Obscurantism in the service of transformation

The paper, Ancient Admixture in Human History, was peculiar as far as genetics publications go in that it foregrounds particular abstruse statistical methods developed due to the stimulus of genome-wide variation data. The surfeit of genomic data has resulted in the emergence of many subtle and almost impenetrable works laced with formalisms which daunt most biologists. But given time and effort, these newer methods relying upon greater analytic sophistication are decipherable.

To illustrate what I’m talking about, consider Mathematical Models of Social Evolution. This is a book with a fair amount of formality, but the topic, culture, social change, are often considerations which we ruminate upon verbally.

I open up to page 238 (I literally opened a random page).

…According to this approximation, the altruistic gene will increase whenever

    \[ \frac{g}{c} > \frac{2n}{\Omega} \]

In intrademic models in which groups are formed at random, \Omega = 1. In contrast, if groups were made up of full-sibs, \Omega = 2n. This provides a natural scale on which to judge the effectiveness of interdemic selection. If \Omega is near one, interdemic group selection is no more effective than intrademic group selection with random group formation, which is to say, it cannot lead to the evolution of strong altruism. If \Omega is large, then itnerdemic group selection is effective.

On first blush, the passage can seem impenetrable. But most of the people reading this are probably not intimidated by mathematical formalism. Many of you will know what intrademic and interdemic selection are. Some of you who are more numerically oriented may test some values to develop an intuition. The point is that the formalism is not there to intimidate. It is meant to illuminate. It is there so individuals thinking on the same problem can have a crisp currency with which they can exchange ideas.

Another major reason that this sort of formalism exists is that it’s clear when you think someone is wrong. A problem with many verbal arguments is that they are unspecified or vague in such a way that you’re not even sure if you disagree or agree with your interlocutor. The point is to get somewhere. Coherency. Contingency. And cumulativeness.

Applying a mathematical theory derived from evolutionary biology to cultural and social change strikes many people as strange. But there’s a method to this madness. Theory with data can give birth to a better understanding of the processes which define our world. A description of reality.

In contrast, let me quote Noam Chomsky:

“What you’re referring to is what’s called “theory.” And when I said I’m not interested in theory, what I meant is, I’m not interested in posturing–using fancy terms like polysyllables and pretending you have a theory when you have no theory whatsoever. So there’s no theory in any of this stuff, not in the sense of theory that anyone is familiar with in the sciences or any other serious field. Try to find in all of the work you mentioned some principles from which you can deduce conclusions, empirically testable propositions where it all goes beyond the level of something you can explain in five minutes to a twelve-year-old. See if you can find that when the fancy words are decoded. I can’t. So I’m not interested in that kind of posturing. Žižek is an extreme example of it. I don’t see anything to what he’s saying. Jacques Lacan I actually knew. I kind of liked him. We had meetings every once in awhile. But quite frankly I thought he was a total charlatan. He was just posturing for the television cameras in the way many Paris intellectuals do. Why this is influential, I haven’t the slightest idea. I don’t see anything there that should be influential.”

Now let me open up the Alan Bass translation of Jacques Derrida’s Writing and Difference. From the bottom of page 91:

Therefore, there is a soliloquy of reason and a solitude of light. Incapable of respecting the Being and meaning of the other, phenomenology and ontology would be philosophies of violence. Through them, the entire philosophical tradition, in its meaning and at bottom, would make common cause with oppression and with the totalitarianism of the same. The ancient clandestine friendship between light and power, the ancient complicity between theoretically objective and technico-political possession….

Obviously, I can’t read French. But if I was reading a scientific textbook a translation wouldn’t matter. To be entirely frank when I read these sorts of works in the deconstructionist tradition I feel like I’m reading mantras, not analyses. Declarations of gurus and rabbis. Great ones to emulate.

These authors often like to “play” with language, and engage in a semantic game and lead you on a verbal wild goose chase. Some of them are also better with a turn of phrase and able to generate luxurious prose which pulls you along in an almost novelistic fashion. But reading a second time, often I have no more idea what’s really being said than I did on the first inspection.

Twenty years ago this was an academic discussion. I had long believed that some of my friends’ fixations with linguistic analysis and redefinition as the summum bonum of any intellectual were silly and useless, but I didn’t think they’d have a direct impact. No longer. This stuff matters. My friends are now tenured professors.

From Judith Butler’s 1988’s Performative Acts and Gender Constitution: An Essay in Phenomenology and Feminist Theory, in Theater Journal:

When Beauvoir claims that ‘woman’ is a historical idea and not a natural fact, she clearly underscores the distinction between sex, as biological facticity, and gender, as the cultural interpretation or signification of that facticity. To be female is, according to that distinction, a facticity which has no meaning, but to be a woman is to have become a woman, to compel the body to conform to an historical idea of ‘woman,’ to induce the body to become a cultural sign, to materialize oneself in obedience to an historically delimited possibility, and to do this as a sustained and repeated corporeal project….

Strip away the lexical obfuscation, but much of this is now taught in biology courses. Whether you agree with it or not is beside the point. This stuff is not just academic.

