Saturday, February 7, 2015

Nonsense and Postmodernist Writing

My condemnation of Postmodernism seems to have provoked passionate defences of it in the comments section.

Just to clarify things: no, I do not think that all or 100% of Postmodernist writing is senseless or literally nonsense.

I think most Postmodernist writing can be classified into these categories:
(1) writing that is senseless or nonsense in the way that the proposition “Colourless green ideas sleep furiously” (famously invented by Chomsky) is grammatically correct but semantically nonsensical. Perhaps 10–40% of any given Postmodernist writing takes this form, from my own (quite considerable) experience of reading it.

(2) writing that does have sense and is cognitively meaningful, but is so wrong that it is bizarrely and obviously false. Maybe 10%–30% is like this.

(3) writing that has sense and is cognitively meaningful but which is just trivially true and of little intellectual merit. Again maybe 10%–30% is like this.

(4) finally, writing that has sense and is cognitively meaningful, and even contains important intellectual ideas, but these ideas are well known in the history of philosophy and Postmodernist theories simply do not follow from them. Maybe 10–20% is like this.
On (1), it should be perfectly evident that one can find the most appalling examples of this in most Poststructuralist/Postmodernist works. Just look through works of Jacques Lacan, Jacques Derrida, Félix Guattari or Julia Kristeva.

Here are some examples:
“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.” (Félix Guattari, quoted in Sokal and Bricmont 1999: 156–157).

“In the first place, singularities-events correspond to heterogeneous series which are organized into a system which is neither stable nor unstable, but rather ‘metastable’, endowed with a potential energy wherein the differences between series are distributed ... In the second place, singularities possess a process of auto-unification, always mobile and displaced to the extent that a paradoxical element traverses the series and makes them resonate, enveloping the corresponding singular points in a single aleatory point and all the emissions, all dice throws, in a single cast.” (Gilles Deleuze, quoted in Sokal and Bricmont 1999: 155–156).
Many intelligent, well-educated speakers of English have read through the passages. Scientists who have a high-level understanding of the scientific concepts used have read through them (see Sokal and Bricmont 1999: 154–157). We can’t see any coherent meaning here. Nor is the complaint new: around twenty years ago Roger Scruton (1994: 484) dismissed much Postmodernist writing as “pretentious gobbledegook.” He charged Postmodernists with mostly saying nothing at all but dressing it up as something (Scruton 1994: 484–485).

The statements above are just as much gibberish as the statement “Colourless green ideas sleep furiously” is gibberish.

Want an example of (2) above?

Here is a Postmodernist follower of Luce Irigaray describing her views on mechanics:
“The privileging of solid over fluid mechanics, and indeed the inability of science to deal with turbulent flow at all, she attributes to the association of fluidity with femininity. Whereas men have sex organs that protrude and become rigid, women have openings that leak menstrual blood and vaginal fluids ... From this perspective it is no wonder that science has not been able to arrive at a successful model for turbulence. The problem of turbulent flow cannot be solved because the conceptions of fluids (and of women) have been formulated so as necessarily to leave unarticulated remainders.” (quoted in Sokal and Bricmont 1999: 101).
The sentences here are cognitively meaningful: they are not mere gibberish as in the ones above, even if the meanings of some words or phrases (“privileging” and “unarticulated remainders”) are not wholly clear.

But the cognitive content is absurd. What it is arguing is absurd. Many would say it is bizarrely, stupidly and insanely absurd and wrong. And they would be right.

Finally, care to hear another example of (2) above? You need look no further than Slavoj Žižek, the current idol of those people on the Left who have ceased to think.

Maybe you can recognise this as nonsense, but think it is amusing or entertaining. Well, so is watching a trained seal clap and do tricks for fish treats.

But at least everyone knows the poor seal has nothing of any interest to say about intellectual matters that concern thinking human beings.

Scruton, Roger. 1994. “Upon Nothing,” Philosophical Investigations 17.3: 481–506.

Sokal, Alan and Jean Bricmont. 1999. Intellectual Impostures: Postmodern Philosophers’ Abuse of Science. Profile, London.


  1. Great series! I loved Sokol's book, and it's always good to see someone in the academic world calling bullshit "bullshit". I still remember my response to postmodernism from a friend who was taking a course in French literature—"This is staring into the abyss!"

  2. Postmodern philosophers are too busy posturing in front of their mirrors to do any thinking.

  3. Yeah, you kind of miss the point and those things are clearly jokes or by charlatans, but it's not all bullshit anymore than any other philosophical concept. At least it's a fundamentally interesting set of concepts that dominate our understanding of modern life. It's ultimately all about signs, signifiers, ideas and perception. What you seem to be arguing about doesn't really match up with that.

    You also conflate the worst with the best. Which is like saying Andrew Wakefield and those wierd quantum crystal people make all science bad It's about philosophy, language and ideas. If they are talking about anything else ignore them.

    Of the people you mention Derrida is the only notable one and you don't quote him

    Saying that some of the best of them from a literary theory stand point do abuse complex language. Or at least their translators do. But there are people who can summise their

    Saying that Roland Barthes is always very readable.

    There are like 5 or 6 postmodern theorists (they usually don't use that moniker) worth reading and a hell of a lot more postmodern fiction (which will give you a better idea of it all).

    Give Roland Barthes or Jean Baudrillard a read.

    1. First of all, I have read a lot of them. I have read Roland Barthes and enough of Jean Baudrillard to recognise B.S. when I see it.

      "Of the people you mention Derrida is the only notable one and you don't quote him"

      Also, I have read Derrida: I regard his writings as filled with utter nonsense, utter illogic (saying one thing and then immediately saying he didn't really mean that), and absurd theories like logocentrism.

      It is also well known that Derrida was a wretched and ignorant philosopher of language: he knew virtually nothing of modern analytic philosophy of language and most of his ideas on language were taken from Ferdinand de Saussaure.

  4. Hello LK,
    I share some of your discontent with postmodernism, but not all.
    Much of analytic philosophy is so abstruse and hermetically sealed that it too becomes an exercise in obscurantism. Where the syle of thought diminishes content.
    By the way, have you read Ernest Gellner's 'Postmodernism, Reason and Religion'?

    1. "Much of analytic philosophy is so abstruse and hermetically sealed that it too becomes an exercise in obscurantism."

      I strongly disagree.

      Most analytic philosophy is a model of clear language and clarity as compared with Postmodernist twaddle.

      Once you learn the concepts (which do have clear definitions), the difficulty in, say, reading an analytic work on epistemology mostly disappears.

      Contrast this with postmodernism, where postmodernists regularly invent words they never properly define, or abuse words in a way contrary to their accepted meanings, or regularly violate the law of contradiction. More than a few postmodernists take over the utter quackery of Freudian psychoanalysis (e.g., Lacan and Félix Guattari).

      And, no, I have not read Ernest Gellner's 'Postmodernism, Reason and Religion', to answer your question.

  5. Excellent. It's been a while since I read that Sokal book. I had forgotten the fluid dynamics twaddle.

    I would say it's because the fluid mechanical equations are more difficult not because penises get hard. But then Gene Callahan could argue the the equations are more difficult *because* penises get hard, so perhaps I am wrong.