The Treason of the Clerks

by Fergus Downie (January 2016)


The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. - Orwell

There is an apocryphal story of one of Hegel’s students interrupting one of his more baffling lectures, with the naïve comment ‘but Professor, the facts state otherwise’. Quick as a flash the great metaphysician shot back, ‘So much the worse for the facts.' A lot of it about, and unlike Hegel’s brash heckler, today’s generation of students, softened up by a protracted exposure to the fag ends of postmodern fashions, are sophisticated enough to absorb it. Unintelligibility in this milieu carries very real cachet and a raft of Lilliputian fads could be marshalled against the Enlightenment's naive commitment to plain and simple language. In the new dispensation, meaning is always deferred and if Kant's injunction 'Dare to know' provided the watchword for the original Aufklärung this new counter-Enlightenment sensibility is best captured by Ignatius Loyola's famous injunction to believe because it is absurd. Just how far this imperviousness to reason could be taken was humorously showcased by an obscure physics professor in 1991 with a famous article published in the renowned theory journal Social Text.

By his own admission Sokal had set himself the challenge of seeing whether ‘a leading North American journal of Cultural Studies would publish an article, literally salted with nonsense’ and in selecting Social Text, a prestigious journal whose editorial board included none other than Stanley Fish, he had set his heights high. To any sane person whose critical reflexes had not been dulled by an exposure to advanced theory, Sokal's piece was a spoof very heavily trailed, the very title "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" alone might have given pause for thought, and the rest of the piece lived up to its promise. Two excerpts capture the tone accurately enough.

Just as liberal feminists are frequently content with a minimal agenda of legal and social equality for women and 'pro-choice', so liberal (and even some socialist) mathematicians are often content to work within the hegemonic Zermelo–Fraenkel framework (which, reflecting its nineteenth-century liberal origins, already incorporates the axiom of equality) supplemented only by the axiom of choice.

It has thus become increasingly apparent that physical 'reality', no less than social 'reality', is at bottom a social and linguistic construct; that scientific`knowledge', far from being objective, reflects and encodes the dominant ideologies and power relations of the culture that produced it; that the truth claims of science are inherently theory-laden and self-referential; and consequently, that the discourse of the scientific community, for all its undeniable value, cannot assert a privileged epistemological status with respect to counter-hegemonic narratives emanating from dissident or marginalized communities.

The sequel to this mischievous excursion into radical physics is by now is well known - Social Text passed these ravings off without demur, and Sokal's practical joke, outed in Lingua Franca three weeks later, became a global celebre: headlining in the Washington Post and dominating the centre spread of Le Monde for weeks as the likes of Derrida contended huffily with their opponents for the soul of the academy. The die had been cast but the problems with any rebuttal were self-evident. There were after all no shortage of theorists Social Text had welcomed into its bosom who reduced physical reality to a trick of grammar, and after some limp throat clearing ad hominem (Sokal had behaved unethically, and he had clearly changed his mind) the editors were forced to admit their worldview was beyond parody; remarking haughtily that ‘the article's status as spoof in no way affected its substantiality or our interest in the piece itself as a symptomatic document’.

That, needless to say, was Sokal's point and it set a high bar for much of the irony free hauteur that was to come his way. Responding to the implied criticisms of the Arabesque prose employed by so many of these postmodern heavyweights most of the anti-Sokalites were keen to shift the focus on to the stupidity of the ordinary reader. Understanding critical theory after all, as Judith Butler tutted to a sympathetic audience in the New York Times, 'presupposed the collapse and invalidation of precisely that universe of discourse and behavior into which you want to translate it', and in exposing the reactionary potential of clear English she could lean on the authority of no less an authority than Frederic Jameson whose stilted post Marxist odysseys, bristling with invective against the ‘repressive clarity’ of clear English, are generally regarded as triumphs of postmodern prose. 'Why', as the great man sniffed to other critics, 'should anyone confronted with the products of a higher mind assume its insights could be laid out with all the leisurely elegance of a coffee-table magazine', an assumption they ‘would never make in the area of nuclear physics, linguistics, symbolic logic, or urbanism’[1] Quite.

