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Wednesday, January 29th, 2014 | ISSN 1556-5696

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Dr. Charles Adler (photo by Alexandra Adler)
Wizards, Aliens, and Starships: Physics and Math in Fantasy and Science Fiction

with Dr. Charles Adler
Sun., Feb. 16, 2014 at 2 pm

From teleportation and space elevators to alien contact and interstellar travel, science fiction and fantasy writers have come up with some brilliant and innovative ideas. Yet how plausible are these ideas? Which concepts might actually happen, and which ones wouldn’t work at all? A professor of physics at St. Mary’s College of Maryland, Adler delves into the most extraordinary details in science fiction and fantasy—time warps, shape changing, rocket launches, and illumination by floating candle—and shows readers the physics and math behind the phenomena. From the works of Ursula K. Le Guin to Star Trek and Avatar, Adler considers what might become reality. He examines space travel and wonders why it isn’t cheaper and more common today, and discusses exoplanets and how the search for alien life has shifted from radio communications to space-based telescopes. He concludes by investigating the future survival of humanity and other intelligent races. Order Wizards, Aliens, and Starships from Amazon.

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  3. The Particle at the End of the Universe: How the Hunt for the Higgs Boson Leads Us to the Edge of a New World,
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About this week’s eSkeptic
Jim Davies (photo by Dan Thompson Photography)

photo by Dan Thompson Photography

Much of postmodern writing is deliberately obscure and nonsensical, indistinguishable from parody. It’s easy to mistake obscurity for profundity. What is so enticing about a scholarly approach that results in texts that can scarcely be understood? Why would a whole scholarly subculture prefer to write and read unclear prose? What are they getting out of it? In this week’s eSkeptic, Jim Davies shares his ideas on the psychological attraction of postmodern nonsense. This article appeared in Skeptic magazine issue 17.4 (2012).

Dr. Jim Davies is an associate professor of cognitive science at Carleton University in Ottawa. The ideas in this article are from his book, Riveted: The Science of Why Jokes Make Us Laugh, Movies Make Us Cry, and Religion Makes Us Feel One with the Universe, available August 5, 2014.

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Illustration by Nancy Norcross-White

Illustration by Nancy Norcross-White

Academic Obfuscations:
The Psychological Attraction of
Postmodern Nonsense

by Jim Davies

Postmodernism is an intellectual approach used in fields such as literary theory, sociology, and architecture. Although the term describes a broad class of viewpoints, in general postmodernism rejects the ideas of absolute truth and objective reality. Rather, it emphasizes how we construct our apparent realities by describing them, particularly through language.1 A salient aspect of postmodern theory is the dense prose common to some humanities disciplines. Here is an example from a 1982 book entitled Powers of Horror: An Essay on Abjection by Julia Kristeva:

There looms, within abjection, one of those violent, dark revolts of being, directed against a threat that seems to emanate from an exorbitant outside or inside, ejected beyond the scope of the possible, the tolerable, the thinkable. It lies there, quite close, but it cannot be assimilated. It beseeches, worries, and fascinates desire, which, nevertheless, does not let itself be seduced.2

Philosopher John Searle once asked Michel Foucault why his writing was so obtuse, when he was so easily understandable in conversation. Foucault told Searle that 25 percent of one’s writing needs to be incomprehensible nonsense to be taken seriously by French philosophers.3 Although Foucault rejected the postmodern label, he did believe that knowledge was generated through operations of power and his attitude reveals the intent of postmodernism to deliberately obscure.4

To emphasize the point, in 1996 a New York University physicist and mathematician named Alan Sokal penned a nonsensical article entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” Loaded with postmodern phrases and deconstructionist tropes interspersed with scientific jargon, Sokal submitted it to the journal Social Text, one of two leading publications frequented by fashionably obtuse postmodernists. Here is an example from the article:

It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical “reality”, no less than social “reality”, is at bottom a social and linguistic construct; that scientific “knowledge”, far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it; that the truth claims of science are inherently theory-laden and self-referential; and consequently, that the discourse of the scientific community, for all its undeniable value, cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counter-hegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities.

The article was accepted for publication and upon release Sokal revealed it was all a hoax, and did so in the postmodern journal Dissent, the chief competitor of Social Text. Sokal called it a nonsense parody, but because so much of what passes for postmodernism is nonsense and indistinguishable from parody, the editors of Social Text could not tell the difference!5

Idea Effort Justification

It’s fun to tell stories making fun of postmodernism’s literary excesses, but there is a deeper mystery here. What is so enticing about a scholarly approach that results in texts that can scarcely be understood? Why would a whole scholarly subculture prefer to write and read unclear prose? What are they getting out of it?

