Wednesday, 29 January 2014

Obscurantism

The humanities and the social sciences are unusually accepting of obscurantism - that is to say, texts that are deliberately obscure and difficult to read.  Outsiders typically label this stuff 'postmodern' or 'postmodernist', but that term isn't accepted by most obscurantists, as it is really only one obscurantist movement among many, including post-structuralism and, I would say, structuralism as well.  But since the texts are deliberately difficult to read and contain few genuine chains of argument, they're all much of a muchness, differing primarily in style and purported subject instead of approach.  So they can be treated similarly, I think.

Obscure texts are the bane of students' lives in the humanities and social sciences.  Students complain (usually in the pub) about having to read the works of, among others, Judith Butler, Julia Kristeva, and Gilles Deleuze, because the writing is dense and the meaning is difficult to see through the wordfog.  Academics tend to love this stuff, though, and a number of disciplines and departments are largely taken up with teaching and writing about obscure texts and the ideas supposedly drawn from then, including social anthropology, women's studies, and some history and sociology departments.  Classics is perhaps most immune to this stuff, due to the fairly elite, conservative background of a lot of classicists (meaning that they're not exactly prone to obscurantist non-arguments in favour of Maoism).

The success of obscurantist texts and authors in academia is something of a mystery.  It's so obvious an example of the Emperor's New Clothes, a story we're surely all familiar with, that I find it incredible that anyone falls for it.  How could academics, people with doctorates who have spent the bulk of their lives studying and bettering themselves intellectually, endorse texts that they don't understand?

One theory, the 'idea effort justification' theory, is that the very difficulty of the texts makes any knowledge gleaned from them inherently valuable.  This theory has been written of in Skeptic magazine and can be found online - in fact, it was in this week's eSkeptic, and you should probably read about it there.

The theory is this: the time spent in deciphering a difficult text has to be justified somehow, meaning that an especially impenetrable text will seem especially wise.  As long as the sentences are more or less grammatical and contain words that are individually meaningful, it is easy for the earnest knowledge-seeker to believe that they've found great truth in the text, and, given the obscurity of it and the apparent lack of any real meaning, this truth will probably correspond quite well to what the knowledge-seeker already believes.  Since we like reading things we already agree with, it is easy for this fundamentally irrational process to override any prior scepticism towards the texts and authors.  A similar process probably underlies religious texts and their use.

Since the people introducing students to these texts are often authority figures and gatekeepers, it's not hard to see how they seduce the unaware.  And once the students have used those texts to acquire qualifications and academic positions, there is a yet stronger need for effort justification, as all the hours spent studying those obscure texts have to be rationalised.


When a prepared mind starts reading an impenetrable book by Deleuze, the person is undergoing something akin to a religious experience.  Where a more reasonable approach to the text would show that there is nothing even approaching sense or meaning in any of the sentences, it is hard to dissuade the true believers, just as it is hard to reason religious people away from their beliefs.  This is why Sokal and Bricmont's Intellectual Impostures, a modest and sensible book about obscurantist abuse of scientific ideas and terminology, was well received by neither the obscurantists themselves nor their true-believing followers, even though its arguments were clearly correct, and even though it definitively showed that a lot of the supposed erudition and nous of French leftist obscurantists was an illusion.

The latest fad in the social sciences is 'ontology', a word that means something completely different to its obscurantist use.  The abusers of the word 'ontology' have stretched it so far as to mean almost nothing, even though its original meaning is very clear.  They use their abused word to cover a variety of obscure positions that are nigh-impossible to make sense of and which have either trivial or absurd interpretations (nothing original or compelling on its own terms is likely to be found in an obscurantist text, of course).   This 'ontology' is just a fad and nothing more - just another trend for students to have to learn despite its uselessness.

The academic job market is highly competitive, and obscurantism is a convenient way of getting ahead without needing to be original or knowledgeable.  It makes sense to me that a student wanting a life in academia would indulge in this stuff even though it makes no real sense to them and even though they can only explain their 'theory', as they so often call it, in the vaguest and most jargon-ridden terms.  But it also makes sense to me to promote facts and knowledge above superficial erudition and literary trickery, and to attempt to find out what is true instead of devising ways to disguise a lack of originality.

