Evolution vs. Lit Crit. (Part Two)

We continue now with our discussion of Brian Boyd’s article, “Getting it All Wrong,” from the Autumn 2006 issue of The American Scholar. Click here for Part One.

We have already seen Boyd’s characterization of modern literary criticism as resting on two pillars: Anti-foundationalism and difference. The former refers to the lack of a secure foundation for knowledge, while the latter refers to the lack of universals in human culture.

In discussing anti-founationalism, Boyd provides the following excellent summary fo the merits of science:

Human minds are as they are because they evolved from earlier forms. Being ultimately biological, knowledge is likely to be imperfect, affording no firm foundation, no “originary” moment, in Derrida diction. Reality is enormously complex and vast. If we want to go beyond the familiar, beyond the immediate world of midsized objects that our senses were shaped to understand, beyond the inferences our minds naturally make, all we can do is guess, grope, or jump from whatever starting points we happen to have reached. Almost all our attempts at deeper explanations are likely to be flawed and skewed, as the hundred thousand religious explanations of the world suggest.

The best we can do is generate new hunches, test them, and reject those found wanting in the clearest, most decisive tests we can concoct. Of course we may not be predisposed to devise severe tests for ideas we have become attached to through the long cumulative processes of evolutionary, cultural, or individual trial and error. And it is not easy to discern what can be tested, let alone how it can be tested, especially in the case of “truths” we have long accepted. But in a milieu that rewards challenges to received notions, others will test our conclusions if we do not. If exacting tests contradict our predictions, we may be motivated to seek new explanations or to find flaws in the critics’ tests. The discovery of possible error can prompt us to look for less inadequate answers, even if there is no guarantee that the next round of hypotheses will fare better. Most, indeed, will again prove flawed – yet one or two may just inaugurate new routes to discovery.

Exactly right. Boyd later summarizes his conclusions for this section as follows:

A biological view of our knowledge shows both its insecurity and its dependence on older and poorer forms of knowing, while also explaining the possibility of the growth of knowledge. Derrida’s challenge to the basis of knowledge seems bold, but it cannot explain advances in understanding, evident in the slow gradient from single cells to societies and the steep one from smoke signals to cell phones. Evolutionary biology offers a far deeper critique of and explanation of the origins and development of knowledge, as something, in Derrida’s terms, endlessly deferred, yet also, as biology and history show, recurrently enlarged.

Moving on to “difference” Boyd writes:

Menand supposes that others resist the claim of difference because they resist the challenge to ethnocentrism. In fact challenges to ethnocentrism had been widespread long before Derrida’s seminal paper of 1966, in the recoil from the horrors of Nazi racism, in the hope for a better world that led to the founding of the United Nations and to anti-colonial independence movements; in the American recognition of and interest in African-American musical cultures in the 1950′s and 1960′s; and in anthropology, from early in the 20th century. It is a strange fantasy to suppose that the humanities, inspired by the “greatest generation,” have led the attack against ethnocentrism that was already well established in both intellectual and political culture.

What others resist in Cultural Critique is not critiques of ethnocentrism but the self-contradictory and defeatist claim that all knowledge, except the knowledge of the situated ness of all knowledge, is situated and therefore flawed. A corollary, making the idea even less inviting, has been that if all claims to universality and transparency of knowledge are false, then the appropriate response is to challenge the claims obscurely. Hence, in part, the vogue for bad writing, the self-confessedly exclusionary opacity of much writing inspired by Theory. (Emphasis Added)

That bold-faced line really caught my attention. On several occasions I have made an attempt to wade into Derrida or Foucault, or other representatvies of literary criticism. I have never made it very far. After just a few paragraphs you find yourself sinking, quicksand-like, into worthless, turgid prose. I am always reminded of the following line, from P. B. Medawar’s review of Teilhard de Chardin’s The Phenomenon of Man:

The Phenomenon of Man cannot be read without a feeling of suffocation, a gasping and flailing around for sense. There is an argument in it, to be sure – a feeble argument, abominably expressed – and this I shall expound in due course; but consider first the style, because it is the style that creates the illusion of content, and which is in some part the cause as well as merely the symptom of Teilhard’s alarming apocalyptic seizures.

This is an admirable description of both Teilhard de Chardin, and much literary criticism. It is literally, physically difficult to pass your eyes over their words.

