 AM on August 18, 2008 [6 favorites]


I think this is also true generally in the qualitative social sciences and humanities (that quality can be often measured in controversy), but it's one thing to exagerrate your opinion on a painting or the meaning of off-hand lines in a novel, and another to make claims about the way the world works based not on evidence but on the narrative power of the story you are telling.

I don't want to deny that history should be written based on firm evidentiary foundations; I think that is part of the virtue of being a historian, like keeping a rhythm is the virtue of a drummer.

But history is fundamentally about telling stories--to the extent that history has a purpose in the broad scheme of human existence, it's the transmission of stories from one generation to another. So why shouldn't narrative questions play as large a role in the evaluation of historical works as does the adequacy of the evidence? More people read Burckhardt than Ranke today, I think, despite the fact that Ranke (by the standards of the time) was the more responsible historian. But Burckhardt knew how to tell stories, without always caring if they were true or not. He tells this story, for instance, acknowledging that it is "one of those stories that are true and not true, everywhere and nowhere":
The citizens of a certain town had once an officer in their service who had freed them from foreign aggression; daily they took counsel how to recompense him, and concluded that no reward in their power was great enough, not even if they made him lord of the city. At last one of them rose up and said, "Let us kill him and then worship him as our patron saint." And so they did, following the example set by the Roman Senate with Romulus.
I suspect it is probably false. But it's a fantastic story, isn't it? And if human civilization were to fight a nuclear war, would you want the survivors to be left with such stories (which are equally valuable as 19th century narratives) or with a box of bloodless debates about the relative social status of weavers in Tudor England?
posted by nasreddin at 7:59 AM on August 18, 2008


nasreddin, I wasn't saying you were being broad brush, I was suggesting that bringing in a highly contentious area of debate into a largely unconnected discussion just muddied the waters. There's no reason why a belief in the general notion of external truths should also imply a belief in any flavour of absolute morality (well, obviously, there's a whole other debate there as well - but certainly, I don't think that practically there's any necessary connection between a person believing in external truths and a person believing that there is a monolithic, externally-derived morality, or what have you.)

But yeah, I do agree that discussion about this always runs into difficulties whenever they try to establish what the category "postmodernism" entails, and what fits into it. By its nature, it resists definitions. It's a slippery bugger; of course, this is itself a source of frustration for its detractors, and a reason why they have difficulty making any charges against it stick.

For what it's worth, I don't deny that (broad-brush) postmodernism has brought up a lot of useful stuff, and was a valuable corrective. But I think it's also silly to deny that it has (broad-brushily) included a large amount of wooooOOOOooooo-crazy babbling that was given a far greater amount of prestige than it deserved.
posted by flashboy at 8:13 AM on August 18, 2008



O God please let's not have this debate again.

As long as there are people in positions of responsibility who can read something like this and take it at face value, apparently further discussion is needed.

there is often this constant equation between a certain kind of post-modern philosophy, and the study of colonialism and post-colonial situations, as if the discrediting of some fuzzy philosophy somehow discredits post-colonial studies

Who the heck do y'think made that linkage in the first place? That is part of the issue Sokal was raising.

Returning to the article at hand:
Still, if you do not know how to tell a counterfeit coin from a true one, you should not go around pretending that you do. And this was not the worst vice of the postmodernists. Far worse was their penchant for unintelligible writing, for drawing wild inferences, and for throwing around irresponsible claims. . . These absurdities are also in Sokal's sights, and compared with them the pathetic conceit of decorating writings with a pretense of acquaintance with mathematics and physics is relatively minor.
Well, yeah.

This well-distributed BBS post from 1997, Chomsky on post-modernism is both long and succinct.
The proponents. . . have a very easy task if they want to make their case. . . most of it seems to me gibberish. But if this is just another sign of my incapacity to recognize profundities, the course to follow is clear: just restate the results to me in plain words that I can understand. . .

[T]he response is cries of anger: to raise these questions shows "elitism," "anti-intellectualism," and other crimes --- though apparently it is not "elitist" to stay within the self- and mutual-admiration societies of intellectuals who talk only to one another. . .

There are lots of things I don't understand -- say, the latest debates over whether neutrinos have mass or the way that Fermat's last theorem was (apparently) proven recently. But from 50 years in this game, I have learned two things: (1) I can ask friends who work in these areas to explain it to me at a level that I can understand, and they can do so, without particular difficulty; (2) if I'm interested, I can proceed to learn more so that I will come to understand it.
posted by Herodios at 8:15 AM on August 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


nasreddin, I wasn't saying you were being broad brush, I was suggesting that bringing in a highly contentious area of debate into a largely unconnected discussion just muddied the waters.

Fair enough.

But I think it's also silly to deny that it has (broad-brushily) included a large amount of wooooOOOOooooo-crazy babbling that was given a far greater amount of prestige than it deserved.

I don't know. I think much of the "prestige" was cooked up by Culture Warriors, right-wing and otherwise, to discredit the contemporary humanities. Structuralist or poststructuralist, modernist or postmodernist, most real scholars can tell a good book from a bad one. I've never seen an approving reference to Sandra Harding's "Principia as a rape manual" claim, for instance. And there are some pretty fantastic books that assert the (supposedly) wishy-washiest of viewpoints. I challenge you to read through Feyerabend's Against Method (which I never get sick of recommending; Kuhn would work too) without developing a sense of respect for his work.
posted by nasreddin at 8:23 AM on August 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


as a "postmodern relativist" (so much so that I am too suspicious of the term to use it), I like this take on the Sokal hoax. I appreciate that he reframes it as an obnoxious exploitation of academic editorial practices and not actually the revelation of some systemic flaw in postmodern theory.

and the anecdote about his daughter and the conclusions he draws from it: I have been thinking about the different ways that knowledge is organised in the humanities and the natural sciences, how the former operates on historical principles and the latter on methodological ones -- which is a way to explain why philosophers are expected to read more of Aristotle than scientists, despite his arguably equal relevance to both fields. Aristotle's contemporary value is historical, not practical.

I have been thinking that a more methodological approach in the humanities is called for, to save them from bringing on their own obsolescence; it's nice to see a similar argument for change from the other side.
posted by object-a at 8:25 AM on August 18, 2008


This well-distributed BBS post from 1997, Chomsky on post-modernism is both long and succinct.

The problem is that Chomsky's political theories are so bull-headedly reductive and simplistic, and so unable to account for even trivially obvious geopolitical facts, that to hear him criticize overly complicated writing is unconvincing to say the least. I think Foucault certainly won that debate, whether or not you think he's too complicated.

Furthermore, the "this shit is too hard to understand!!!" argument is fundamentally anti-intellectual. The mode and level of discourse you can appreciate and critically evaluate is a function of your own preparation in the discipline. I assure you that there are people who can read Derrida and Lacan and be able to follow their arguments with nuance and detail. (I am, alas, usually not among them.) To assert that something is unintelligible without having undergone the appropriate preparation is just ignorant; besides the obvious examples of math and physics, people who study philology, for instance (an eminently respectable humanities discipline) are generally completely incomprehensible to outsiders. That doesn't mean they're bad scholars.

I don't mean to deny that there is lots of bad writing in critical theory and poststructuralism. (Homi Bhabha, I'm looking at you.) But to separate the wheat from the chaff, you need the appropriate background and not just a suitable level of righteous indignation.
posted by nasreddin at 8:34 AM on August 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


This well-distributed BBS post from 1997, Chomsky on post-modernism is both long and succinct.

Reading through that post in more detail, I can't understand what you see in it, besides confirmation of your own opinions. There's literally no substance there at all--no proof, no detailed discussion of Derrida or Foucault's claims and why they are wrong or reducible to obvious facts. It's just a bilious, asinine screed full of unsubstantiated appeals to Chomsky's own authority and experience. If that's how he wants to attack postmodernism, he sure isn't doing a good job.
posted by nasreddin at 8:47 AM on August 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


I fear I must disagree with my fellow capitalist hireling nasreddin: I thought this was an excellent article. It's not that long and it's well written, but for anyone who finds it too long to read, here's a useful excerpt:
I greatly enjoyed Sokal's hoax. There is little in academic life more irritating than people pretending to understand things that they do not understand. Who cannot want to explode the long lines of intellectuals posing as having a close acquaintance with iconic items of twentieth-century progress -- relativity theory, of course, but also quantum mechanics, set theory, Godel's theorems, Tarski's work on formal logic, and much else? Custard pies are exactly what is needed.

Still, I found myself not quite as wholehearted as some of my colleagues. I felt a little guilty about laughing, even if the joke was a good one. I had edited a journal myself, and so I found it easier to put myself in the position of the hapless editors of Social Text. ....

I do not find it so surprising that they ran with it. Should they have had it refereed by mathematicians, physicists, and set theorists? I am not sure. It is better to do so, no doubt, and I expect that the poor editors have woken up every morning since wishing that they had. But there are costs of time and effort in finding referees, and as often as not you end up with two things to judge rather than just one. Anyway, it was the purported message of the physics, not the details, that mattered to their interest in it. And you do trust academics to get their own subjects right. When I edited Mind, if a paper came in from a well-regarded historian in an eminent department showing, for instance, that various facts about Hobbes's political experiences in Venice explain his attachment to some doctrine in political philosophy, I would have had to estimate the political philosophy myself. But I might well have taken Hobbes's presence in Venice as given: surely any halfway decent historian would not have developed the point if he hadn't got that bit right? Almost certainly I would not have had the history refereed, even if I had known whom to approach.

I also found something a shade distasteful about the position of those triumphalists who were crowing about the hoax. Very few of them would be able to make head or tail of a page of any contemporary physics journal. So when Sokal tells them that some sentences in his hoax were physically perfectly correct, while others were egregiously false or nonsensical, they have to take him on trust, and this alone puts them in a rather poor position from which to crow over the hapless others who took all of them, including the wrong ones, on trust.

And finally, we might reflect that gullibility is not the prerogative of wacky postmodernists. Indeed, there is a phenomenon with its own name, "the Dr. Fox effect," arising from an experiment conducted back in 1973. Fox was not a doctor but an actor. The experimenters created a meaningless lecture on "Mathematical Game Theory as Applied to Physician Education," larded with double talk, neologisms, non sequiturs, and contradictions. Fox delivered this nonsense to three separate audiences of medical professionals, psychologists, and graduate students, but with humor and a pleasant and confident air. The evaluations were overwhelmingly positive. Bullshit really does beat brains, worldwide.

Still, if you do not know how to tell a counterfeit coin from a true one, you should not go around pretending that you do. And this was not the worst vice of the postmodernists. Far worse was their penchant for unintelligible writing, for drawing wild inferences, and for throwing around irresponsible claims, such as the wonderfully absurd assertions that before tuberculosis was identified you could not die of it, or that Newton's laws of motion make up a rape manual. These absurdities are also in Sokal's sights, and compared with them the pathetic conceit of decorating writings with a pretense of acquaintance with mathematics and physics is relatively minor.
But of course, unlike nasreddin, I have not nailed my flag to the mast of postmodernism, so I have no problem with Blackburn's parti pris.
posted by languagehat at 8:57 AM on August 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


though I would not even dream of arguing that there has not been "a large amount of wooooOOOOooooo-crazy babbling" done in this context, I would say that a lot of very good work was dismissed unfairly, largely because of a misunderstanding over methods. the Chomsky quote above is a case in point. postmodernism (oh, how I do not like the word) is grounded in linguistic determinism. it is an experiment to find out what practical knowledge of the world can be produced if we change the language we use to navigate it. it is a method that does not lend itself to being translated into plain language, given the basis of its knowledge claims.

Lakoff's recent work with framing is a similar, though much, much less ambitious project. and like nasreddin, I find "the "this shit is too hard to understand!!!" argument [to be] fundamentally anti-intellectual." critiquing a specialised and very technical discourse for being opaque is inane. what would happen if we held science to this standard?


I think much of the "prestige" was cooked up by Culture Warriors, right-wing and otherwise, to discredit the contemporary humanities.

Judith Butler noticed much the same thing. in an essay she wrote in the early-90s, she observed that the term 'postmodernism' had become a way to dismiss theoretical work being done in the humanities without going to the trouble of reading it.

(the essay is "Contingent Foundations: Feminism and the Question of Postmodernism". sorry there's no link, I can't find the text online.)
posted by object-a at 9:05 AM on August 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


Furthermore, the "this shit is too hard to understand!!!" argument is fundamentally anti-intellectual. critiquing a specialised and very technical discourse for being opaque is inane. what would happen if we held science to this standard?

We would have a lot of technical writers, popular science journals, popular science media, explaining the history of science and the high points of current research to intelligent and interested but non-specialist audiences in language that they can understand.
posted by Herodios at 9:16 AM on August 18, 2008 [3 favorites]


We would have a lot of technical writers, popular science journals, popular science media, explaining the history of science and the high points of current research to intelligent and interested but non-specialist audiences in language that they can understand.

You mean the kind of science journalism that actual scientists never stop complaining about? In any case, the proliferation of that kind of thing is mostly a function of market demand, not the inherent value of the discipline. If you want popular pomo, Stanley Fish has some good books (although his cowardly retreat after 9/11 was reprehensible), and Jonathan Culler's On Deconstruction is compelling and clear.
posted by nasreddin at 9:20 AM on August 18, 2008


Furthermore, the "this shit is too hard to understand!!!" argument is fundamentally anti-intellectual. The mode and level of discourse you can appreciate and critically evaluate is a function of your own preparation in the discipline. I assure you that there are people who can read Derrida and Lacan and be able to follow their arguments with nuance and detail.

But what of the claim that their ideas are incapable of being expressed in a simplified manner to an outsider? This seems more often than not to be the case in critical theory. Where Einstein's, Godel's, and Russell's ideas can be pared down and given a rough treatment fully comprehensible to the intelligent lay-person, I've never seen an equivalent reduction of Lacanian theory. I don't doubt that specialists are mutually comprehensible to one another and are engaged in some kind of fruitful dialogue. But if the only way to understand these thinkers and their theories is to grapple head-on with the texts themselves, and at the level of the specialist, then this suggests that what the specialists are talking about aren't so much ideas, or discrete concepts capable of being expressed any number of different ways. Rather, it suggests that the specialists are engaging in a sort of poetic game, in which the conversation itself and the precise way of talking about things takes precedence over the content.

Perhaps this also has value, I don't know. But it does seem categorically different from esoteric science writing -- which, as the overflowing pop science section of the local B&N attests to, is quite capable of being simplified while still retaining much of its content. I do think Chomsky has a point there.
posted by decoherence at 9:37 AM on August 18, 2008 [7 favorites]


Bullshit really does beat brains, worldwide.

I lost most of my respect for postmodern philosophy several years ago, after running into a few of its students after an impromptu music performance at an art gallery. A few wines later, they argued about how Beethoven had rape in mind while composing his Fifth Symphony. Quibbling only over details, rather than question the spurious thesis itself, I realized quite acutely that, at some point, key representatives of this school must have disappeared up their own lower intestines and turned left, past the sigmoid, where they seem content to remain lost, sailing adrift on their high, shiny sea of inane effluence.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 9:48 AM on August 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


You mean the kind of science journalism that actual scientists never stop complaining about?

