Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Bad writing

I bookmarked this long enough ago that I can't remember where I saw it, but in 1999, Judith Butler wrote a piece in the New York Times defending the sort of language used by postmodernists or, as they prefer to think of themselves, proponents of "critical theory".

It's an interesting piece, in the way that a tropical disease is interesting to a skin specialist. It begins:

In the last few years, a small, culturally conservative academic journal has gained public attention by showcasing difficult sentences written by intellectuals in the academy. The journal, Philosophy and Literature, has offered itself as the arbiter of good prose and accused some of us of bad writing by awarding us ''prizes.'' (I'm still waiting for my check!)

The targets, however, have been restricted to scholars on the left whose work focuses on topics like sexuality, race, nationalism and the workings of capitalism -- a point the news media ignored. Still, the whole exercise hints at a serious question about the relation of language and politics: why are some of the most trenchant social criticisms often expressed through difficult and demanding language?
I don't think, incidentally, that the fact this kind of language is employed exclusively by the hard left has escaped the attention of its critics. But let's not get sidetracked.

Butler argues that she and her colleagues employ a sort of re-made language designed to:
... question common sense, interrogate its tacit presumptions and provoke new ways of looking at a familiar world.
This is because:
If common sense sometimes preserves the social status quo, and that status quo sometimes treats unjust social hierarchies as natural, it makes good sense on such occasions to find ways of challenging common sense. Language that takes up this challenge can help point the way to a more socially just world. The contemporary tradition of critical theory in the academy, derived in part from the Frankfurt School of German anti-fascist philosophers and social critics, has shown how language plays an important role in shaping and altering our common or ''natural'' understanding of social and political realities.
She then goes on:
The philosopher Theodor W. Adorno, who maintained that nothing radical could come of common sense, wrote sentences that made his readers pause and reflect on the power of language to shape the world. A sentence of his such as ''Man is the ideology of dehumanization'' is hardly transparent in its meaning. Adorno maintained that the way the word ''man'' was used by some of his contemporaries was dehumanizing.

Taken out of context, the sentence may seem vainly paradoxical. But it becomes clear when we recognize that in Adorno's time the word ''man'' was used by humanists to regard the individual in isolation from his or her social context. For Adorno, to be deprived of one's social context was precisely to suffer dehumanization. Thus, ''man'' is the ideology of dehumanization.
... demonstrating, thereby, that it is entirely possible to rephrase the sorts of ideas that get hidden in this language in a way that is entirely clear and conveys directly their meaning without ambiguity. It manages to do this without perpetuating the kinds of hegemonies* it sets out to criticise.

Intelligibility is not the enemy of reform and Ms Butler has demonstrated this in a piece that sets out to argue the opposite.

Marcuse is quoted (I'm embarrassed to admit I quite like some of his stuff, but not this bit) as follows:
Understanding what the critical intellectual has to say, Marcuse goes on, ''presupposes the collapse and invalidation of precisely that universe of discourse and behavior into which you want to translate it.''
But this does not seem to be a presumption Ms Butler shares in practice, or else she would not have been writing, more or less intelligibly, in the New York Times - and nor does any other experience suggest it contains an ounce of truth. Anything built entirely on this invalid presumption will be equally invalid - Ms Butler's essay, for example.

I therefore recommend her piece most highly. It is always a pleasure to read a self-refuting argument.

UPDATE: One further point. Logical fallacies are something of a trademark of critical theory. One well known such fallacy is that of "begging the question":
Also Known as: Circular Reasoning, Reasoning in a Circle, Petitio Principii.
Description of Begging the Question

Begging the Question is a fallacy in which the premises include the claim that the conclusion is true or (directly or indirectly) assume that the conclusion is true. This sort of "reasoning" typically has the following form.

1. Premises in which the truth of the conclusion is claimed or the truth of the conclusion is assumed (either directly or indirectly).
2. Claim C (the conclusion) is true.

This sort of "reasoning" is fallacious because simply assuming that the conclusion is true (directly or indirectly) in the premises does not constitute evidence for that conclusion. Obviously, simply assuming a claim is true does not serve as evidence for that claim. This is especially clear in particularly blatant cases: "X is true. The evidence for this claim is that X is true."

Some cases of question begging are fairly blatant, while others can be extremely subtle.
Butler argues, channelling Marcuse, that her use of language "presupposes the collapse and invalidation of precisely that universe of discourse and behavior" the rest of us inhabit. But has this univese collapsed and become invalid? The case is not made, indeed no attempt is made to make it.

Butler's justification for her use of language during her day job is therefore a claim that even the very use of language chosen by critical theorists contains a logical fallacy, and this even before they attempt to make any actual (often fallacious in other terms) arguments.

This is a sort of meta-fallacy - a mechanism for wrapping fallacious arguments in a higher level fallacy, and as such possesses a distinct, if strange, grandeur.

*Use of the word "hegemony" is obligatory in this context. I can only apologise for not deploying it more than once.


Trooper Thompson said...

What's deconstructionist for 'bollocks'?

Give me a straight-thinker who knows what he wants to say, and wants you to understand any day over these pretentious tossers, who do nothing but undermine language by covertly subverting the agreed definitions of words, resulting in confusion and meaninglessness.

The Happy Warrior said...

I had a lecturer who insisted I didn't want to leave university with common sense opinions "like Francis Fukuyama"; as it happens I'm rather keen on common sense.