November 18, 2005

"The con man's game is always the same: sensing what the gull most wants to be true."

Stephen Metcalf has a nice piece in Slate about the decline of "the English professor as con man." NYU physics prof Alan Sokal plays the central heroic role, with his hoax article explaining why "an external world obedient to invariable physical laws was an Enlightenment fiction." Here's Metcalf:
I started graduate school a few years before the Sokal hoax, when what was still transgressive and sexy about literary theory was fighting it out with the sheer ay, caramba factor of such pronouncements as "E=MC2 is a sexed equation." By the time I exited grad school, the feeling of an era being over—however meretricious in some of its particulars the era might have been—was unmistakable. These days, no think tank pundit would bother to denounce literary theory; its biggest stars, by way of generating some final headlines, have publicly disowned it; and no fresh cohort of terrifying intellectual charismatics has crossed the Atlantic to revive it.
How many hours of your precious life did you throw away trying to get your mind around literary theory? What else did you fritter away your undergrad years studying and what intellectual pursuit would have been a better use of your time? What ideas did you take seriously then that seem so worthless now?


Sammler said...

Trying to find meaning in rock music lyrics has to be high on the list.

Bruce Hayden said...

Actually, close to zero. I don't know what was wrong with me. I also never tried to play Beatles' records backwards to try and hear the hidden messages on them.

But then, despite going to a small liberal arts school (with a great hockey team - despite losing to UW last week) I gravitated towards the sciences and business early on, as grading there was much more objective, than in, for example, English.

Icepick said...

What ideas did you take seriously then that seem so worthless now?

The idea that grad school would be a good thing to do. Little did I know....

Still, I built up a lot of positive karma in grad school, with lots of personal torment and suffering. In my next life I hope to come back as something better than a grad student - a dung beatle, perhaps.

Palladian said...

It's interesting that Metcalf's piece dates the end of the "literary theory" era around the time of Sokal's satirical paper, 1996. In 1996 I was a sophomore in art school, just beginning to take classes in "critical issues" and beginning to have some instructors who implied that all the technique and aesthetics of art I had been asked to consider my freshman year were "falsehoods".

What Metcalf may not realize is that, while PoMo literary theory may have exited stage left in English departments around that time, it had already thoroughly percolated deep into the tissue of quite a number of other liberal arts subjects, fine art being one of the worst. I've long thought that people who fail as actual, bona fide academics, and who desperately need to find some way to earn a living with that phd in comparative ethnic, gender and global studies, quickly see the world of art theory and criticism as juicy quarry. What better group could you find than a bunch of dumb young artists to fob off your half-baked theoretical jargon? In truth, not many, especially young artists in art school who for the most part have not been encouraged to think independently and critically about other subjects and are often not very well or broadly read. The fury with which Baudrillard, Bataille, Deleuze and Guattari, Hal Foster and Rosalind Krauss are hurled at young, paint-spattered heads is alarming and the effects of a casual reading of this stuff is devastating; nothing is more destructive to a young artist's brain than nihilism, and it is nihilism in which these charlatans trade.

Luckily, I had both a naturally skeptical mind and a healthy dose of rural Lutheran intolerance for foolishness so I was able to weather this storm of signifiers and focii and transitional objectifications relatively unscathed, though there were certainly weak moments, such as the week I carried around Hal Foster's anthology "The Anti-Aesthetic" (I didn't read it, I just carried it around). But for the most part I enjoyed learning about the most excessive manifestations of lit theory for my own amusement, and to facilitate informed satire.

Sadly, the cobbled together and reanimated Frankenstein's monster of 80s and 90s postmodernist "theory" (as it was and is called in art school; not art theory or social theory or literary theory, just theory. Like Cher or God or Madonna) is still lumbering around the halls of art schools and graduate departments bludgeoning victims. Toward the late 90s and in my time in graduate school "theory" began to mutate into a pernicious contagion that I call "poetical postmodernism", which is sort of equal parts Foucalt and Mallarmé: theory without any pretense of rigor or detachment.