No. I mean the kind that makes kids want to be scientists and makes citizens interested in supporting the enterprise.

I'm not going anywhere near "value" -- that's too close to the rabbit hole.

I simply point out there are plenty of channels communicating to non-specialist audiences what science is, does, and means. Part of what makes this possible is the fact that it is possible.

If you want popular pomo, Stanley Fish has some good books (although his cowardly retreat after 9/11 was reprehensible), and Jonathan Culler's On Deconstruction is compelling and clear.

Compelling and clear are desirable. Thanks for the link.
posted by Herodios at 9:58 AM on August 18, 2008


You do not find the conservation law in the form of the equation that was tossed at my daughter until the 1860s. And as an aside, it is a pretty silly place to start in explaining anything about the pendulum, since energy depends on mass, and Galileo asserted, right at the beginning, that the period and the velocity of the pendulum are independent of its mass.

I think Blackburn has forgotten a bit of his mechanics. Physics education does not need to recapitulate historical discovery, and determining the speed of a pendulum from its initial height (using conservation of energy) is a good and useful example to teach in a physics class. Telling a student who's confused here "to get on and solve the equations" is a sign of a poor educator, not a poor exercise.

As I remember it, Sokal wasn't just annoyed that postmodernists had fallen in love with language games instead of seaching for truth. Ah right, this was his motivation:

My goal isn't to defend science from the barbarian hordes of lit crit (we'll survive just fine, thank you), but to defend the Left from a trendy segment of itself. ... There are hundreds of important political and economic issues surrounding science and technology. Sociology of science, at its best, has done much to clarify these issues. But sloppy sociology, like sloppy science, is useless or even counterproductive.
posted by sebastienbailard at 10:02 AM on August 18, 2008 [1 favorite]



I lost most of my respect for postmodern philosophy several years ago, after running into a few of its students after an impromptu music performance at an art gallery. A few wines later, they argued about how Beethoven had rape in mind while composing his Fifth Symphony. Quibbling only over details, rather than question the spurious thesis itself, I realized quite acutely that, at some point, key representatives of this school must have disappeared up their own lower intestines and turned left, past the sigmoid, where they seem content to remain lost, sailing adrift on their high, shiny sea of inane effluence.


So you judged an entire field of human endeavor based on the behavior of a few of its drunken adherents? Yeah, that's real rational. Heisenberg kicked my dog once. Physics is clearly bullshit!
posted by nasreddin at 10:06 AM on August 18, 2008 [4 favorites]


What I'm thinking your not seeing object-a, is that Sokal is a self-described old-fashioned liberal and any differentiation between the post-modernists and the neo-cons that takes place in the bowels of the citadel of science is pretty much based on who is being more obstructionistic that day. That they hate one another is just one of those happy little facts of life that allow us a few moments here and there to tease from the universe a little glimpse of its hidden workings.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:06 AM on August 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


Where Einstein's, Godel's, and Russell's ideas can be pared down and given a rough treatment fully comprehensible to the intelligent lay-person, I've never seen an equivalent reduction of Lacanian theory.

Maybe you haven't looked hard enough? Wikipedia is OK, if just a bit arcane--if you think about it a little bit, it's not difficult. Otherwise, the Introducing... books are always good.
posted by nasreddin at 10:12 AM on August 18, 2008


Heisenberg kicked my dog once. Physics is clearly bullshit!

That's nothing to what Schroedinger did to my cat.
posted by enn at 10:16 AM on August 18, 2008 [8 favorites]


critiquing a specialised and very technical discourse for being opaque is inane. what would happen if we held science to this standard?

There are many people who do. To name a few: judges, sitting at the bench; investors, looking for a new idea; students, who expect to learn; and lastly, but probably most importantly, the general public, whose taxes pay most of science's salary. I won't argue that that communication is perfect, but it's good enough to keep the nepotistic, insular and abstruse funding contraptions going, as well as the minor side effect of advancing human inquiry.

You mean the kind of science journalism that actual scientists never stop complaining about?

Yes, exactly. It's hard work to do well. You have to be both educated enough in the field and a good enough writer. The most common complaint is that reporters don't understand the issue well enough.

But, that it's difficult doesn't mean that it's not worth doing, nor impossible. Richard Feynmann, James Burke, Henry Petroski, E.O. Wilson are some of the high points. I have no problem holding science reporting to a higher standard than Fox News.
posted by bonehead at 10:22 AM on August 18, 2008


The problem with your reasoning, nasreddin, is that Blazecock Pileon's anecdote, while anecdotal in nature, deals with postmodernists doing what postmodernists are supposed to be doing: "reading" the "text" and then looking for a "hierarchical opposition", or, as it generally comes off, looking for fights and making shit up to support that search.

Heisenberg, in the course of doing his job, never needed to kick anyone's dog.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 10:29 AM on August 18, 2008


I wish I had time to play! Oh well. I guess I walked away from post-modernism for generally pragmatic reasons - it doesn't do anything. We can question the nature of truth until truth itself shrinks from sight, but at the end of the day we would have achieved nothing much.

Science isn't so much a philosophical position, but a means by which we engage our world in a coherent way.
posted by elwoodwiles at 10:31 AM on August 18, 2008 [3 favorites]


The problem with your reasoning, nasreddin, is that Blazecock Pileon's anecdote, while anecdotal in nature, deals with postmodernists doing what postmodernists are supposed to be doing: "reading" the "text" and then looking for a "hierarchical opposition", or, as it generally comes off, looking for fights and making shit up to support that search.

The fact that someone does something badly is not a reason to believe that that thing is not worthwhile. That claim is senseless and you would never make anything resembling it for anything else. (Not to mention that that is a gross reduction of Derrida's approach, which is much more nuanced and sensitive to the text.)

How do I evaluate whether Derridean criticism is good or bad? Like I evaluate any form of literary criticism, structuralist or New Historicist or whatever. Does it lead my interpretation into productive, interesting, and unanticipated directions? Does it reveal an aspect of the text that wasn't obvious before? Does it link up in an interesting way with my other intellectual engagements?
posted by nasreddin at 10:38 AM on August 18, 2008 [1 favorite]



Bonehead, thanks for the James Burke shout-out. Love his work, even if he did say that the Michaelson-Morley (speed of light) experiments were carried out "in Cleveland, at the university" rather than "in Cleveland, at Case Institute of Technology (now part of Case Western Reserve *breath* University)".

He makes the science clear, the history clear, and the social and political dimension clear, all while being highly entertaining and keeping his role as presenter from interferring too much with the content. Connections (the first series at least) and The Day The Universe Changed leave Sagan, Greene, and deGrasse Tyson at the dock.

Grist for the mill: here is Wikipedia on popularizers of science. Quite the rogues gallery.
posted by Herodios at 10:39 AM on August 18, 2008


Nasreddin:As an evil postmodern relativist to the bone...

Flashboy: I don't see where anybody's talking about Absolute Morality.

Nasreddin:Simon Blackburn is pretty well-known for his attacks on relativism

I thought you evil postmodern types preferred letting the text stand on its own rather than considering the author's intentions...
posted by bashos_frog at 10:42 AM on August 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


Well Chomsky's point isn't an anti-intellectual one. Its as much that he can't understand it, as it is post-modern types that can't explain it. In the Dutch interview he and Foucault are talking past each other, its two distinct monologues. And its this same problem of incomprehensibility that underpins the Sokal affair ...we'll publish your paper because it satisfies the level of clarity we require. If philosophy has significance beyond ivory towers then it must do more than sound clever. It must be comprehensible.

Of course Chomsky is a high rationalist and his criticism comes from the 'outside'. A view from the inside might be taken more seriously by post-modernists. Here is an extract from an interview with Alisdair MacIntyre:

"[when I wrote After Virtue] ... What I had recognized was that the failure of the Enlightenment project left open two alternatives: to reconstruct the moral theory an communal practice of Aristotelianism ... or, instead, to understand the failure of the Enlightenment as a symptom of the impossibility of discovering any rational justification for morality as hiterto understood, a sign of the truth of Nietzsche. So the choice posed by After Virtue was: Aristotle or Nietzsche?

Q) Why not Nietzsche?

A) For two reasons. One concerns Nietzsche and the have spelling out detail of his genealogical project by recent followers such as Micheal Foucalt and Giles Deleuze. What they have quite unintentionally put in question is the possibility of making that project sufficiently intelligible in its own terms. The outcome of the unmasking of others by the genealogist seems to me to have been in the end the self-unmasking of the genealogists"
posted by verisimilitude at 10:46 AM on August 18, 2008


I thought you evil postmodern types preferred letting the text stand on its own rather than considering the author's intentions...

Well, if we want to be precise, the Intentional Fallacy is a product of New Criticism, which is diametrically opposed to "postmodernism."

On the other hand, yes, if I want to interpret a text, I am not going to let the author's intentions determine my interpretation. But if I'm discussing it, rather than picking apart its interior logic, I don't see any problem with connecting it to the rest of the author's work.

No, wait. Actually, YA GOT ME! I'm just a big ol' strawman!
posted by nasreddin at 10:48 AM on August 18, 2008


This hermeneutics, it vibrates? (Sorry, couldn't help myself.)
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:49 AM on August 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


Well, if we want to be precise

I love this country:

In science, you can always find precision.
In literary theory, precision finds you.
posted by Herodios at 10:52 AM on August 18, 2008


"The fact that someone does something badly is not a reason to believe that that thing is not worthwhile."

c.f. Republican reasoning re: the war in Iraq.
posted by bashos_frog at 10:53 AM on August 18, 2008


Here is an extract from an interview with Alisdair MacIntyre:

The kind of "intelligibility" he's talking about is not "intellibility" in the sense of OMG DEY USIN BIG WORDS. MacIntyre's problem with the genealogical tradition--which he, incidentally, respects more than the Enlightenment scientism many people in this thread are defending--is that genealogists are unwilling to take responsibility for articulating a single, coherent viewpoint that they defend, instead playing a Nietzschean game of masks and evasion. As a result, they can't produce a grounding for their own critique. That's a charge many genealogists would accept, and it doesn't at all imply that their critiques are somehow "false" and the object of their critique "true."
posted by nasreddin at 10:55 AM on August 18, 2008


I'm just a big ol' strawman!

...and I'm just bitter (still!) about having to go through my architecture program just as the PoMos were getting their claws into it.
posted by bashos_frog at 10:57 AM on August 18, 2008


"intelligibility," that is.

c.f. Republican reasoning re: the war in Iraq.

Oh, now I'm a big evil Republican strawman! Oh, stop knocking me down, it hurts, it hurts!
posted by nasreddin at 10:57 AM on August 18, 2008


I assure you that there are people who can read Derrida and Lacan and be able to follow their arguments with nuance and detail. (I am, alas, usually not among them.)

Feels like the attitude of the editors of Social Text. Academe is full of beautiful warblers, those who can string together elegant-sounding phrases that just barely escape the trap of meaning, while also avoiding the pitfall of obvious fraud. Pinning these warblers down is a monumental effort, requiring diligence and fastidiousness of communication, looking for the slippery word that, chameleon-like, changes its color in mid-sentence, and guarding against the vague idea employed for its duality of meaning rather than its precision of denotation. Usually, the juice ain't worth the squeeze. I say, kudos to Sokal!
posted by Mental Wimp at 10:58 AM on August 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


We would have a lot of technical writers, popular science journals, popular science media, explaining the history of science and the high points of current research to intelligent and interested but non-specialist audiences in language that they can understand.

oh. good point. let me refine: what if we held the cutting edge of scientific research to this standard?


But what of the claim that their ideas are incapable of being expressed in a simplified manner to an outsider? ... if the only way to understand these thinkers and their theories is to grapple head-on with the texts themselves, and at the level of the specialist, then this suggests that what the specialists are talking about aren't so much ideas, or discrete concepts capable of being expressed any number of different ways. Rather, it suggests that the specialists are engaging in a sort of poetic game, in which the conversation itself and the precise way of talking about things takes precedence over the content.

or, more precisely, they are calling into question the understanding that ideas exist independently of the language they are couched in, and that there is therefore no way to make a clean distinction between form and content. theirs is a project that aims to explore how knowledge, all knowledge, is at least partially the result of a poetic game.

and it has value insofar as it is a body of techniques to understand how we are led astray by the language we have to describe and explain our experience. as an example, consider feminism and gay rights and what has come about from those deconstructions of linguistically constructed gender norms.


I've never seen an equivalent reduction of Lacanian theory.

Bruce Fink does a pretty good job of it in this book.
posted by object-a at 11:10 AM on August 18, 2008 [3 favorites]


From the wikipedia link on Lacan:
...emphasized the agency of language in subjective constitution.

...where the signifier is irremediably divorced from the signified in a chronic but generative tension of lack.
I dunno, phrases are being used like bags of wind. Yes, you can carry those bags of wind around and arrange them in pretty patterns, but when you open them up, they still contain only air. If a wikipedia entry must use language in this manner to "explain" someones philosophy, it raises deep suspicions about the substance of that philosophy.
posted by Mental Wimp at 11:12 AM on August 18, 2008



I dunno, phrases are being used like bags of wind. Yes, you can carry those bags of wind around and arrange them in pretty patterns, but when you open them up, they still contain only air. If a wikipedia entry must use language in this manner to "explain" someones philosophy, it raises deep suspicions about the substance of that philosophy.


Look, the fact that you don't understand something doesn't make it false. You think you're some kind of profound iconoclast, puncturing windbags left and right, but the only thing you're displaying is your closed-mindedness and unwillingness to learn. That critique is about at the same level of incisiveness as reading a foreign language and going "why can't they just write clearly, like in English?" Or "Boy, Jane Austen is boring, anyone who ever claimed to liked her must have just been pretentiously faking it!"

Do you have any substantive objections to Lacanian theory? That demonstrate that you've made even an iota of effort to understand it? I mean, I hate Lacan, I think there were a lot of things about him that were deliberately obscurantist. But I'm not going to sweep all of Lacanian theory into one big pile and go "pfft, garbage!"
posted by nasreddin at 11:18 AM on August 18, 2008 [3 favorites]


what if we held the cutting edge of scientific research to this standard?

Society does. The first question an non-involved asks is "What do you mean by that?", followed swiftly by, "What's it good for?". Presenting new research in court happens all the time; the ecological impacts of the Exxon Valdez ars still playing out in the literature and the courts (I can send you the papers if you're interested). The LHC was argued for the floor of the US senate. New life science developments get dragged into investment rounds even before they have a chance to take their first breath and scream.
posted by bonehead at 11:21 AM on August 18, 2008


what if we held the cutting edge of scientific research to this standard?

