Business bullshit has moved on, so why hasn't social theory bullshit changed since the 1990s?by Sam Leith / July 21, 2010 / Leave a comment
I had a funny experience the other day, while reading a book I’d been sent for review. I found myself feeling like an undergraduate again. This was a history book at the social theory end of things—and it wasn’t so much what it said as the way it said it that filled my mouth with the taste of soggy cake and lime tea.
It was such fun. I went through playing buzzword bingo. “Disruptive”—Bing! “Porous”—Bing! “Overdetermined”—Bing! “Complexly dialectical”—Bing! Bing! “Problematise”—Bing! “Subaltern”—Bing! “Liminal space”—Bing! Bong!
This was the sort of writer who prided himself on using “structure” and “privilege” as verbs (a friend who once reviewed a rather high-toned book about barbed wire told me that barbed wire “privileges the haptic”—which anyone who has sat on some will surely know).
I shan’t name the don in question: it seems unfair when he was only doing what his discipline expected. But it set me thinking about the way this language has survived, and the assumptions that underpin it. What struck me as odd was that the critical idiolect was exactly the same as when I was being taught critical theory as an undergraduate in the mid-1990s.
Events, in this book, didn’t just take place: they “enacted” or “dramatised” something. It bore the stamp of an intoxicating but dangerous intellectual habit: that of embracing wall-to-wall textuality by reading everything as a communicative act. Even a sex-crazed serial killer “performed significant cultural work.”
The history of this style of thinking has seen some high points: the exuberantly funny over-readings of Roland Barthes, and the barmy but brilliant work of Jesuit scholar Michel de Certeau, who argued that walking down the street in a wibbly-wobbly way or having bad handwriting could be subversive. But when the theorist is in deadly earnest… oy vey.
I was disappointed not to meet my old pal “interpellate,” though there were plenty of “subjects,” ie people. It made me wonder, too: has the whole laboured deconstructive pun thing had its day? You know: books called things like Mrs Danvers’s Cock: Re-Membering Manderley.
Another feature of this sort of discourse is the fussy pluralisation of singulars—”feminisms,” “colonialisms”—and the showy singular use of plural-sounding words, like “a poetics.”
One of the jewels in the crown of Alan Sokal’s famous spoof, when he tricked the journal Social Text into printing a nonsense paper, was calling it, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity.” This was nearly 15 years ago. Has theory bullshit not moved on at all?
Compare business bullshit. In 1996 it was all “blue-sky thinking” and “pushing the envelope”; now it’s “vertical silos” and “going forward.” Compare branding bullshit. Lower case letters at the beginnings of words and random diacritics were considered kind of cool back then. Now we’re way past that.
But theory bullshit? Judging by the book I was reviewing it is still near-on the same. And this suggests that the language of (near-invariably) “radical” transgression and disruption—the lingua franca of cultural theory—is, well, intensely conservative. Reading this book was like meeting a coelacanth.
There are two charges that can be levelled at me. The first is of anti-intellectualism. I am childishly ridiculing these terms because I don’t understand them. I am missing the force of the precise, yet necessarily unstable, networks of meaning that they generate. To this charge, I hold up my hands… the better to stick my thumbs in my ears and blow a raspberry.
The clanking vocabulary of transgression and disruption is more easily used to make a gesture towards complexity than to elucidate it. Why? Because you sound both clever and progressive if—damning previous work on the subject as naive—you state that it’s much more complicated than that. Few people are going to risk standing up and saying: no, it really is much simpler. Then all you do is go through finding things that are contradictory and announce that their relationship is dialectical, or overdetermined, or self-consuming or what have you.
The second charge against me could be that I encountered a rogue theorist: the lone Japanese soldier still patrolling in the deep jungle 30 years after the end of the war. But I don’t buy that. Academia is a language community, or set of them.
So my point is this. If it is a vocabulary that has barely changed in a decade and a half, and remains scarcely intelligible to laymen, it’s a language that, like our coelacanth, has been living in a closed ecosystem. And when academic speaks only unto academic, that can’t be a good thing.