Much of this has undoubted comedy value and the Sokal hoax spawned something of a cottage industry devoted to mining these deep seams of humourlessness: Dennis Dutton's sterling Annual Bad Writing contest in particular giving the oxygen of publicity to works which might otherwise have languished in unread obscurity, but few things have done more to debase intellectual and cultural life than the honoured place given to deliberate obscurity especially where its labored syntax is the thin rationalization of a parasitic social existence

As Jameson must have known his analogy with physics was spectacularly misplaced - the language of physics is complex because the objective and very real world of atomic particles requires nothing less, the surface grammar of postmodernism by contrast runs amok precisely because it is so detached from any concrete social purpose (it is telling that the word play has such a ubiquitous place in the postmodern vocabulary). In France where the cachet of the public intellectual still carries weight, these fads soured quickly, and its most influential voices - Glucksman, Kouchner, Bernard Henri Levi, Pascal Bruckner (the Jewish provenance is striking) have moved in a broadly neoconservative direction; on Ivy League campuses where a senilised culture of sixties bohemian trendiness is de rigeour, the appetite for these vacuous solipsisms is limitless, particularly when they can be cashed in for tenure. The convenience of all this for the idle rich, freed up from the civic minimum of Auden’s long and boring meetings for a lifetime of symbolic transgressions scarcely needs mentioning and it is easy to see how the main threads of deconstructionism with its relentless drive to drag the sublime into the dust would appeal to a talentless lumpenintelligentsia. When 'meaning is fascism' the mediocre have a lot of places to hide, and sometimes this triumphant Newspeak masks something more sinister than modest talents.

Postmodernists are generally reticent in applying their strategy of genealogical subversion to their own ideas and given the degenerate thoughts and commitments that can turn up, this reticence is well advised. Most of the postmodern lexicon is a series of badly written footnotes to Heidegger, the court philosopher of the Third Reich, whose dissimulating retreat into an impenetrable fog of wordplay (in his twilight years he courted Derrida as a worthy protégé), and gnomic sub-Nietzschean aphorisms was to be emulated by many other compromised intellectuals, particularly in France where an inglorious German occupation left its most agile minds groping for alibis. This was the era of bad faith lampooned by Sartre, in which men who might have done better were moved by a desperate inner need to bury the implications of freedom in grand ideological gestures or (same spirit different gifts) the navel gazing narcissism which was its natural accompaniment. This was the heyday of a convoluted structuralism when Parisian intellectuals erected a negation of conscience into a system of philosophy but even as it ostensibly aspired to science its characteristic literary productions betrayed all those elements of anguished special pleading.

Writing in his preface to the mammoth The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II the great Annales historian Ferdinand Braudel confessed that its crushingly determinist method was a 'direct existential response to the tragic times I was passing through ....All those occurrences which poured in upon us from the radio and the newspapers of our enemies, or even the news from London which our clandestine receivers gave us - I had to outdistance, reject, deny them. Down with occurrences especially the vexing ones! I had to believe that history, destiny, was written at a much more profound level.

Written whilst interned as a prisoner of war, the work with its disappearance of great men, and triumph of impersonal destiny is the eloquent address of a defeated nation, and this decadence reached a particularly high pitch with Paul de Man whose grimly anti-humanist contributions to literary theory laid the foundations of the deconstructionist craze which swept American faculties in the 80s. As anyone who has grappled with this dense cliché ridden genre will confirm, generating any substantive insights from the word salad is a hazardous business but scratch the surface of its laboured prose and it is not too difficult to find a coherence of purpose. Compare if you will these two soliloquies from de Man, the first an uncharacteristically legible passage written in 1941 for the pro-Nazi rag Soire at a time when his youthful idealism had not been tamed by academic careerism, and the second penned at the height of de Man’s liveried tenure.

We could not have much hope for the future of our civilization if it had let itself be invaded, without resistance, by a foreign force. In keeping its originality and its character intact, despite Semitic interference in all aspects of European life, our civilization has shown that its fundamental nature is healthy. What’s more, one can thus see that a solution to the Jewish problem that would lead to the creation of a Jewish colony isolated from Europe would not have, for the literary life of the West, regrettable consequences. It would lose, in all, some personalities of mediocre worth and would continue, as in the past, to develop ac­cording to its higher laws of evolution

*    *    * 

Like the aesthetic act, moral systems are wasteful in that they acquire to spend. Moral systems are by their very nature destructive. They are unserious in that they are liable to change, and in order to certify themselves are forced to travel to their limit expending energy value on their way. Upon arriving at their limit moral systems decay and become stagnant. Therefore history is not continuous, but a discrete system in that there must be a rejection of the past in orders to invent the validity of the different present.

