Ranking fields by the difficulty of imposter detection

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The latest xkcd:

Its title tag: "If you think this is too hard on literary criticism, read the Wikipedia article on deconstruction."

Go on, do it.

Randall's hobby is closely related to Labov's Test, which was applied to Jacques Derrida in an early Language Log post ("Can Derrida be 'even wrong'?", 9/29/2003), to which some other relevant links have since been added.

In general, I think that Labov's Test is a better diagnostic than imposter detection: despite the Sokal affair, my impression is that convincing imitations of the rhetoric of literary "theory" are not at all trivial to create, maybe just as hard as convincing imitations of mathematical physics, as in the Bogdanov affair.



53 Comments

  1. Anon. said,

    July 18, 2008 @ 12:27 pm

    Even the stick figure's imitation isn't convincing: English grad students would make fun of someone who used the phrase "the deconstruction," the way we all made fun of Bush's talk of "the Google."

    (Though of course you can sometimes talk about "the deconstruction *of* something.")

  2. Rob Gunningham said,

    July 18, 2008 @ 12:39 pm

    …Am I the only other person inside today? You've worked out the Labov test quite thoroughly, explaining what it does and doesn't show, and it's very useful. The Sokal affair and the Bogdanoff affair are supposed to point out failure in the review process, but it is obvious that they (and, yes, the Labov test) have another much greater effect, and that is to prove to the fairly well-educated person what they always suspected: that most of the subjects they don't understand are so riddled with bullshit that they may as well not bother trying. That is the point of this cartoon, it seems to me, except that it actually agrees with that easy notion. A much more comforting cartoon would somehow show it to be wrong (at least part of the time). I do like the cartoon, by the way.

  3. Catanea said,

    July 18, 2008 @ 1:47 pm

    "Go on, do it."

    "Anything that can be said, can be said clearly."
    I'm indoors, but it's a different time, here (19:46).
    Perhaps Derrida is more lucid in French? I shall possibly print out the Wikipedia article in question as a cure for insomnia. That doesn't mean it doesn't mean anything; but it doesn't mean anything TO ME, and hasn't convinced me I would be richly rewarded if I stuck with it and sought the meaning. Good grief.
    But a very thought-provoking cartoon. Suggesting not "breakfast-" but perhaps "cocktail-party-" or "down the pub-" experiments…

  4. Rob Gunningham said,

    July 18, 2008 @ 2:02 pm

    For what it's worth, I'm in Europe too.

  5. Theo Vosse said,

    July 18, 2008 @ 2:05 pm

    On a more mundane note: the link to Can Derrida even be wrong? doesn't work… Ah, it's because you type ics instead of cis…

  6. Blake Stacey said,

    July 18, 2008 @ 2:14 pm

    There's a big difference between the Sokal and Bogdanov incidents: the Bogdanovs got caught. Sokal confessed.

    (Also, Sokal didn't try to overwhelm his Wikipedia article with persistent sockpuppetry, years after the event. Nor did he sue a magazine for giving him a bad write-up. That's all beside the main point, since all that stuff came out later, long after the physics community had decided the Bogdanov papers were junk.)

    The problem was that the wrong people caught the Bogdanovs. Instead of being detected during formal peer review, they were smoked out on the Internet. To an extent, that's understandable, although I wouldn't call it forgiveable: peer reviewers read papers because it's their job, while people talk physics online because they love it. (One peer reviewer, Eli Hawkins, did give the Bogdanovs a serious smackdown, but everyone else was apparently more concerned with catching typos than checking ideas.) On top of that, the Bogdanovs didn't even follow the standard community practice: then, as today, physicists posted preliminary versions of their papers to the arXiv, which attract attention and discussion. Preprints on the arXiv which get published in journals receive notations to that effect, and are sometimes updated to reflect the published version. If you don't post to the arXiv, you're far less likely to be noticed. Serious physicists would consider that a bad thing. Funny, then, that the Bogdanovs did not put preprints on the arXiv (except for a brief mathematical note, itself in error, which they posted after their other papers had been exposed). While they may have followed "the letter of the law", their papers were not in fact subject to the same review process as the majority of physics articles.

    Most of the noise in the newspapers followed the standard "Balance the two sides" formula, never mind the conclusions which the people who actually know physics reached about the matter.

    If the Bogdanovs had really been trying to point out weaknesses in the physics community's peer-review standards, they would have done what Sokal did: admitted their papers were fabrications. Instead, they hung on for years, despite the laughable flaws (including several which a level-headed undergraduate could pick up). No, all the evidence points to the conclusion that they wanted to be credentialed by the system, as if Alan Sokal had been seeking a degree from the Literature department. I'm hardly the first person to have said this: John Baez, Paul Ginsparg and Alan Sokal himself have all made essentially the same point at one time or another.