One final quote for this installment:

The idea that there is only cultural difference between peoples discourages cultural contact and cultural sharing, which has been of benefit to all, over the years, from stone tools to the Internet. The insistence on difference, on refusing to see similarities, inhibits dialogue and the chance to learn from, understand, and appreciate others. This is particularly disturbing in the case of art and literary studies. Menand writes that a “a 19th century novel is a report on the nineteenth century; it is not an advice manual for life out here on the 21st century street.” So all those who have read Pride and Prejudice in the 20th century and since and felt that it showed something about the dangers of first impressions and the error of equating social ease with merit and social stiffness with coldness or disdain have been wrong?

I would want to read Menand for myself before passing final judgment on his remarks. But what Boyd says here is spot on. I always thought the main reason for reading literature from other times and places was to gain a better appreciation of the universals of human existence. (That, and hopefully to enjoy a ripping good story). If I want a report on the nineteenth century I’ll read a history book.

Comments

  1. #1 Eileen
    October 16, 2006

    Jason, thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for posting some of The American Scholar article…I’m in the middle of a lit crit course right now, and I recently appealed to evolution to explain the illogical, trivial obviousness of Saussure. I love literature, but I think it’s obvious the sciences have enjoyed far greater achievements in the 19th and 20th centuries. Literary theory often envies this status, and tries to affect a scientific language and rigorous methodology. Such a shame.

  2. #2 chandler
    October 16, 2006

    I have studied critical theory and philosophy for years and i always find the critique of language levied against Derrida et all somewhat puzzling. Is physics also “silly” and quicksand-like because of the higher math and ultra-specialized vocabulary required to understand it? So why should philosophy be any different? It is one of the oldest disciplines and requires knowledge of that history to penetrate its complexities. Philosophy in general suffers from a option that anyone should be able to understand any text at any time, but if one held other equally technical disciples up to the same standard they would viewed as a laughing stock.

  3. #3 Jason Rosenhouse
    October 16, 2006

    Eileen-

    Glad you like the posts!

    chandler-

    There is no language in the world clearer than mathematics. It takes some practice and training to feel comfortable with it, just like it can be difficult to learn any foreign language. But once that time has been invested, mathematical writing is as clear as it gets. Mathematicians almost never argue over what a bit of techincal writing actually means, and when they do it is because they are dealing with a poorly written bit of mathematics.

    Likewise for the jargon used by physicists. It is forbidding to someone untrained in the subject, but the words being used are precisely defined and among experts the thoughts being expressed are as plain as day.

    That is not the same as what you find in Derrida or Foucault (or Teilhard de Chardin). There you simply find bad writing. They could have explained their ideas more clearly than they did. You could rewrite a piece of Teilhard de Chardin’s writing, for example, in more familiar language without losing anything from his ideas. It’s just that expressing his ideas clearly also tends to make them look either trivial or false.

    As for philosophy generally, it is a mixed bag. Some of it is deep, some of it is merely made to look deep via obscure writing. With literary criticism, the balance is shifted way over to the obscure side.

  4. #4 John Wilkins
    October 16, 2006

    One thing I had mentioned to me – Menand is not either ignorant of his subject matter (and his subject matter is Peirce and James, two evolutionarily inspired philosophers) nor as much a relativist as you might think from reading Boyd’s article.

    Not having read Menand, I can’t say for sure.

  5. #5 Jason Rosenhouse
    October 16, 2006

    John-

    I suspect your right that Menand is more sophisticated than Boyd gives him credit for. That’s why I said in my post that I would need to read Menand for myself before coming to any final conclusions.

  6. #6 johnc
    October 17, 2006

    It’s still unclear to me what biology brings to the table in a discussion of literary Theory, but perhaps futher excerpts will clarify. In the meantime:
    Chandler: You can hardly be unaware that obscurity and ambiguity are deliberate stylistic strategies by many post-modernists, and not at all an attribute of philosophical writing.

    Jason: I am a little concerned that Foucault’s oevre is blithely lumped into this stew. There is much lucid writing in Foucault and his intellectual legacy (as a social historian) has travelled in many different directions – some highly productive.

  7. #7 PhysioProf
    October 17, 2006

    I am certainly no literary or social theorist, but I found Fouault’s “Madness and Civilization” to be both coherent and provocative. I don’t really agree with its conclusions in their strongest form, but it is not a bad piece of writing.

  8. #8 Blake Stacey
    October 17, 2006

    The phrase you bolded reminded me of the following Calvin and Hobbes exchange:

    Calvin: I used to hate writing assignments, but now I enjoy them. I realized that the purpose of writing is to inflate weak ideas, obscure poor reasoning, and inhibit clarity. With a little practice, writing can be an intimidating and impenetrable fog! Want to see my book report?