If most cutting edge work is being done in the private sector, perhaps capitalist self-interest guides the necessity of the scientist to demonstrate to those controlling the purse strings that funding his or her research will have a tangibly profitable outcome. And likewise for those in the public sector who must argue convincingly for grant funding. There will be instances of waste or nepotism in both cases, but on the whole, professional scientists of all walks have to defend their work with more rigor than journalists and other writers could ever aspire to. Nature doesn't allow much breathing room for bullshitting.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 11:23 AM on August 18, 2008


Maybe you haven't looked hard enough? Wikipedia is OK, if just a bit arcane--if you think about it a little bit, it's not difficult.

I've read the Wikipedia entries on guys like Lacan. While the language is less opaque, the concepts certainly aren't. Even in the Wikipedia entry, it's exceptionally hard to pick out a single, concrete idea that you can hold up to the light, examine closely, and ask of it "Is this, in fact, right? And why should I believe it?" It's tough to escape the feeling that, rather than starting from the ground up and building a logically consistent apparatus with a minimal number of parts, what the theorists are doing is something much closer writing imaginative fiction. Though I concede there's a very good chance I'm just completely misunderstanding it all.
posted by decoherence at 11:24 AM on August 18, 2008


I dunno, phrases are being used like bags of wind.

Eh, even if they're a little opaque to me they're probably bad examples of muddled language...it's pretty clear that the meanings of these sentences are very definite, even if I'm not familiar with the terminology.

The first sentence probably translates, roughly, into "emphasized the role/usefulness of language in how we subjectively experience and know things" and the second one does seem to get a bit weird at the end but basically means "the thing that we use to describe something is totally separate from the thing we are describing, and this arises from an ongoing and endless, but also potentially creative/destructive/affective, incompleteness". In other words, maybe he is saying that the words, pictures, etc. that we use to describe a given meaning will fail to fully express that meaning, but that this failure leads to a sort of tension that can lead to other things.

So, yeah, kinda hard to parse. But for people who know these words like the back of their hands, pretty straightforward.

My position on these things is the same as my position on religion: there are some people who cannot believe in a higher being, no matter what, and find it silly. There are others who have faith and belief in a higher being, and this makes sense to them and is useful. Similarly, there are people who enjoy thinking in a deconstructive and highly abstract mode, and so these people enjoy studying philosophy and talking about the "beingness of things" or whatever. So if philosophy is your thing, you may agree with postmodernism, you may disagree with it. But you'll probably be able to parse it. I mean, postmodernists are not the first to write stuff that is hard to understand.
posted by Deathalicious at 11:34 AM on August 18, 2008 [2 favorites]



My position on these things is the same as my position on religion: there are some people who cannot believe in a higher being, no matter what, and find it silly. There are others who have faith and belief in a higher being, and this makes sense to them and is useful. Similarly, there are people who enjoy thinking in a deconstructive and highly abstract mode, and so these people enjoy studying philosophy and talking about the "beingness of things" or whatever. So if philosophy is your thing, you may agree with postmodernism, you may disagree with it. But you'll probably be able to parse it. I mean, postmodernists are not the first to write stuff that is hard to understand.


Yes, exactly. And if you can't parse it, you make do with what you have; this often proves to be enough for an interesting conversation, which often clarifies things for you.
posted by nasreddin at 11:40 AM on August 18, 2008


oh. good point. let me refine: what if we held the cutting edge of scientific research to this standard?

Well, as a slacking mathematician, I can still explain my work to you. I have a variety of discussions of different lengths and depths that I've developed for explaining the things I do to people who aren't mathematicians. One is a really basic example of the field I work in (algebraic combinatorics - the example consists of contrasting the combinatorial and algebraic approaches to the binomial theorem.). Another, much longer, talk describes a bit of modern geometry and group theory and how one might go about building some combinatorics to describe these objects. And finally a few just to explain the basic combinatorial objects I deal with, free of the algebraic context (generally the easiest to describe).

I think it was Feynman who said that if we can't explain something to a five-year-old, we don't really understand it. I personally set my threshold somewhere in the high school range, but the point is one I basically subscribe to. Indeed, if a thing can't be explained to others, it might as well not exist. Because soon enough, it won't.
posted by kaibutsu at 11:54 AM on August 18, 2008 [4 favorites]



I think it was Feynman who said that if we can't explain something to a five-year-old, we don't really understand it. I personally set my threshold somewhere in the high school range, but the point is one I basically subscribe to. Indeed, if a thing can't be explained to others, it might as well not exist. Because soon enough, it won't.


Well, I think I could probably explain Lacanian theory to a five year old, he just won't be very interested. That's really the problem. If someone cares enough to understand something, they will understand it whether it's written by Derrida or Dr. Seuss. And if they don't care, then nothing will drive it into their heads.
posted by nasreddin at 12:00 PM on August 18, 2008


Isn't the problem that when postmodernist philosophers do make sense, their insights are so utterly trvial as to not be worth thinking about. Yeah, I guess deathalicious's parsing of Lacan is probably correct, but so what? It's amazingly banal.
posted by Dumsnill at 12:08 PM on August 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


That claim is senseless and you would never make anything resembling it for anything else. (Not to mention that that is a gross reduction of Derrida's approach, which is much more nuanced and sensitive to the text.)

In a single sentence you're pretty much going to get a gross reduction. And don't think I wouldn't do it elsewhere - I've likened someone's interpretation of their ELISA data to Captain Kirk making a robot's head explode with a cheesy logic puzzle in a group presentation. And I'd do it again!

But the thing I see, well, here: "As an example, consider feminism and gay rights and what has come about from those deconstructions of linguistically constructed gender norms."

What, exactly, has come about? Most of us get the gender norms implied by our language horribly wrong which implies to me that it's the attitudes behind the words that need changing. I'm kinda thinking that getting bent out of shape about the pronouns we use wasn't the best place for feminism to busy itself.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 12:10 PM on August 18, 2008


My position on these things is the same as my position on religion: there are some people who cannot believe in a higher being, no matter what, and find it silly. There are others who have faith and belief in a higher being, and this makes sense to them and is useful. Similarly, there are people who enjoy thinking in a deconstructive and highly abstract mode, and so these people enjoy studying philosophy and talking about the "beingness of things" or whatever.

Except the advantage that serious academic study has over religion is that it's supposed to be amenable to rational critique and analysis. It shouldn't depend on a leap of faith or someone's personal disposition for its validity. It sounds like you're basically just affirming one of the oft-criticized and caricaturized premises of post-modernism: that different things can be true within different communities of people. Nasreddin agreed with you, but really, I don't think likening critical theory to religion makes the best case for its academic integrity.
posted by decoherence at 12:12 PM on August 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


In science, you can always find precision.
In literary theory, precision finds you.


Yakov Smirnoff, master literary theorist?
posted by Kwine at 12:13 PM on August 18, 2008


theirs is a project that aims to explore how knowledge, all knowledge, is at least partially the result of a poetic game.

And that "at least partially" is an infinitely expansible gap into which an infinitely large quantity of gas can be pumped.
posted by languagehat at 12:14 PM on August 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


...if a thing can't be explained to others, it might as well not exist.

A sentiment (to which I hold) dismissed as Enlightenment scientism, above, I believe. The trouble seems to me that postmodernists don't think language is a good tool to access objective truth:

[Postmodernists1] are calling into question the understanding that ideas exist independently of the language they are couched in, and that there is therefore no way to make a clean distinction between form and content. theirs is a project that aims to explore how knowledge, all knowledge, is at least partially the result of a poetic game.

1I hope I have that right. The language in these threads gets so far from my common understanding that I honestly can't tell sometimes.

The idea that truth can only be alluded to by language not communicated directly, strikes me as a very Buddist (and Toaist, for that matter) idea: the finger is not the moon. Poetry expresses truth better than prose---Theory is a game of masks loved by mad Germans. What does that access that that "scientism" (what ever that means) cannot?

Or do I have this backwards: there is no objectivity, only socially-constructed language-mediated knowledge? If this is true, how is it beyond a form of solipsism? How do facts fit into theory?
posted by bonehead at 12:18 PM on August 18, 2008



Or do I have this backwards: there is no objectivity, only socially-constructed language-mediated knowledge? If this is true, how is it beyond a form of solipsism? How do facts fit into theory?


Yes, that first claim is right. But where do you see the solipsism coming from?

There is, incidentally, no difference between facts and theory. Data is already interpretation.
posted by nasreddin at 12:19 PM on August 18, 2008


as an example, consider feminism and gay rights and what has come about from those deconstructions of linguistically constructed gender norms.

Gay rights progressed because of social activism that forced straight people to confront their bigotries, not because of attempts at recontextualizing the heteronormative narrative, which nearly no one would care about outside of those attending a Gender Studies wine-and-cheese seminar.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 12:22 PM on August 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


My position on these things is the same as my position on religion: there are some people who cannot believe in a higher being, no matter what, and find it silly. There are others who have faith and belief in a higher being, and this makes sense to them and is useful. Similarly, there are people who enjoy thinking in a deconstructive and highly abstract mode, and so these people enjoy studying philosophy and talking about the "beingness of things" or whatever. So if philosophy is your thing, you may agree with postmodernism, you may disagree with it. But you'll probably be able to parse it. I mean, postmodernists are not the first to write stuff that is hard to understand.

And like the religious figureheads, some scientists find good reason to question whether the postmodernists really believe their rhetoric or if they've just structured their language and style in a manner to manipulate the gullible.
posted by kigpig at 12:24 PM on August 18, 2008


There is, incidentally, no difference between facts and theory. Data is already interpretation.

I should rephrase that. It's not that there's no difference, it's that there's no such thing as a pure datum without theory/interpretation already having been applied to it. So the differences between theories are either pragmatic (how good is this or that theory at responding to this or that need?) or rhetorical (how good of a job did a theory's proponents do at presenting it as more effective than its competitors?)
posted by nasreddin at 12:30 PM on August 18, 2008


Data is already interpretation.

So why do I ever have to change my hypotheses? (I mean besides the fact that they don't match the data?)

Also, what if you shove the data into your desk without looking at it, lock the drawer and bolt for the parking lot because it's Friday?
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 12:31 PM on August 18, 2008


Data is already interpretation.

That, I think, is the nub of the problem. In science (or natural science, at least), an objective reality is taken as given. A measurement datum is a single instance slice of a probability function. To access the reality, one uses statistical tools to interpret the data and define a quantifiable certainty. When a research says "this is true", they really mean "within the bounds of my experimental uncertainty". The base of reality is always mediated by uncertainty, interpreted by math, but is accessible.

My question with regards to post-modernism, is where does the underlying world fit in? How does one access it? In contrast to the theory of measurement above, what mediates the data? If language does not mediate reality, but accesses only social-constructs and biases, how does post-modern theory solve the recursion problem?
posted by bonehead at 12:32 PM on August 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


Re: James Burke: It's like we're talking about two different men, with two different bodies of work. If I were asked to produce a a defense of relativism intelligible to a mass audience, I would be hard pressed to come up with a more suitable example than The Day The Universe Changed.
posted by cobra libre at 12:33 PM on August 18, 2008


Also, what if you shove the data into your desk without looking at it, lock the drawer and bolt for the parking lot because it's Friday?

In science (or natural science, at least), an objective reality is taken as given. A measurement datum is a single instance slice of a probability function.

I'm not particularly sympathetic to the "postmodernist" cause, but the idea that there is some interpretation inherent in scientific data, at least, is easy to defend. You presumably collected data not from some experiment designed by a random number generator, but from an experiment you yourself planned, with particular theories and paradigms (in the Kuhnian sense) in mind. Your very mindset in planning the experiment places a burden of interpretation upon the data: you will, eventually, interpret it within some theoretical framework, and even if it disproves some hypothesis you had in mind, the interpretation needs that framework.

This sort of analysis even holds true for observational scientists (those who can't plan their own experiments, like geologists and astronomers), who must decide where to look for data and with which tools to look. These decisions, and therefore the data themselves, are informed by a theoretical framework which includes some sense of interpretation.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:41 PM on August 18, 2008 [1 favorite]



Also, what if you shove the data into your desk without looking at it, lock the drawer and bolt for the parking lot because it's Friday?


Because the way you arrived at getting the data, whether it's using a microscope or an X-ray or whatever, is already the product of a theory. Data, obviously, is not the whole object: when you've made a table of rock density or whatever, you've selected particular characteristics based on particular definitions of those characteristics and particular ways of determining them. All of this is the product of a pre-existing theory--it doesn't just magically come from the sky. That doesn't mean you're wrong, and it doesn't mean science is whatever you want it to be, it just means the way you do your work reflects the development of the scientific/theoretical practice you're engaging in.

My question with regards to post-modernism, is where does the underlying world fit in? How does one access it? In contrast to the theory of measurement above, what mediates the data? If language does not mediate reality, but accesses only social-constructs and biases, how does post-modern theory solve the recursion problem?


This is a very lucid question, and different postmodernists have different ways of approaching it. In Lacan's thought, for instance, the underlying world is "the Real." It exists, certainly, and we dream of accessing it directly because it represents the fulfillment of our desires--but we can't, because we as human beings cannot solve the recursion problem.

But keep in mind that this is not an issue that was invented by the postmodernists. It was first introduced by Kant (the In-itself/For-itself, noumenal/phenomenal distinction), and developed further by Nietzsche. I'm inclined to follow the latter, whose position is summarized in this extract.
posted by nasreddin at 12:44 PM on August 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


From the above link: 6. The true world — we have abolished. What world has remained? The apparent one perhaps? But no! With the true world we have also abolished the apparent one.

There's the apparent solipsism, and the source of my difficulty. If neither the true world, nor even the apparent (constructed "conventional") world exist, what prevents analysis from becoming infinitely self-referential and entirely relativist?
posted by bonehead at 12:58 PM on August 18, 2008


Society does. The first question an non-involved asks is "What do you mean by that?", followed swiftly by, "What's it good for?". Presenting new research in court happens all the time; the ecological impacts of the Exxon Valdez ars still playing out in the literature and the courts (I can send you the papers if you're interested). The LHC was argued for the floor of the US senate. New life science developments get dragged into investment rounds even before they have a chance to take their first breath and scream.

and more refinement is in order. because I actually do think cultural theorists have a responsibility to be able to explain their work beyond their own circles and that the possibility of doing so in large part determines the value of that work. but that does not mean that there is no value to a technical vocabulary used among specialists in a subject.

which is sometimes what I worry the humanities are blundering towards in a misguided effort to be more accessible.
posted by object-a at 1:04 PM on August 18, 2008



There's the apparent solipsism, and the source of my difficulty. If neither the true world, nor even the apparent (constructed "conventional") world exist, what prevents analysis from becoming infinitely self-referential and entirely relativist?


Nothing. (But solipsism is not refutable in any case. Schopenhauer said it needed a cure, not a refutation.) The question then is whether total self-referentiality and relativism are somehow bad. I don't think so. If you disagree, then, according to Nietzsche and many of the postmodernists, then you're deluding yourself unnecessarily. The problem is that we always lack the ability to demonstrate the existence of the Real/noumenal/In-Itself/True world, no matter how much we're convinced that it does exist.