    CONFLICT OF INTEREST DISCLAIMER: Just so everybody knows where my biases lie, I was the one who had to clean up the "Bogdanov Affair" Wikipedia article after a prolonged sockpuppet vandalism attack. Nobody else on Wikipedia wanted to do the job. . . . By contrast, when Sokal and I had an e-mail conversation, he gave my name to Oxford University Press and had them send me a review copy of a book.

  7. Mark Liberman said,

    July 18, 2008 @ 2:32 pm

    For the record, I agree entirely with Blake Stacey on the differences between the Sokal and Bogdanov affairs.

    But I do continue to believe that success in the literary "theory" game required a certain sort of talent and a certain kind of education. Not just any random sort of nonsense, much less any random sequence of words, would do the trick.

  8. Blake Stacey said,

    July 18, 2008 @ 2:45 pm

    Uh-oh, people agree on the Internet!

    In order to sustain this remarkable event, let me say that I have found that passing as a literary "theorist" (which I have done in classroom settings, but never in journals or books) does indeed require more than random word assembly. I did once complete a homework assignment using the Postmodernism Generator, but I had to polish it up.

  9. Ivan said,

    July 18, 2008 @ 3:38 pm

    Blake Stacey:
    There's a big difference between the Sokal and Bogdanov incidents: the Bogdanovs got caught. Sokal confessed.

    (Also, Sokal didn't try to overwhelm his Wikipedia article with persistent sockpuppetry, years after the event. Nor did he sue a magazine for giving him a bad write-up. That's all beside the main point, since all that stuff came out later, long after the physics community had decided the Bogdanov papers were junk.)

    Yes, but Sokal managed to fool only the editors of one journal, and his article wasn't subject to any other review prior to publication. He revealed the hoax himself on the day the paper was published, so there was never any chance to observe what the response of the readers would have been if he had kept quiet. The only people whose stupidity and ignorance was proven by this affair are the editors of the Social Text, and possibly also the authors whose foolish statements are cited in the paper. It's quite possible that the vast majority of the relevant community would have seen through the hoax instantly.

    In contrast, the Bogdanoffs were Ph.D. students for years. During this period, their work was supposed to be constantly scrutinized by their supervisor and thesis committee. Still, their supposedly garbage work was not only successfully defended in front of the committee, but also fooled numerous peer reviewers in multiple journals (or they perhaps just didn't bother to even read it, which is even worse). On top of everything, there isn't even a consensus in the field about the status of the brothers' work. Several highly reputable physicists have defended the quality of their work publicly, although admittedly many more have slammed it.

    Therefore, assuming that Bogdanoffs' work is really garbage (which I, as a non-expert, can't judge for myself), the number of people who were fooled by it is much larger than in Sokal's case, and encompasses much more reputable names in the relevant field. At the end of the day, it is an unavoidable conclusion that the peer review process is broken very badly even in exact sciences, and many other aspects of research work aren't in much better shape either, even in quite reputable places. For what that's worth, I can attest that from personal experience, too.

    Having said that, I guess I should also add that I have zero sympathy for quasi-intellectualism that Sokal wanted to expose, and I agree that such mindless nonsense is far too rampant. But we shouldn't close our eyes towards the fact that the Bogdanoff affair was objectively a much harder blow to the credibility of the physics community than Sokal's hoax was to the postmodernist (or whatever) circles.

  10. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    July 18, 2008 @ 3:48 pm

    I don't know. I think the Wikipedia article is very useful. It's a great article from which to pull quotations completely out of context in order "to shift and complicate…meaning when read in light of the assumptions and absences they reveal within themselves." Who would have thought you'd find such great party banter like this in an article about Deconstructionism?

    According to Derrida, "[T]he hymen defies formal logic and is neither outside nor inside, and after penetration, is both inside and outside."

  11. Rob Gunningham said,

    July 18, 2008 @ 5:48 pm

    Anyone whose worried that literary theory sorry, literary "theory" — has been totally demolished by boffins, might read Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory, An Introduction, Second Edition 1996 before deciding.

  12. Rob Gunningham said,

    July 18, 2008 @ 5:57 pm

    Not wearing my specs. Start again.
    Anyone who is worried that literary theory, sorry, literary "theory" has been totally demolished by boffins, might read Terry Eagleton's Literary Theory, An Introduction, Second Edition 1996 before deciding.