    Hobbes: “The Dynamics of Interbeing and Monological Imperatives in Dick and Jane: A Study in Psychic Transrelational Gender Modes.”

    Calvin: Academia, here I come!

    Save for one bureaucratic technicality, I could’ve gotten a literature minor on top of my physics major. Over those few years, I experienced more lit-crit speak than I’d care to imagine; my own personal hypothesis is that you cannot place more than three or four “literature types” together in a confined space and have anything sensible come out. Whatever good insights do manage to take shape get quickly pummeled back into entropy.

  9. #9 robert cook
    October 17, 2006

    Literary theory uses very precise, very clear language which takes much practice and training to comprehend (as Rosenhouse says of physics and mathematics). Derrida chose his words very carefully (as do all excellent writers and thinkers). The difference is that physics and mathematics use a symbolic language which is not immediately recognizable as language. Lit theory *looks* like *normal* language, and thus people who have not spent the time to study it mistake it for something it is not.

    I’ve seen numerous times where people have pulled excerpts from literary theory journals as proof that what is being said is gibberish, AND THEREFORE NOT WORTH CONSIDERING. I have yet to see someone pull something out of one of the latest academic physics journals and use that as proof for the same dismissal.

    All this proves is that, for the moment, knowledge in the sciences is more highly valued than knowledge in the humanities. Personally, I’m not concerned about this. It was not always this way, and while great advances have been made because of our valorization of science, there are significant downsides to such a world view. There is also no reason to believe that it will remain this way, or that the dicotomy will even persist.

    So instead of bashing literary theory, perhaps we should be considering where and how it might be valuable in a world where science dominates. The acceleration of atomic particles was not developed by people who took a couple of undergraduate courses in physics . . . don’t expect to get something equally significant out of lit theory with the same level of study.

  10. #10 rsoliza
    October 17, 2006

    Robert Cook:

    nice try, robert. But it’s just not true. There are dozens of sentences in Heidegger, Foucault, and Derrida in every one of their books that could be summed up in a clear, unpretentious analytic vocabulary wihout any loss.

    have you actually read these characters? I have a degree in engineering and philosophy, and I laughed out loud when I read your entry.

    Of course Derrida chose his words carefully. he was more poet than thinker. And of course there are passages where he argues forcefully. But it is PREPOSTEROUS (see, I can use capitals too!) to put the obfuscatory argot of postmodernism against the higher math required of physics.

    Nice try too, about “all it proves is that” scientific knowledge is more valued than litcrit. There are many rejoinders to this, one of which is that litcrit is so vague and cloudy that it simply won’t tolerate any clarity – whereas science is so constrained by accountability to publicly verifiable sensation that it is truly useful. But this is just too big a topic to address in a simple counter-posting.

    Go to Arts and Letters and read Martha Nussbaum’s devestating critique of Judith Butler (see lower left, I believe), for how “profound” litcrit insights can be paired down to a few bland sentences of pseudo-profundity.

    Simply calling the opposition a bunch of “bashers” is weak! weak! avoid the cop-out and adress the reasons.

    I LOVE Heidegger, Foucault. But sheesh, give me a break. I just can’t see how you wouldn’t admit their stuff can be insightful without the preposterously bloated, opaque verbiage used to express it.

    On the other hand, just try and take a single sentence out of a derivation of a formula in physics, and the whole thing goes kaput!

    It’s not even close, not by a long shot.

    Are you serious? Do you have any sustained experience with math or physics?

    Look at Heidegger’s definition of “enframing,” or Adorno’s use of “domination” and just TRY to match these taken-for-granted, vague words and find a similarly vague key term in physics. I don’t think so…

    RSoliza

  11. #11 robert cook
    October 17, 2006

    RSoliza

    Okay, I’ll bite.

    First of all Heidegger wrote in German, Foucault and Derrida wrote in French. In order to fully come to grips with how they wrote (which is what you seem to be critiquting) you need to understand who they were culturally and the language they wrote in. If you have read them in their original language, then perhaps you have insights I’m overlooking. Heidegger is dense, but German is not generally known for its lightness of being (apologies to all my German friends– hell, English ain’t that great either). Heidegger, si well, German and thus spends most of Being and Time defining his terms so that he can get to the point of saying a few things precisely– like the problem of epistimology and the importance of ontology. Does it read like a Sindey Sheldon novel? No, but that does not invalidate his message. It is the very fact that his use of language is so precise that makes it difficult to read. Derrida, as you say, is more poetic. I could comment on Foucault, Deleuze, Lacan, blah, blah, blah, but the point would still be the same– they chose their words very carefully with great intention. And this is true of all philosophy, not just postmodernists– Hume, Kant, Spinoza– none of these guys are a light read, but they were very intentional.