I don't think science necessarily requires such a proof--that would be confusing levels of abstraction. Science is first and foremost a practice that cannot be neatly fit into generalizing philosophy-of-science and epistemological boxes. If you treat science as a practice--I'm taking these assays because I'm enjoying it, because it helps make other things such as medicine possible, because it interacts with the other things I'm investigating--then there's no need for you to assume the existence of an objective world at all. So what if you're living in self-referentiality? Just do your thing! The existence of self-referentiality doesn't mean that everything is up for grabs--arbitrary or not, consensus reality can't just be opted out of.
posted by nasreddin at 1:07 PM on August 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


The existence of self-referentiality doesn't mean that everything is up for grabs--arbitrary or not, consensus reality can't just be opted out of.

If all your tools are self-referential, how does one assign value? I don't mean in absolute terms, but even in relative ones. How does one, to use your example above, choose a good argument from bad? Is not one's judgment just reflective of individual bias? Why should another's bias sway me?
posted by bonehead at 1:49 PM on August 18, 2008


Your very mindset in planning the experiment places a burden of interpretation upon the data: you will, eventually, interpret it within some theoretical framework, and even if it disproves some hypothesis you had in mind, the interpretation needs that framework.

I'm sorry, I was rushing. That's implied in the measurement, of course. I tend to use QM in my head too much (it's one of my biases): the observable is an inevitable consequence of the operator. Choose a different operator (measurement technique), get a different observable (data). The wavefunction (reality) stays the same.
posted by bonehead at 1:52 PM on August 18, 2008


Do you have any substantive objections to Lacanian theory?

I'm not convinced there is a theory here. He may just be inventing language games with no objective referent. And it can be done, which may be the point of inventing one and maybe is his point?

In any case, as someone who has made erstwhile study of logic and classical philosophy, there just doesn't seem to be any payoff here, other than gratification from finally figuring out what his rather unique phrasing is attempting to say. If Deathalicious is close to the mark, then I'm seeing some very questionable attempts to communicate. My experience in academe has confronted me with more than one colleague who was primarily engaged in language gamesmanship, without substantive innovation or revelation. More frequently, one doesn't find pure inflation, but rather about 10% substance, 90% wind-generation to obscure the paltriness of the substance.

But, I guess, your mileage may vary.
posted by Mental Wimp at 2:08 PM on August 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


If one examines the neocultural paradigm of narrative, one is faced with a choice: either accept capitalist socialism or conclude that class has objective value. Baudrillard suggests the use of socialist realism to analyse and challenge narrativity. But if the predialectic paradigm of context holds, we have to choose between the neocultural paradigm of narrative and textual narrative.

Many discourses concerning capitalist desublimation may be found. In a sense, la Fournier implies that we have to choose between the neocultural paradigm of narrative and the materialist paradigm of reality.

Lacan uses the term ‘capitalist desublimation’ to denote a self-sufficient paradox. However, Baudrillard promotes the use of socialist realism to deconstruct sexist perceptions of sexual identity.

Discuss.
posted by Dumsnill at 2:24 PM on August 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


Gay rights progressed because of social activism that forced straight people to confront their bigotries, not because of attempts at recontextualizing the heteronormative narrative, which nearly no one would care about outside of those attending a Gender Studies wine-and-cheese seminar.

could you elaborate on this, please? I am having troubles imagining effective social activism that is not backed up by solid critical analysis. before the suffragettes could start lobbying for the vote, they had to have a solid argument as to why they should not be treated as second class citizens. similarly, before queers could start lobbying for equal treatment under the law, they had to argue they weren't either suffering from a mental illness or horrible moral degenerates. and so far as I know, "postmodern" theory has been instrumental in making that latter case.
posted by object-a at 2:35 PM on August 18, 2008


Isn't the problem that when postmodernist philosophers do make sense, their insights are so utterly trvial as to not be worth thinking about. Yeah, I guess deathalicious's parsing of Lacan is probably correct, but so what? It's amazingly banal.

I think hidden in this observation is a clue to the deeper, more substantive intellectual contributions made in the name of postmodernism (the whole notion of which, by the way, I still maintain is an elaborate hoax on anyone gullible enough to believe that the smartest academics and literary critics of some previous generation were really so myopic they couldn't foresee the problems that broadly categorizing the major cultural movements of their own particular time under the name "Modernism" would eventually create for future generations of critics).

Postmodernism teaches us all an important lesson: if you make it really hard for readers to parse your arguments by offering them in the form of the densest, most jargon-laden language you can muster, you can easily persuade at least some of those readers that a few nuggets of meaningful but well-worn philosophical observation about epistemological uncertainty and the slipperiness of language are profound new insights (because by the time they've muddled through the text, they'll be so heavily invested in it they'll convince themselves of pretty much anything rather than face the possibility that all that work was basically for nothing).
posted by saulgoodman at 2:38 PM on August 18, 2008 [3 favorites]


queers could start lobbying for equal treatment under the law, they had to argue they weren't either suffering from a mental illness or horrible moral degenerates. and so far as I know, "postmodern" theory has been instrumental in making that latter case.

For instance?

The most concrete "theoretical" approach to this question was certainly the APA's decision to declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder. This decision was informed by Kinsey's research, and was the result of strong activism within the APA. I don't think literary theory played any role in it. I suppose one place to look for an influence might be in the works of Robert Spitzer, but to my knowledge he was pretty rooted in good old-fashioned Enlightenment-style empiricism.
posted by mr_roboto at 2:49 PM on August 18, 2008


Discuss.

Indeed.
posted by Mental Wimp at 3:09 PM on August 18, 2008


The problem is that we always lack the ability to demonstrate the existence of the Real/noumenal/In-Itself/True world, no matter how much we're convinced that it does exist.
"Reality itself is a thinking thing, and the object of its own
thinking." - Parmenides
Reality doesn't need proof; it is a given.
posted by Mental Wimp at 3:14 PM on August 18, 2008


nasreddin, i just wanted to say i luv you. you're defending pomo with the best of them, i'm right there with you (except for your love of derrida specifically...)
posted by yonation at 3:32 PM on August 18, 2008


For instance?

The most concrete "theoretical" approach to this question was certainly the APA's decision to declassify homosexuality as a mental disorder. This decision was informed by Kinsey's research, and was the result of strong activism within the APA. I don't think literary theory played any role in it. I suppose one place to look for an influence might be in the works of Robert Spitzer, but to my knowledge he was pretty rooted in good old-fashioned Enlightenment-style empiricism.


I am thinking of the activist culture itself. the culture and politics that developed around queer theory and third wave feminism are both deeply engaged with critical theory. (because we are not dealing with strictly literary theory here.)

though as a nod to the institutional influence of critical theory, the introduction to the tenth anniversary edition of Gender Trouble mentions that it was translated into French as part of a court enquiry into the legality of same-sex marriage.
posted by object-a at 3:37 PM on August 18, 2008


I am thinking of the activist culture itself. the culture and politics that developed around queer theory and third wave feminism are both deeply engaged with critical theory. (because we are not dealing with strictly literary theory here.)

But they postdate the actual activist movements. Queer theory was not an inspiration or a drive for the gay rights movement; it was an echo of and a response to it. The very phrase "the culture and politics that developed around queer theory..." is kind of ridiculous. The culture and politics behind queer rights developed around Stonewall and AIDS; theory was not a motivating factor in any put the most tangential way.
posted by mr_roboto at 3:44 PM on August 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


...but the most tangental way.
posted by mr_roboto at 3:45 PM on August 18, 2008



If one examines the neocultural paradigm of narrative, one is faced with a choice: either accept capitalist socialism or conclude that class has objective value. Baudrillard suggests the use of socialist realism to analyse and challenge narrativity. But if the predialectic paradigm of context holds, we have to choose between the neocultural paradigm of narrative and textual narrative.

Many discourses concerning capitalist desublimation may be found. In a sense, la Fournier implies that we have to choose between the neocultural paradigm of narrative and the materialist paradigm of reality.

Lacan uses the term ‘capitalist desublimation’ to denote a self-sufficient paradox. However, Baudrillard promotes the use of socialist realism to deconstruct sexist perceptions of sexual identity.


While this adorable little tidbit comes from the Postmodernism Generator, I think it actually crystallizes a few crucial issues quite nicely.

Discuss.

Don't mind if I do.

In circumstances (post-1980) where evolving Left practice has substituted narrativity for materialism, is it possible to maintain a (neo-)Marxist historical materialist vision of history and the notion of class as objective? The latter point may be discarded: even the most orthodox Marxist, after reading the work of E. P. Thompson, would be loath to conclude that the existence of classes in class society is somehow "objective." (Marx distinguished the economic circumstances of class from class-consciousness as such--hence the difference between the proletariat and the lumpenproletariat; in Thompson's vision, class-consciousness develops as the self-creation and self-realization of the proletariat.1 We therefore must see class as in large part subjective, especially if we are to avoid paleo-Marxist economism. Note that this does not imply any stance with regard to the natural development of subjective class-consciousness from objective relations of production, analogously to the base-superstructure relation.)

On the other hand, the abandonment of historical materialism would be a difficult pill for the Left to swallow, even if, for all intents and purposes, we no longer believe in it anyway. If the adoption of narrativity as a epistemological framework carries with it the more broadly postmodern, Lyotardian "skepticism towards metanarratives,"2 then it makes historical materialism a priori untenable. And that, through the eyes of the Old Left, cannot but renege on the remaining promises we have made through Benjamin's "weak messianic power."3 In short, it would mean the impossibility of both theory and praxis.

But if we take socialist realism as a paradigm with the power to reinscribe historical materialism within narrativity, then perhaps we can also reconstitute praxis while avoiding the pitfalls of orthodox Marxism's Enlightenment metanarrative. In fact, socialist realism itself--as seen in Gorky and Eisenstein, among other practitioners--already does so: the singularity of the socialist realist narrative is shot through with the historical materialist development of the protagonist, who functions as an incarnation both of the proletariat and of class society itself. A similar, though of course ideologically suspect, move is made by Ezra Pound in the Cantos: "Tovarisch laid in the earth/And rose, and wrecked the house of the tyrants."4

But surely such a move can only reinforce what Mao called "the fog of subjectivism"?5 It is true that narrativity as a whole seems to march hand-in-hand with bourgeois liberalism, and naturally to betray the class approach as well. Yet ideology has always already interpellated the potentially class-conscious proletarian as a bourgeois liberal subject; we cannot avoid starting from this subjectivity, even if we tend to dismiss it as mere false consciousness.6 With proper application, socialist realist narrativity can penetrate the veil of false consciousness and return historical materialism to its proper context in lived revolutionary praxis.

1. E. P. Thomson, The Making of the English Working Class
2. Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition
3. Walter Benjamin, "Theses on the Philosophy of History"
4. Ezra Pound, Cantos, XXVII
5. Mao Zedong, "Rectify the Party's Style of Work"
6. Louis Althusser, "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses"




I admit it. I have no idea what I'm talking about anymore.
posted by nasreddin at 3:50 PM on August 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


(I should add that my comment above makes some sort of sense only if you define "narrativity" not as what it actually means--some kind of film theory thing--but as the general disposition of postmodern politics, including identity politics, to focus on the legitimation of individualized stories of oppression and resistance to oppression)

(it also only makes sense if you are fool enough to want to resurrect socialist realism, which is among the stupidest and most corrupt artistic genres imaginable)
posted by nasreddin at 4:03 PM on August 18, 2008


While I'm not foolish enough to resurrect socialist realism, I do have to admit: That is the most impressive discussion of a randomly generated piece of pseudo-postmodernism I have ever seen, nasreddin.
posted by Dumsnill at 4:43 PM on August 18, 2008


Queer theory was not an inspiration or a drive for the gay rights movement; it was an echo of and a response to it. The very phrase "the culture and politics that developed around queer theory..." is kind of ridiculous. The culture and politics behind queer rights developed around Stonewall and AIDS; theory was not a motivating factor in any put the most tangential way.

agreed, if we're talking about the history of gay rights. apologies for my sloppy phrasing. but to say that current queer culture and activism is not drawing on theory, and making very good use of it, would be similarly ridiculous.
posted by object-a at 4:53 PM on August 18, 2008


Consider these three positions:
1. I don't know anything.
2. Nothing can be known.
3. There is nothing to know.

[1] may be honest, but won't win the speaker any awards. [2] is a religious sentiment; if it is true, it cannot be known itself, only accepted on faith. [3] is a contradiction. Post-modernism wants to admit to [1] but cannot build up the nerve to simply say it without couching its confession in a long-winded tale of excuses and mitigating factors. It simultaneously craves and rejects certainty, and unable to reconcile itself to the complete ignorance of [1], it instead slides down the slope from [2] to [3], that is, from religion to insanity.
posted by Pyry at 5:06 PM on August 18, 2008


HOLD HIGH THE BANNER OF MAO ZEDONG THOUGHT AND ADHERE TO THE PRINCIPLE OF SEEKING TRUTH FROM FACTS!

Excuse me, nasreddin has struck the flint to the long-dry pile of kindling in the left ventricle of my heart.
posted by languagehat at 5:34 PM on August 18, 2008 [2 favorites]


Incidentally, Great Leader's speech "Oppose Stereotyped Party Writing" may be appropriate here. Now go write up some big-character posters!
posted by nasreddin at 5:39 PM on August 18, 2008


(sorry to go way back up-thread, but I wanted to respond to nasreddin's earlier comments)

nasreddin: But history is fundamentally about telling stories--to the extent that history has a purpose in the broad scheme of human existence, it's the transmission of stories from one generation to another.

Um...no?

Passing stories from one generation to another is not the primary purpose of academic history. That's the purpose of chronicles, and popular history. It's the historical equivalent of the Astronomy Picture of the Day.

Academic history is about trying to understand not simply what happened, but to think critically about reasons why it happened, and what that means for our understanding of how different people, societies, cultures, systems or technologies, etc, work. Without this level of theorectical analysis, it's just not very good history. (Not that it doesn't happen - I've read two studies recently which both suffered gravely from having a great deal of good research which is crippled with no serious or sucessfull analysis of that research).

But to make this analysis valid, the data that goes in has to be valid, otherwise you have a "garbage in, garbage out" problem.

I suspect it is probably false. But it's a fantastic story, isn't it?

Yes, it's a good story. In the context of a short story or a novel, it's an interesting statement on human behaviour. But it should be shelved under FICTION.

There is a certain historical significance to the story - the fact that the story is told. You could tell an interesting history about the story of the story. But the story is NOT history. Like many other social sciences, real historical findings are often that people do NOT do what you would expect them to do from stories. They act in complex and often not narratively predictable ways.

If you base your understanding of people or institutions or the way the world works off of stories of the way people think the world works without checking how that relates to the reality, then you will just be wrong about the way the world works. If the way people think about the world is what you are studying, fine, that's really important, because the way that people think about the world influences their actions. But if you want to know what is actually happening, then the story gets directly in your way.

