The Nonsense Problem

Consider this sentence, taken from a paper that, according to the Times Online, was accepted to an academic conference in 2005:

Contrarily, the lookaside buffer might not be the panacea.

Now, if you’re not sure what that means, that’s because it doesn’t mean anything.  It was created by a computer program, which in turn was created by three M.I.T. students for the expressed purpose of generating important-sounding academic gibberish.  The above sentence is from their paper (or their program’s paper) entitled, “Rooter: A Methodology for the Typical Unification of Access Points and Redundancy.”

If you’d like to play with something similar, try The Postmodernism Generator, which gave me an essay called “The Burning Fruit: Dadaist Situation in the Works of Madonna.”  The most interesting feature here is the spontaneous generation of bogus, copious footnotes: The author (who is not a person, but a computer program) is writing about Derrida (incorrectly), so he must be saying something important (even if what he’s saying makes no fucking sense).  “The essay you have just seen is completely meaningless and was randomly generated by the Postmodernism Generator,” boasts a disclaimer at the bottom of the page.

This kind of parody/hoax has become a genre all its own.  Of particular note is Alan Sokal’s “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” which was published in Duke University’s Social Text (#46/47) back in 1996.  Sokal did not use a computer program to create this article; his gibberish is lovingly hand-crafted:

While my method was satirical, my motivation is utterly serious. What concerns me is the proliferation, not just of nonsense and sloppy thinking per se, but of a particular kind of nonsense and sloppy thinking: one that denies the existence of objective realities, or (when challenged) admits their existence but downplays their practical relevance.

In short, my concern over the spread of subjectivist thinking is both intellectual and political. Intellectually, the problem with such doctrines is that they are false (when not simply meaningless). There is a real world; its properties are not merely social constructions; facts and evidence do matter. What sane person would contend otherwise? And yet, much contemporary academic theorizing consists precisely of attempts to blur these obvious truths — the utter absurdity of it all being concealed through obscure and pretentious language.

I have just finished my first quarter of graduate school (which is why I am now able to post, and also why I haven’t been able to post during the past two months).  At school, I have been reading a whole lot of Marx, Lacan, and Žižek.  This list is not mere name-dropping, but rather a directory of the thinkers who founded what Sokal calls “subjectivist thinking.”  That term is highly problematic (any kind of thinking requires subjectivity), so I would like propose a different term for that mode of thinking that cannot differentiate profundity from gibberish: I would like to call it the nonsense problem.

Now, don’t get me wrong.  I like reading Žižek (and to a lesser extent, Lacan and Marx, too), and I always learn a lot when I do.  But what I learn is fragmentary, and often internally inconsistent.  And more to the point, regardless of what Žižek teaches us, it would be intellectually dishonest to pretend that his writing is clear–and it would be ahistorical to deny that he inherits this lack of clarity from Lacan.

In associating Marx and Lacan and Žižek with nonsense, I am not merely complaining that their work is strange and hard to read, nor am I snarkily pointing out that students are often held to a higher standard of clarity than the canonized scholars whom they study.  Both of these things are true, but they are only symptoms of the specific mode of discourse that Marx and Lacan and Žižek have founded, a discourse wherein truth-value is assigned that which is most opaque, impenetrable, and/or overwhelmingly intertextual.

In other words, one of the underlying principles of academia seems to be this: That the less sense something apparently makes, the more serious and important it must be.

Sokal points out, quite rightly, that this tradition emanates “from the self-proclaimed Left.”  Marx accidentally sanctified nonsense, simply by being a bad writer.  Marx makes circular arguments because his ideas are perpetually half-baked and because his rhetorical abilities are severely limited, whereas the many writers whom he inspired (especially Lacan and Žižek) make circular arguments out of principle.  It is not that they are blindly copying Marx’s chaotic structure, but rather that they see something profitable in circularity and obtuseness–and it is hard to shake the feeling that on this point they are thoroughly, disastrously wrong.  If there actually is an advantage to being misunderstood, then what is that advantage?

By way of conclusion, Sokal asks, “how can one show that the emperor has no clothes?”  Here is what Žižek has to say on that subject, in the context of psychoanalysis:

We can see why Lacan, in his seminar on The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, distances himself from the liberating gesture of saying finally that “the emperor has no clothes.”  The point is, as Lacan puts, that the emperor is naked only beneath his clothes, so if there is an unmasking gesture in psychoanalysis, it is closer to Alphonse Allais’s well-known joke, quoted by Lacan: somebody points at a woman and utters a horrified cry, “Look at her, what a shame, under her clothes, she is totally naked.”

Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (Verso, 1989): 25.