  13. Mark Liberman said,

    July 18, 2008 @ 6:10 pm

    @Rob Gunningham: In addition to Eagleton's Literary Theory (now available in a third edition), Patai and Corral's 2005 collection Theory's Empire would be worth a look.

  14. Andrew Goldstone said,

    July 18, 2008 @ 6:29 pm

    What fascinates me in both the xkcd comic and this blog post is the completely automatic chain of associations [literary criticism] = ["literary 'theory'"] = [deconstruction]. By contrast, anyone even beginning to wade into that Wikipedia deconstruction article will see it discussed as a topic in philosophy which only later in its life gained currency in Anglo-American literary criticism. As a lit-crit grad student, I consider myself entitled to ask: Why is it so attractive to beat up on the entire discipline of literary studies? And why do people who are normally extremely skeptical and inquisitive–I mean both Randall Munroe and Mark Liberman, as well as the commenters here who joined the party–take no time to wonder whether the conflation of that discipline with a now 50-year-old movement in European philosophy is legitimate? And to continue to drag out the Sokal hoax as though it were a magic sword with the power to slay many evil departments?

    Sorry to be sour–but it's no fun when your favorite webcomic makes you the butt of a joke, and your favorite blog hops on the bandwagon. Meanwhile, if you'd like to read an eminently reasonable and sensitive analysis of the Sokal affair and you have jstor access, I recommend John Guillory, "The Sokal Affair and the History of Criticism," Critical Inquiry 28, no. 2 (Winter 2002): 470-508, http://links.jstor.org/sici?sici=0093-1896%28200224%2928%3A2%3C470%3ATSAATH%3E2.0.CO%3B2-4. Interested readers will discover that Guillory, though a literary critic and indeed a "theorist," has little sympathy for deconstruction–and that he concludes by suggesting how literary studies might make a small place for itself among the sciences, instead of making itself look foolish by pretending to trump them.

  15. Tim Silverman said,

    July 18, 2008 @ 6:52 pm

    It's also not true, as people sometimes say, that it's impossible to extract meaning from deconstructionist texts: it's just that it's hard work, and the meaning you extract is generally trivial. ("If one thing is earlier than another, then the second thing is later than the first" is my paraphrase of what I remember of some long, rambling deconstructionist text on the nature of time, which I read a long time ago.)

    It's rather similar to something Richard Feynmann says about sociologese, somewhere in one of his books of memoirs. At some conference or other, after subduing his panic at his total incomprehension of some apparently complex sociological text, he sat down to work out step by step what it actually meant, and after much sweat and labour, worked out that it meant "Sometimes people read; sometimes they listen to the radio."

    In fact … I've even seen proper books with actual meaningful content, written in sociologese. Richard Hodges, a perfectly respectable economic archaeologist, writes his books in sociologese, for reasons that are quite obscure to me. (Maybe I'm just not familiar enough with the denizens of this particular little academic niche, but it feels rather as it would if he had arbitrarily chosen to write his book in Anglo-Saxon—not completely inaccessible to regular English-speakers, but not the obvious choice of language.) My copy of his _Primitive and Peasant Markets_ has most of the text crossed out (by me) and my English translations of the text pencilled in between the lines—they occupy about a third of the space and I can read them without pain or effort. They have actual meaning and everything. In fact, it's quite an interesting book, which makes it all the more puzzling why it is written in a jargon designed to minimise its audience. I guess there is other such stuff out there too.

    There's a whole little trail of linguistics to be blazed on the linguistic techniques of obfuscation—or perhaps it already exists … but nobody knows how to read it …

  16. M. Mann said,

    July 18, 2008 @ 7:10 pm

    Frankly, I didn't want to read the Wikipedia-Article due to its sheer length, but I do like the "Basic English"-Article on Deconstruction. Still I'm glad that for me it's just a cartoon and not my daily business … Even there they warn that "[t]he English used in this article or section may not be easy for everybody to understand". (http://simple.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deconstruction)

  17. John Lawler said,

    July 18, 2008 @ 7:58 pm

    @Tim Silverman: There's a whole little trail of linguistics to be blazed on the linguistic techniques of obfuscation—or perhaps it already exists … but nobody knows how to read it …

    This is true in perhaps more ways than you intended. Have you ever read any of Chomsky's linguistics writings? The output of the Chomskybot is remarkably hard to distinguish from the true, the blushful original Chomsky. And plenty of linguists have opinions of his linguistic theories that are remarkably similar to the opinions of deconstructionism expressed above.

    The Chomskybot is intended, in part, as an ongoing automatic comment on this fact.