As I said, good for a lot of laughs, but sadly taken seriously by many who, in saner company, should know better.

Ross said...

I'm a few years behind everyone else, but I just started reading "The Corrections." I had no idea the collapse of the "theory" professor's life was actually an allegory for the collapse for an entire "academic" "field."

I'll give the field this: There's a worthwhile place for exercising one's powers of parsing, speculation and imagination. But it just wouldn't for a university to offer a major in "bullshitting" -- even though that is what naturally takes up a large piece of most undergrads' time.

ScienceDave said...

The whole lit theory thing is fascinating to me. I spent all my time in science classes, all the way through grad school and never had a clue any of this stuff was going on. I mean, I guess maybe I am oppressing somebody, somewhere with my evil whitebread patriarchal physics and chemistry, but damn if I ever had any inkling. Like being on a whole 'nother planet from the liberal arts grad students.

I read about the Sokal thing during a post-doc 6 years after the fact, and it was so clearly scientifically vacuous that it took weeks of study and discussion with a good friend who is a communications prof to even figure out what was at stake. I can tell you, it hasn't made any deep impression among scientists I know that are interested in literature (and I count myself in this class)- instead, there is the the nagging feeling that the whole lit theory field is intellectually incoherent, that it literally means nothing.

Palladian said...


Sokal's paper, "Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" was a parody, so brilliant in its thorough bullshit that it was actually published in a "reputable" PoMo litcrit journal. Sokal wrote quite a bit about his motivations for writing the parody and the implications of the seepage of post-modern nonsense into other fields. Here's his explanation from his website about the affair.

sonicfrog said...

What ideas did you take seriously then that seem so worthless now?

Uhm... pretty much all of them!

michael a litscher said...

How many hours of your precious life did you throw away trying to get your mind around literary theory?

None. I saw my literature profs for the pompous asses that they were the moment I came to realize that in their view, Moby Dick wasn't about a man obsessing over a whale to his ultimate death. Oh no, it was - no, needed to be - much more metaphysical than that.

Furthermore, the ultimate - and true - interpretation of Moby Dick was dependant not on the actual words on the page, but on which professor you got stuck with by the registrar's office.

To think that the actual story being told in Moby Dick was actually represented by black words on white paper was so pedestrian, so gauche, so proletarian. Why, we needed these otherwise useless doctorates in literature to profess to us in order to be properly enlightened.

Hogwash. It was nothing more than self-justification for their wasted college years, inflated and undeserved salary, not to mention their ego masturbation.

Michael A. Litscher
Bachelor of Science
Computer Science and Engineering
Milwaukee School of Engineering
Class of 1987
(where 2 + 2 always equals 4, unless you're in the English department where it necessarily equals oh so much more than that)

Richard Dolan said...

"What else did you fritter away your undergrad years studying and what intellectual pursuit would have been a better use of your time? What ideas did you take seriously then that seem so worthless now?"

As a philosophy major during Vietnam-time (Yale '72), I and others were looking for the Overarching Theory of you-name-it, that would put everything into perspective and provide the ultimate guide to an Authentic and Fulfilling Life. Religion was a non-starter at the time, but the impulse was nevertheless basically that old religious imperative of uniting faith-based idealism with practical action. Except for a few, the Marxist shtick had some shock-value attractiveness but ultimately was just too passe, and its consequences in the real work too gross, to hold much genuine attraction. The frisson of the passing Theories that presented themselves then was all the more intense since so many of the basic texts -- Hegel, Kant, Husserl, Heidegger, etc. -- were written in a highly abstract and deeply impenetrable German translated into an equally recondite English.

I have long since concluded that badly written, barely comprehensible prose is not a mark of Deep Thoughts, but just demonstrates the writer's inability to express himself well, probably because he has gotten himself lost in his own semantic fog. As for the antipathy to all things religious, that too has gone by the boards. At first it was just the impulse that sometimes accompanies parenthood, to impress on one's kids the notion that self absorbed materialism is pretty shallow stuff, and at the same time pass on a culture that was important in my own childhood. But in the process I also discovered why that particular culture has survived for millenia, and recognized that it had much to give, in ways that the Overarching Theories of my college days never did.