So it’s not a matter of the emperor being naked, but a matter of the clothes being far less meaningful than they pretend to be.  The emperor can wear all the clothing he wants, and it won’t change the fact that, as John Vanderslice says, “Sometimes a cowboy’s just a man in a cowboy suit.”

Likewise, sometimes a Great Thinker is just a person repeating the kind of gibberish that we have come to expect from Great Thinkers.  Once we understand this, it is no longer all that surprising that we can might mistake computer-generated nonsense for real intellectual work.

4 comments

  1. I suggest you look at http://books.google.com/books?id=xcFmstYmyYUC&pg=PA82

    Sokal comes from a completely different theoretical approach and background. In the terms Žižek might use what’s at stake here is not merely if this or that is true or false, but a more fundamental ideological struggle – not merely which authors, but which schools of thought will we listen to.

    I found pointing out to Sokal extremely popular in analytic philosophy circles. The idea is that continental philosophy as such is pretentious gibberish and if the author speaks a hard to understand language that means he’s probably intentionally bullshitting you to look like as if he’s saying something deep.

    If Marx, Lacan and Žižek are put so high in your department then I really want to know which school you’re attending, that seems quite suprising.

    • Thank you for your comment, and for the link.

      The problem is specifically that different schools of thought can’t even communicate with one another, because no one knows what anyone else is talking about. I have no doubt that Žižek is talking about “a more fundamental ideological struggle,” as opposed to simple issues of truth or falsity. I think that Sokal’s point is that it can be a problem when the concepts of truth and falsity are completely lost, instead of simply being complicated by ideological struggle.

      As for Sokal being “popular,” I first became aware of him this week, and my intention was not to align myself with him overall. (The whole premise that the discipline of Cultural Studies is somehow opposed to the hard sciences, for example, is absurd). I just found the particular piece that I cited to be relevant to this particular discussion.

      Nor is Sokal’s ideological background really the point. I made no appeal to Continental Philosophy, and I certainly never argued that difficult language equals bullshit, or that most academic bullshitting was intentional. In fact, I specifically said that “I am not merely complaining that [Marx, Lacan, and Žižek’s] work is strange and hard to read.”

      I am not saying that academic writing in general is full of shit. Obviously, a great deal of it is not. I am saying that the rhetorical style of academic writing has become such that lots of readers cannot tell the difference between substantive argument and complete bullshit. This is an issue of form, not of content; it has nothing to do with the substance of the arguments being made, but with how the arguments are being made. The arguments, good and bad, are being made badly.

      In answer to your question, I am attending the University of Chicago. But again, my point is not that Marx, Lacan, and Žižek are read too much, but that they are the progenitors of a very widespread problem: Namely, the problem of communicating in a ridiculously unclear way.

      • What I was trying to say with Sokal is that pointing out to the “Sokal affair” is extremly popular, not that he is personally a popular figure. Just like “How Mumbo Jumbo Conquered the World” from Wheen or “On Bullshit” from Harry Frankfurt. I’ve once had a strange week where I’ve heard the Sokal affair mentioned three times in totally different discussions – on the internet and in real life (and I live in Slovenia…).

        But the point about ‘ideological struggle’ here would be not that there is something deep, mysterious going on. But simply that someone who throws the Sokal affair around as a proof of something is usually coming from a completely different theoretico-ideological background. And what people that use examples I’ve mentioned above often miss is how violent of an attack this is towards some author. When you say Sokal, you’re implicitly discrediting someone’s life work as simply bullshit, and how can you expect a discussion from people following that authors work? This is simply vulgar dismissal.

        And the specific authors you mentioned – Marx, Lacan and Žižek – are exactly the ones you can’t call ‘relativist’, ‘postmodernist’ or ‘being opposed to issues of truth or falsity’. For them there are things that are true and those that are false. You’re not dealing with some primitive pseudo-deconstructivism, mysticism or something like that. I personally am not familiar with Marx or Lacan enough, but truly do admire Žižek’s work. And I’m probably as far as you can get from an academic.

        And you know, expecting from Marx and Lacan to be able to give you ‘simple statements’ is a bit much. Marx lived in a different century, talked a different language and had some specific problems he was addressing. And exactly the same goes for Lacan – plus his target audience were not even psychoanalysts, but specifically those psychoanalysts who were supposed to then later train other psychoanalysts, so you are dealing here with an extremely narrow circle of people he was addressing. When he wrote or talked he never had an American student in mind.

        But another thing I would like to point out is that I think your reaction is not simply to these authors, but perhaps to the theoretical constellation in your University. You know, in Slovenia the situation is totally different. Just mention Žižek and you will be totally discredited as a thinker. That’s why I was surprised.

