Like any responsible book collector, I’m often forced to decide which books deserve a spot in my limited shelf space. During these purges, one type of book always gives me pause. These are the books I acquired during the two years I was a graduate student in comparative literature; books unheard of by most people outside of academia but, to many inside, akin to scripture; books by Walter Benjamin, Jacques Derrida, Gilles Deleuze, Giorgio Agamben, György Lukács, and Slavoj Žižek, to name just a few from the pantheon. I’ve held on to some thinking one day I might return to graduate school to complete a PhD, and what would a graduate student be without his copy of The Origin of the German Tragic Drama? But with a tenured teaching position, two kids, and a mortgage, I no longer entertain such fantasies. Now I’m free to finally make a confession: I never knew what these books were talking about.
The demands of my bourgeois existence grow with each passing year, and I didn’t want this little secret to metastasize each time I crossed paths with a true initiate or cracked open Anti-Oedipus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia to finally figure out “how anti-production appropriates the productive forces.” I realize that in making my confession, I may only prove my own obtuseness, but so be it. It has been quite cathartic so far.
My last book purge found me deciding the fate of Slavoj Žižek’s Tarrying With The Negative, a book I read in a class on Shakespeare and political theory. Žižek is known for threading pop culture, German idealism, Marxism, and psychoanalysis into a confounding tapestry. His pop culture references include kitsch like Kung-Fu Panda, and they lend his thoughts an air of accessibility. That air quickly dissipates, however. As a high school teacher, I know students understand a text if they can summarize its main point in a few sentences. I imagine a house guest surveying my bookshelf and, impressed by my erudition, asking, “What’s this Slavoj Žižek book about?” In a panic, I try to muster a coherent sentence about dialectics, Hegel, ideology, or something, but nothing comes. I quickly thumb through the book, looking at my copious annotations. Still nothing.
Turning to a random page reveals one reason I found it impenetrable: “In Reading Capital, Louis Althusser endeavored to articulate the epistemological break of Marxism by means of a new concept of causality, ‘overdetermination’: the very determining instance is overdetermined by the total network of relations within which it plays the determining role.” The first five words alone posed a significant barrier. I had never read Althusser’s Reading Capital and I had never read Marx’s Capital, which, perhaps, guaranteed my floundering in grad school given the pervasiveness of Marxist thought in the humanities. If my professors expected me to engage in any significant way with neo-Marxist theorists, they must have assumed I was intimately acquainted with Marx himself. I was not. I went to graduate school because I found studying literature exhilarating and fulfilling. In my undergraduate honors thesis I analyzed the significance of Herman Melville’s allusions to the Book of Job in Moby Dick. I wanted to do more of that: studying and understanding the great works of literature. Instead I was asked to understand how “The Althusserian ‘ideological interpellation’ designates the retroactive illusion of ‘always-already;’ the reverse of the ideological recognition is the misrecognition of the performative dimension.”
Since I couldn’t read Žižek to understand Žižek, I had to look elsewhere. The most lucid explanation is Roger Scruton’s essay “The Clown Prince of the Revolution,” in which he traces the influence of the dubious psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan on Žižek. Scruton explains Žižek’s main thesis throughout his corpus “We become self-conscious by an act of total negation: by learning that there is no subject…This is the aspect of Lacan that Žižek finds most exciting—the magic wand that conjures visions and promptly waves them to nothingness.” When Scruton observes that Žižek “is a lover of paradox,” he echoes Adam Kotsko’s analysis of Giorgio Agamben’s work: “[W]hat is most distinctive about Agamben’s style of thought comes from his love of paradox and contradiction.” The humanities professor and Agamben’s English translator admits that Agamben is really, really hard to understand but he believes this is a good thing. Concerning Agamben’s “study of animality,” The Open, Kotsko writes, “It’s not clear how all the pieces of Agamben’s argument fit together, but this only increases the book’s effectiveness for me: it’s not a definitive answer to the question of how humans and animals relate, but a book to think with.”
I quickly learned that, like Kotsko, many of my professors valued paradoxical and obscure arguments. And I got pretty good at making them. In an essay on Wallace Stevens, I concluded by asserting, “If everything is nothing, then that nothingness is everything. For poetry to encompass one, it encompasses the other. When Stevens’s mind of winter descends into the inescapable nothingness of his subjectivity, he has claimed for himself the totality of everything.” I don’t know what this means. But I wrote it and I was rewarded for it.
I knew my analysis of Wallace Stevens would please my professor, but I was bothered by a nagging thought that I really didn’t understand Wallace Stevens. I wondered if my graduate school training just amounted to a parlor trick. Last year, at my high school, the students enjoyed arguing if a hotdog is a sandwich, the millennial equivalent of asking how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. The hotdog question made its way to the whiteboard in our staff lounge. By the time I arrived, my colleagues had written their responses. Some argued that a hot dog is not a sandwich because a sandwich requires two pieces of bread and a hotdog bun isn’t supposed to separate. Others averred that it most definitely is a sandwich: Meat between bread is a sandwich, end of story. I saw these responses and thought, “Simpletons!” before putting my graduate education to work: “In order to determine if a ‘hotdog is a sandwich,’ we must first determine the proper understanding of ‘is’ for if we do not grasp the ontological necessity of being itself, we fall into an abyss wherein ‘being’ is and is not itself and thus a hotdog is and is not a sandwich for it is and is not its very self.” I was quite amused by the whole situation until a colleague told me that a student had seen the whiteboard and said he wanted to study philosophy so that he could write like me.