  18. David Starner said,

    July 18, 2008 @ 8:29 pm

    @Andrew Goldstone: Why do hard science types have it out for literary studies? Well, the bomb dropped on Hiroshima was a different design from the ones exploded at Trinity and Nagasaki, and yet it was the first detonation of a U-235 powered bomb. The physicists in the Manhattan Project were confident enough that it would work that it was dropped without a test. That type of certainty backed up by hard proof is valued by hard science types. Fields that have less of it have less respect; biology is sometimes stigmatized as stamp collecting, for example.* A lot of literary studies is perceived as being at the opposite end of the spectrum, perceived as making untestable statements without even the question of whether they are objectively true.

    I once read of a project to prove that the Old Man and the Sea was actually written decades earlier than the established date through internal linguistic evidence. Personally, and I suspect among this larger community you're complaining about, projects like that that ask questions that have a definitive answer are more interesting than "what does the fisherman stand for", which doesn't.

  19. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    July 18, 2008 @ 8:36 pm

    @ Gunningham

    And I would recommend What do you mean, it's not didactic? as a more humorous take on the issue.

  20. Blake Stacey said,

    July 18, 2008 @ 11:36 pm

    On top of everything, there isn't even a consensus in the field about the status of the brothers' work. Several highly reputable physicists have defended the quality of their work publicly, although admittedly many more have slammed it.

    Several? The only one who has asserted that content actually exists within Igor and Grichka's work is Lubos Motl, and even he hasn't provided any specifics or turned out a paper of his own explicating what the Bogdanovs were supposedly talking about. I checked the papers which cited their work; they are all themselves obscure and virtually unacknowledged, and even they (the grand total of three that exist) don't take any actual content from the Bogdanovs' work. All they say is, in essence, "This article exists and purports to be about this subject."

    I could say more, but like I mentioned above, I had to clean up after the Bogdanovs' ego explosion, and even the better part of three years later, I'm still a little bitter about it.

  21. Rob Gunningham said,

    July 19, 2008 @ 6:22 am

    @ Girard, yes, thanks, it's also a very good use of links. I have loathed Moby Dick since i was about fourteen.

  22. Dick Margulisd said,

    July 19, 2008 @ 6:54 am

    Fascinating discussion, but now for something completely different and trivial but vaguely related to linguistics nonetheless. The spelling of imposter caught my eye. Normally I wouldn't comment on spelling, but on another of the blogs I subscribe to the blogger, in apologizing for a gaffe, just linked to an earlier post in which she had been caught making the error of using imposter when she meant impostor. Now this is a woman young enough to be my daughter, and yet she is clinging to the older spelling just as I am.

    So my question is, what ever happened to -or in English orthography. It seems everyone wants to turn all -ors into -ers (The New Yorker extends this to "vender"). Imposter is a perfectly good, if obscure or possibly obsolete, word, stressed on the first syllable, referring to a customs house official; and it always seemed worthwhile to me to maintain useful clues in the orthographic representations of distinct words.

    Am I just hopelessly antediluvian?

  23. Dick Margulis said,

    July 19, 2008 @ 6:55 am

    Well, naturally I'd misspell my own name in a post about spelling. It just figures.

  24. Dick Margulis said,

    July 19, 2008 @ 7:01 am

    Okay, let me try that again, as my original comment has vanished apparently. Unrelated to the fascinating comments so far, but related somehow to linguistics, the spelling "imposter" caught my eye. Not trying to recreate the anecdote in the deleted comment but heading straight to the question, what happened to -or in English. Everyone seems to be abandoning it, for no obvious reason. An imposter (stress on first syllable), my dictionary tells me, is a customs house official. I think preserving clues in orthography to distinctions between words is helpful. Am I hopelessly antediluvian in this?

  25. Rob Gunningham said,

    July 19, 2008 @ 7:25 am

    Mark Liberman: Patai and Corral's 2005 collection Theory's Empire would be worth a look.

    For boffins who are unreasonably contemptuous of postmodernism and other things they don't understand Terry Eagleton is a reasonable and very readable expert (Prof. of English at Oxford & Manchester) on literary theory as well as writing great articles in the London Review of Books. Just don't get him started on religion and politics…and speaking of Chomsky I see he has an essay, paradoxically, in Theory's Empire — a well-reviewed collection that is supposed to be a remedy for those who want to bail out of literary theory.

  26. Mark Liberman said,

    July 19, 2008 @ 8:43 am

    For anyone still reading this, I'll also recommend "Breakfast as Text: the Theory of Cerealitivity".

