Thinkers like Adorno, Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze and Guattari are staples on modern humanities syllabuses, and they are the forefathers of many of the ideas that guide activists and “SJWs” today, reports The Charnel House.
One fantastic critical book called Fashionable Nonsense has been written on this topic. The writers focus largely on ridiculing the scientific pretensions of many critical theorists. Much of the book is devoted to finding instances where writers use words like “bi-univocal” or speak of quantum phenomena or modelling turbulent flows. The authors set out to prove that the French theorist did not actually know what they were talking about.
Richard Dawkins praised Fashionable Nonsense (released as Intellectual Impostors outside the U.S.) in a famous review and has launched a few of his own attacks on postmodernism, French theory and the obscurantist writing styles of thinkers like Deleuze and Guattari (most people who studied literature at university in the last 30 years had to labor through a number of those essays). Noam Chomsky has also had a go at the Paris set, saying that the elevation of that impenetrable prose style has “ominous implications” for the future of the Left.
Perhaps the most fascinating take on the French theorists and their damaging legacy has come from Camille Paglia. In an interview with Paris Like, Paglia said that post-structuralist ideas were not needed in frontier nations like America and Australia. Post-structuralism was only needed in France because of the “heavy burden” of high culture that needed to be shaken off, according to Paglia.
“Post-structuralism may have been needed in France, with its heavy burden of great high culture along with its Racinian constraints on language, but it was completely unnecessary in the U.S., where there has never been an oppressive high-culture establishment. Quite the opposite! America is the land of Hollywood, hamburgers, and fast cars. Derrida, Lacan, and Foucault had nothing to contribute to American criticism.”
What did Paglia mean when she said that French language has “Racinian constraints”?
She meant that the English language was revitalized in the renaissance by men like Shakespeare, who punned his heart out, invented words with aplomb, and made our heads spin with cascading Niagaras of poetry that were impossible to pin down in terms of their full meaning or emotional intent (while still managing to remain emotionally compelling).
French language and literature experienced less of a revitalization in the Renaissance. The most influential Renaissance dramatist in France was a man named Jean Racine, who was dismissed by Goethe as a writer of “courtly drama.” Racine remained popular in the centuries after he died but was seen as stale and totally beholden to the courtly establishment.
Meanings did not proliferate and tumble over one another in Racine’s work, the way they do in Shakespeare’s. Signifier/signified pairs were lined up neatly, as tight as rolled-up socks. Meanings and connotations could be mapped and analyzed with little effort, sealed as they were in the strict containers of yore.
So do you see what was happening? When you were reading the work of someone like Foucault or Adorno in an English translation, as part of your undergraduate humanities course, you were reading the work of somebody who was scrambling to liberate the French language from its constraints, even as they were writing.
In the original French, the writer would have been using puns, obscurantist tricks, twists and wild about-faces in an effort to shake off France’s oppressive Racinian tradition, like a dog twisting his body, shaking his head, then bolting for a few meters in an effort to shake off a blanket.
They had good reason to do that in France, because there had been no Shakespearean revitalization. The French theorists wrote in that convoluted, twisting style because they were trying to Shakespearize the French language in one fell swoop, as quickly as possible, and probably with only a fraction of Shakespeare’s talent, flair and emotional understanding.
There was also an element of vanity involved — Foucault once said to a friend that he intentionally complicated his work so that people in France would think he was a profound thinker, reports Critical-Theory. Noam Chomsky — no fan of critical theory — actually defended Foucault for this, saying that writing in that abstruse style is “such a deeply rooted part of the corrupt intellectual culture of Paris that [Foucault] fell into it pretty naturally.”
Now think about what happened next: they imported all that stuff to Western English departments, and people started to copy that style. What’s more, the style became even more convoluted and abstruse because so much is inevitably lost in translation (have you ever tried to translate a pun)?
Did you have a feeling, while you were reading all that Deleuze and Derrida, that the experience was heavy-going but weirdly unrewarding? You were right! The importation of that stuff has blunted the development of a generation of English students.
Camille Paglia has given talks mourning all the valuable class time that was lost when students were forced to decipher those “corkscrew bad translations.”
They’ve had to unlearn all this bad prose. They don’t know how to write! They don’t know how to write!
Richard Dawkins provided some excellent comments about the distinction between obscurantism and genuine depth in a piece for The Guardian that honored the anniversary of his book, The Selfish Gene.
“Dawkins’s Law of Conservation of Obscurity states that obscurantism in a subject expands to fill the vacuum of its intrinsic simplicity. Academics sometimes language up their writing to conceal how little they have to offer. Francophoneyism – postmodern metatwaddle – is a smokescreen designed, possibly not deliberately, to make shallow authors seem profound. Much of science, by contrast, is genuinely deep, especially the physics of the very small and very large: tough for brains evolved to cope with medium-sized objects moving through the African savannah at well below the speed of light.”
Dawkins paints a picture of French critical theorists scrambling to give their writing a sheen of respectability by filling it with jargon and meaningless passages that are supposed to sound physics-y (Dawkins tells us there is a term for this: physics envy).
Dawkins expressed more of his thoughts about postmodernism in his piece Postmodernism Disrobed. Dawkins quotes a passage from Guattari, an example of what he calls an “intellectual impostor.”
“We can clearly see that there is no bi-univocal correspondence between linear signifying links or archi-writing, depending on the author, and this multireferential, multi-dimensional machinic catalysis. The symmetry of scale, the transversality, the pathic non-discursive character of their expansion: all these dimensions remove us from the logic of the excluded middle and reinforce us in our dismissal of the ontological binarism we criticised previously.”
Dawkins acknowledges that the postmodernists, post-structuralists and French theorists were interested in playing word games and playing jokes on the readers. The goal was to create new and explosive Shakespeare-ish universes of proliferating meaning, and to complicate or shatter those Signifier/Signified pairs.
Dawkins wonders, then, why the critical theorists are so “stupefyingly boring” to read.
“Perhaps, but one is then left wondering why their writings are so stupefyingly boring. Shouldn’t games at least be entertaining, not po-faced, solemn and pretentious?”
Perhaps a linguistic revitalization is best staged (pardon the pun) in a realm like the popular theater of Shakespeare’s time — drama was a better place for meanings to bubble, brew and explode out of those Signifier/Signified straitjackets, because the action on the stage was so emotionally compelling.
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