Common replacements for intelligent thought in the social sciences and humanities

How to make your ideas sound intimidating, complex, impressive, and fashionable–or, how to talk in the humanities

1. Find a more vague way to express your idea.

2. Use faux-technical language

— inventing jargon
–borrowing technical language from another field
–changing the grammatical form of familiar words
–adding neo- or post- to make familiar words unfamiliar
–employ the adjective form of proper names
–opt for the less familiar way to express a concept

3. Don’t bother defining terms (or define them but in an unclear fashion).

4. Layer enough assumed definitions and understandings in each sentence that readers are forced to consent to your claims just to get through your sentences.

5. Use foreign language words gratuitously.

6. Employ non-sequiturs frequently.

7. Use exclusively abstract concepts and descriptive language with sufficient imprecision that no one could ever verify whether a proposition is correct or not.

8. Do not make falsifiable claims–vagueness is your friend.

9. Build straw-man arguments, then dismiss them as ridiculous.

10. Make exclusive use of abstractions without concrete examples or a clear referent.

11. In place of making claims, just ask questions: Does X have anything to do with Y? Could it be that W? What if R were not actually the case, but instead, P?

12. Make claims about findings or facts outside of your discipline, but don’t document them. Your readership will be impressed, whether the claims are true or not.

13. Discuss and explore the “true meaning” of words or concepts. Since there is no verifiable answer–words and concepts being a matter of convention and usage, not fact– you can fill pages endlessly.

14. Assert that “it’s more complicated” than the conventional understanding. Since all idealizations and abstractions will (by definition) contain exceptions, irregularities, contradictions, and anomalies, there will always be plenty to write about.

Reading trendy authors

Social sciences academe too often follows a logic of fashion rather than rational inquiry. The goal is to impress and intimidate–the best form of self-promotion–rather than to honestly discuss ideas, a purpose that doesn’t get you promoted.

When a given writer is fashionable, the common practice is to adopt the new jargon (Girardian, Lacanian, Derridian, and so on) for a decade or more, then move on to the next intellectual fashion.

Honest discussion is usually ruled out. You’re not supposed to evaluate an argument, define its terms, discuss under what conditions a thesis is valid. Often, there is no attempt to even establish what the thesis of an argument is, let alone decide under what conditions it holds, how it can be falsified, and whether it meets the test of evidence. Instead, one is expected produce creative verbage, as impressive-sounding as possible.

The following is an example of how trendy authors are discussed by established academics in a leading humanities journal. The example below, the opening of a featured book review, is pulled at random from one of the establishment humanities journals, Diacritics. It is a typical example, written by a well-established and respected humanities academic, reviewing another well-established academic. The piece is verbose, but as far as I can tell, the entire paragraph reduces to the idea: the book under review does not make much sense.

Here is the opening:

As many readers of this journal familiar with her earlier work will surmise, Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’s Critique of Postcolonial Reason is not easy to read. Yet reading is what the book is about, what it does, and what it teaches. The book, on more levels than one but beginning with its own accessibility, teaches how to read, otherwise. Indeed, this book is perhaps overreadable, if such a notion makes sense. I mean a form of readerliness based on multiplicity, both of (academic) levels and of lines of argumentation, subjects, and discourses. It can be read in a number of ways, none of which is adequate, all of which are enriching and useful for whatever area of specialization one is working in, as long as one is engaged in (thinking through) culture and the activity of analysis.

Some cut and paste  self-defense measures

Some teachers, when correcting essays, run across the same mistakes so consistently that they prepare in advance a series of pointers that the cut and paste into the comment section of the students’ papers.

Here is an equivalent list that I would offer to any first-year graduates about to take on the ever-evolving canon of trendy intellectuals.

1. Evidence please! If you don’t provide evidence for your claims, there is no reason to take them seriously. Evidence can be empirical or conceptual. But if you are just stringing together claims and assertions, you are asking to be dismissed.

2. Too vague. Presenting your ideas in a confusing, vague, or obscure manner does not make them more profound. We are all aware that a top way to make ideas irrefutable is to express them in a manner that is sufficiently vague.

If you want to be taken seriously, work on your writing until you can present your ideas so that a reasonably intelligent person can follow them.

Some of the most intelligent scientists and philosophers in the world, from Descartes to Einstein to Feynman, Plato to Hume to Russell and Wittgenstein were able to lucidly discuss the most complicated ideas in plain language. Not to do so marks poorly thought-out ideas, self-promotion, or sheer laziness, none of which are worth your reader’s time.