  27. [links] Link salad for a Saturday | jlake.com said,

    July 19, 2008 @ 9:59 am

    […] L'affaire Bogdanov — Weirdness in physics along the lines of the Sokal affair. Like of interest mostly to science geeks. (Hat tip to Language Log.) […]

  28. Arnold Zwicky said,

    July 19, 2008 @ 10:56 am

    Dick Margulis: "Imposter is a perfectly good, if obscure or possibly obsolete, word, stressed on the first syllable, referring to a customs house official; and it always seemed worthwhile to me to maintain useful clues in the orthographic representations of distinct words."

    Orthographic conservatism is a perfectly reasonable position to take, but attempts to justify it on the basis of ambiguity avoidance are almost never cogent, when you consider how words are understood in context, and in some cases, like this one, are truly silly. The customs-house-official imposter is an exceedingly rare word, one that I've never heard or seen in actual use and expect never to hear or see there, and one that isn't in any but the largest dictionaries (it's not in NOAD2, AHD4, or Merriam-Webster Online; it *is* in the OED — with only one cite, from 1884). The chances that any well-intentioned person could be misled by the spelling imposter for impostor are zero.

    There are a certain number of shifts from older Latinate (learned) spellings in -or to more English (vernacular) spellings in -er, but it's scarcely the case that these spellings are shifting in general. Some -or words, in particular the ones that have US -or in alternation with UK -our, like honor, seem unlikely to shift to -er. But a small number of -or words have developed alternative spellings; in the case of impostor, the -er alternative is recognized in NOAD2, AHD4, and M-W Online, and it is not treated as an error in Brians's Common Errors. These treatments recognize that a significant number (though probably not a majority) of practiced writers of standard written English (among them Mark Liberman) use the -er spelling as a matter of personal taste.

    No one is telling you to use it yourself, but there's no reason to deprecate it when others use it.

  29. James Wimberley said,

    July 19, 2008 @ 11:29 am

    The Wikipedia article includes slippage among the keywords of the movement, but doesn't even offer a bafflegab explanation. Glissement is of course available as a good French equivalent though I think you'ld use dépassement for a project timetable. Slip is ordinary French in the lingerie sense. Any ideas?

  30. JBL said,

    July 19, 2008 @ 12:49 pm

    I work in finance. In my field, variations of this experiment are conducted almost every day in most major media outlets. So far, we're still going.

  31. Rob Gunningham said,

    July 19, 2008 @ 2:04 pm

    Slips is Norwegian for necktie. Slippage can be expensive in a stick-shift, they may need to deconstruct the whole transmission to get to it — hard to say exactly.

  32. dr pepper said,

    July 19, 2008 @ 3:26 pm

    My impression is that there is a class of opposition to deconstruction because it is seen as a leftist cultural weapon, a way to attack traditional values, morality, religion, etc, etc, by explaining them so thoroughly they become meaningless, thus producing a population of lazy, thoughtless, cowardly, disrespectful hedonists.

  33. Dick Margulis said,

    July 19, 2008 @ 7:01 pm

    AZ,

    No, I was not deprecating anyone. I was just wondering about the apparent shift within my lifetime. Advisor became adviser. Okay, no ambiguity there. But I noticed that The New Yorker has gone from vendor to vender (sets my teeth on edge, whether dictionaries like it or not)… It wouldn't surprise me to encounter acter or editer in the next decade. As you said, it's a fairly small number of words. I just wondered what set the change in motion.

  34. Tim Silverman said,

    July 19, 2008 @ 8:46 pm

    @Andrew Goldstone & @David Starner

    Part of the problem, I think, is that academic literary criticism comes from the collision of two quite different traditions with quite different aims. On the one hand, there's a tradition of careful structural analysis of writing (and, classically, oratory), aimed mainly at writers (and orators), designed to explain and exemplify how various effects are achieved (or fail to be achieved). I am sure there is plenty of good analysis of this sort to be done.

    But it is very technical, and this brings it into collision with an entirely different tradition. Many people study literature simply because they love reading, and want to talk about their favorite works, learn more about them, and find out what other people think about them. There is room for reasoned debate in this tradition, but the evidentiary standards are generally rather low because, although it can be informed by technical analysis, that basically isn't what it's about. In fact, it's not really an academic discipline at all—it's a sort of pastime, or entertainment, conducted though conversations and essays, not academic papers—and it has always seemed to me a bizarre sort of historical accident that it's ended up in the Academy at all. I guess it survives because some of the people who like to read also want some technical and historical background to inform their discussions.

    But this collision leaves the field wide open to those who want the cachet of rigorous technical or philological analysis, but with the evidentiary standards of casual conversation over coffee and biscuits.