I care a great deal about this, because my current research is on a topic which has been the subject of many distortions which have really covered up what really happened, or who did what and when to a point where I've spent years just trying to untangle what things were really like (in the period before the bulk of my research, which had been already studied by several historians), who did what and the most basic of whys (like who opposed what and why). The truth isn't a good story. It's complex and messy and there are few good villains and no heroes. But, unlike a good story, it's real. It really happened, and that makes it more significant to understanding the way the world worked (and thus a bit about how similar situations probably work) than any story, no matter how interesting or compelling.

I say this as someone who loves stories, who has a serious novel addiction, who understands the power of narrative. But its power is also a threat to critically understanding the reality of our world.

And if human civilization were to fight a nuclear war, would you want the survivors to be left with such stories (which are equally valuable as 19th century narratives) or with a box of bloodless debates about the relative social status of weavers in Tudor England?

Actually, knowledge of early modern farming practices (which were quite sustainable, and organic!) would be quite useful to the survivors of nuclear war. Though I might throw in some engineering textbooks as well.

But seriously, I think that the exciting but factually inaccurate or (much more common) factually selective history is actively damaging to our society. Because it distorts our understanding of how our world works. There are people like Niall Ferguson going around claiming that imperialism improved the economic status of places like India, which just flies in the face of actually economic history research; he has a job at Harvard because he tells a good story, and his ideas are used to justify damaging imperialist actions today. To pick on the left, the same is true of a great deal of Marxist interpretations of events like the English Civil War, which ignored the power of ideology and religion and perceived injustice to fuel serious conflicts, something which does echo into the 21st century from the 17th.

also, if you think any debates about class in British history are bloodless, you are sadly mistaken : )
posted by jb at 5:45 PM on August 18, 2008 [4 favorites]


Yeah, I guess deathalicious's parsing of Lacan is probably correct, but so what? It's amazingly banal.

Actually, I read his parsing of Lacan, and thought, "hey, that's cool." It's only banal in the sense that Lacan is trying to think about stuff we deal with everyday, but don't think about much. It's like one of my major findings in my historical research: people do stuff that makes them money. But they don't like to pay taxes, even for services they say are good.
posted by jb at 5:49 PM on August 18, 2008


but to say that current queer culture and activism is not drawing on theory, and making very good use of it, would be similarly ridiculous.

I'm not so sure. This is, once again, horribly broad-brush and potentially ill-informed, but I'd say the gay rights movement has been steering away from the sort of positions and approaches that postmodern queer theory historically tended to adopt - setting up queer as an alternative way of being and experiencing the world, in overt oppostion to heterosexuality. The approach now is far more predicated on "we're just like the rest of you". I think you can see that, for example, in the shift from presenting it as a valid alternative lifestyle (people calling it a "lifestyle" now sound both incredibly outdated and not a little bigoted) to presenting it as an innate, biological trait. And innate biological traits are about as far from postmodernism as you can get.

I hasten to add that I'm coming from a position of only passing familiarity with the intricacies of queer theory; I'd appreciate anybody who can correct me on this, and give examples of queer theory's importance to the modern gay rights movement. But my impression is that not only has the classical postmodern stance been deprecated in recent times, but far more successes have been won since the oppositional, culturally-focused approach was replaced by one that emphasised social commonalities and (for want of a better term) a biological deterministic basis. (I don't, of course, deny that this was built on a hard-won foundation of legitimacy provided, at least in part, by many activists who may have also flown a postmodern flag.)

Which, neatly, links us back into Sokal's original point: that, as a progressive leftist, he felt the postmodern program was only serving to distract left-wing movements from achieving real-world goals by taking the fight into the realm of abstractions.
posted by flashboy at 5:58 PM on August 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


Just to add: I'm not saying that narrative isn't important. Since history is also often the study of things in time (just as geography is the study of stuff over space), narrative really does matter. I'm currently reading a very frustrating thesis that, among other faults, has a very confusing narrative.

The best historians simultaneously tell a good story, and tell the meaning of that story, and do it all with good evidence to make that story a valid story. Sometimes the story is a narrative, sometimes the story is an argument. But in good history, the evidence should and must direct the story, even if that story is not as satisfying as a fictional story would be.

I read cheesy novels because I know that at the end the villains will be punished, and the heroes rewarded, and the sun will go down on a world that is good and right. It's my entertainment, and I like a good fantasy.

But that's not the way the world, or history, works.

----------------------------------

but back to post-modernism:

the best thing post-modernism has done for history is to make people really think about the way that people think and use language. This is really important, especially when it comes to using sources critically. And the history of the way people think is fascinating.

but I think that the danger behind post-modernism is that it can get wrapped up in its own ideas, and stretch their work past its validity (for example, thinking that the way people think/talk about the world is the way the world is). But I also think this isn't a pitfall for post-modernism alone, and that we unfairly pick on some bad post-modernism without looking at the other bad scholarship other schools of thought produce, like overly modernist or Whiggish scholarship.

Methodology does matter, and it's important that what you say is valid (in the scientific sense, such as when we talk about a survey being having "reliability" and "validity", that it really does mean what you claim it means). Otherwise scholarship is just subsidized tree-killing, an exercise in imagination that would be more properly called art (and usually has to be more fun to read/look at).
posted by jb at 6:10 PM on August 18, 2008


This is such a pain in the butt. Sokal hoaxed a journal. So stop the presses? This kind of thing happens all the time, and just because people are hoaxable does not throw the entire enterprise into question.

Here's a similar type of "Sokal" hoax, except this time its perpetrated on CEOs during conference calls. The caller makes use of typical "business" jargon to pass off his questions as legitimate, and they are recevied as such, and the CEOs often try to respond.

Although your knee jerk reaction might be to say CEOs are windbags who are as full of it as professors of "postmodernism", it would perhaps be more prudent to consider how much information all of us take in both uncritically and subconsciously. And perhaps to just be glad that people come up with hoaxes... as they are tests of (and demos that show how easy it is to trick our) perceptual/cognitive skills. And perhaps refrain from getting carried away - after all, if I showed you a visual illusion, you wouldn't respond by plucking out your eyes and tossing them in the trash.
posted by mano at 6:30 PM on August 18, 2008


And if human civilization were to fight a nuclear war, would you want the survivors to be left with such stories...

i forgot this while writing my overly long, wind-baggy comment, but my first thought is that I would want them to have a copy of A Canticle for Leibowitz.


mano - there are many serious social scientists who study business think that, yes, many CEOs and business people are full of hot air a little else.
posted by jb at 6:57 PM on August 18, 2008


the danger behind post-modernism is that it can get wrapped up in its own ideas, and stretch their work past its validity (for example, thinking that the way people think/talk about the world is the way the world is).

And that, in a nutshell, is what I think describes the evolution of religion. Originally, (ie early in prehistory) religion served as a narrative art -- stories about where people came from, why the world is the way it is, attempts to link and explain phenomena that were otherwise unexplainable. Gradually, people forgot that these were stories -- metaphors, parables, allegories, what have you -- and began to think they were descriptions of reality. Bad move. They were ways of understanding reality, (in the way that Dickens helps us understand Victorian society through his fictions) but that is not the same thing as reality observed, measured, recorded and described in and of itself -- non-fiction.
posted by binturong at 7:11 PM on August 18, 2008 [1 favorite]


I'd say the gay rights movement has been steering away from the sort of positions and approaches that postmodern queer theory historically tended to adopt

I would say you are right. the recent move away from postmodern positions has broken up the solidarity that existed in the 90s between two very different political tendencies. there is the gay tendency, which leans towards lobbying for the right to same-sex marriage, and there are the queers, who consider the entire institution of monogamy to be oppressive and want nothing to do with it -- bring on the orgies. which probably puts the case too simply, but such is the way with broad brush strokes. and because the queer tendency is very much in the minority, it is the gay tendency that gets to call the shots.

(not that the queers aren't still out there. they're just quieter about it now.)

a progressive leftist critique of this shift would focus on how this is gentrifying gay activism: that there are all manner of marginalised people (trannies, people from visible minorities and/or impoverished backgrounds) who are getting left behind in this push for middle class respectability. not to mention that queers are more fun to hang out with. Michael Warner has a book that argues the latter position; and there is a book I read three or four years ago that made the former argument well, but I can't remember enough about it to track down a link. sorry.
posted by object-a at 7:45 PM on August 18, 2008


I think it was Feynman who said that if we can't explain something to a five-year-old, we don't really understand it.

"If you can't explain your physics to a barmaid it is probably not very good physics." - Rutherford; I've more usually heard it rendered as, "If you can't explain what you're doing to the woman cleaning the floor, you probably don't know what you're doing."

Passing stories from one generation to another is not the primary purpose of academic history. That's the purpose of chronicles, and popular history.

The most entertaining example of the difference can be seen when studying the history of medieval warfare, and enjoying the difference in the estimated size of armies described in the histories passed down from the observers of the time, and the evidence unearthed by later historians, based on quartermasters' records.
posted by rodgerd at 8:17 PM on August 18, 2008


the difference can be seen when studying the history of medieval warfare, and enjoying the difference in the estimated size of armies described in the histories passed down from the observers of the time, and the evidence unearthed by later historians, based on quartermasters' records.

That sounds interesting rodgerd and I would guess that contemporary observers exaggerated the size of enemy forces. When I studied wolves in the arctic I researched records from the weather station dating back to the 1950s and was struck by the fact that people in those days only ever saw very large wolves who invariably were about to attack them and had to be shot. I, on the other hand, having different expectations, got very close to wolves (about a metre), relying on the fact there have been no records of them ever killing people in northern Canada.
posted by binturong at 8:28 PM on August 18, 2008


nasreddin writes "Look, the fact that you don't understand something doesn't make it false. You think you're some kind of profound iconoclast, puncturing windbags left and right, but the only thing you're displaying is your closed-mindedness and unwillingness to learn. That critique is about at the same level of incisiveness as reading a foreign language and going 'why can't they just write clearly, like in English?' Or 'Boy, Jane Austen is boring, anyone who ever claimed to liked her must have just been pretentiously faking it!'"
He writes so obscurely you can't tell what he's saying, that's the obscurantism part, and then when you criticize him, he can always say, "You didn't understand me; you're an idiot." That's the terrorism part.



(Oh, that was Foucault writing about Derrida.)
posted by orthogonality at 10:14 PM on August 18, 2008



I'd appreciate anybody who can correct me on this, and give examples of queer theory's importance to the modern gay rights movement.


Judith Butler's Is Kinship Always Already Heterosexual?
posted by liketitanic at 10:21 PM on August 18, 2008


not to mention that queers are more fun to hang out with.

Excuse me?
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:47 PM on August 18, 2008



Passing stories from one generation to another is not the primary purpose of academic history. That's the purpose of chronicles, and popular history. It's the historical equivalent of the Astronomy Picture of the Day.

Academic history is about trying to understand not simply what happened, but to think critically about reasons why it happened, and what that means for our understanding of how different people, societies, cultures, systems or technologies, etc, work. Without this level of theorectical analysis, it's just not very good history. (Not that it doesn't happen - I've read two studies recently which both suffered gravely from having a great deal of good research which is crippled with no serious or sucessfull analysis of that research).


You're arguing against something I never said. What I don't mean by an interesting story is Stephen Ambrose or any number of pretty fables with clear heroes and villains that each culture tells itself. And I never denied the importance of being a good historian--responsible with the evidence, critical and analytical where needed.

What I am denying is the rigid separation between history as chronicle and history as analysis. What has in fact happened since the nineteenth century is that academic historians have arrogated to themselves the duties of all three kinds of history--critical, monumental, antiquarian. Not that that's a bad thing in itself. But it puts the onus on the academic historians (one of whom I'm trying to become) to fulfill their duties as chroniclers and storytellers as well as critics. That means making history something that comes alive with the richness of its subject matter.

You acknowledge that the best historians happen to tell excellent stories without sacrificing their critical obligations. Of course. What I am suggesting is that the telling of a good story (and that means precisely not reductive, unreflective, stereotyped, or Manichean) is not just a bonus, extraneous addition to the writing of history. It should be integral to the process.

Perhaps you and I have different ideas of what a good historical story is. I think Gordon Wood and Bernard Bailyn tell excellent stories; so does, say, Robert Darnton, and even Habermas in Structural Transformation. That doesn't just refer to the colorful historical characters that appear in their work; it means the shape of the analytical structure, the coherence and at the same time richness of the themes. That is separable neither from the content properly speaking, nor from the form.


(Oh, that was Foucault writing about Derrida.)

Note that I didn't call him an idiot. I called him "closed-minded," which is true of Foucault in this case as well.

But why even bother quoting him? I mean, during your repeated attempts at Sokalesque posturing, you've never had a problem lumping all the Frenchies in together and smearing shit all over them with your giant brush.
posted by nasreddin at 11:03 PM on August 18, 2008


Not to mention that that particular exchange (which was eagerly reported by the mouthbreather Searle as some sort of colossal refutation) was the product of the fact that Foucault and Derrida hated each other for decades because of a disagreement in their interpretations of Descartes' Meditations. So it wasn't like Foucault was devoid of ulterior motives here.
posted by nasreddin at 11:08 PM on August 18, 2008


In Lacan's thought, for instance, the underlying world is "the Real." It exists, certainly, and we dream of accessing it directly because it represents the fulfillment of our desires--but we can't, because we as human beings cannot solve the recursion problem.

In the Lacanian schema we access the Real where the veils of the Symbolic and the Imaginary are forcibly torn apart by the irruption of trauma, and our desire is insatiable because its object resists symbolisation, being more in the nature of a foreclosed site around which the rest of sensory field coalesces. This is not quite the same thing.
posted by Wolof at 12:08 AM on August 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


I mean, during your repeated attempts at Sokalesque posturing, you've never had a problem lumping all the Frenchies in together and smearing shit all over them with your giant brush.

Yeah, there's that respectful discussion.
posted by rodgerd at 2:24 AM on August 19, 2008


That sounds interesting rodgerd and I would guess that contemporary observers exaggerated the size of enemy forces

Their own, too. Epic battles between fifty thousand men are a lot more dramatic than real numbers an order of magnitude less.
posted by rodgerd at 2:26 AM on August 19, 2008


In the Lacanian schema we access the Real where the veils of the Symbolic and the Imaginary are forcibly torn apart by the irruption of trauma, and our desire is insatiable because its object resists symbolisation, being more in the nature of a foreclosed site around which the rest of sensory field coalesces. This is not quite the same thing.

Thanks! I've always had trouble with Lacan.
posted by nasreddin at 5:31 AM on August 19, 2008



Foucault and Derrida hated each other for decades because of a disagreement in their interpretations of Descartes' Meditations.