No simple answer explains all of postmodernism’s charms. Part of it might be the fact that the content focuses on something important: that many ideas cultures have are indeed socially constructed, and not based on some objective reality. For example, in many Christian churches men are supposed to remove their hats, while in many Jewish synagogues men are supposed to put them on. So I don’t want to give the impression that the draw of postmodernism is only due to a bunch of cognitive quirks. Obscured content is not necessarily bad content.

So what is the pull of obscure writing, of which some postmodern writing happens to be an example? I argue that some prefer it because each reader has to do so much work to get any meaning out of it, and when we have to work hard for something, we really value it. We can mistake obscurity for profundity.

In the realm of communication, I call this “idea effort justification,” and it happens for many reasons.

The harder you have to work for something, the more you value it.6 This effect is called “effort justification,” and is used to explain, in part, why fraternity hazing, certain religious initiation rites, and military boot camps make people love membership in the very organizations that tormented them. Membership in a fraternity or placement in the army is more valuable because you went through hell to get it.

Just as people sometimes value things when they pay more for them, they take the expense of something to be an indicator of its value. It is a way of reducing cognitive dissonance: if you’ve worked hard for something, you will feel like an idiot if you believe that it’s not valuable. One way to resolve the conflict is to believe that what you worked for is great after all. You made sacrifices for it, in terms of money, time, or effort, and if the thing you worked so hard for is valuable, then what you did makes sense. Idea effort justification applies this concept to the ideas we encounter and generate.

When writing is clear, the reader does not have to work hard to understand it. But if people have to work hard to get a meaning out of a passage, then that resulting meaning will be of more value to them.

An idea—a belief, interpretation, or meaning— that is inferred or otherwise discovered by the reader is valued more by that reader than the same idea that is simply presented, in part, because it justifies the effort made to come up with it in the first place. Some postmodernists have even been explicit about this, noting for example: “It is the reader who writes the text.”7

The Pleasure of Figuring Out

When a person encounters something puzzling, such as a mystery or a riddle, the discovery of the solution brings with it a rush of pleasure. Readers of poetry and postmodernism alike work very hard to make sense out of what they are reading. That effort results in an “a-ha” moment when they gain some insight and figure something out. Through simple association, the resultant idea now feels pleasurable. We like pleasurable ideas.

We Like Our Own Ideas

We like an idea better if we came up with it ourselves, and we are more skeptical of ideas that come from other people.

Psychotherapy uses a principle like this called “non-directive, client-centered therapy,” in which therapists try to get clients to come to conclusions themselves. To the extent that this works (and I don’t know if it does), the effort justification hypothesis explains that clients will be more likely to believe a conclusion they come up with rather than one that is hand-fed to them by their therapist.

When interpreting obscure non-fiction, we are essentially coming up with our own ideas about the conclusions of the text. Because they are our own ideas, whether we realize it or not, we like them. So now we associate ideas we generated with the text we are reading. It’s no wonder we like the text.

We Choose Meanings We Already Agree With

If I am reading the text of someone I don’t like, someone that I expect not to agree with, I have to fight the urge to take the least intelligent interpretation of any ambiguity. As an undergraduate, my philosophy professor would tell us “You can’t take the worst version of their argument and just beat up on that.” Occasionally we do read things we expect we won’t agree with. But usually readers are sympathetic. How many liberals do you know who actively seek out conservative blogs and magazines, or vice versa?

For the most part, we like to be right about things. As a result we look for information to support the things we already believe, a phenomenon called the congruence bias.8 For example, jurors will often come to a conclusion about a case very early on, and then sift through evidence to find support for it.9 Not only do we seek out supporting evidence, but we’re also more likely to pay attention to and remember it. This is called the confirmation bias,10 and once you start looking for evidence to support your belief, you start to see it everywhere. In fact, seeing confirmation bias everywhere is partly due to confirmation bias.

So we have readers who usually expect to agree with the author. They are faced with a confusing passage that could support multiple interpretations. It stands to reason that they will tend to choose interpretations that they agree with. Indeed, evidence suggests that vague information gets interpreted in a favorable way.11

When you try hard you find meaning for yourself. And when you do, I conjecture, you pick the meaning that’s most precious to you—the one that resonates most deeply with what you believe, or want to hear. In clear writing there is (ideally) one interpretation of a sentence. In obscure writing, there are several possible interpretations, and so you pick the one you like best. The result? You perceive the text to be aligned with your beliefs, so you think the text is of high quality and the author is smart.