    Well, I guess that's only part of the story, but perhaps it accounts for some of the weirdness …

  35. Piers Kelly said,

    July 19, 2008 @ 10:40 pm

    When will linguists stop this stupid war on literary theory? It's boring.
    The two discipline are as different from one another as analytical philosophy is to continental philosophy. Judging one by the methodology of another is a smug and silly exercise.

  36. Alexpri said,

    July 20, 2008 @ 8:10 am

    I've read most if not all of Mark Liberman's Derrida-bashing posts, of which this is one, I'd say, and in none of them is there evidence of any serious attempt to understand Derrida's thought. As someone who *has* spent a certain amount of time trying to understand it, I find this kind of self-satisfied mockery amusing to a certain extent but also irritating. The flowchart Mark posted earlier this week as well as the analysis of it he quoted seem relevant here: "Sometimes I think that academics have a kind of mental operating procedure designed to insulate them from having to consider anyone else's ideas at all." For a brief appreciation of Derrida by someone mentioned in an earlier comment, Terry Eagleton, definitely not a Derridean, see this link: http://education.guardian.co.uk/higher/comment/story/0,,1327931,00.html

  37. Mark Liberman said,

    July 20, 2008 @ 8:29 am

    dr pepper: My impression is that there is a class of opposition to deconstruction because it is seen as a leftist cultural weapon…

    I guess this is true, but it's a strange sort of leftism, which Marx, Engels and Lenin — or for that matter Shaw, Durkheim and Keynes — would have found bizarre if not repulsive.

    Piers Kelly: When will linguists stop this stupid war on literary theory?

    Nearly all the linguists that I know are completely oblivious to literary theory, and I have never met or heard of any linguists who have waged anything that could be called a "war" on it. There are certainly some philosophers who dislike the philosophical trends that have influenced recent literary theory, and have expressed their opinions at length. And there are some literary scholars who think that the past few decades in their field have taken a wrong turn — a collection of examples can be found in Theory's Empire. But I can't think of many linguists who have done much more than roll their eyes in private conversations.

    There's a bulletin-board post from 1995 attributed to Noam Chomsky, and a short published essay "Rationality/Science" by him on pp. 528-526 of Theory's Empire, reprinted from Z Papers 1(4) 1992. That's all that I can think of, in fact. I'm sure there are some more out there, but hardly enough to constitute a "war".

    As for this blog, in 5,000-odd posts over five years there are about a dozen references to Derrida, most of them them parenthetical. The phrase "literary theory" occurs only three times. Again, if this is a war, it's not one that is being waged very vigorously.

  38. Rob Gunningham said,

    July 20, 2008 @ 11:50 am

    Mark Liberman: if this is a war, it's not one that is being waged very vigorously.

    Oh come on, Mark, we all know you don't like Derrida because it's unreasonably time consuming to penetrate, and then there isn't enough reward to justify the time spent. If you disagree with my paraphrase, instead of citing the low number of Derrida references say why you're anti-Derrida and anti-literary theory.

    @Piers Kelly & Alexpri, saying bad things about linguists doesn't make the case for Derrida. As one of you rightly points out Terry Eagleton can at least explain his appreciation, even if he's not a "Derridean" (that's like saying Jesus wasn't by any means a Methodist).

  39. Andrew Goldstone said,

    July 20, 2008 @ 1:37 pm

    @David Starner: Quite right; science types see lit-crit as basically unverifiable and therefore pointless, though hopefully this is because of a perceived lack of objectivity rather than a failure to produce nuclear weapons! It's a serious, and still not well-answered, challenge to the standards of my field and the way it represents itself to the public. I think there is an answer to be made, but that doesn't belong here. I just get discouraged when I see that linguists, whom I think of as a working in a field closely related to my own, have no more response to my discipline than some "private eye-rolling" and occasional teasing.

    @Tim Silverman: I basically agree with your analysis of the two conflicting strands in academic work on literature–one essentially appreciative, one essentially rhetorical or philological. John Guillory's work, which I mentioned above, attempts to explain how they came to coexistence within the modern university. The short version, as I understand it, is that the nineteenth-century university was centered on a humanistic education which functioned more to set the seal on social distinction than to codify expert knowledge, whereas the professionalized, scientized research university is a twentieth-century invention.

    Yet that doesn't explain why some people, Liberman and Sokal among them, are hostile to "theory" in particular and willing to assume that the entire field of literary studies consists of deconstructionists rather than people doing the kind of philological work you–and Tim Silverman–describe. My own insider's sense is that, modulo some jargon, the bulk of scholarly work on literature being done now and since ca. 1950 looks more like philology than appreciation. (The issue of whether deconstruction and careful structural and empirical analysis are really incompatible can be set aside–though it might surprise some people to flip the pages of Derrida's De la grammatologie and find a long section trying to establish the dates of two texts by Rousseau on the basis of internal and external evidence.)