3. Unprovable claims. If your claims are not falsifiable–if there is no way to determine if they are correct or incorrect–then there is no reason to take them seriously.

4. Clunky or abstruse style. Writing in a way that sounds complicated is no substitute for having interesting ideas, true ideas, or deep ideas. Anyone can take a trivial idea and make it sound complicated.

5. Refusing to engage the opposition. Straw man arguments are the oldest trick in the book. If you don’t offer a reliable account of what you dismiss or criticize, there is no reason to take your argument seriously. If we should agree that X is false, we first have to understand what X means.

Some sample passages

1. Baudrillard:

We live in the mode of the referendum, and this is precisely because there are no more referentials. All signs and messages (which include “functional” objects as well as fashion features, televised information, polls or electoral consultations) present themselves to us in the question/answer format. The social system of communication has evolved from a complex syntactic structure of language to the probing of a binary signaling system: a perpetual test. […]

It may seem that the historical movement of capital has carried it from the open competition of the oligopoly to outright monopoly; that democracy has moved from the multiparty system to bipartisanism and finally to the single-party state. But this is not what is going on. The oligopoly, or contemporary diapoly, results from the monopoly’s tactical division in two. In all domains, diapoly is the highest stage of monopoly. [. . .] [E]very unitary system, if it wants to survive, has to evolve a binary system of regulation. This changes nothing in the essence of monopoly, power is only absolute if it knows how to diffract itself in equivalent variations; that is, if it knows how to redouble itself through doubling. This goes for brands of detergent as much as for “peaceful coexistence.” You need two superpowers to maintain a universe under control; a single empire collapses under its own weight. [. . .]

From the tiniest disjunctive unities (the question/answer particle) to the macroscopic level of systems of alternation that preside over the economy, politics, and global coexistence, the matrix does not vary: it is always 0/1, the binary scansion that affirms itself as the metastable or homoeostatic form of contemporary systems. It is the processual node of the simulations that dominate us. They can be organized as an unstable play of variation, or in polyvalent or tautological modes, without endangering this central principle of bipolarity: digitality is, indeed, the divine form of simulation. . . .

Why does the World Trade Center in New York City have two towers . . .?

2. A recent dissertation abstract:

No one has yet systematically researched the dialectics between knowledge practices in social context, and cultural uses of grammaticized epistemology in language. . . .  Members of this indigenous Western Amazonian community serendipitously juxtapose (1) a socially reified system of emergent productions, discourses, ideologies, and uses of knowledge (‘knowledge practices’), and (2) the XXXX language, whose arbitrary and independently motivated morphosyntactic features require speakers to index metapragmatic epistemological commentaries about information that they present in speech acts. XXXX grammar requires evidential inflections on most verbs, and the language has a split ergative case-marking system, which speakers can use in contexts of Amazonian perspectivism to index knowledge providers’ positions on an animacy hierarchy

3. Zizek:

In contrast to this Althusserian ethics of alienation in the symbolic ‘process without subject,’ we denote the ethics implied by Lacanian psychoanalysis as that of separation. The famous Lacanian motto not to give way on one’s desire is aimed at the fact that we must not obliterate the distance separating the Real from its symbolization: it is this surplus of the Real over every symbolization that functions as the object-cause of desire.

4. Derrida:

To tympanize–philosophy.

Being at the limit: these words do not yet form a proposition, and even less a discourse. But there is enough in them, provided that one plays upon it, to engender almost all the sentences in this book.

Does philosophy answer a need? How is it to be understood? Philosophy? The need?

[. . . two pages later:] We know that the membrane of the tympanum, a thin and transparent partition separating the auditory canal from the middle ear (the cavity), is stretched obliquely (loxos). Obliquely from above to below, from outside to inside, and from the back to the front. Therefore it is not perpendicular to the axis of the canal. One of the effects of this obliqueness is to increase the surface of impression and hence the capacity of vibration. It has been observed, particularly in birds, that precision of hearing is in direct proportion to the obliqueness of the tympanum. The tympanum squints.

Consequently, to luxate the philosophical ear, to set the loxos in the logos to work, is to avoid frontal and symmetrical protest, opposition in all the forms of anti-, or in any case to inscribe antism and overturning, domestic denegation, in an entirely other form of ambush, of lokhos, of textual maneuvers. [. . .]

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