Easily Bringing Justifications to Mind

Ideas seem more plausible when we can easily bring to mind reasons to believe them. Paradoxically, this works against non-obscure texts. When an individual reads something that is clear, they do not need to generate reasons why they came to believe what it says: they simply assemble the unambiguous meanings of each sentence into an overall understanding as the text is read.

When people read a difficult text, in contrast, they need to develop a meaning for the text, possibly along with a justification for their interpretations. If the text is obscure enough, they might even speculate on reasons why the author came to believe the interpretation the reader assigned to it. As a result, interpreted meanings are put into memory along with justifications, and uninterpreted meanings are not. Thus, meanings derived from obscure texts have salient justifications that make them seem more plausible—something clear texts lack.

Easy Retrieval of Ideas

The act of generating an idea requires the use of more associations than simply understanding an idea that one reads or hears. As a result, a generated idea is better connected to other ideas in the mind than a heard idea (including but not solely consisting of the justifications from the last section). Psychologists would say that these ideas are more “deeply processed.” Because memory uses these associations for recall, generated ideas will be more easily remembered than heard ones, simply because there are more ways to retrieve them. In this way human memory is like Google’s search engine algorithm: the more links there are to an idea, the higher ranking it gets in our memory’s search results.

This effect is a necessary part of the constructivist philosophy in education, in which students are encouraged to discover things on their own, rather than being passive recipients of lectures and books. The connections made in the figuring-out procedure results in a more deeply-processed concept.

This means that self-generated ideas are better remembered (this is known as the generation effect).12 But why should this increase belief or value in those ideas? Because the more easily an idea is brought to memory, the more probable and common it is assumed to be. This is known as the availability heuristic.13 Thus, an idea that is better remembered is (unconsciously) perceived to be more probably true.

Science Jargon

One might counter that scientific writing is equally obscure. Take, for example, this abstract I pulled from a biology paper:

RPA is a single-stranded DNA binding protein that physically associates with the BLM complex. RPA stimulates BLM helicase activity as well as the double Holliday junction dissolution activity of the BLM-topoisomerase III complex. We investigated the effect of RPA on the ssDNA decatenase activity of topoisomerase III. We found that RPA and other ssDNA binding proteins inhibit decatenation by topoisomerase III. Complex formation between BLM, Topo III, and RMI1 ablates inhibition of decatenation by ssDNA binding proteins. Together, these data indicate that inhibition by RPA does not involve species-specific interactions between RPA and BLM-TopoIII-RMI1, which contrasts with RPA modulation of double Holliday junction dissolution. We propose that topoisomerase III and RPA compete to bind to single-stranded regions of catenanes. Interactions with BLM and RMI1 enhance toposiomerase III activity, promoting decatenation in the presence of RPA.14

Is it so different from the Kristeva passage I quoted above? In terms of being comprehensible to me, no. In fact, I think I can make more sense of Kristeva.

The important difference is that although this biology abstract is full of jargon, if one were to learn it the meaning of the passage would be relatively unambiguous. I do not believe this is the case with obscure writing in the humanities, which is deliberately written to support multiple interpretations. The Kristeva passage actually contains little or no jargon. Individually, I know the meaning of the words in it.

The trees I get. It’s the forest I’m confused about.

Conclusion

We can see how obscure writing in postmodernism can make it more attractive. The very act of interpretation makes it seem more profound and pleasurable. People with a more scientific bent have developed a taste for clear writing that can make postmodern text extremely annoying. But it clearly has its adherents.

As a professor, when I read passages like the one I quoted above I want to get out my red pen. But I don’t have time for that—I have student papers to correct. There’s still hope for them. END