Reading the first, you can certainly see why De Man would want to believe the second. In the aftermath of Ortwin de Graef’s revelations, it would take a decidedly unworldly mind not to see a dialectical relationship between de Man’s wartime journalism and his later preoccupation with semantic undecidability - the latter effusions, looking increasingly like those exhausted idioms Orwell warned us to be on guard against, when confronted with intellectuals who lack ‘moral effort’. American intellectuals, perish the thought, are not, like de Man, Nazi fellow travellers, with a past to obscure but the ease with which such an intrinsically amoral and cynical credo could be passed off as high culture highlights just how profound the gulf in America is between its intellectuals and its citizens. As Eric Hoffer noted, no developed country afforded a lesser status to its men of letters. The embarrassment felt by Henry and William James at being the sons of a professor rather than a wealthy businessman would have been inconceivable in Europe, and the accompanying ressentiment against bourgeoisie values found a ready outlet in the fin de siècle Marxism which leached into educated minds in the 30's and fermented into the counter-culture of the sixties.

As Alan Bloom noted in that timeless classic The Closing of the American Mind, American universities are adept at producing sensitive illiterates but the conspicuous relativism which comes with it does not lend itself to the fantasy pose of detached irony Rorty imagines a postmodern philosopher king can ascend to after a heavy meal of continental sophistication. Shallow beliefs are after all usually intensely held, and if we are familiar enough with this psychology in the minds of slow witted religious fundamentalists, it is as well to note its prevalence amongst the over-educated.  In the absence of any real objects in the soul for moral dedication, all that remains is the ersatz virtue of noisy commitment and everything in the mental hygiene of the modern intellectual has prepared him for this abdication of reason – an homage to Nietzsche leaving them with little but a penchant for violent solutions and all the taints such a mind must inevitably acquire. One of the most remarkable symptoms of this resurgent irrationalism is the influence of a bona fide Nazi philosopher like Carl Schmitt on the modern Left which would not haves surprised anyone familiar with the political psychology of the early twentieth century. For renegade Bolsheviks and anti-Semitic anarchists like Proudhon the difference between extreme Left and Right counted for less than the shared antipathy to bourgeois civilization and the common spiritual root is evident in an aesthetic of violence which was as influential on the hard left as the paramilitary right. George Sorel’s seminal work Reflections on Violence exerted a huge influence on George Lukacs and provided a gateway for similarly sadistic minds who were able to indulge their morbid obsession with blood red tides in Marxist code. In the normal run of things, this playing of the man – notoriously easy to do with radical intellectuals driven by a hatred of people towards a love of humanity – is normally an obnoxious exercise but when one is confronted with the tattered remnants of Marxism and all the evidence of its continuing charm few other options present themselves. When a theory fails so abjectly as a prophecy and ethics the appeal has to be located psychologically.

As Conrad noted, ‘the way of even the most justified revolutions is prepared by personal impulses disguised into creeds’. Scratch the surface of Marxism and a substructure of nihilism floods out – consumed with an obsessively violent imagery which Lenin distilled with particular fervor (it should be remembered that Lenin’s What is to be done? is a conscious homage to the Russian apostle of anarchist terrorism, Cherneshevsky) and which Lukacs put into practice in Bela Kun’s Red Republic. This ultimately is what non-vulgar Marxism, or what Alan Bloom more tellingly referred to as the Nietzscheanisation of the Left, in large part amounts to,  and it belies the oft repeated schism played up between Marxism and postmodernism. Most of the central categories of the latter – the death of the author, its primitive disenchantment with technology, and plethora of code-Freudian and linguistic speculations are second hand Frankfurt School deviations and enlist the same nihilistic purpose Lukacs appealed to when he asked who could save us from western civilization. For all the suggestions of high German seriousness, the end result of this vapouring – a suitably Marxised and promiscuous cult of the noble savage helped along by the latest psychedelic aids, was calculated to bring out all the worst instincts of campus juvenilia.

 

[1] For one admirer ‘the intricacies of Jameson’s sentences are a sign not only of the difficulties of the problems he analyzes but also of the seriousness of his approach. His technical prose bears witness that cultural theory . . . is as valid as those “other disciplines.” Absolutely.

 

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The author is a low ranking and over-credentialled functionary of the British welfare state.


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