Addendum: I really like to know things. I don’t read much fiction. That’s why some of the “scholarship” in tradition personified by Derrida, Butler, and yes, even Michel Foucault, infuriate me. They are the enemies of knowledge, but the potentates of pronouncement.


8 thoughts on “Obscurantism in the service of transformation

  1. A snarky take*:
    Those who can, do.
    Those who cannot, teach.
    Those who cannot even understand do (& teach) cultural studies.**

    *Especially snarky since I have never bothered at all to try to understand what is being discussed here – too far from anything that I could conceivably be interested in. But that attitude rarely stops anyone else, so why me, or, better yet, “What, me worry?”

    **Alternative 3rd line: Those who suffer from Dunning-Kruger syndrome do (& teach) cultural studies.

  2. “Academic Grievance Studies and the Corruption of Scholarship” by Helen Pluckrose, James A. Lindsay and Peter Boghossian on October 2, 2018

    “Something has gone wrong in the university—especially in certain fields within the humanities. Scholarship based less upon finding truth and more upon attending to social grievances has become firmly established, if not fully dominant, within these fields, and their scholars increasingly bully students, administrators, and other departments into adhering to their worldview. This worldview is not scientific, and it is not rigorous. For many, this problem has been growing increasingly obvious, but strong evidence has been lacking. For this reason, the three of us just spent a year working inside the scholarship we see as an intrinsic part of this problem.

    “We spent that time writing academic papers and publishing them in respected peer-reviewed journals associated with fields of scholarship loosely known as “cultural studies” or “identity studies” (for example, gender studies) or “critical theory” because it is rooted in that postmodern brand of “theory” which arose in the late sixties. As a result of this work, we have come to call these fields “grievance studies” in shorthand because of their common goal of problematizing aspects of culture in minute detail in order to attempt diagnoses of power imbalances and oppression rooted in identity.

    We undertook this project to study, understand, and expose the reality of grievance studies, which is corrupting academic research. Because open, good-faith conversation around topics of identity such as gender, race, and sexuality (and the scholarship that works with them) is nearly impossible, our aim has been to reboot these conversations. We hope this will give people—especially those who believe in liberalism, progress, modernity, open inquiry, and social justice—a clear reason to look at the identitarian madness coming out of the academic and activist left and say, “No, I will not go along with that. You do not speak for me.”

    “This document is a first look at our project and an initial attempt to grapple with what we’re learning and what it means.”

  3. The passage in Butler is obviously something, that you can explain a twelve-year-old in 5 minutes. I do not find it in the least impenetrable. To be frank, the truth of this passage is self-evident.

    The passage in Derrida, well, contains some statements and some implications. If the definitions of the terms Reason, Soliloquy, Light, Solitude, Meaning, The Other, Philosophy Of Violence, Power, Complicity, etc. had been well-defined and their properties introduced in a comprehensible manner, I see no reason why this passage would not be easily comprehensible. I suspect they are at least somewhat defined. Unless there is a circularity in the definitions of the terms, I see no reason not to assume that the text is a simple chain of deductions.

    The question is therefore whether something else as -or something more subtle- than “From Plato to Nato” is said.

    The main thing that bugs me is “clandestine” (the emperors were depicted with a corona on their coins).

  4. The more recent dabblers in the postmodern tradition are at least more open about their goals. Here’s Wendy Chun asking whether or not “the drive to know” is really all that good of a thing . . .

    “To what extent is the desire to map not contrary to capitalism but rather integral to its current form, especially since it is through our mappings that we ourselves are mapped? That is, to what extent is our historically novel position not our ignorance and powerlessness, but rather our determination and our drive to know?”

  5. I’ve always had myself a good little snicker when I remember some wag saying, “Post-modernism is the intellectual equivalent of nervous laughter”.

    Yet I very much doubt that Chomsky has, even in his dotage, donned the vestments of Supply-Sideianity.

  6. I’ve done a fair amount of translation from French to English, not professionally or at a high level, just for wikipedia purposes. I’ve found that a direct translation often looks pretentious to Anglophone eyes. French writers typically use longer sentences than we would in English, so you end up with a ton of clauses and subclauses if you don’t break them up in the translation. Translators may also use English cognates of the original French words when they’re available. Those Latinate words may sound elevated in English where they wouldn’t in the original.

    I can’t speak to that translation of Derrida without looking at the original (which I will leave to someone with more time and patience!), but in general I think it’s fair to cut French authors some slack for sounding a little pretentious in English translation.

  7. Simon: Okay. No. See below:

    “Now, as Open Culture notes, Foucault admitted to his friend John Searle that he intentionally complicated his writings to appease his French audience. Searle claims Foucault told him: “In France, you gotta have ten percent incomprehensible, otherwise people won’t think it’s deep–they won’t think you’re a profound thinker.” When Searle later asked Pierre Bourdieu if he thought this was true, Bourdieu insisted it was much worse than ten percent. You can listen to Searle’s full comments below.”


    However, this could all be Fake News.

    Sulla will sort it out!


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