Troy said...

Moby Dick is a bit more than a whale tale. The allegory scenes are an attempt to say more than "see whacked out captain chase big fish" (I know it's a mammal dammit!) with wise brutes.

It's not all the Derrida crowd want it to be, but it's a tetch deeper that Grisham, Steele, and your average technical manual -- which is sometimes written by English grad looking for work.

2+2 = 4 always, but sometimes Ahab + white whale + Starbuck > fish story

ScienceDave said...

After reading the article in Slate, the quote from Cardinal Newman- the university shouldn't be seen primarily as vocational school- seems appropriate, and reasonable.

By contrast, the hope that the English dept could somehow subsume all of human knowledge is not so reasonable, I think. I wonder if 'physics envy', or some similar reaction to the idea that science sees itself as emcompassing all things is what engenders this and causes the author to lament the passing of the 'terrifying intellectual charismatics' who could place lit crit on top?

I think science is a great tool. It has the potential to illuminate parts of our nature. But understanding the neurophysiology of orgasm will never be the same as having one, and thus, I have no problem ceding to art its domain. While I'll not likely be a producer of great art, I am certainly a beneficiary.

But to call E=mc^2 a 'sexed equation' because it privileges the speed of light is just nonsense. The fault must lie in the patriarchial biases of algebra (hmm, a Muslim invention) because the equation follows from some definitions (designed to be measurable- any sexist oppression this causes is gravy) and a bunch of mathematics, the sequence of which I had not thought about since my sophomore year in college. This was, on the other hand, a time I was quite interested in chasing women, thereby playing right into all the gender roles I absorbed from society, but I don't think I can foist the blame for that onto Einstein...

Icepick said...

Dudes, 2 + 2 = 0 and 2 + 2 = 1 are just as true as 2 + 2 = 4. It's really a question of how you define your equivalency relation. And that's NOT lit theory.

Isaac said...

mod 4 and mod 3. Go algebra!

jeff said...

What is literary theory? After several years in the Army, I didn't really restart college until 1998. And then I did the Community College thing until I ran out of classes I could take there before transferring to a local mid-level state 4-year school.

Avoiding "English" and other fuzzy stuff that didn't improve my abilities to either understand a computer or write a paper was a goal I successfully achieved.

Steven Den Beste said...

The conclusion of the article is bogus. He laments that English departments can no longer ask deep questions about meaning and purpose.

We don't need English departments for that; that's what the Philosophy department does.

Which once again leaves open the eternal question: just what does an English professor do?

Scipio said...

My professors steadfastly rejected literary theory (or perhaps I merely missed it). Really, my experience was unique.

Icepick said...

Isaac wrote: Go algebra!

Algebra, sweet algebra:
Destroyer of worlds....

michael a litscher said...

Any day that Steven Den Beste has something pithy to say is a good day.

Nice to see you posting again.

Ann Althouse said...

sometimes Ahab + white whale + Starbuck > fish story

Hey, nowadays, when people read "Moby Dick," do they have a feeling that Starbuck is an especially important character? If so, should people name coffee shops after other characters in the book to counterpromote them?

Andrew Seal said...

Steven, philosophy departments too frequently get wrapped up in definitional questions to ask those deep questions. That's not to say that English departments avoid definitional questions, but I should think that having more people asking more deep questions would be a positive thing and that having more angles on the big questions would likely produce valuable comparisons of conclusions.

I personally have found it a great deal easier to study philosophical concepts through either a work of fiction or through a religious worldview--these focus and filter certain aspects of the larger concept and allow for a partial but ultimately deeper understanding of the original question.

Limiting big-question-asking to one department, which is often inefficient at asking the big questions, seems to be a rather absurd suggestion to me.

Ann, Stubb's Coffee just doesn't have the same ring to it, sorry.

tdocer said...

