Consider this sentence, taken from a paper that, according to the Times Online, was accepted to an academic conference in 2005:
Contrarily, the lookaside buffer might not be the panacea.
Now, if you’re not sure what that means, that’s because it doesn’t mean anything. It was created by a computer program, which in turn was created by three M.I.T. students for the expressed purpose of generating important-sounding academic gibberish. The above sentence is from their paper (or their program’s paper) entitled, “Rooter: A Methodology for the Typical Unification of Access Points and Redundancy.”
If you’d like to play with something similar, try The Postmodernism Generator, which gave me an essay called “The Burning Fruit: Dadaist Situation in the Works of Madonna.” The most interesting feature here is the spontaneous generation of bogus, copious footnotes: The author (who is not a person, but a computer program) is writing about Derrida (incorrectly), so he must be saying something important (even if what he’s saying makes no fucking sense). “The essay you have just seen is completely meaningless and was randomly generated by the Postmodernism Generator,” boasts a disclaimer at the bottom of the page.
This kind of parody/hoax has become a genre all its own. Of particular note is Alan Sokal’s “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity,” which was published in Duke University’s Social Text (#46/47) back in 1996. Sokal did not use a computer program to create this article; his gibberish is lovingly hand-crafted:
While my method was satirical, my motivation is utterly serious. What concerns me is the proliferation, not just of nonsense and sloppy thinking per se, but of a particular kind of nonsense and sloppy thinking: one that denies the existence of objective realities, or (when challenged) admits their existence but downplays their practical relevance.
In short, my concern over the spread of subjectivist thinking is both intellectual and political. Intellectually, the problem with such doctrines is that they are false (when not simply meaningless). There is a real world; its properties are not merely social constructions; facts and evidence do matter. What sane person would contend otherwise? And yet, much contemporary academic theorizing consists precisely of attempts to blur these obvious truths — the utter absurdity of it all being concealed through obscure and pretentious language.
I have just finished my first quarter of graduate school (which is why I am now able to post, and also why I haven’t been able to post during the past two months). At school, I have been reading a whole lot of Marx, Lacan, and Žižek. This list is not mere name-dropping, but rather a directory of the thinkers who founded what Sokal calls “subjectivist thinking.” That term is highly problematic (any kind of thinking requires subjectivity), so I would like propose a different term for that mode of thinking that cannot differentiate profundity from gibberish: I would like to call it the nonsense problem.
Now, don’t get me wrong. I like reading Žižek (and to a lesser extent, Lacan and Marx, too), and I always learn a lot when I do. But what I learn is fragmentary, and often internally inconsistent. And more to the point, regardless of what Žižek teaches us, it would be intellectually dishonest to pretend that his writing is clear–and it would be ahistorical to deny that he inherits this lack of clarity from Lacan.
In associating Marx and Lacan and Žižek with nonsense, I am not merely complaining that their work is strange and hard to read, nor am I snarkily pointing out that students are often held to a higher standard of clarity than the canonized scholars whom they study. Both of these things are true, but they are only symptoms of the specific mode of discourse that Marx and Lacan and Žižek have founded, a discourse wherein truth-value is assigned that which is most opaque, impenetrable, and/or overwhelmingly intertextual.
In other words, one of the underlying principles of academia seems to be this: That the less sense something apparently makes, the more serious and important it must be.
Sokal points out, quite rightly, that this tradition emanates “from the self-proclaimed Left.” Marx accidentally sanctified nonsense, simply by being a bad writer. Marx makes circular arguments because his ideas are perpetually half-baked and because his rhetorical abilities are severely limited, whereas the many writers whom he inspired (especially Lacan and Žižek) make circular arguments out of principle. It is not that they are blindly copying Marx’s chaotic structure, but rather that they see something profitable in circularity and obtuseness–and it is hard to shake the feeling that on this point they are thoroughly, disastrously wrong. If there actually is an advantage to being misunderstood, then what is that advantage?
By way of conclusion, Sokal asks, “how can one show that the emperor has no clothes?” Here is what Žižek has to say on that subject, in the context of psychoanalysis:
We can see why Lacan, in his seminar on The Ethics of Psychoanalysis, distances himself from the liberating gesture of saying finally that “the emperor has no clothes.” The point is, as Lacan puts, that the emperor is naked only beneath his clothes, so if there is an unmasking gesture in psychoanalysis, it is closer to Alphonse Allais’s well-known joke, quoted by Lacan: somebody points at a woman and utters a horrified cry, “Look at her, what a shame, under her clothes, she is totally naked.”
Slavoj Žižek, The Sublime Object of Ideology (Verso, 1989): 25.
So it’s not a matter of the emperor being naked, but a matter of the clothes being far less meaningful than they pretend to be. The emperor can wear all the clothing he wants, and it won’t change the fact that, as John Vanderslice says, “Sometimes a cowboy’s just a man in a cowboy suit.”
Likewise, sometimes a Great Thinker is just a person repeating the kind of gibberish that we have come to expect from Great Thinkers. Once we understand this, it is no longer all that surprising that we can might mistake computer-generated nonsense for real intellectual work.