While doing some background research for an upcoming Graduate Symposium I’ll be participating in later this month (more on that in the future), I somehow stumbled upon this post from Noam Chomsky in which the famous linguist/activist attacks post-modernism and its heroes. In this email/posting Chomsky criticizes what he views as “a huge explosion of self- and mutual-admiration among those who propound what they call “theory” and “philosophy,”” as little beyond “pseudo-scientific posturing.” Immediately, my thoughts jumped to the discussion of the Sokal Hoax I posted a few weeks back. Chomsky continues his affront to post-structuralism, arguing, much like Sokal, that the major figures of this movement–Derrida, Lacan, Foucault, Kristeva, etc.–obfuscate their arguments with an incoherent vocabulary rife with misused and misapplied scientific terminology. Chomsky on Derrida:
“So take Derrida, one of the grand old men. I thought I ought to at least be able to understand his Grammatology, so tried to read it. I could make out some of it, for example, the critical analysis of classical texts that I knew very well and had written about years before. I found the scholarship appalling, based on pathetic misreading; and the argument, such as it was, failed to come close to the kinds of standards I’ve been familiar with since virtually childhood. Well, maybe I missed something: could be, but suspicions remain [...]“
But Chomsky’s not done yet:
“Some of the people in these cults (which is what they look like to me) I’ve met: Foucault (we even have a several-hour discussion, which is in print, and spent quite a few hours in very pleasant conversation, on real issues, and using language that was perfectly comprehensible — he speaking French, me English); Lacan (who I met several times and considered an amusing and perfectly self-conscious charlatan, though his earlier work, pre-cult, was sensible and I’ve discussed it in print); Kristeva (who I met only briefly during the period when she was a fervent Maoist); and others. Many of them I haven’t met, because I am very remote from from these circles, by choice, preferring quite different and far broader ones [...] I’ve dipped into what they write out of curiosity, but not very far, for reasons already mentioned: what I find is extremely pretentious, but on examination, a lot of it is simply illiterate, based on extraordinary misreading of texts that I know well (sometimes, that I have written), argument that is appalling in its casual lack of elementary self-criticism, lots of statements that are trivial (though dressed up in complicated verbiage) or false; and a good deal of plain gibberish.”
Illiterate gibberish? Charlatan? Cults ? (This is a really common charge leveled at psychoanalysis in particular, and when one considers that both the work of Freud and Lacan was carried on by their respective daughters, there may be some validity to the claim. Still…)
First, as a linguist, Chomsky is searching for an underlying, “universal grammar” or deep structure, a core pattern that underpins/organizes/generates all human languages. In this sense, Chomsky is searching for an ideal, a foundation. This method is in direct opposition to deconstruction, which as I understand it, seeks to decenter and disrupt all metaphysical anchors. I will never forget the class in transformational syntax I took at the University of Florida with Mohammed Mohammed (or MoMo, as we affectionately were permitted to call him). The class was a split grad/undergrad section, and MoMo scared away all of the undergrads in the first session, with the exception of myself and another student. After that point, he was always very kind to us (the undergrads) and cruel to the grads. MoMo was a Palestinian; he identified as a Jordanian refugee. He was a devout Chomskyian (cultishly so, perhaps). Derrida spoke at UF while I was in this class. I didn’t really understand what Derrida’s lecture was about, but it was very long and his English accent wasn’t so great. The next day in class, MoMo savaged Derrida for the entirety of the period on points both specific and general, most of it over our heads. It was a true rant, one of the best I’ve ever witnessed, culminating in (and I quote): “He’s full of shit!”
So Derrida certainly provoked MoMo, a strict Chomskyian–and why not? If you spend your academic career and your adult life searching for something that another person says you could never find, wouldn’t you be upset? (I believe that more than anything MoMo was upset over Derrida’s reception at UF, which was rock-starish to say the least). For MoMo, Derrida was a phony, a pied-piper misleading the children from the real issues.
Which brings me to point two–Chomsky is primarily a political figure, and really a pragmatist at heart. The core of his argument is not so much that po-mo writing is high-falutin’ nonsense, but rather that it ultimately serves no practical purpose. Here is where I would strongly disagree. The people that Chomsky attacks and their followers are re-evaluating the canon and the very notion of received wisdom. Chomsky attacks them for “misreading the classics”–but just what are the classics, and whose value systems created the notion that the classics were indeed “classic”? If Derrida & co. appear to “misread,” it is because they seek to recover the marginalized knowledge that has been buried under a sediment of givens as “truth.” Yes, the post-modern movement might have elitist tendencies, and yes, the subjects and themes of their work might not have much to do on the surface with the plight of a refugee (cf. MoMo in Jordan in 1948)…but the goal is actually in line with Chomsky’s goal–to make people question the powers that structure their lives.