8 comments:

  1. An anthropology PhD candidate emailed me a paper so I could give it a quick check for minor errors before she submitted it to her thesis advisor. Since I had it and she didn't want two copies being edited she telephoned just hours before submission and asked me to make minor changes. All of the half-dozen changes were the replacement of a one syllable word with a polysyllabic synonym.

    I was intrigued so I made an effort to actually read the paper for content. It was partly a theory about the human senses. I was limited by only having ever had one 300 level course on the psychology/biology of perception so my knowledge didn't go much beyond Hubel and Wiesel and some more recent results on visual processing regions in the brain.

    It took me an hour of wading through the language and lots of Heidegger to get to at least one of her conclusions: our "five senses" are a social construct imposed because we have five fingers.

    Well why didn't she just say that? It is easier to refute if stated plainly. But perhaps I didn't really understand all those big words.

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    1. haha

      we know that the seven colors of the rainbow are a social construct because there are seven virtues because that's what Newton said when he made that decision

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    2. Lovely story. How did she react when you told her?

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    3. How did she react when you told her? We had a shouting match in a pub.

      It started when I avoided discussing the paper and politely complimented her on being a grad student despite some setbacks. She drew herself up to her full height and declared, "I am not a 'grad' student. I am a PhD candidate!"

      After that the conversation went downhill, though I was severely hampered by not being allowed to make personal attacks, while she was under no such restriction. I was limited to the topic at hand: the lack of the form: arguments + supporting data :: conclusion. The form mind you. The recognizable form of an argument that I might not comprehend but still might recognize as an argument.

      A few days later a mutual female friend invited me to the pub where my PhD acquaintance was usually to be found, and bought her a glass of wine, told her that I had paid for it, told me quietly but firmly to pay for it, and that was that.

      Oh the shouting match though! She had never heard of Hubel & Weisel, which is fine, but she'd never heard of Steven Pinker. She came back a few days later and said that she'd mentioned Pinker to her adviser who had said that 'they' didn't believe in him.

      I went to RateMyProfessors.com a year later and a student had written "she spends too much of the lecture defending the validity of anthropology as a discipline."

      I continued to support her goals because she really needed that doctorate, and she has indeed recently been awarded it; however, my girlfriend had a secretary in an administrative department of the same university who also has a PhD in a subject that is also tainted by continental philosophy. The secretary's, err ... I mean the administrative assistant's business card reads,

      Ms name, Ph.D.
      Geographer, Feminist

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  2. A similar process probably underlies religious texts and their use.

    This is unfair. The Gospels and Saint Paul were pretty clear about what they meant. Granted, very few people actually read even the Gospels; and there is lots of quote-mining and proof-texting out of the Old Testament.

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    1. At the risk of being obscurantist I would separate the Gospels and Saint Paul from "religious texts." They are source documents, and as Anonymous says, they are fairly clear about their meaning. I maintain that it's religious scholars, down through the centuries, who have made "e unum pluribus," so to speak. In my opinion as a rational Christian, all denominations have greater need of practitioners than of scholars -- who invariably bend toward angels dancing on pinheads.

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    2. Then let's say that a similar process probably underlies certain religious texts and their use.

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  3. Dear A.J.,

    I listened to a recent podcast in "New Books in Anthropology" about one of the key monographs in this movement, and I couldn't help but feel simultaneous revulsion and curiosity. I feel like the ontology folks at least understand that interpretive anthropology and super-strong forms of relativism need to be able to make claims about meaning or else sink into nothingness. And yet, their solution appears to be to grant minds to trees and spread the interpretationist mumbo-jumbo to dogs and cats.

    You could probably take Revelations as a test case of the "meaningless complexity" means "complex meaningfulness" argument.

    --Brad ( http://musinging.commons.gc.cuny.edu )

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You can post anonymously if you really want to, but I would appreciate it if you could provide some means of identifying who you are, if only for the purpose of knowing who has written what.