    Now I would certainly agree that there are a great deal of writers out there who claim to being doing Lit theory, cultural critique, etc. that are, indeed, terrible writers. There are also a great deal of people out there doing crappy science, but I don’t hold them up as examples representative of that mode of inquiry. If those are the writers you are referring to, then we are in agreement. However, Foucault et al did not become the carefully studied writers they were by being crappy writers.

    Nor am I interested in proving studies in humanities are any better an inquiry into who we are than science. My point is that both have value in their unique approaches and to wholesale dismiss an area of thinking because it is not clear to you is dangerous. It is, in fact, the very danger that postmodernists address in their notion of “difference”. (I have more to say about Boyd’s understanding of that term, but I’m headed out the door in a moment– I’ll get back to it if I can).

    Perhaps I was over reacting in my use of the term “bashing”, but I was responding to Jason’s comment of: “you find yourself sinking, quicksand-like, into worthless, turgid prose” and felt that it was an appropriate summation. I’ll take it back if you feel it was over the top.

    Expressing complex ideas requires a complex use of language. You may be able to reduce these claims to “bland sentences of pseudo-profundity,” but then the nuances are lost– and that is what language and ideas are all about. I’m not interested in reductions. I like the complexity, just as I admire the complexities of modern science. It is a fun place to play.

  12. #12 johnc
    October 17, 2006

    Lit theory *looks* like *normal* language, and thus people who have not spent the time to study it mistake it for something it is not.

    Robin Cook: That is not just patronising (I did my undergrad philosophy degree in the mid-70s – as an Althusserian!) but clearly misses the point. The problem with much “Theory” is not simply that the writing is (deliberately) opaque, but that that opacity covers up an appalling poverty of thought.

    Nussbaum says it well (in the article rsoliza references):

    In this way obscurity creates an aura of importance. It also serves another related purpose. It bullies the reader into granting that, since one cannot figure out what is going on, there must be something significant going on, some complexity of thought, where in reality there are often familiar or even shopworn notions, addressed too simply and too casually to add any new dimension of understanding. When the bullied readers of Butler’s books muster the daring to think thus, they will see that the ideas in these books are thin. When Butler’s notions are stated clearly and succinctly, one sees that, without a lot more distinctions and arguments, they don’t go far, and they are not especially new. Thus obscurity fills the void left by an absence of a real complexity of thought and argument.

    The incontestible justice of this charge is brought home when one compares the work of people like Butler with other theorists working in the same areas who both have something of substance to say, and say that something with clarity and verve (Nussbaum cites Halperin as an example.)

    The real tragedy in all this is that thinkers such as Foucault have had something of real importance to say about, for instance, science, but these contributions have been buried in the oceans of vacuous obscurity generated by contemporary “Theorists” who have managed, particularly in the US, to sabotage the possibilites of meaningful diaglogue between humanities and the sciences.

  13. #13 rsoliza
    October 18, 2006

    ” In order to fully come to grips with how they wrote (which is what you seem to be critiquting) you need to understand who they were culturally and the language they wrote in. ”

    -What I am saying is that the way they wrote is a way to hide exactly what they wrote. Sure, we can all agree to grasp their culture, etc, put it context, etc. No one dispute this approach, that’s fundamental.

    “Derrida, as you say, is more poetic. I could comment on Foucault, Deleuze, Lacan, blah, blah, blah, but the point would still be the same– they chose their words very carefully with great intention. ”

    Maybe chosen with attention – but their intention was not clarity and a zeal for reasoned debate. Their intentions seem to have been to dazzle, to play with no accountability, to loosely suggest and then move on, to prophesize without someone qa’ing their utterances. They wrote in a pretty, heady way – but their guiding criterion was not logic, reason, debate.

    Again, my point is so simple. Take Lacan – he’s a joke, using terms he has no real grasp of e.g., imaginary numbers – I just don’t know how to put it any simpler – he does not know what he is talking about, and he is hiding it with his arcane terminology. You can’t get away with this in science. People simply ask for a clarification and the questions just keep coming. In philosophy, the aura of ineffeable, incommunicable revelation is tacitly invoked if you don’t get these guys. Not the same at all.