I was an English major (with PoliSci and Philosophy minors) at a small southern college, and I suffered through many tortured sessions of lit theory and emotive writing 101. I didn't buy the lit theory thing, and it showed. Shockingly, I was *not* the most popular student in the department.

The final straw met the camel several years ago: the English department chair asked if alum actually using their English education would mentor current students. I was gainfully employed as a tech writer, so I agreed. During an e-mail exchange with a student who professed an interest in tech writing, I advised her to A) take more writing-focused classes than lit classes, B) stop following the writing advice of Prof X, and C) put down the thesaurus and slowly back away. I haven’t heard a word from an English student or professor since.

On a happier note, I still keep in contact with my PoliSci and Philosophy profs. And when the gift drive comes round every year, my check gets split evenly between those two departments.

In non-answer to Mr. Den Beste’s question, I have no idea what English professors do.

somross said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
somross said...

My goodness, what a lot of venom about English professors. I am one. For the most part, we teach 18 year olds how to write. If we're lucky, we get to teach novels, poetry, and plays, and hope that students learn to love to read for the rest of their lives. We teach them that there are many ways to look at literature, some of which are informed by theories. Literary theory is hardly new: a look at 18th and 19th century writers will show you that they looked at Shakespeare, for instance, in a particular ways that we no longer do. Sorry if some of you got a bellyful of some indigestible postmodernism in your undergraduate days.

XWL said...

As a recovering English Major, it's the squishiness of the study of English that disturbs those who are wired for more linear thinking (and as someone whose been exposed to those classes, I feel a compulsion to explain that these assumptions are my own and I don't claim any ownership on facts, but as all viewpoints must be considered valid from the perspective of the viewer, I feel justified in asserting the privelege of communicating my personal views, phewwwh).

If you organize the world in a linear way then being forced to discuss semiotics when you just want to know how to punctuate a sentence or make a persuasive argument can be frustrating.

English professors have free rein to discuss current events, history, philosophy, anthropology, theology, sociology, and any other -ology that strikes their fancy since all things are expressed by language.

All subjects are text, and all texts are possible subjects for the study of English.

Most English professors don't abuse the posibilities created by these facts, but enough do that those impacted by that abuse focus on the bad examples rather than remembering all the good instructors, and the legends of these abuses grow until they represent the whole of the discipline to many outside observers.

Just cause it's unfair and untrue doesn't mean that isn't how many see things.

XWL said...

New theory (ignore the old theory).

It's the 'frenchness' of it all.

Lacan, Derrida, Foucault, and to some extent Saussure (Swiss, I know, but practically French) they are the demons that haunt most anglophones studying language theory (the least well regarded area of English studies, it seems).

My pet theory is that the damnable obtuseness of critical/language theory stems from the difficulties of translating French into English.

If the meaning is occluded and the syntax tortured, it's not cause it doesn't make sense, it's cause it's profound, it must be it's French.

That's why even English speaking natives write in a style that mimics poorly translated French when discussing language. It's not appropriation it's homage.

I would love to learn French well enough to read the most famous tracts of critical theory in the original, just so I could say, "Knew it all along, it does not make any sense in French, also."

(French is low on my language learning list, though, First master Japanese so that I can play their video-games, then Russian for the poetry, then Italian for Dante, then Spanish cause I live in SoCal, then Tagalog since I may live in a resting home one day, then German since compound words in English aren't nearly long enough, and finally French for the reasons previously stated, after that my brain would be too full to add any other tongues, except maybe dead languages like Greek and Latin)

Simon Kenton said...


I read French well enough to read and translate French LitCrit. And you got it - it doesn't make any sense in the original either. There are at least a couple of reasons to learn French - Camus's La Peste, and Proust's A la Recherche du Temps Perdu are grand novels - but Derrida, Lacan, Foucault? In college I tried to read "The Anthology of Socialist Humanism" (what a richly layered compendium of oxymorons) and it became, almost simultaneously, the first book I ever failed to finish, the first book I ever tore in half, and the first book I ever threw on the ground. Decades would pass before, with an eerie sense of the recrudescence of things past, I encountered Derrida and was compelled to the identical response. Really, dude, would you want to read Heidegger in the original? I'd as soon take hemlock. French literary theory is to the mind as an unremitted diet of Velveeta is to the bowels.

marquisdesade said...