    To Rob Gunningham's most recent comment: Hear, hear!

  40. Rob Gunningham said,

    July 20, 2008 @ 2:50 pm

    To Andrew Goldstone, likewise (though I only partly agree with Silverman). I feel your pain.

  41. Alexpri said,

    July 20, 2008 @ 5:48 pm

    @Rob Gunningham, it wasn't my intention "[to say] bad things about linguists" in my comment. Rather, I was trying to say that there's a limit to how interesting it is for linguists to say bad things about authors they are hostile to but haven't made a serious effort to understand. Nor was I trying to make a case for Derrida; this certainly isn't the place for that, and I'm not the one to do it.

  42. Martin Wisse said,

    July 20, 2008 @ 7:46 pm

    @David Starner:

    Physics is easy, which is why physicists can usually work out the outcome of their experiments in advance. Human orientated sciences are much harder, as your average human is much less predictable than yer average electron, even with all this newfangled quantum uncertainty.

  43. Piers Kelly said,

    July 21, 2008 @ 6:01 am

    @Mark Liberman:
    Good point. I think 'war' is overstating it considering that the hostility is usually at dinner party intensity and a revolution is not a tea party. Jus' being hyperbolic.

    @Rob Gunningham:
    I'm not having a go at linguists – I'm attempting to be one after all. I came to linguistics from a literary theory background and call myself an admirer of Eagleton *and* Derrida *and* Chomsky. My point is that I don't see where these sets of ideas have to be at odds with one another even if they aren't easily unified into a single positivist grid.

  44. Stephen Jones said,

    July 21, 2008 @ 6:51 am

    One interesting thing is that in English we tend to use prepositions for exact relations and simply pile on the nouns to make a long noun phrase for weaker relations. French only has prepositions and as a result if badly translated into English (that is following the semantic patterns of the French) then it appears strange; we expect more precision than was intended.

  45. Rob Gunningham said,

    July 21, 2008 @ 8:04 am

    @Steven Jones, will you give us an example, please?

  46. Richard Hershberger said,

    July 21, 2008 @ 10:47 am

    Regarding why the attitude toward Derrida, et al., my layman's take on it is a reaction to the analyses of science described in _Higher Superstition_. Remember, after all, that the underlying basis of the Sokal Affair was that the journal in question felt itself competent to publish pieces commenting on physics.

    For myself, my bachelors is in English lit. I wanted a general education on the older model, and believed that the discipline of classwork would help me read and understand classic literature (of the Chaucer/Shakespeare/Milton sort) better than self-guided study. I am not so old as to predate deconstruction in the Academy, but the English department at my school didn't partake of this, or at least not the professors I studied under. I look at modern literary criticism and see nothing like what I studied, or would have been interested in. I am not qualified to judge the content, but I wonder if there is a place left for the student who is interested in sorting out the classical references in _Paradise Lost_.

  47. Marcos Benevides said,

    July 23, 2008 @ 1:24 am

    I find it humorous how much the attempt to dismiss "deconstruction"–to use the term ironically to mean all lit theory, as seems to be the de facto usage here–as lacking in intellectual rigour seems to resemble early prescriptivist attacks on descriptivist linguistics. There is no objectively "correct" grammar you say? Texts do not simply have one stable meaning? Poppycock!

    In any case, Eagleton (*) in the article linked above, very clearly and succinctly summarizes the importance of deconstruction: "[It] means not destroying ideas, but pushing them to the point where they begin to come apart and expose their latent contradictions. It meant reading against the grain of supposedly self-evident truths, rather than taking them for granted." I concede that he is in the minority of writers who tackle the subject with any real style and clarity, but surely the concept itself is not quite so devoid of meaning or purpose?

    (*) I also recommend his _Literary Theory: An Introduction_ as eminently readable for anyone wanting to give "theory" a fair shake.

  48. David Starner said,

    July 23, 2008 @ 4:09 pm

    @Martin Wisse: While some of the arguments against sociology are unfair given the differing source matters, it's still true that most of the math-oriented people tend to head to math and physics; that sociology and psychology are, and especially historically have often been, very careless sometimes with using statistics and sample sizes.