    “And this is true of all philosophy, not just postmodernists– Hume, Kant, Spinoza– none of these guys are a light read, but they were very intentional.”

    Again, just because they wrote deliberately doesn’t mean they were deliberately trying to be clear. re: hume, etc – Have you read them? Have you read Meditations on first philosphy? The Equiry concerning human understanding? Locke? They’re NOTHING like postmodernists. Only until you get to the impossible prose of Kant (and not always!) and Hegel and Fichte (good god! what a mess!) do we reach the mastery of obfuscation.

    “Now I would certainly agree that there are a great deal of writers out there who claim to being doing Lit theory, cultural critique, etc. that are, indeed, terrible writers. There are also a great deal of people out there doing crappy science, but I don’t hold them up as examples representative of that mode of inquiry.”

    Again, I completely disagree. You seem to have this tit-for-tat mentality where there are poor writers on both sides. Of course. But it’s not my point. Scientific thinkers may or may not express themselves clearly, but great scientists have theories that make predictions that can be tested. They define their concepts with precision and measure accordingly. There is a final accounting in public. Not so with these pomo thinkers – they cloak themselves in mystery and revel in the safe, impenetrable fog of hermeneutic pluralism. Not the same, at all.

    “My point is that both have value in their unique approaches and to wholesale dismiss an area of thinking because it is not clear to you is dangerous.”

    Good grief. This is like Oprah – let’s let everyone ‘have their voice.’ Of course methodological variety is good, and I enjoy thinking from different perspectives. Take a symbolic interactionist, a phenomenological, a functionalist viewpoint on topic X, by all means. The criticism is not that I dangerously dismiss that which I do not grasp. My point is that nobody can explain these texts. No one I’ve ever met. Not sitting in the office with my professors, going over each line. There are insights here and there, but there are passages which simply are jargon. I’m not whining because they’re not clear, I am critiquing because they refer to nothing, they are style for its own sake, cultivating academic celebrity.

    “Expressing complex ideas requires a complex use of language. You may be able to reduce these claims to “bland sentences of pseudo-profundity,” but then the nuances are lost– and that is what language and ideas are all about. I’m not interested in reductions. ”

    I would agree – if there were profundity there. But of course I do not feel that any nuance is lost at all with most of the text. Go ahead and read Nussbaum if you get the chance. It’s as clear an example as I have read. I am all for nuance.

    The bit about reductions – well, reductionism is such an ugly and loaded word these days that I can’t and won’t really address that. I’d need pages for that, to defend it. Suffice it to say that clear thinking is precisely reduction of a topic to core, clear principles that can be openly probed. I don’t think that Heidegger was interested in that, to be honest. I think he wanted to be a prophet, moreso as he aged. The Kehre and all. “Only a god can save you.” If that isn’t pseudo-profundity, good gravy, what is?

    “I like the complexity, just as I admire the complexities of modern science. It is a fun place to play.”

    Hey, I dig complexity too. But I also am for clarity. Orwell wrote that if you don’t write clearly, you can trick yourself into thinking that you are thinking deeply. These pomo imps, I think, have done just that.

    You are basically defending pomo with Judith Butler’s response – to precisely Nussbaum’s critique. She said you need a complex argot for complex problems. Sounds fair enough.

    Have you ever read Alan Sokal’s faux quantum gravity paper? How it was accepted? This means nothing to you about the vacuity of postmodernism? Just a one-time shot with no greater relevance?

    I can see this headed nowhere very interesting though. You really seem to think that it’s a tennis match where both sides volley back and forth with equal terminology and poor writing.

    If you really think you can go line by line, article by article, and compare litcrit writing with scientific writing – and that they are equally concise, clear, nonredundant, etc – well, shit. I guess we’ve reached a dead end. An aporia, you might say. The proof is in the pudding – I genuinely don’t understand where you’re coming from. I’ve read both sides. I can’t comprehend your position. Check out Nussbaum. Check out the abundant online material on the Sokal hoax. If these don’t convince you, then nothing will.

    RSoliza

  14. #14 Robert Cook
    October 18, 2006

    Whew, I leave the room for a moment and things get interesting.