Sokal was shooting fish in a firkin, and the commenters here are dancing along the yellow brick road with strawmen. Although there was much glee at the time (and the book that came out of it is a good read) the theory train had long left that station.

Strangely enough, more fashionable lit-theory such as New Historicism hasn't received the same kind of scrutiny, perhaps because its emphasis on power relationships in language has been embraced by the neocons.

Oh, and the debate on constitutional interpretation for the SCOTUS is a debate on literary theory.

Now, what do law professors do again?

somross said...

I should mention that Ann and I had the same English teacher in high school (who was quite professorial) who was obsessed with Moby Dick. I had to read it twice more (undergrad and grad? I'm blocking it out) and hated it all three times. It's one of the reasons I specialized in English rather than American Lit. I don't care if the whale stands for something else or not. Hate it, hate it, hate it.

tdocer said...


No venom, at least on my part. Bemused and slightly cynical recollections, perhaps...

In fairness, I had three excellent English professors in college. Unfortunately, one has long since passed, one was encouraged to find a new place to teach, and the third left education to focus on other interests.

With some of the other faculty, though, I'm quite convinced that I could have led an hour-long class on the evils of conservatism and libertarianism as evinced by the Milo Bloom character in the "Bloom County" comic strip and received high praise for my ability to distill the essence buried therein. I grant that William Blake's "The Tiger" has a more profound theme than the title might indicate, and that a discussion of that theme is as viable in an English class as it would be in a Metaphysics class, but Freud was right: sometimes a cigar is just a cigar. It is also relevant in an English class to discuss rhyme scheme (or lack thereof), scansion, word choice, and whether these more technical elements of writing add to or detract from that underlying theme. I found that in too many courses we focused on long discussion of theme and little discussion of how the written word conveyed that theme.

I recently noticed in a college mailing that an English prof of my acquaintance (he was my advisor) wrote a paper on Lord Voldemort of "Harry Potter" fame. While I haven't read the paper and know neither its audience nor its contents, I wonder if that's the scholarship I'd promote if I was marketing the college to prospective students.

Anyway, having read your posts, I think your students are safe from the worst tendencies of some English profs, and I wish you well in your endeavors.

Ann Althouse said...

somross: "I should mention that Ann and I had the same English teacher in high school (who was quite professorial) who was obsessed with Moby Dick. I had to read it twice more (undergrad and grad?"

I can still remember Mr. Tucker getting enthused about the lines "He tasks me. He heaps me." and "Meditation and water are wedded forever." And I can still remember sitting next to Joe A. at the front right table and making comments to him, whereupon he would shoot his hand up, get called on, and say my comment as if he'd thought it up. I didn't mind because I wasn't about to raise my hand for every stray thought (I needeed a blog for that), via Joe the thought would get airtime, and Joe was kind of cute.

Rockeye said...

What sticks most in my memory of Moby Dick is just how little I like romantic literature. Melville tells of a whale boat being lowered to chase a whale then being lost in the fog. The unlucky sailors spend a night separated from their ship terrified that they would be lost at sea and would die. This horrific event is covered in less than a full page. Melville in another place discusses why things that are evil and colored white are much worse than evil things of a different color. This takes eleven pages. Melville kills me.

Ann Althouse said...

Rockeye: "Melville tells of a whale boat being lowered to chase a whale then being lost in the fog. The unlucky sailors spend a night separated from their ship terrified that they would be lost at sea and would die. This horrific event is covered in less than a full page. Melville in another place discusses why things that are evil and colored white are much worse than evil things of a different color. This takes eleven pages."

This is highly appealing to me!

"Melville kills me."

Don't tell me. Let me guess: you love "Catcher in the Rye."

somross said...

I'm trying to remember who Joe A. was. I did enjoy "He tasks me, he heaps me."