The so-called Sokal Hoax was a clear indictment of the humanities’ love of nonsensical arguments. Physics professor Alan Sokal put to the test his hypothesis that something was afoul in the humanities. He wondered if “a leading North American journal of cultural studies [would] publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions?” His article, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” makes abundant use of Derrida and company, theoretical jargon, and paradoxes. He expounds, for example, “that any space-time point, if it exists at all, can be transformed into any other. In this way the infinite-dimensional invariance group erodes the distinction between observer and observed.” The farcical essay proved his hypothesis when it was published in the academic journal Social Text. When Sokal revealed the essay to be a hoax in the journal Lingua Franca, he blasted both the editors of Social Text, who “apparently felt no need to analyze the quality of the evidence, the cogency of the arguments, or even the relevance of the arguments to the purported conclusion,” and the state of the humanities where “incomprehensibility becomes a virtue; allusions, metaphors and puns substitute for evidence and logic.”
That was in 1996. The hoax continues, but now with unknowing pranksters. My Master’s degree is proof. Like Sokal, I got away with nonsense cloaked in a semblance of meaning. In constructing this illusion of comprehension, I also got away with some downright atrocious prose. In an essay on Deleuze and Guattari’s Kafka: Towards A Minor Literature, I eked out this abomination: “Similar to Kafka’s use of German, Wole Soyinka wrote ‘Death and the King’s Horseman’ in English and not Yoruba, his mother tongue. The implications for this are immense, and the deterritorialization is not merely a theoretical suggestion but infects and plays a role within the represented, diegetic world of the play.” I might have gone through my entire graduate school career writing like that had my advisor not been the department curmudgeon, who would not tolerate unparallel sentence structure or a single dangling modifier. It is possible I never would have crossed paths with such a relic, and surely many graduate students never do.
Of course, my horrendous style was a symptom of my failure to understand anything of significance in what I was reading. (I don’t know what “deterritorialization” or “diegetic” mean.) I see pretentious prose masking empty thinking in my high school students’ writing. I often read sentences like this: “The persistent continuance of racially prejudiced ideologies in the minds of many Americans has only diminished to small degrees or some might think not even at all.” Clearly, the student meant to write “racism is still a problem in America,” but, realizing the banality of this statement, injected it with prepositional phrases and multisyllabic words. This style of writing is almost encouraged in graduate school. Theorists, by and large, write sloppily. And the prose I ingested, I spewed out. Derrida, for example, writes in On Grammatology:
Unless my project has been fundamentally misunderstood, it should be clear by now that, caring very little about Ferdinand de Saussure’s very thought itself, I have interested myself in a text whose literality has played a well known role since 1915, operating within a system of readings, influences, misunderstandings, borrowings, refutations, etc. What I could read—and equally what I could not read—under the title of A Course in General Linguistics seemed important to the point of excluding all hidden and “true” intentions of Ferdinand de Saussure.
If a Jack Derrida wrote that in my English class, he would have some considerable revisions to do. I would suggest the following:
I am interested in an influential text from 1915: Ferdinand de Saussure’s A Course in General Linguistics. My interpretation of this much-discussed text is quite important even if it disregards Saussure’s true intentions.
The second sentence remains a bit vague, but without asking him his “true” intentions, I’m not sure I can improve it further.
George Orwell’s “Politics and the English Language” so clearly explains the causes and consequences of bad writing, that it’s no surprise I read it for the first time after leaving graduate school. He observes that “[Our language] becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.” The bad and predictable style “will construct your sentences for you — even think your thoughts for you, to a certain extent — and at need they will perform the important service of partially concealing your meaning even from yourself.” Obscure arguments and poor style exclude independent thought and new ideas. Orwell would not be surprised to see the poor style and the growing intolerance to free speech in many of our universities today.
Of course, I should have known what I was getting into. In 1989, Robert Alter lamented the eclipse of literary scholarship by theoretical language games in his book Pleasure of Reading in an Ideological Age. The research done in most English departments, he observed, no longer cares to “engage the literary work in its subtle and compelling specificity but rather to use it as a prooftext for preconceived, and all too general, views.” He estimates that “many young people now earning undergraduates degrees in English or French . . . have read two or three pages of Lacan, Derrida, Foucault, and Kristeva for every page of George Eliot or Stendhal.”
That estimate is too conservative by today’s standards. I’ve never read George Eliot or Stendhal and I have a Master’s. Free from academia, I should begin studying literature again. It’s time to ditch the Žižek.
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