Jacques Lacan, Séminaire XXIII - Le sinthome, 1975
Posts tagged with postmodernism
Suppose you are an intellectual impostor with nothing to say, but with strong ambitions to succeed in academic life, collect a coterie of reverent disciples and have students around the world anoint your pages with respectful yellow highlighter. What kind of literary style would you cultivate?
Not a lucid one, surely, for clarity would expose your lack of content. The chances are that you would produce something like the following:
We can clearly see that there is no bi-univocal correspondence between linear signifying links or archi-writing, depending on the author, and this multireferential, multi-dimensional machinic catalysis. The symmetry of scale, the transversality, the pathic non-discursive character of their expansion: all these dimensions remove us from the logic of the excluded middle and reinforce us in our dismissal of the ontological binarism we criticised previously.
This is a quotation from the psychoanalyst Félix Guattari, one of many fashionable French ‘intellectuals’ outed….
scientist and polemicist Richard Dawkins, Postmodernism Disrobed. A review of Intellectual Impostures published in Nature 9 July 1998, vol. 394, pp. 141-143.
Above we read an assertion without evidence. Dawkins posits that an intellectual impostor with nothing to say would write in a certain way. But where’s the proof? I guess whoever’s reading this book review is assumed to already know what Dawkins (Sokal/Bricmont) are talking about and agree with his implications: namely, that postmodernists have nothing to say, and that they cultivate an obtuse literary style to obscure the fact (and that this somehow also attracts followers).
Who says “chances are”? Dawkins’ attack amounts to a flame.
Here is a not-unusual passage written in that other famously obtuse jargon, mathematics:
The prototypical example of a
C*-algebra is the algebra
B(H)of bounded (equivalently continuous) linear operators defined on a complex Hilbert space
x*denotes the adjoint operator of the operator
x: H → H. In fact every
*-isomorphic to a norm-closed adjoint closed subalgebra of
That’s from Wikipedia’s article on
C* algebras. I think the language is similarly impenetrable to Guattari’s. But mathematics = science = good and humanities = not science = bad, at least in the minds of some.
Here is an excerpt (via @wtnelson) written for teachers of 4–12-year-olds, 40 years ago, by Zoltán Pál Dienes:
psychologically speaking, relating an object to another object is a very different matter from relating a set of objects to another set of objects. In the first case, perceptual judgment can be made on whether the relation holds or not in most cases, whereas in the case of sets, a certain amount of conceptual activity is necessary before such a judgment can take place. For example, we might need to count how many of a certain number of things there are in the set and how many of a certain number of these or of other things there are in another set before we can decide whether the first and the second sets are or are not related by a certain particular relation to each other.
Clear as mud! Clearly Z. P. Dienes was an intellectual impostor with ambitions to collect a coterie of reverent disciples.
I don’t know enough about postmodernism to opine on it. I just get annoyed when putatively sceptical people casually wave it off without proving their point.
(And if you’re going to point me to the Sokal Affair or Postmodernism Generator CGI, I’ll point you to At Whom Are We Laughing?.)
In Lacan: A Beginner’s Guide, Lionel Bailly describes his subject as “a thinker whose productions are sometimes irritatingly obscure”. He goes on:
Most Lacanian theory [comes from his] spoken teachings…developed in discourse with…pupils…. [Various modes of presentation which are appropriate in speech] make frustrating reading. …leading the reader toward an idea, but never becoming absolutely explicit…difficult to discover what he actually said…thought on his feet—the ideas…in his seminars were never intended to be cast in stone…freely ascribes to common words new meanings within his theoretical model…Lacan, despite the fuzziness of his communication style, strove desperately hard for intellectual rigour….at the end of the day, it is … clinical relevance that validates Lacan’s model. [Lacan being a psychoanalyst and his ideas coming out of that work.]
So there’s an alternative hypothesis from an authority. Bailly admits the communication style was poor and gives reasons why it was. But rather than judging the work on rhetorical grounds, we should judge it on clinical merit—the ultimate empirical test!
Compare this to Dawkins. Besides the suppositions I already mentioned, he chooses words like: “intellectuals” within scare quotes; ‘anoint’, ‘revere’, ‘coterie’—to undermine the intellectual seriousness of his targets. Who are the empiricists here and who relies on rhetoric?
Some people think of postmodernism as the rejection of the existence of objective facts. Another take is that po-mo comprises broader methods of getting one’s point across than didaction. For example: joking, insinuating, or ending sentences with question marks.
For example this sarcastic remark:
A theory is something which nobody literally believes except the person who invented it. An experiment is something which everybody literally believes except the person who invented it.
pokes fun at what a different conversational mode might wax about in general terms such as “human frailty” or “fallibility”—or sound like a stronger attack on the scientific method than it intends to be.
It’s natural to express scepticism when an expert or supposed expert disagrees with something that makes complete sense to you. (I owe ya a post called “The rigid rod of modus tollens & modus ponens”.) ”Says who?” is a sentence anyone can utter. You could view “the scientific method” as one way to respond to that criticism. But is it the only way?
Some (postmodern?) anthropologists and ethnographers begin their essays on people who are foreign to them by discussing their biases and where generally they’re coming from. Which may be a more appropriate response to scepticism with non-experimental data—a different way of addressing the same problem that repeatable double-blind experiments are supposed to, namely errors in judgment by the observer/researcher.
Economists have field-specific ways of addressing problems inherent to what they study. These include models, stylised facts, stating own biases, statistics, and rebuttals against the statistical analysis. But also self-questioning sarcasm. For example
The questions in economics never change. Only the answers do.
When we leave our closet, and engage in the common affairs of life, [reason’s] conclusions seem to vanish, like the phantoms of the night on the appearance of the morning; and ‘tis difficult for us to retain even that conviction, which we had attain’d with difficulty.
The Economics Nobel confers upon the laureate an appearance of expertise which in economics no one ought to possess.
I don’t think “a postmodern economics” needs to be “post-autistic” or revolutionary or hip in the ways I’ve seen suggested by heterodoxists. It could simply be the recognition that informal speech like sarcasm can be on the same level of importance as speeches, lectures, claims, statements, and pontifications.
It is therefore, I think, a mistake to think of the individual as a sort of elementary nucleus, a primitive atom or some multiple, inert matter to which power is applied, or which is struck by a power that subordinates and destroys individuals. In actual fact, one of the first effects of power is that it allows bodies, gestures, discourses, and desires to be identified and constituted as something individual.
The individual is not, in other words, power’s opposite number; the individual is one of power’s first effects. The individual is in fact a power-effect, and at the same time, and to the extent that he is a power-effect, the individual is a relay: power passes through the individuals it has constituted.
Structuralism is like, “I miss the good old days.”
Post-structuralism is like, “Which good old days are you talking about? Are you talking about the good old days when blacks were slaves? or the good old days when women couldn’t vote? Post-structuralism wants to know.”