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…