Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Postmodern Writings

When I was in high school I was not always the best student. However, I have always been a pretty good writer and using this skill I have managed to pass more or less every exam. It seems to me that people have some type of mechanism, learned or innate, that says "if something sounds real smart and intelligent then it probably is, and if you don't understand it then it is probably because the person who wrote it is really really smart". Throughout high school and even to some extent at University I have, consciously or unconsciously, taken advantage of this mechanism to cover up gaps in my knowledge. Whenever I have had nothing intelligent to say I have just written something that sounds good but doesn't really mean anything.

However, over time I have developed a growing distaste for writings which conceal whatever ideas the text is meant to inform us about. Perhaps because of my background I get really suspicious about texts which seem unnecessarily complex. Is this just nonsense that sounds intelligent?, Is the author of this text just trying to trick me into believing that he or she knows something just like I used to? Now days, when I write I always do my best to be as clear as possible. Unfortunately not everyone is as mature as me…

Actually, it seems to me that there are quite a few very talented writers who have managed to get top notch academic positions by fooling everyone into believing that they actually know something. Most of these people belong to the postmodernists, two prime examples being Jacques Lacan, and Judith Butler (see below). So difficult are the writings of Lacan that many generations of subsequent scholars have devoted entire careers to interpreting the writings of Lacan. To my knowledge they have not succeeded (and no one ever will). To me this is very alarming. I can think of much better things to throw money at than pseudo academics who writes poetry but refer to it as scientific texts.

Now some people will object and say "well what about the texts that biologists produce, are they not are equally incomprehensible. To take an example, here is a random sentence from my book Molecular Neuropharmacology, A foundation for clinical neuroscience. "After phosphorylation, the Trk complex interacts with additional linker proteins and through an unknown mechanism, acticates Ras, a small-molecular-weight G-protein. Such activation in turn activates a cascade of protein-serine-threonine kinases…" Had I read this sentence before taking any biology or neuroscience I would, I admit, not have understood anything. However, after having taken courses and learned about the different molecules mentioned in the sentence above it is really not that difficult to comprehend. A lot of post modernist writing on the other hand is incomprehensible even after a long education. I have a degree in psychology but I still do not understand what Lacan (also a psychologist) mean when he writes that "the erectile organ is equivalent to the square root of minus one of the signification produced above, of the jouissance that it restores by the coefficient of its statement to the function of lack of signifier".

For those of you who are still not convinced, read the book Intellectual Impostures by Sokal and Bricmont (see picture) or the chapter called Postmodernism disrobed in A Devil's chaplain by Richard Dawkins. Or try out the puzzle which my supervisor, Germund Hesslow, sent to me some time ago.

Below are two scientific abstracts (an abstract is a summary of a science article). One abstract is written by Judith Butler (picture), Tina Rosenberg's supervisor, and the other is a text created by Alan Sokal's automatic post modernist text generator.

1. The premise of the precapitalist paradigm of reality implies that truth serves to entrench hierarchy. "Sexuality is part of the rubicon of consciousness," says Lacan. But Debord uses the term 'socialist realism' to denote the role of the artist as poet. Several narratives concerning the precapitalist paradigm of reality may be discovered. A predominant concept is the concept of patriarchialist art. It could be said that the subject is interpolated into a socialist realism that includes consciousness as a totality. An abundance of desemanticisms concerning the bridge between class and sexual identity exist.

2. The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

Those of you who are already familiar with Sokal's text generator have probably realized that the first abstract is a construction and that the second paragraph therefore must be genuine. It is amazing though how completely incomprehensible the second sentence, which is remember from a real published paper, is. It should be of no surprise that Judith Butler has been honored with first prize in a bad writing contest in the journal diacritics…


Adam Whittaker said...

I agree. Even the most questionable rubbish will pass if it's presented confidently.

Z said...

My main problem with de deconstructive, post-modern academic texts,
is that they don't exemplify much, or quote or refer to pages.

They just make lots of statements with difficult words and don't seem to bother arguing, proving or even supporting them.
Just heaps of statements.

Although i admire their way with words.

rasmussenanders said...

I really do appears that anything goes. At least that is the way it has been among french academics for some time. The much famous Sokal affair in which Alan Sokal wrote a rubbish paper and got it published in a prestigious journal seems that they did indeed not analyze the texts for meaning.

However, I am optimistic that times are changing. I think that more and more clarity is being favoured, and thanks largely to Sokal the french postmodernism is sinking (at least that is my impression based on limited evidence).

z said...

For instincts:
In one academic review of 20th century detective stories (like Philip Marlowe etc), the guy wrote that the contain
"a series of enigma variations with political context"

Fine, one can understand what that sentence means, but on what does he build the statement? I found a lack of references, like, say:

"For example, on page xx", or "in chapter five"...etc

Like a passing essay at a university is expected to contain.

But these guys are truly good at writing stories, entertaining fiction, probably novels. But still, as i see it, not necessarily approved as academic work.

Ulf Pettersson said...

Being very critical of post-modernism myself, I do think it is a little to harsh to say that _anything_ goes. Certainly after the Sokal Hoax - which is more than 10 years ago now - post-modern academic journals must have improved, if they have any sense of self-preservation.

Still, of course, you are spot on, Anders. I share the impression that postmodernism is slowly on the way out. You keep writing these blog posts that I have meant to write myself for ages but have never gotten round to...

rasmussenanders said...

Thank you for the encouragement Ulf. Most of what I know about the field I have read in the two very critical references that I have listed in my text. I would like you have expected them to shape up a bit after that.

On the other hand, I know of some counter examples such as the very recent queer theory. I listened to a woman who had just finished her PhD on queer architecture and she didn't really seem to know anything...

Joel Sörensson said...

I used an online readability tester (läsbarhetsindex - LIX) at http://pressylta.com/lix/ on the true abstract. Needless to say, it was off the charts.

John said...

But what is modernism anyhow. It is the "culture" created in the image of scientific man. Weber's deadly iron cage in which we are all trapped like molecular robots. Really a "culture" of death.Have you read the "news".

Please check out these two thoroughly postmodern references.

1. www.mummerybook.org
2. www.adidabiennale.org

Plus two related references on the origins & consequences of the unspeakably dreadful "culture" created in the image of one-dimensional scientific man.

1. www.dabase.org/coop+tol.htm
2. www.dabase.org/spacetim.htm