This may well be the most unintentionally amusing remark in this entire thread.
posted by Herodios at 7:15 AM on August 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


A plague on both Foucault and Derrida. Woody Allen got it right:
"Eternal nothingness is fine if you happen to be dressed for it."
posted by binturong at 7:55 AM on August 19, 2008


This is a great thread. My only remark is that a lot of the comments here treat the linguistic turn as if it were still a cutting edge approach in the humanities. At least in my corner of history, it has proved a flash in the pan and I don't see anyone doing much with it. I am reviewing a book right now, a collection of essays, with a lot of this sort of textual analysis and my first reaction was surprise. It reads like a collection of graduate school essays from fifteen years ago.
posted by LarryC at 8:28 AM on August 19, 2008 [2 favorites]


I missed this thread because I've clearly been marginalized by post-colonial neo-capitalist power structures that prevented me from reading everything on the Internet. Can someone deconstruct the nascent imperialism of this discussion via an interpretive dance or free verse or something? Thanks.
posted by spiderwire at 9:18 AM on August 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


Perhaps you and I have different ideas of what a good historical story is. I think Gordon Wood and Bernard Bailyn tell excellent stories; so does, say, Robert Darnton, and even Habermas in Structural Transformation.

I don't think we disagree at all - I think a good argument is a good story as well.

What I worry about in our joint field is the tendancy to preference a good story over solid research, especially if that good story suits certain contemporary political needs. I'm thinking of something like Linda Colley's Britons, which is not a bad book (I thought it was an interesting, if somewhat shakey argument), but not as brilliant or as unquestionable as one might think considering both the public and academic acclaim she has had.

I also worry that the desire for exciting stories also directs the focus of our historical research, away from mundane and difficult research into exciting and fashionable topics. Just look at the amount of research done on sexuality or scandals or court politics versus how much is done economic development - how many books are there on figures of Elizabeth's court versus the profound transformation of Britain in the next few centuries from an agrarian, pre-modern society into an industrial, modern society? But these books generally have more graphs than great quotes, so they fall to the sidelines, even if they tell us very important things relevant to some of the most pressing problems of our time, like how development might work.

But I don't want to dis court history, because I think all solid, well-researched history is important and valid - Lord Tresurers do matter as much as weavers, even if they have such terrible hand-writing that I am never going near their papers with a ten-foot pole.

But when a historian says, "it's probably not true, but isn't a great story?" big flashing red signs go off in my head. If it's not true, then it's not a good historical story - it's a bad historical story which will distort our understanding of that time and place. Like I said, the story of the story (why it was told, what it meant to the people who told the story) is a valid and interesting historical story, but that's a different matter.

I'm no one to say that there are big T-truths, especially when you are talking about something as slippery as culture or society. But there are small-t truths - history is about real people, real events, real cultures, and we may struggle to reconstruct them from scanty and flawed sources, but they really did exist and there was a truth to them which lies outside of us and outside of the sources.
posted by jb at 9:36 AM on August 19, 2008 [1 favorite]



I'm no one to say that there are big T-truths, especially when you are talking about something as slippery as culture or society. But there are small-t truths - history is about real people, real events, real cultures, and we may struggle to reconstruct them from scanty and flawed sources, but they really did exist and there was a truth to them which lies outside of us and outside of the sources.


I agree with everything you said, but I don't think we need to assume this. We can "take it for true," insofar as that helps us do sensitive historical work, but I think the existence of sources, whether or not they're linked to a real past, is enough. I don't see a compelling reason to need to believe in the reality of the past, since it's not something that can be proven. I operate under the assumption that the entire world was created a moment ago, and it hasn't hurt me.
posted by nasreddin at 9:41 AM on August 19, 2008


I operate under the assumption that the entire world was created a moment ago, and it hasn't hurt me.

If you really believe the past has no reality you could not have this conversation. You would not know what comments were posted an hour ago.
posted by binturong at 12:37 PM on August 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


I operate under the assumption that the entire world was created a moment ago, and it hasn't hurt me.

But what, then, is the purpose of history? Why not read science fiction? Or write science fiction, since it's much easier to come up with a good plot than to trudge through sources and work out the apparent contradictions.

I'm not saying that your approach is wrong, but it is somewhat incomprehensible to me. The whole heart of history for me is the fact that these people were real, that they were flesh and bone and heart, and that's what makes the historical sources matter, as a poor reflection of what once was.

Of course, I work with birth and death registers, inventories of household goods, extremely formulaic enclosure decrees - sources which are not fun, but a constant reminder of the reality of the past. These types of sources have no further meaning except as a window to the past - no wisdom, no philosophy, though there is some pretty funky spelling in the inventories.
posted by jb at 12:43 PM on August 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


You would not know what comments were posted an hour ago.

Nah, they have timestamps. And I have memories; whether they're true or false, I have no way of knowing.


I'm not saying that your approach is wrong, but it is somewhat incomprehensible to me. The whole heart of history for me is the fact that these people were real, that they were flesh and bone and heart, and that's what makes the historical sources matter, as a poor reflection of what once was.

Yes, the "poor reflection" is precisely it. It's the persistent knowledge that I can never know the people I'm studying any better than literary characters--even if I'm reading their intimate journals and letters. It helps keep my historical hubris, the arrogance of the prying scientific gaze, in check.

Then again, I do work in the eighteenth-century public sphere--and that maybe influences my approach to things. It's less productive in that setting to talk about flesh-and-blood individuals behind the text, because the work they were publishing was always hidden behind a screen of different interlocking personas. So my distance from them is not all that different from their own distance from their work.


But what, then, is the purpose of history? Why not read science fiction? Or write science fiction, since it's much easier to come up with a good plot than to trudge through sources and work out the apparent contradictions.


My attachment to history isn't founded on any sense of its value as a tool for discovering the past. I love the activity and the texts for their own sake. The interconnections between different texts, even if they're not reflective of an underlying historical-causal link, are profoundly interesting.
posted by nasreddin at 12:56 PM on August 19, 2008


This monism or complete idealism invalidates all science. If we explain (or judge) a fact, we connect it with another; such linking, in Tlön, is a later state of the subject which cannot affect or illuminate the previous state. Every mental state is irreducible: there mere fact of naming it - i.e., of classifying it - implies a falsification. From which it can be deduced that there are no sciences on Tlön, not even reasoning. The paradoxical truth is that they do exist, and in almost uncountable number. The same thing happens with philosophies as happens with nouns in the northern hemisphere. The fact that every philosophy is by definition a dialectical game, a Philosophie des Als Ob, has caused them to multiply. There is an abundance of incredible systems of pleasing design or sensational type. The metaphysicians of Tlön do not seek for the truth or even for verisimilitude, but rather for the astounding. They judge that metaphysics is a branch of fantastic literature. They know that a system is nothing more than the subordination of all aspects of the universe to any one such aspect. Even the phrase "all aspects" is rejectable, for it supposes the impossible addition of the present and of all past moments. Neither is it licit to use the plural "past moments," since it supposes another operation...
posted by spiderwire at 1:21 PM on August 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


I have memories; whether they're true or false, I have no way of knowing.

I think you are playing word games, which is the objection many people have to the whole post-modernist philosophy enterprise. There are ways of distinguishing true and false memories -- or at least confirming true ones if not falsifying false ones! Suppose I remember the house I grew up in many years ago had a tree near the front door. I return to the address and look. If the tree is there my memory is confirmed. The idea that we continually recreate the world in our minds and there is no way to know that we do not seems sophomoric to me. More importantly, it is simply a conceit that is not very useful for living one's life, which is, after all the purpose of a philosophy, no?
posted by binturong at 1:29 PM on August 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


The idea that we continually recreate the world in our minds and there is no way to know that we do not seems sophomoric to me. More importantly, it is simply a conceit that is not very useful for living one's life, which is, after all the purpose of a philosophy, no?

Maybe it is sophomoric, I don't know. All I know is that I accept the minimum possible number of binding ontological commitments (short of total solipsism) that I can, which gives me the broadest possible terrain on which to experiment. It's kind of an Occam's Razor thing: why multiply entities unnecessarily? OK, you have memories. Why assume a past as well, when memories alone would explain everything?

I don't behave any differently from anybody else, as far as my ontological assumptions are concerned. But keeping myself uncommitted helps me keep an open mind, and prevents my ideas from petrifying. Some people find it easier or more productive to believe in an objective reality. More power to them! But they can't prove it either, so it's a matter of convenience for them as much as it is for me.

I think you are playing word games, which is the objection many people have to the whole post-modernist philosophy enterprise. There are ways of distinguishing true and false memories -- or at least confirming true ones if not falsifying false ones!

There's no rigid line between concept-games and word-games. I am certainly playing some kind of game, which isn't a bad thing, I don't think. And yes, you're right about "true" and "false"; I should have said "referential" and "non-referential."
posted by nasreddin at 1:50 PM on August 19, 2008


I don't see a compelling reason to need to believe in the reality of the past, since it's not something that can be proven. I operate under the assumption that the entire world was created a moment ago, and it hasn't hurt me.

Weird. How does causality come into your world-view? Is everything random?
posted by bonehead at 2:23 PM on August 19, 2008


Weird. How does causality come into your world-view? Is everything random?

Well, since causality is an inductive process, not a deductive one (which isn't a controversial claim, as far as I know), I don't see why we can't trust that things will continue to happen as our memories suggest they always have. But of course that's a pragmatic kind of trust, nothing more.

I don't want to keep monopolizing this discussion, I've already run my mouth off too much. All I would add is that my worldview, such as it is, is hardly either original or postmodern. I take my bearings from Pyrrho and Sextus Empiricus:
In order to achieve serenity, the sceptic started philosophising about the fact that he evaluated his sensory images, and realised that some were true and some were false. He then fell into contradictions between equally good arguments on either side, and not being able to decide one way or the other, he suspended judgment. Finally, suspension of judgment led by fate to serenity in matters of opinion. Someone who believes that anything is objectively good or evil is perpetually disturbed. When he lacks the things he thinks good, he thinks he is being tormented by things which are objectively bad, and he strives after things which are good (as he thinks). But when he has obtained them, he falls into even greater disturbance because of his irrational and immoderate elation; and fearing a reversal of fortune, he does everything to avoid losing the things which seem good to him. But the person who has come to no opinion as to which things are objectively good or evil puts no effort into avoiding or striving after them. This is because he is in a state of serenity.
posted by nasreddin at 3:01 PM on August 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


There's no rigid line between concept-games and word-games.

Maybe you can't distinguish between them, but most of us can. It's just that some players of the latter are very good at disguising the fact that they have none of the former.
posted by Mental Wimp at 3:23 PM on August 19, 2008


Interesting you should bring up Occam's Razor nazreddin because that very concept came into my head while I've been away from the computer thinking about your argument. Only I would use Occam to oppose you! I would argue that the simplest interpretation of everyday experience is that past experiences are real rather than artifacts of newly generated "memories." How do you explain several people independently remembering the same thing? What about animal memories, or do they also have this magical ability to generate a remembered world from moment to moment? This is where pomo converges with religion in my view. That, is, you start with your conclusion and then twist and tapdance to interpret everything to keep that conclusion safe -- hence the descent into complex, arcane and obscurantist jargon. It reminds me of medieval priests debating the number of angels that fit on the head of a pin. Well I can demonstrate there is a pin -- I can stick it in you. But there are no angels except in your mind and you cannot demonstrate otherwise.
posted by binturong at 4:00 PM on August 19, 2008


the sceptic started philosophising about the fact that he evaluated his sensory images, and realised that some were true and some were false. He then fell into contradictions between equally good arguments on either side, and not being able to decide one way or the other, he suspended judgment.

The real world is not contingent on either our rhetorical debating skills or our state of knowledge. Sure we always evaluate our sensory input and can be deceived. I have too many drinks and I see pink elephants. I go to the zoo and I see grey elephants. Do I conclude there is no difference and that both types of elephants exist? The qualities of serenity and good and evil in your quote above are not relevant to the question of whether things are or are not in the world.
posted by binturong at 4:16 PM on August 19, 2008


I would argue that the simplest interpretation of everyday experience is that past experiences are real rather than artifacts of newly generated "memories."

Occam's Razor is not "the simplest explanation is usually the best." It's "entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity." There is a good reason why that's the case: there's no agreed-upon definition of "simple." In other words, to someone living in 1600 it would be intuitively simple and obvious to explain planetary motion by planets rotating around the earth with a greater or lesser number of epicycles. "Entities must not be multiplied beyond necessity" is a completely different deal--it gives you a concrete procedure to follow. You make a list of entities. For each entity, you ask, "Is this necessary to my explanation?" Then you get rid of it if the answer is "no." In my case, I make a list of entities: my memories, my sensations, the past. I can't explain my experience without memories--after all, I do have them. But I can explain it without the past: everything I think of as past is in fact either part of my memories, or part of my sensations (in the case of stuff I read in history books, for instance). Therefore I have good reason to get rid of the past.

How do you explain several people independently remembering the same thing? What about animal memories, or do they also have this magical ability to generate a remembered world from moment to moment?


First of all, I can never be sure that people do, in fact, remember the same thing, since I can never have access to their memories and they can never describe them in enough detail for my satisfaction (because what you hear and understand intellectually is just a totally different thing from what you remember). Second of all, why shouldn't people remember the same thing? I'm not saying the world is constantly passing away and being rebuilt (that's unnecessarily complex). I'm saying that, for all I know, the world was created a moment ago, with all the people and the animals (including myself) already in it and already equipped with memories.

That, is, you start with your conclusion and then twist and tapdance to interpret everything to keep that conclusion safe -- hence the descent into complex, arcane and obscurantist jargon

Note that as of about two-thirds down the thread, we have stopped talking about postmodernism altogether. What we are discussing right now is very, very traditional philosophical epistemology and metaphysics. (I also challenge you to identify the "complex, arcane, and obscurantist jargon" in my comments. If anything's unclear, I'd be happy to clarify.)
posted by nasreddin at 4:21 PM on August 19, 2008 [3 favorites]


Note that as of about two-thirds down the thread, we have stopped talking about postmodernism altogether. What we are discussing right now is very, very traditional philosophical epistemology and metaphysics.

This comment reminds me of when my professor spent a whole unit discussing Baudrillard as an epistemological commentator responding to Kant -- not as a thought experiment, that's actually what he thought the argument was -- and that's sort of what this thread reminds me of.
posted by spiderwire at 5:10 PM on August 19, 2008



This comment reminds me of when my professor spent a whole unit discussing Baudrillard as an epistemological commentator responding to Kant -- not as a thought experiment, that's actually what he thought the argument was -- and that's sort of what this thread reminds me of.


You gotta love the process that's going on in the minds of so many people in this thread.

Step 1: These postmodernists are so difficult to understand! I wonder what they're talking about?

Step 2: Hmm, they seem to be questioning our perceptions of reality in some way. I know! It must be like that "allegory of the cave" thing!

Step 3: Look how banal these postmodernists are! They're just repeating tired old ideas and repackaging them in fancy language!
posted by nasreddin at 5:24 PM on August 19, 2008


In my case, I make a list of entities: my memories, my sensations, the past. I can't explain my experience without memories--after all, I do have them. But I can explain it without the past: everything I think of as past is in fact either part of my memories, or part of my sensations (in the case of stuff I read in history books, for instance). Therefore I have good reason to get rid of the past.