    First, JohnC
    Apologies if I sounded patronizing. I think we are actually much in agreement. I’m not a big fan of Nussbaum’s critiques, however. They are insightful, but a little acidic for my tastes. But taking J. Butler to task and taking Foucault or Derrida to task are not the same thing (I think you agree with this).

    What I was trying to articulate is that there is a great deal of secondary scholarship that goes on that is just silly– I’ve referred to it before in papers I have given as “theory applique.” Find a cause, do some qoute mining of texts one has not studied and away you go. That stuff is, yes, very nasty and I spent enough time in academia to see professors cover lame ideas with turgid prose in an attempt to bludgen their audience into submission. But to lump these scholars into a category that includes Foucault et al (as in, those who wrote the primary texts these people use) only reveals a lack of judgement. I agree with you that this is quite a tragedy, as it truly does obviscate some powerful insights made by the better writers.

    RSoliza
    You are right that I think we will just have to agree to disagree. I don’t think those writers wrote “the way they wrote” as “a way to hide exactly what they wrote.” I do agree that some of these writers did not write with a “guiding criterion” of “logic, reason, debate.” Derrida spent much of his early writings pointing to absurdity of using language to develop logic and reason. Science, on the other hand develops these quite powerfully. You clearly value logic and reason. Great. Unfortunately, I can assure you that with that criteria you will often be disappointed with anything written in language (it’s that whole deconstruction thing inherent in language).

    I like your distinction about attention and intention. And indeed, some, such as Derrida, were very much interested in the play of language. He could also be quite succinct. I think you might have enjoyed his seminars at UC Irvine. He rarely sounded like his written texts and was quite demanding of his students’ thought processes.

    Lacan, well, I have to say most of what I’ve read were his translated lectures and seminars (which got a little loose at times), not written texts and not in French, but if you take a look at Speech and Language in Psychoanalysis, I think you’ll find a quite coherent critque of Freud’s reliance on language to get at any truths. And I’m not familiar with his use of the term “imanginary numbers” specifically, but his use of the word “imaginary” was quite loaded, so perhaps he was making some other point with that term.

    On the clarity within complexity thing, I got what you’re saying, I just think language is better at performative statements than declaratives. Declaratives work well in science, not so well in language, thus clarity of the sort you value is difficult to stabilize. On the other hand, clarity within a performance is still possible even though logic and reason have been lost (some of Beckett’s plays come to mind, but Lacan too). We’ll just have to agree that we define clarity in different ways.

    On the tennis metaphor, eh, unless I misspoke somewhere, I don’t think I ever claimed there was any one-to-one correspondence between science and humanities, in fact quite the opposite– which I think percipitated this discussion.

    As to what I have read, I will just say that I have logged a few hours over one or two books. If you have not met people who can explain these texts, that’s fine. I mean, you’re not a philosopher, right? (no dis intended– I’m not a mathametician, but I still find it very interesting) Others have read them and found them useful and they continue to be studied. This is as close as the humanities gets to science’s repeatability as proof of concept. Lots and lots of philosophy is written all the time– most of it is tossed, but some of it is studied over and over. That would indicate there is something of value in those texts– even Lacan. If Nussbaum or Butler are required reading in college courses forty or fifty years from now, they will have passed the test as well, but I wouldn’t lay any odds on it.

    With that, I have to give this thread a rest. Thanks johnc and Rsoliza for making me think and thanks to Jason for raising it.

  15. #15 johnc
    October 18, 2006

    Nussbaum may be acidic, but quite frankly a high ph value seems required when dealing with the encrustations of Theory in US humanities departments. We all seem to agree, after all, that the problem – the real problem, here and now – is that second-rate minds such as Butler are regarded as major thinkers by this generation of miseducated scholars. And they get away with it by writing in a caricature of a certain French philosophical prose style that renders whatever paltry “insights” they may have to offer into gibberish as meaningless as it is incomprehensible.

    Analogies with Samuel Beckett are indeed germane though in a different way than I think Mr Cook intended: students (and professors) are supposed to be reading Waiting for Godot, not writing it. And if they find they have something interesting to say, then they should write about it, communicating their insight as clearly as possible. The pompous pretension by post-modernists that their voice is more important/interesting/creative than the artist they are allegedly discussing is actually at the heart of this disease.

    All of this has a broader political significance, of course, since while as long as the post-modernism is seen to be at the leading edge of the humanities, the forces of reason are seriously handicapped in the so-called culture wars with the xtian and other barbarians who are seeking to reinstate theology as the guiding principle of Western intellectual life.