References
  1. Gergen, K. J. 2001. “Psychological Science in a Postmodern Context.” The American Psychologist, 56(10), 803–813.
  2. Kristeva, J. 1982. Powers of Horror. Translated from French by Leon S.Roudiez. Columbia University Press.
  3. This story is recounted in: Dennett, D. C. 2006. Breaking the Spell: Religion as a Natural Phenomenon. New York, NY: Penguin Books.
  4. Dissanayake, E. 1995. Homo Aestheticus: Where Art Comes From and Why. Seattle, WA: University of Washington Press, xvi.
  5. Sokal, A. and J. Bricmont. 1997. Intellectual Impostures. London: Profile Books.
  6. Aronson, E. and J. Mills. 1959. “The Effect of Severity of Initiation on Liking for a Group.” Journal of Abnormal and Social Psychology, 59, 177–181.
  7. Latour, B. and S Woolgar. 1986. Laboratory Life: The Construction of Scientific Facts. 2nd Edition. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 273.
  8. Wason, P. C. 1960. “On the Failure to Eliminate Hypotheses in a Conceptual Task.” Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 12, 129–140.
  9. Kuhn, D., M. Weinstock, and R. Flaton. 1994. “How Well Do Jurors Reason? Competence Dimensions of Individual Variation in a Juror Reasoning Task.” Psychological Science, 5(5), 289–296.
  10. Munro, G. D. 2010. “The Scientific Impotence Excuse: Discounting Belief-threatening Scientific Abstracts.” Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 40(3), 579–600.
  11. Mishra, H., A. Mishra, and B. Shiv. 2011. In Praise of Vagueness: Malleability of Vague Information as a Per formance Booster. Psychological Science, 22(6), 733–738.
  12. McNamara, D. S., & Healy, A. F. 2000. “A Procedural Explanation of the Generation Effect for Simple and Difficult Multiplication Problems and Answers.” Journal of Memory and Language, 43, 652–679.
  13. Bernstein, D. A., A. Clarke-Stewart, E. J. Roy, and C. D. Wickens. 1997. Psychology (4th ed.). Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 275.
  14. Yang, J., C. Z. Bachrati, I. D. Hickson, and G. W. Brown. 2012. “BLM and RMI1 Alleviate RPA Inhibition of TopoIII Decatenase Activity.” PLoS ONE 7(7).

Jared Diamond, On Demand
Natural Experiments of History

Jared Diamond

Some central questions in the natural and social sciences can’t be answered by controlled laboratory experiments, often considered to be the hallmark of the scientific method. This impossibility holds for any science concerned with the past. In addition, many manipulative experiments, while possible, would be considered immoral or illegal. One has to devise other methods of observing, describing, and explaining the world. Jared Diamond, author of the Pulitzer-prize winning Guns, Germs, and Steel and the bestselling work in environmental history Collapse, here reveals for the first time his methodology in the applied use of natural experiments and the comparative method. In this lecture based on his new edited volume, Natural Experiments of History, Diamond presents eight comparative studies drawn from history, archaeology, economics, economic history, geography, and political science…

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24 Comments »

24 Comments

  1. Miles Rind says:

    “Philosopher John Searle once asked Michel Foucault why his writing was so obtuse. . . .”

    Foucault’s writing may be obscure and abstruse, but it is bizarre to describe it as obtuse. I suspect that you misunderstand the meaning of the latter word. To be obtuse is to be dull of intellect: from the Latin obtusus, meaning “dull” (as in “obtuse angle” in geometry). I don’t know if Searle thought Foucault obtuse, but I don’t think he would ever have said so to his face in such a casual way.

    I am glad to see, by the way, that you do not name philosophy as a field in which the post-modern approach predominates. It is not, at least not in the USA, even though most of the work in which post-modernist thinking originates has come from philosophers. These philosophers have been mostly French, and in some cases, such as Derrida’s, they got little recognition in their native countries or in their home discipline, but found themselves lionized by practitioners of “theory” (whatever that is) when they came to the USA.

  2. Mary Kate Smith says:

    I don’t have the patience for obscure information. If I’m going to read science I want it presented in clear, accessible terms. Otherwise I look elsewhere.

  3. Bob Pease says:

    quote from Michael ( Fats) Halorran S.J.
    when asked why he collected monkeys in Honduras.

    “If you have to ask the question, you probably wouldn’t understand the answer”
    ( monkeys are intrinsically cool)

    ditto about philosophy

    Parable follows:
    There is a guy living in Denver who has made an operational submarine .
    He is going to use it to search for a goldfish in the North Atlantic Ocean.
    It is possible that there is one there, as somebody could have thrown one off of a Passenger ship within the past hour in the location he was (at).

    What he’s REALLY up to is is building a computer that will search for a counterexample to the
    Reimann Hypothesis.

    He admits that he may never find such a counterexample but he has had a lot of fun building very fast computers.

    He seems unwilling to put ten dollars up at a million-to-one guarantee , expiring in ten years .