Except in doing so, you generate a whole new set of thorny questions about those memories that can only be resolved by positing of a slew of new entities. Why are your memories internally consistent? What explains the remarkable concordance between your memories and other people's? Why do they seem to have predictive value? Why do they conduce to your survival in the world? Why do you have them in the first place? Positing that there is, in fact, a "real world," and that your memories derive from it -- that everything is pretty much how we naively assume it to be -- certainly seems like the more ontologically parsimonious option. I think this is what binturong meant when he referred to twisting and tapdancing to keep your conclusions safe.

I think this also gets to the heart of what irks a lot of people about post-modernism: while very little of what the post-modernists say is demonstrably wrong, very little of it is in any way truly compelling. Sure, those elaborate theories could be correct, but what reason do we have to think they are? The theorists all seem averse to constructing rigorous arguments from the ground up. One gets the overwhelming sense that their reason for believing their own theories is not because those theories are in any way necessary to explain things in the world, but simply because those theories make the world a more interesting place in their minds. All well and good, but that's hardly distinguishable from the role of a fiction writer.
posted by decoherence at 5:45 PM on August 19, 2008 [2 favorites]


Why are your memories internally consistent? What explains the remarkable concordance between your memories and other people's? Why do they seem to have predictive value? Why do they conduce to your survival in the world? Why do you have them in the first place?

I don't understand why it would be necessary to answer any of these "why" questions, or why any given explanation would undermine the argument. The world just appeared like that; I'm not positing any explanatory factor behind its appearance--and any attempt at evincing an explanatory factor is still working on evidence that appeared working like that already. My goal isn't to explain it. It's just to accept the fact that that's what could have happened and move on. I want to presume that it's true, because, as you said, I think it's more interesting. But you're not capable of doing any better--you want to do science or whatever because you're not satisfied with "God did it" or "We're all brains in vats" or "We are a simulation run by people from the future." You want to investigate these questions without accepting such pat and simplistic answers. Fine, that's noble. But it's exactly the same thing as taking something for true because it's more interesting that way, given that there really isn't any bulletproof reason to pick "Everything is what it looks like" out of that particular lineup.

In any case, none of this has anything to do with postmodernism at all. What do "postmodernists" argue that you find so uncompelling? Can you cite a specific argument?
posted by nasreddin at 6:17 PM on August 19, 2008


Thank you decoherence that is what I meant. And surely it is a parsimonious explanation to say: "there is a world we experience over time, remember and learn from" rather than "the entire world was created a moment ago." Learning and survival depend largely on good sensory perception and memory, and this applies to all animals. nasreddin, how would you explain this observation: rat is introduced to maze, finds reward after 40 sec. Is introduced again, finds reward after 30 sec. Third time, gets it in 25 sec. Other rats are given same test. Consistently the time to find reward is reduced with trials, given variations and stupid and smart rats and bad days and poor data recording. Doesn't all this strongly suggest a real world that we sense and remember as it is and not one that is created a moment ago? If you say "there is no past but my memories and sensations" you are like creationists who say that fossils were planted by god to give the illusion of evolving life forms.
posted by binturong at 6:41 PM on August 19, 2008


you are like creationists who say that fossils were planted by god to give the illusion of evolving life forms.

Without any sarcasm, that's exactly what I'm like. If they want to believe that, I'm totally fine with that. Their evidence is just as unassailable as mine. You say the rat evolved, was born, etc; I say it was created with the initial conditions to learn from the maze just a moment ago. There is literally no argument you could give that would falsify my claim, or theirs. But your claim that there is a world that developed and evolved, etc., is also unfalsifiable. (Let's leave the question of God aside for a moment). What imaginable evidence could I possibly provide that you wouldn't be able to explain with your developmental hypothesis? Anything unexplainable by physics you could deny, or say "the electrons just arranged themselves that way, freak occurrence" or "I don't know, but get back to me in 500 years of scientific development."
posted by nasreddin at 7:01 PM on August 19, 2008


You gotta love the process that's going on in the minds of so many people in this thread.

Step 1: These postmodernists are so difficult to understand! I wonder what they're talking about?

Step 2: Hmm, they seem to be questioning our perceptions of reality in some way. I know! It must be like that "allegory of the cave" thing!

Step 3: Look how banal these postmodernists are! They're just repeating tired old ideas and repackaging them in fancy language!


That's a fairly condescending tone to use towards people who are just figments of your imagination.

Seriously, though, nasreddin, the conversation shifted away from postmodernism towards classical epistemology because that's where you took it. You're the one who decided to drop in "I operate under the assumption that the entire world was created a moment ago" as a bit of rhetorical one-upmanship when a real live historian engaged you in a conversation about how postmodern ideas fit with doing actual research. To then turn round and mock everybody for (supposedly) not spotting that the topic had shifted isn't a great way to convince anybody to keep listening to you.


Also, with regards to the queer/gay thing upthread: I wish to place it on record that I totally prefer the company of the gentrified gays. I just don't have the stamina. Also, they never invited me to their orgies.
posted by flashboy at 7:16 PM on August 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


I operate under the assumption that the entire world was created a moment ago, and it hasn't hurt me.

People usually deny the past in order to prevent the hurt.
posted by Brian B. at 7:22 PM on August 19, 2008 [1 favorite]



Seriously, though, nasreddin, the conversation shifted away from postmodernism towards classical epistemology because that's where you took it. You're the one who decided to drop in "I operate under the assumption that the entire world was created a moment ago" as a bit of rhetorical one-upmanship when a real live historian engaged you in a conversation about how postmodern ideas fit with doing actual research. To then turn round and mock everybody for (supposedly) not spotting that the topic had shifted isn't a great way to convince anybody to keep listening to you.


Uh, no? The epistemological debate began all the way back with bonehead's question about solipsism. And to speak of rhetorical "one-upmanship" is totally unjustified: he said believing in the existence of real people was necessary, I denied it. If that's not argument by the strictest standard, I don't know what is.
posted by nasreddin at 7:24 PM on August 19, 2008


I'll stop posting now. This thread has become too much about me and too little about actual discussion. I don't mean that in a flameout way at all: I'm seriously just as bored as you all are with my pontificating about my own opinions. I apologize to Gyan, whose post I shamelessly and repeatedly derailed.
posted by nasreddin at 7:28 PM on August 19, 2008


In any case, none of this has anything to do with postmodernism at all. What do "postmodernists" argue that you find so uncompelling? Can you cite a specific argument?

A big part of the problem is that, as best I can tell, they don't actually make "arguments" per se. Or, if they do, they're so shrouded in obscurity as to be virtually invisible to anyone not already deeply enmeshed (and invested) in the hermetic web of critical theory. An argument, at least, would be something to lack onto and evaluate by the usual logical and evidentiary standards; the theorists just seem to prefer making airy assertions.

Admittedly, I'm not as boned up on critical theory as I could be. But it's not for lack of trying. I can obtain a pretty good layman's grasp of the origins of general relativity or the most recent technical debates in evolutionary theory by spending a few weeks reading books and articles on those subjects. I can pick out and follow the dominant strains of early modern and analytical philosophers' arguments just by reading through their Wikipedia pages. Yet I've spent years, on and off, returning to critical theory in hopes of gaining a solid understanding of what anyone might call "the basics," and I continually come up short. Why is this? This stuff is tough, sure, but is it that tough? Or is something else the problem?
posted by decoherence at 7:38 PM on August 19, 2008


A big part of the problem is that, as best I can tell, they don't actually make "arguments" per se.

But they do make arguments. Foucault (not necessarily a postmodernist but certainly a critical theorist) certainly does. Like, there was no premodern parallel to "sexual identity" because it is the work of modernity to apply labels to--and thus create degenerate and 'normal'--sexual behaviors that then become identifiers. His famous example is that the village idiot twiddling the 14-year-old girl wasn't a perv til the modern era. Or, you know, that prisons work because they create a system of surveillance that prisoners internalize until they are monitoring themselves. Or, we assume history is both continuous and contiguous, but it is defined by epistemic shifts that we can measure by examining how specific identities (like the self) are considered in each episteme.

Those are all arguments Foucault makes, then explores at great length, in The History of Sexuality, Discipline and Punish, and The Order of Things. He uses extensive evidence to make those arguments. And his work is relentlessly logical. It's not about airy assumptions--I think it's about a specialized language that has no more or less utility than other specialized languages.
posted by liketitanic at 8:07 PM on August 19, 2008 [2 favorites]


But it does seem categorically different from esoteric science writing -- which, as the overflowing pop science section of the local B&N attests to, is quite capable of being simplified while still retaining much of its content. I do think Chomsky has a point there.

That seems like a different argument, though, and here's why: the scientific researchers aren't usually the ones writing the pop science explications. If that's all you mean--that some interlocutor helps with translation--there are plenty of beginning theory texts. Peter Barry's Beginning Theory, for example, is excellent. By contrast, the accusation seems to be that postmodern theorists themselves don't write in "plain language."
posted by liketitanic at 8:27 PM on August 19, 2008


nasreddin, please don't stop posting. I'm really enjoying this, and not the least bit bored.
posted by Crabby Appleton at 8:52 PM on August 19, 2008


okay, the orgy is over and I wouldn't mind picking up where nasreddin left off.

I think he was right, no matter what brought the situation about, when he said that the conversation shifted from postmodernism to epistemology and metaphysics. I'd like to make an effort to bring us back to "postmodernism."

though by way of clarifying the terms we're using, we are not really speaking about postmodernism, we are speaking about poststructuralism. postmodernism is an effort to define the cultural logic of a specific historical epoch (hence 'postmodernity'); poststructuralism is a particular style of theory and critical analysis that synthesises the work of Derrida, Foucault, Deleuze, Barthes et al.

(granted, postmodernism makes an effort to subsume poststructuralism, but that was in the eighties and I do not think many critical theorists buy into that anymore.)

if poststructuralism is too specific, then 'critical theory' would be the term to use. but it doesn't fit as neatly: critical theory is (roughly) the synthesis of (Lacanian) psychoanalysis, Marxism (mostly Frankfurt School), poststructuralism, gender studies and postcolonialism, and the arguments under discussion here are the kind advanced by the poststructuralists.

I am going to use 'theory' as a stand-in for 'critical theory' from here on in, because it is easier to type, and with the caveat that I don't know enough about Marxism and postcolonialism to hold my own in a debate and I'm bracketing off the specific claims of psychoanalysis and gender studies.
posted by object-a at 10:29 PM on August 19, 2008 [1 favorite]


Sure, those elaborate theories could be correct, but what reason do we have to think they are? The theorists all seem averse to constructing rigorous arguments from the ground up. One gets the overwhelming sense that their reason for believing their own theories is not because those theories are in any way necessary to explain things in the world, but simply because those theories make the world a more interesting place in their minds. All well and good, but that's hardly distinguishable from the role of a fiction writer.

"And like Sartre before him Barthes discovers very soon that the novel or the theatre -- more so than the essay -- are the natural setting in which concrete freedom can be most violently and effectively acted out. Fiction is like philosophy's 'world of becoming.' Was Roland Barthes in his turn a novelist? The question instantly gives rise to another: what is a novel today?"

(Alain Robbes-Grillet, Ghosts in the Mirror)

so far as I understand theory, I think that decoherence has it right. and I believe has had it right for some time, and I apologise for waiting so long to make the effort to steer the discussion in this direction.

no matter the sophistication of the arguments deployed by Foucault (liketitanic mentions) or Derrida, theory is indeed averse to building arguments from the ground up -- it is interested in exploring other ways of structuring discourse. to go from that claim to saying that "[these] theories make the world a more interesting place in their minds," however, is to dismiss them too off-handedly.

there is a structuring device in play: theory is organised around and legitimated by the (textual) effects it generates. this does indeed put the theorist in the company of the novelist -- they are both twisting and playing with language to see what it is possible to make of it. I would even go so far as to say that Derrida's motivation in developing deconstruction was to offer an understanding of language supple enough to enable that kind of play.

so the argument here is not a question of what theory is, because I think we are all of us more or less agreed on that, but whether or not it has value, and if so, what that value is.

I understand theory to be a means to test the limits of language. this encompasses both the critical work of Foucault and (early) Derrida, which you will have to forgive me for mentioning but not elaborating upon, and the more novelistic work of (later) Barthes and (later) Derrida. it is a way to distance oneself from the unspoken assumptions implicit in language and explore what else is possible, both within language and within a world that is not already spoken for.

if scientific enquiry organises itself around the question of what is, then theory poses the question of what else is possible. and the value of theory is not in whether or not it corresponds with what is, but in whether or not it can be done, which is to say it is concerned with what could be.

this leads to a pragmatic value: theory informs practice, it is a way to change one's way of being in the world and, given the linguistic determinism axiomatic to theory, therefore also changing one's (understanding of the) world. and that is where its value and legitimation rest: in the actions it makes possible in the world.

and this is not a strictly conceptual exercise. we live in an objectively existing world and our actions have consequences in it. changing our way of being in the world changes both our knowledge of it and the range of actions it is possible for us to make in it. the scientific method demonstrates this. theory is an effort to maintain a critically reflexive relationship with the way that "we make the world in our minds," and to keep us open to the possibility of other ways of making the world. there is a hedonistic element to this ("making the world a more interesting place in their minds"), but for most theorists, the key motivation is ethical: to put it too simply (because I have been rambling for some time and I should stop soon), it is to make it possible for a better world to come into being.

please keep in mind that this is a ridiculously idiosyncratic understanding of theory -- which I hope you'll consider appropriate, given the claims of the subject matter. I may be hard pressed to back up most of what I have written in this post, though I will try. I am offering it as an explanation of the value I find in theory, and not an explanation of the ever so elusive theory-in-itself.
posted by object-a at 12:18 AM on August 20, 2008 [3 favorites]


...By contrast, the accusation seems to be that postmodern theorists themselves don't write in "plain language."

yes. exactly.
posted by object-a at 12:22 AM on August 20, 2008


...By contrast, the accusation seems to be that postmodern theorists themselves don't write in "plain language."

yes. exactly.


. . . which is the same thing I could say about most specialized disciplinary languages.
posted by liketitanic at 7:12 AM on August 20, 2008


...By contrast, the accusation seems to be that postmodern theorists themselves don't write in "plain language."

yes. exactly.

. . . which is the same thing I could say about most specialized disciplinary languages.


really?

in my experience, there is no other discourse* whose value is called into question as vehemently for the quality of the language it uses -- this thread alone being something of an example of that. though my experience of this kind of language more than likely has something to do with that claim.

