Academics have only their own bullshit to blame for cuts to arts and humanities courses. So says Nick Cohen in last Sunday’s Observer, concluding: “The willingness of too many academics to write badly has told their fellow citizens that they are not worth listening to or fighting for.”
This struck a chord with me, as someone who worshipped at the altar of Derrida and fellow post-structuralists in my final year at university, only to realise in later life that much of their obfuscation was far from meaningful. It’s hard to disagree with Cohen’s position when you tackle the worst examples of the genre, as in the Bad Writing Contest to which he links. I believe it was Derrida who suggested that meaning constantly evades the reader: it certainly hides itself pretty well in paragraphs like this:
A determination or an effect within a system which is no longer that of a presence but of a différance, a system that no longer tolerates the opposition of activity and passivity, nor that of cause and effect, or of indetermination and determination, etc., such that in designating consciousness as an effect or a determination, one continues – for strategic reasons that can be more or less lucidly deliberated and systematically calculated – to operate according to the lexicon of that which one is de-limiting.
And this is at the more comprehensible end of the genre. Incidentally that paragraph scores 42.9 on the Fog Index, one of Plain Text’s favourite readability measures. That’s so far off the scale it defies belief. (Decently readable business copy scores 12-18).
Surely a defining moment for this movement came when cheeky physics professor Alain Sokal had Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity published in the journal Social Text. While the journal interpreted it as a welcome rapprochement from the science community to its way of thinking, it was in fact a load of utter nonsense. A clever hoax designed to hoist the post-structuralists et al with their own petard.
Whether or not academic psychobabble has a direct link to the Conservative government’s plans to cut arts and humanities funding will no doubt be a matter of ferocious – and doubtless occasionally impenetrable – debate.
But perhaps it’s a terrible lesson to us all that you can only write so much nonsense before the bullshit bites back.