    I kind of like a PostPositivist response of
    “Hmmm.. Tell me more about THAT”

    DR.S

  4. Bad Boy Scientist says:

    Regarding Dr Diamond’s lecture … I am always curious when social scientists (and others) point out that their field is difficult because they cannot conduct controlled experiments in an effort to convince the rest of us “They are doing real science.”

    Astronomers have been dealing with that problem for millennia – in fact, Astronomers can only use photons and some other particles to get their data. Yet Astronomers never seem to need to convince anyone that they are doing real science.

    How curious.

    • Bob Pease says:

      control ?

      CONTROL ???

      We don’t got to show you no steenkin’ Control !!

    • Brian Payne says:

      That’s an interesting point. Watching Shermer, Dawkins, et al debate about religion and the requirement for any “belief” to have empirical evidence makes me wonder: What value, then, do any of the social sciences have? I can’t prove in a lab setting that Julius Caesar ever existed.
      I don’t agree with the above, but as you say, curious.

      • Bob Pease says:

        It looks to me that they are pointing out dishonesty ( or honest delusion )
        of folks who claim to be “Scientific” without obeying the agreed rules of “Science”.

        It’s like Scientologists claiming that the use of their “E-Meter” is done scientifically.

        Humpty Dumpty reigns in that sort of a world!!

        RJP

  5. Brenden Valenti says:

    The irony of course is that what he lampoons in postmodern writing is exactly the point. As a cognitive scientist, he fits right in with the rest of his ilk in misappropriating philosophy-laden ideas to support a crude and callow worldview. Really, psychologists… stop pretending you understand philosophy.

  6. Alvin says:

    I think another reason some scholars in the humanities write this way is because it’s a safe strategy. That is, when the things you’re saying straddle the line between coherence and incoherence, your audience may be unsure whether you’re really making sense; if your vocabulary and venue supply the illusion of good scholarship , the audience is likely to give you the benefit of the doubt. Thus, you get the reward of appearing intelligent and insightful without going to the trouble of saying anything really meaningful.

  7. Darlene Burkholz says:

    Hmmmmm. So that’s why Joseph Campbell was so admired, and still is.. He must have been giggling up his sleeve on many an occasion.

  8. Fred Kohler says:

    The tracing of a word’s origin to its Greek, Latin or other roots is always hazardous, because their meaning of words in language changes within generations. This is illustrated by the meaning of the word “antisemitic”. Its meaning currently is hatred of Jews. Its ironical the the worst haters of Jews are Semites to who the word in its original racial meaning applied. I think that “obtuse” in its current meaning is correct to describe Post-Modern writing.

  9. Fred Kohler says:

    Please correct the “their” to “the” on the second line of my comment

  10. L. Kirk Hagen says:

    In his recounting of the Searle/Foucault exchange, Dennett uses the word “obscure,” so Rind is correct. “Obtuse,” when used to describe a person, is pretty harsh. It’s difficult to imagine that Searle would have said such a thing to Foucault. On the other hand, when “obtuse” is used to describe ideas or utterances, it means “lacking in insight, discernment, or intellectual acuity.” That pretty much sums up the bulk of postmodern philosophy. Just for fun, compare the citation from Kristeva in Davies’ article above to this:

    “It must be realized that the analyzer considers future suppressors and is continually engaged upon computations which pose problems of the future which the analyzer resolves: this is one of the functions of the imagination. It must further be realized that the analyzer is engaged upon a multitude of computations about the present: for the analytical mind is dealing continually with an enormous number of factors which comprise the suppressor of the present and the suppressor of the future.”

    Readers of Skeptic will doubtless recognize the source of this really, really deep thought, which differs imperceptibly in style and substance from the work of Derrida, Kristeva, Foucault, Lacan, Latour, etc. Anyone with a thesaurus and lots of free time can compose similarly obtuse postmodern prose. Sorry, I meant “abstruse.”

  11. Nathan Krawitz says:

    In the words of a bumper sticker I once saw:

    ESCHEW OBFUSCATION

  12. Michael Davison says:

    I think that Dr Jim Davis missed some essentials of why so many people find “postmodernism” (an oxymoron) an attractive idea.

    People today permit themselves to fall prey to sociobabble coming from the social re-constructionists in much the same way that people for millennia have fallen for the gibberish of religion and mysticism.

    The artful practice of writing or speaking gibberish, common among mystics and contemporary political philosophers, pays off with more than a few benefits. The producer of this stuff flatters himself with a delusion of understanding above the common.

    Second, the practice confers virtual immunity from criticism. Effective criticism requires at least a minimal grasp of the subject in question. Unintelligible assertions, lacking anything sensible to grab onto, cannot be attacked cogently other than to label them unintelligible.