* - I substituted 'discourse' for 'discipline' above, because theory is a decidedly interdisciplinary affair.

do mathematicians and physicists have to deal with the kind of hostility from within their own discipline that Derrida faced when Cambridge awarded him an honourary doctorate in 1992?
posted by object-a at 7:53 AM on August 20, 2008


But that depends on whether we're talking about intradisciplinary critique or extradisciplinary critique. If it's the latter--which is what Sokal is about--then yes, I could. If Stephen Hawking can write A Brief History of Time, why can't all scientific papers be written so clearly that I, with no training, could understand them?

If it's the former, well . . . the parallel I can imagine is not linguistic or stylistic, but it would involve arguments about string theory in physics, or about the training of so-called mavericks. Or perhaps disagreements about the value of science journalism.
posted by liketitanic at 8:21 AM on August 20, 2008


the question doesn't break down that cleanly into intra- and extradisciplinary critique in two significant ways: Derrida is as much a philosopher as a theorist, so any philosophical engagement with his writing is simultaneously intra- and extradisciplinary. and in the specific context of Cambridge awarding Derrida an honourary degree, it amounts to an extradisciplinary critique of texts written for intradisciplinary reading, given how very different analytic and continental philosophy are from each other. so I'm not sure which of the two responses liketitanic offers is the more appropriate.
posted by object-a at 10:00 AM on August 20, 2008


No, poststructuralism is not unique in the criticism is receives from within its own discipline. In the '60s, for instance, the increasing specialization of sociology-speak after Talcott Parsons began to be pretty severely attacked by more traditional sociologists. C. Wright Mills has a classic passage in The Sociological Imagination where he quotes an unreadable, page-long section of Parsons' The Social System, then provides an "explication" which reduces it to a paragraph. ("One could translate the 555 pages of The Social System into about 150 pages of straightforward English. The result would not be very impressive.") Really, you can observe this process anytime the language used in a discipline changes enough to make its more traditional practitioners uncomfortable.
posted by nasreddin at 10:29 AM on August 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


but object-a, you stressed within their own discipline without any qualifiers (and i don't know enough derrida to have mentally made them myself)--and given the context of a discussion about sokal, i think such a distinction is not "clean" but nonetheless appropriate in this conversation.
posted by liketitanic at 10:53 AM on August 20, 2008


oh. sorry about not providing the appropriate qualifiers, liketitanic. I'm still not sure how to frame my statements here.

nasreddin, good point about sociology. though I would like to ask after the intensity of Mills (or is it Wright Mills?) dislike of Parsons, for curiosity's sake: was he doing things like writing angry letters to newspapers, protesting Parson's prestige within the discipline? it would help me put poststructuralism in its historical context.

and liketitanic: intradisciplinary it is. could you elaborate your argument based on string theory?
posted by object-a at 11:12 AM on August 20, 2008


This book only gets better every time I reread it:
§204. Critical theory must be communicated in its own language. It is the language of contradiction, which must be dialectical in form as it is in content. It is critique of the totality and historical critique. It is not "the nadir of writing" but its inversion. It is not a negation of style, but the style of negation.

§205. In its very style. the exposition of dialectical theory is a scandal and an abomination in terms of the rules and the corresponding tastes of the dominant language, because when it uses existing concrete concepts it is simultaneously aware of their rediscovered fluidity, their necessary destruction.

§206. This style which contains its own critique must express the domination of the present critique over its entire past. The very mode of exposition of dialectical theory displays the negative spirit within it. "Truth is not like a product in which one can no longer find any trace of the tool that made it" (Hegel). This theoretical consciousness of movement, in which the movement's very trace must be evident, manifests itself by the inversion of the established relations between concepts and by the diversion of all the acquisitions of previous critique. The inversion of the genetive is this expression of historical revolutions, consigned to the form of thought, which was considered Hegel's epigrammatic style. The young Marx, recommending the technique Feuerbach had systematically used of replacing the subject with the predicate, achieved the most consistent use of this insurrectional style, drawing the misery of philosophy out of the philosophy of misery. Diversion leads to the subversion of past critical conclusions which were frozen into respectable truths, namely transformed into lies. Kierkegaard already used it deliberately, adding his own denunciation to it: "But despite all the tours and detours, just as jam always returns to the pantry, you always end up by sliding in a little word which isn't yours and which bothers you by the memory it awakens" (Philosophical Fragments). It is the obligation of distance toward what was falsified into official truth which determines the use of diversion, as was acknowledged by Kierkegaard in the same book: "Only one more comment on your numerous allusions aiming at all the grief I mix into my statements of borrowed sayings. I do not deny it here nor will I deny that it was voluntary and that in a new continuation to this pamphlet, if I ever write it, I intend to name the object by its real name and to clothe the problem in historical attire."

§207. Ideas improve. The meaning of words participates in the improvement. Plagiarism is necessary. Progress implies it. It embraces an author's phrase, makes use of his expressions, erases a false idea, and replaces it with the right idea.

§208. Diversion is the opposite of quotation, of the theoretical authority which is always falsified by the mere fate of having become a quotation a fragment torn from its context, from its movement, and ultimately from the global framework of its epoch and from the precise choice, whether exactly recognized or erroneous, which it was in this framework. Diversion is the fluid language of anti-ideology. It appears in communication which knows it cannot pretend to guarantee anything definitively and in itself. At its peak, it is language which cannot be confirmed by any former or supra-critical reference. On the contrary, its own coherence, in itself and with the applicable facts, can confirm the former core of truth which it brings out. Diversion has grounded its cause on nothing external to its own truth as present critique.

- Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle
posted by nasreddin at 11:22 AM on August 20, 2008 [1 favorite]


I only know about this dispute through pop science journalism, but my understanding is that physicists who advocate theories that diverge from or attempt to displace string theory are challenged pretty bitterly by string theorists who are, at the moment, ascendant in the discipline. That seems like a dispute that is similar in terms of its divisiveness and the vociferous critique it produces.
posted by liketitanic at 11:34 AM on August 20, 2008


though I would like to ask after the intensity of Mills (or is it Wright Mills?) dislike of Parsons, for curiosity's sake: was he doing things like writing angry letters to newspapers, protesting Parson's prestige within the discipline?

I'm not sure if their conflict ever reached the level of vituperation the attack on Derrida did. But on the other hand, there were plenty of people (hippies, New Left, and others) in the '60s who attacked sociology as a tool of the system, in part because it used dehumanizing cybernetic language. I actually think that that entire debate, which engulfed the historical profession as well, is a really useful point of reference for the postmodernism controversy--it's almost its exact political mirror image, yet it was quite similar in many respects.
posted by nasreddin at 11:36 AM on August 20, 2008


oh, nasreddin, thank you for that. the stiffly formal tone of Debord's writing has always kept me away from reading him closely, and now I am feeling like I am missing out.

the negativity he writes of strikes me as something akin to a structural account of the negativity Blanchot approaches in phenomenological terms, in The Space of Literature:
To write is to surrender to the fascination of time's absence. Now we are doubtlessly approaching the essence of solitude. Time's absence is not a purely negative mode. It is the time when nothing begins, when initiative is not possible, when, before the affirmation, there is already a return of the affirmation. Rather than a purely negative mode, it is, on the contrary, a time without negation, without decision, when here is nowhere as well, and each thing withdraws into its image while the "I" that we are recognises itself by sinking into the neutrality of a featureless third person. The time of time's absence has no present, no presence. This "no present" does not, however, refer back to a past. Olden days had the dignity, the active force of now. Memory still bears witness to this active force. It frees me from what otherwise would recall me; it frees me by giving me the means of calling freely upon the past, of ordering it according to my present intention. Memory is freedom of the past. But what has no present will not accept the present of a memory either. Memory says of the event: it once was and now it will never be again. The irremediable character of what has no present, of what is not even there as having once been there, says: it never happened, never for a first time, and yet it starts over, again, again, infinitely. It is without end, without beginning. It is without a future.

The time of time's absence is not dialectical. in this time what appears is the fact that nothing appears. What appears is the being deep within being's absence, which is when there is nothing and which, as soon as there is something, is no longer. For it is as if there were no beings except through the loss of being, when being lacks. The reversal which, in time's absence, points us constantly back to the presence of absence -- but to this presence as absence, to absence as its own affirmation (an affirmation in which nothing is affirmed, in which nothing never ceases to to affirm itself with the exhausting insistence of the indefinite) -- this movement is not dialectical. Contradicitions do not exclude each other in it; nor are they reconciled. Only time itself, during which negation becomes our power, permits the "unity of contraries." In time's absence what is new renews nothing; what is present is not contemporary; what is present presents nothing, but represents itself and belongs henceforth and always to return. It isn't, but comes back again It comes already and forever past, so that my relation to it is not one of cognition but of recognition, and this recognition ruins in me the power of knowing, the right to grasp. It makes what is ungraspable inescapable; it never lets me cease reaching what I cannot attain. And that which I cannot take, I must take up again, never to let go.
my intuition is that what we have here could work as a description of an encounter with the "negative spirit" within dialectical theory.
posted by object-a at 12:14 PM on August 20, 2008


Thanks, nasreddin, I finally get the joke. It's not supposed to make sense, in the ordinary meaning of that word. To do so would make it contrary to the philosophy it purveys. It does certainly sound like a fun way to while away the time.
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:15 PM on August 20, 2008


I'm not sure that the case of string theory is quite as vicious as the controversy critical theory generates. if the New Yorker article liketitanic linked to is accurate, the critics of string theory do see a place for it within the discipline, their criticism is that it is too dominant; whereas there are a great many philosophers who take such issue with Derrida that they want to see him drummed out of the discipline.
posted by object-a at 1:19 PM on August 20, 2008


shrug It seems like a decent parallel to me. (This more recent piece speaks to some of those divisions as well.) If it's not, then that's because I'm not a physicist, just like lots of the folks arguing for the uselessness of CT in this thread aren't theorists of that stripe. (I don't claim to be a close student of critical theory--I've read bits here and there, usually in the service of a particular project--but I do not find it overwhelmingly obtuse nor impossible.)

RE: Derrida, there are plenty of other folks who think there's a place for him within their discipline(s), like these folks who came to his defense after the NYT obituary savaged him. And I imagine there were other personal and political factors there, too--not just Derrida's work. (Isn't that always the case in academia?) I'm also not sure that the controversy CT generates really indicates something important about its uselessness, just that not everyone agrees and sometimes that disagreement is violent. Sure there are sloppy theorists out there, too--who misuse or willfully misunderstand the work they engage with--but there is bad science, too.

What were we talking about again? :)
posted by liketitanic at 1:41 PM on August 20, 2008


(Also, I'd explain that piece in the opposite way--that string theorists crowd out opponents to that methodological approach, not the other way 'round.)
posted by liketitanic at 1:42 PM on August 20, 2008


Hey, did anyone else know that Dick Cheney's wife wrote a book criticizing postmodernism?
A Massachusetts educator warns teachers about using The Story of Babar because it "extols the virtues of a European, middle-class lifestyle and disparages the animals..."
Take that, Sokal.
posted by spiderwire at 4:25 PM on August 20, 2008


The intro to Lynne Cheney's book.
posted by spiderwire at 4:27 PM on August 20, 2008


Hey, can someone tell me if I actually did parse those sentences correctly?
posted by Deathalicious at 5:38 PM on August 20, 2008


The Debord argument (§§204-6) breaks the analogy between the specialized language of science and the specialized language of Theory, at least somewhat. Science's reasons for using a specialized language, it seems to me, are chiefly convenience; the language is not supposed to do things (quite apart from whether one can frame a Theory argument that it does do things).
posted by grobstein at 6:09 PM on August 20, 2008


deathalicious, your gloss of the second seems right on to me. in the first, i'd read agency as "active shaping force"--it implies that language itself makes things as we perceive them, not that it is only useful in making things as we want them to be. it's not anthropomorphic, but "agency" does imply language as a force that is more than a tool we use--it's a tool that can also use us.
posted by liketitanic at 6:39 PM on August 20, 2008


grobstein, theorists would say that the language DOES do things in science, but that the subjective reality of that community insists that it is passive. Language is never just utile, so for a theorist it doesn't necessarily break the analogy. For a scientist it might.
posted by liketitanic at 6:41 PM on August 20, 2008


just used "utile." checking out now.
posted by liketitanic at 6:46 PM on August 20, 2008


deathalicious: your parsing of the first ("...emphasized the agency of language in subjective constitution") fell short of the extent to which Lacan theorised the subject to be constructed by its relation to language. for Lacan, that we are capable of thinking of ourselves as selves depends on our ability to say the word "I." thus it is not just our knowledge and experience but what we are that is determined by language. we cannot be human without it.

(Lacan, along with most other critical theorists, uses the word 'subject' in a way that is counterintuitive to English speakers outside of philosophy. from the OED: "a thinking or cognising entity or agent." so in this usage, 'subjective' refers to the quality that establishes the subject as such. it is not the colloquial English, which would mean in the context of this definition of 'subject' the perspective of one of these cognising entities, which is, I suspect, the definition of the word informing your parsing.)


with the second statement you accurately parsed what wikipedia did a bad job of. wikipedia tries to read the Saussurean sign too literally into Lacan's work. what I think they are trying to get at is Lacan's understanding of language in relation to desire as it is formed in the Oedipus conflict. the full sentence reads
Lacan's "return to Freud" could be read as the realization that the pervading agency of the unconscious is intimately tied to the functions and dynamics of language, where the signifier is irremediably divorced from the signified in a chronic but generative tension of lack.
the resolution of the Oedipus conflict separates the subject from his/her mother. this creates a lack where the maternal body was, and that lack haunts the subject as the subject enters into and is formed by language. which is to say 'stops nursing and learns to speak,' to put this into context. as the subject settles into language, he (not so much she anymore, unless we're talking about a queer girl) constructs a fantasy to deal with the lack of the mother that haunts him, and comes to believe that language can be used to reunite him with what this fantasy has transformed his lost mother into. and the "generative tension of lack" that wikipedia speaks of is the subject's movement towards this reunion, which is what motivates the subject's engagement with language -- a reunion which is impossible, because the object (as both 'goal' and 'thing') of the fantasy does not exist.

(or, more interestingly, it is impossible because its satisfaction would be impossible to bear. "Who ever desires what is not gone? No one." this desire is the foundation of subjectivity, in Lacan's understanding. satisfy the lack that it formed in response to and the desire is gone, taking with it the identity built around it.)

so what I suspect the second phrase was getting at was this dynamic of desire in relation to the lost maternal body and how it figures in the subject's relation to language. what you came up with was akin to the Saussurean understanding of the sign the wikipedia author inappropriately used.
posted by object-a at 9:52 AM on August 21, 2008 [1 favorite]


'Nkay, so with relativity and all, I can summarize one major finding by saying E=MC^2, colloquialize it by saying that mass can be converted to energy and vice versa, and that the coversion of mass creates HUGE amounts of energy. Then I can go about creating a nuclear weapon and demonstrate the power of this finding directly.

Is there some analogy of explainability and demonstrability for pomo or critical theory or what have you? Otherwise, it just looks like noise to me.
posted by Mental Wimp at 1:40 PM on August 21, 2008


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