        But why don’t you use the same approach to someone like Plato, Kant, Nietzsche or any of the respected philosophers? It’s not like you can just pick up their books and see “aha, this is what they are saying, they are wrong here and right there”. I’m sure you wouldn’t pull the Sokal affair on them. And when you’re dealing with philosophy, you’re dealing with theoretical references that go back centuries. That’s one of the reason so much jargon is used. When someone says ideology, this concept has a history of theoretical use and discussion. He could have said ‘you misperceive’ but the whole theoretical background would be lost. You would have to explain what you mean by ‘misperception’. And why for example did Heidegger use Dasein and not simply the word Being? Or why did Freud use the unconscious and not the old word subconscious? Exactly to avoid misunderstanding, to point out that we’re dealing with a different concept that should be made distinct from the old conceptions.

        All that being said – of course there is bullshit in Academia and a lot of it. And it serves some specific purposes. Like for example, if you want to make a career you have to be sure to have a lot of publications. Or if you want to appear educated in front of someone who isn’t studying in the same field that you are you can just bluff and throw big words at them. Perhaps something like this could be thrown at Lacan (again, I’m not familiar enough to judge), but I personally think that if Žižek is a master of something, it is at making obscure philosophical statements more clear. But there are other problems with Žižek, he wrote so much you have to learn to navigate through his work..

      • I apologize for taking so long to respond to your comment. The holidays were pretty busy for me, and I have been neglecting my blog as a result.

        As I said, I only became familiar with Sokal recently. I had no idea that I was lobbing a grenade just by brining him up, or that his name is generally taken to discredit anything it touches. That was a lack of due diligence on my part, for which I apologize, but it was neither “vulgar” nor “dismissal,” and it certainly wasn’t “violent.” There is some violence to Soakal’s own project, but I was not attacking Žižek, or anyone else. I was just grasping for straws.

        Having taken a look at your blog, I have no doubt that you know far more about Žižek than I do. I’ve read The Sublime Object of Ideology, and his new book on violence, and a few other things, but I’m no expert. I am in no position to judge his entire body of work, even if I wanted to, which I don’t. So let me bring up a specific example: The Jew in The Sublime Object of Ideology. This example taught me all sorts of useful things–about prejudice, about equivocation, about scapegoating, and of course, about ideology. But for all of that, what is the Jew in this example? Is the Jew the symptom, or the quilting point? This is a perfect example, I think, of Žižek saying important things, but doing so in a deliberately unclear fashion. Note that I am absolutely not dismissing his life’s work, or even this specific moment in this specific book, but–on the contrary–pointing out that Žižek’s valuable arguments are sometimes mired in an unnecessarily opaque structure. I absolutely understand more after reading Žižek, but I have no clear sense of whether or not I understand what he wants me to understand.

        So, as far as I can tell, Žižek is a brilliant thinker who does irreparable harm to his own work by following unclear structures (such as Lacanian structure) too closely.

        And again, I am not complaining that Marx and Lacan aren’t “simple” enough. I fully understand that Marx wrote during a very different time, and that Lacan was speaking to a very specific audience. But William Shakespeare wrote during a very different time and for a very specific audience, and his writing is incredibly clear–complicated, but clear. If something in Shakespeare doesn’t make sense, it’s usually because it involves an archaic word or a specific reference, and a single footnote will usually clear up any confusion. But all of the footnotes in the world won’t change the fact that Marx’s arguments are full of holes, or that Lacan never arrives at a particularly clear definition of the phallus, or of das ding.

        Nor will any series of footnotes, or even Žižek’s pages and pages of explanation, make this little Lacanian gem any clearer:

        Graph of Desire

        (Click for a larger, but no less confusing, version).

        You are absolutely right that Nietzsche and Heidegger (and Hegel, and Husserl, and countless others) are also guilty of being unclear. And of course, this does not automatically discredit them. But the labyrinthine structure of theoretical jargon is nonetheless a problem. If ideology were a loaded term insofar as one had to read a lot to understand what it meant, then that would be fine–as long as everyone were to read most of the same things, and to read them in roughly the same way. But when such terms are deployed in myriad ways, without consistency and in lieu of clear explanation, it brings the level of discourse down, because no one knows what anyone is talking about. If you’re referring to Althuserrian ideolgy, for example, then say so. If your account will differ from Althusser’s, then explain how it will do so. You can’t expect the terms themselves to do the work—because, frankly, they won’t.

        So again, my frustration is with the mode of discourse rather than the content. I did not mean to snipe at Žižek—who, again, I like and respect and enjoy reading—but on the contrary, to express dismay that a theorist such as Žižek would eschew his considerable penchant for clarity and engage with the prevailing tradition of nonsensical academic rhetoric.

        Out of curiosity, which thinkers are in vogue in Slovenia right now? I would be very interested to know. Once again, thank you very much for reading my blog, and for engaging in what I have found to be a very profitable conversation.

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