    Third, if anyone so much as attempts an interpretation of the assertion, the originator easily weasels away with, “well, no, that’s really not what I meant. You just don’t understand.”

    Fourth, the author of this stuff is free to wander about in any speculative fog of his choosing without having to prove anything.

    Fifth, if clever, he has succeeded in the attempt to assure that not too many people have discovered that he has nothing to say and has not the foggiest notion of what he’s talking about.

    Sixth, and worst, the gibberish resonates with far too many listeners and readers who also want to pretend they know something special and unique, escape responsibility and deflect blame for personal failures and disappointments onto some easily targeted group.

    Today’s “postmodernists” and science-trumping religious fanatics continue the venerable tradition.

    Writers of this junk are con men. They’ve got a racket going. They are given respected university classrooms by those who want to share in the deceit. They confound those bright and honest enough who at least make an attempt to expose what amounts to a gigantic fraud.

    But then, religious, philosophical, psychological or political babble is not designed to make any sense. Its purpose is to delude the perpetrators and dupe any number of dishonest listeners eager to include themselves in a select group who believes that they have grasped the inherently incomprehensible.

  13. Doug says:

    “If you’re anxious for to shine in the high aesthetic line as a man of culture rare,
    You must lie upon the daisies and discourse in novel phrases of your complicated state of mind.
    The meaning doesn’t matter if it’s only idle chatter of a transcendental kind.
    And everyone will say, as you walk your mystic way,
    “If this young man expresses himself in terms too deep for me,
    Why, what a very singularly deep young man this deep young man must be!”
    –Gilbert & Sullivan
    “Patience”
    1881

  14. William C Wesley says:

    All CON ARTISTS seek to deliberately obscure, that’s what a con is and after all they are called “artists”. There is little difference between the various con artists what ever field they infect, they have little of value to offer so the idea is to falsely inflate the value of what little they have rather than to inflate their effort to offer actual value. When you have lost touch with inspiration only con artistry is left you, so I guess “post modern” means “post authentic”

  15. Geoff Inverarity says:

    While there is no question that post-structuralist, feminist, and post-colonial theory rejuvenated the discipline of Literary Criticism, there were also some very mundane motives behind the way it was introduced into University departments. When I was teaching as a young academic in a University English Department in the 1980s the obscurity of the language of post-structuralist theory was enthusiastically embraced by the junior members of the department. There was a sense that the discipline of Literary Criticism lacked rigour — there was a perceived need for Literary Criticism to aspire to the status of the social sciences, if not to science itself. But there were a number of other, very transparent reasons. Young academics have to struggle for position; in particular, they are there to replace the aging faculty. What better way to accelerate the process than to deliberately exclude the older generation from the discourse? And how gratifying it was for many very bright, but rather ruthless junior faculty to force the senior members of the department, who were, objectively speaking, mostly old white males, to learn what was essentially a new discipline, a whole new language. I witnessed a number of departmental lectures at which papers were delivered in a vocabulary and syntax designed, essentially, to humiliate those in power, to demonstrate their redundancy. It was a period in which the received canon could be demolished, and with it, the reputations and careers of people approaching retirement as well as the curricula they had spent their careers developing. Their traditional expertise was no longer relevant. It was, in short, a revolution, one fueled at least in part, by professional jealousy, arrogance, and ambition. There was no question whatsoever that there were a number of people who took a spiteful delight in exposing the senior faculty as dinosaurs, and they were not shy about expressing this to their peers. The father was being slaughtered. The psychology had a large dose of the Oedipal about it.

  16. Bill T. says:

    It’s much more difficult to write clearly and concisely. I also believe there to be a relationship beween understanding of a subject and ability to present it clearly.

  17. Zaphod says:

    Much of postmodern or continental philosophy is obfuscatory blather, but at least as much of analytic philosophy has been the deliberate, pedantic ignoring of rhetorical cues.

    The point of any worthwhile philosophy, continental or analytic, is to bring to light and question the background assumptions, paradigms, lenses we think through. When one honestly questions the very background assumptions used to think and process experiences, it’s not going to be clear and straightforward. More like an expansive mental workout.

    The problem with philosophers, though, is that they tend to work from within their canon and their discourse becomes ingrown, tribal and Chmessy, losing its point. (see Dennet: http://ase.tufts.edu/cogstud/dennett/papers/chmess.pdf ) This is probably true of most disciplines.

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