I do agree, as I’ve said before, that post-modern writing often comes off as so-much sophistry and hogwash (I admit to plenty of this myself), that in some sense it relies too heavily on a coded vocabulary that seems unaccessible to the untrained eye, and that all too often an air of self-congratulation, an atmosphere of winks and nods replaces an environment of real thinking and debate. But my real take is this: any philosophy that could shake MoMo into discomposure is good. MoMo is a brilliant man and his class was fascinating, but to have seen him that day–his feathers so ruffled, his foundations tested–so infuriated over ideas–that was a beautiful thing. Right then, I knew there must be something to Derrida, something I wanted to figure out. And that’s what the best of these writers do–they infuriate us by provoking the truths that we are so sure that we hold in ourselves. They destabilize our safe spaces. They don’t allow for easy answers; they rebuke tradition. And if this approach falls into the norm in academia, becomes lazy and sedimentary, undoubtedly someone will come along and call “bullshit” on it, thus reigniting debate, questions, language. Nietzsche speaks of language as a series of hardened metaphors, language as petrified lava, sedimentary givens. This is the goal of deconstruction: to get that lava flowing again.
NYU physics professor Alan Sokal wrote a paper entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” which was published in 1996 in Duke University’s Social Text, a cultural studies journal. The same day the article was published–with no peer review, incidentally–Sokal announced in Lingua Franca that the whole thing was a hoax, a collection of nonsense, buzzwords, and jargon, making liberal use of recontextualized quotes. Sokal’s intention was to provoke the postmodern tendencies of humanities professors, whom he viewed as having a poor understanding of the science they critiqued.
Now, anyone who has spent any time in any university’s cultural studies department or English department (they tend to be the same thing nowadays) knows that postmodernism is all the rage: the dominant thinkers tend to be of the deconstructionist/post-structuralist school of thought–Derrida, Kristeva, Deleuze, Foucault, Butler, and so on. The major goal of deconstructive analysis is to disrupt the traditional, metaphysical groundings that have been accepted as “natural” to philosophy–to free up marginalized and subjugated areas of thought and break through the layers of sedimentary “givens.” In this sense, deconstruction takes a major queue from the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. In many ways Nietzsche provided not only some of the major questions that initiate a deconstructive philosophy, but also a model for how those ideas would be presented in writing.
Nietzsche’s writing is poetic and often ironically self-reflexive. In his essay “On Truth and Lie in an Extra-Moral Sense,” he makes the claim that all language is an anthropomorphic jumble of metaphors, that concepts are only constructed upon other concepts, all understood through an anthropocentric viewpoint that is impossible to abandon. Nietzsche’s writing contains this awareness; he frames his argument in a series of illustrative metaphors and similes, arguing that language does not permit people to reach the true essence of “the thing in itself”; rather, concepts are the “fractured echo[es]” of the ego seeking recognition—deceptions and illusions. In Nietzsche’s view, science can only build on these empty metaphors and therefore all scientific, empirical knowledge is a house of cards waiting to collapse. Nietzsche prefers an irrational, intuitive, liquid approach to life—a “playing with seriousness”: by abandoning stoic, static reasoning, one will gain “illumination, cheer, and redemption.” This joyful disruption is one starting point for the deconstructionists who Sokal attacked in his hoax.
Sokal obviously disagrees with Nietzsche: as a physicist, Sokal clearly values empirical, rational thought. But his real disagreement is with his perception of an abusive misuse of scientific and mathematic terminology by humanities professors. Sokal views the majority of post-modern theorists as perpetrators of hogwash, arrogant elitists who obfuscate their hollow ideas in jargon.
Okay. Now. So. Is Sokal right? Is there a tendency in humanities departments toward obscurantism with elitist undertones? Absolutely. However, I see this as the academic byproduct of the writers under attack, the detritus of myriad misunderstandings and misreadings. Nobody’s perfect, obviously. I disagree that certain of the writers Sokal attacks–Julia Kristeva in particular (a hero of mine, whose writing I find to be both wonderfully lucid and poetically profound)–are purposefully difficult. Most of the deconstructionists mentioned above take their lead from Nietzsche, and thus employ a strange, elliptical, roundabout and often poetic strategy to their writing. The deconstructionist methodology itself is an affront to easy readings–simply put, it’s meant to make you think. Furthermore, philosophy, for most of us, is not beach reading.
Interestingly, and perhaps ironically, Sokal’s gesture is an essentially postmodern move, a deconstructive move–a challenge to the new establishment of academic humanities and cultural studies. Even his use of recontextualized quotes is an affirmation of Derrida’s concept of iterability. The greatest value of the hoax is that it reinforces the tenets of deconstruction: to upset the places we feel are comfortable and safe, prompting constant re-examination of our aims and goals. Sokal’s hoax initiates a dynamic rethinking of the way we write and the way we read. Who are we writing for? How are we presenting our ideas? Do we understand what we are saying? More than anything, Sokal’s hoax calls attention to the constant need for peer review, for academia to question itself, its products, its institutions.