    @Marcos Benevides: If you're directing it at me, I think you've missed some of the point. From a hard science perspective, if a text doesn't have meaning, that's fine. But if it doesn't have meaning, the question of what it means stops being interesting. If literary criticism involved pinning down large groups of subjects and trying to understand how they interpreted certain books, that would be fine. (You'll note that descriptive linguists don't trying and study language in abstraction; they use huge corpuses and study how people actually talk.) When you toss away meaning and kill the author and aren't studying actual readers, I think the question of whether what you are doing is interesting becomes salient. Your quote about deconstruction doesn't help me understand that there are real answers, for a scientist's perspective of real, in deconstruction.

    I realize that this doesn't come near to covering all of literary criticism, that in any field there will be places with more rigor than others, and that I'm talking a lot more about how lit crit is perceived rather than how it is.

  49. Marcos Benevides said,

    July 24, 2008 @ 12:25 am

    @ David Starner: I wasn't directing my comment at you specifically. My beef here is that the kind of oversimplification of literary theory, by linguists of all people, remind me of the kind of knee-jerk response one gets from non-specialists when one tries to explain descriptivist linguistics. It's unfairly dismissive. "Ridiculous," they say, "How can a million people using a genderless singular 'they' suddenly make it correct? It's against The Rules, for heaven's sake!"

    Of course texts have meaning. However, one important thing that lit theory suggests is that meaning is not at all as stable as we like to think, and furthermore may have important political implications. In this way I think it can be likened to linguists' explanation for the rise to recent respectability of (or perhaps the disappearance of the less recent bias against) the genderless singular 'they'. The acceptability of using the word as a singular pronoun depends on a sufficiently large population using it as such. In the same way, the 'accepted' meaning of stories may change, but it would be absurd to imply that they don't have any meaning at all, that minority interpretations are 'incorrect', or even that meaning can't be discussed with a certain degree of objectivity. Even at the height of theory, you would have been hard pressed to find a serious academic who would have said so.

    To illustrate: If millions of people start reading _Dracula_ as a commentary on Victorian sexuality by deconstructing its narrative to highlight how its gender stereotypes work, are they reading it incorrectly? Is it a useless exercise? What if they then apply these insights to _Buffy the Vampire Slayer_? Or a Calvin Klein underwear ad? Or Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign?

    Granted, this shifts things away from 'literature' in the sense of novels or poems, but for precisely that reason also gives an insight into what happened to theory and why. This is why you get statements such as "everything is writing!" taken out of context to ridicule theory. But surely in this sense it can be seen that everything *is* literature, in that it might be useful to, say, analyze the impact of a presidential campaign in terms of literary archetypes. There was plenty of silliness going on in literature departments in the 90's, don't get me wrong, but surely the general endeavour of studying how we interpret and use symbols, while perhaps less objective than other pursuits, is not entirely worthless?

    In the end, one may still find "What does the fisherman stand for?" in _The Old Man and the Sea_ an uninteresting question, and that's fair enough. I for one would certainly never invest my energies into investigating whether the story was written a decade earlier through internal linguistic evidence. The first question might be impossible to answer definitively, but is a far richer question to explore.

  50. Marcos Benevides said,

    July 24, 2008 @ 1:16 am

    Sorry, I went off on a tangent there, didn't I? To clarify: David Starner writes, "If literary criticism involved pinning down large groups of subjects and trying to understand how they interpreted certain books, that would be fine."

    In my opinion, this is essentially what literary criticism does, without perhaps the scientific rigour. Deconstruction was very much concerned with making explicit *how* texts mean, and indeed how they often mean something we didn't intend. Is it ironic that most of its proponents were poor at making this clear? Well, yes and no. :-P

  51. Humorous Verse said,

    August 18, 2008 @ 11:13 am

    At one point I thought I was the only person who was funny enough to write stuff like this.

  52. Yet Another Reason Why I Love PZ Myers | between drafts said,

    February 2, 2010 @ 8:33 pm

    […] and mistakes that, tracerlike, indicate a local ignorance field—as did in this case, e. g., Mark Liberman. Or elsewhere and frequently Sean Carroll. Most of the time, though, it's cool dudes from lit […]

  53. Deconstruct said,

    January 22, 2011 @ 3:01 pm

    when derrida says "representation is death and finitude in the pysche" it means that we already didn't get it, basically the closing off of infinity into the quasinfinite. to deconstruct is a deconstruction of deconstruction. the binary oppositions of and from the arche-writing is truncated of its other. we must not forget that symbolic thinking is the epigram of schizophrenia. of megalomanic thinking. when derrida is speaking abstractly of the interplay of meaning, the origination is not always interior to, but exterior to physis itself. it is a poetic inference of global order beyond subjectivity itself, not more subjective.

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