Jan 24, 2009

The theory tickle

Critical theory used to not be my thing. When I first arrived at art school in 2003, I had zero exposure to critical theory. My background is in science, and scientists on the whole don't read Derrida. Someone once told me that a German philosopher referred to the French school as Derridada and Lecancan. I laughed heartily - an apt description!

I recently read Postmodernism Disrobed, a review by Richard Dawkins of Intellectual Impostures by Sokal and Bricmont, and realized I may have changed camps. I found myself disagreeing with Dawkins.

Dawkins aims to debunk postmodernism, and the thing he latches onto is communication style. Dawkins writes:

Suppose you are an intellectual imposter with nothing to say, but with strong ambitions to succeed in academic life, collect a coterie of reverent disciples and have students around the world anoint your pages with respectful yellow highlighter. What kind of literary style would you cultivate? Not a lucid one, surely, for clarify would expose your lack of content. The chances are that you would produce something like the following:

"We can clearly see that there is no bi-univocal correspondence between linear signifying links or archi-writing, depending on the author, and this multireferential, multi-dimensional machanic catalysis. The symmetry of scale, the transversality, the pathic non-discursive character of their expansion: all these dimensions remove us from the logic of the excluded middle and reinforce us in our dismissal of the ontological binarism we criticised previously." (Felix Guattari)

Later he writes:

No doubt there exist thoughts so profound that most of us will not understand the language in which they are expressed. And no doubt there is also language designed to be unintelligible in order to conceal an absence of honest thought. But how are we to tell the difference? What if it really takes an expert eye to detect whether the emperor has clothes.

The core of Dawkin's critique is that theory writers use overly-complex language to express their ideas, and misuse scientific terms in ways that make no sense in science. Dawkins argues that critical theory texts should adopt the same metrics of logic, comprehensibility and lucidity as science.

Given that Dawkins wishes to be an advocate for logic and reason, his own heavy reliance on rhetoric does not set a good example. He is surprisingly quick to adopt ad-hominem attacks and juicy language, using words and phrases like the following to try to characterize his subject:

  • ridiculous
  • fashionable
  • daffy absurdity
  • intellectual imposters with nothing to say
  • vacuous rhetoric of mountebanks and charlatans
  • po-faced, solemn and pretentious
  • their writings are so stupefyingly boring
  • a useful tool for bamboozling readers
  • the author of this stuff is a fake

When I first started reading critical theory, I had many of the same kinds of irritations and kneejerk responses as Dawkins. "This stuff is just nonsense!" I told my friends.

I also knew that many in the art world respect writers like Deleuze. Why is this? As a scientist I decided to approach the question empirically. I began a theory reading group with a group of friends. For a year we read a paper a week, meeting every other week to discuss. We called the group Remediality, because it sounded like "remedial," as in remedial studies. The title also contained "media", which suited our focus on media theory. Mostly, though, we made the word up, which goes with the territory.

I discovered that members of the group had very diverse responses to the same article. Some, like me, were theory skeptics. We were quick to point out any passage we thought made no sense. Others were theory agnostic, inquisitive without being dismissive. And a few were theory fans. Kate is in the latter camp. She has a lot of experience reading theory. Once when I said "this makes no sense" Kate responded "yes, but it does give me that sensation in the pit of my stomach." She explained that for her reading theory was not simply about understanding what is said. When she reads theory she gets a buzz, a sense of meaning at the periphery of what can be expressed in language. Kate commented that, after reading a good theory article, a few days later an idea would occur to her in her work, a thought she knew linked back to the theory article. For her, theory helped her think.

I should mention Kate is an extremely rational person, not easily given over to superstitious and religious feelings. So how do we analyze that sensation, her 'theory tickle' as I called it. I am sure Dawkins would dismiss it out of hand as a religious moment. But I'm not so certain. Many scientists will also admit to having had a hunch, a sense that they knew something but didn't understand how, a realization that they grasped an idea at the very edge of their comprehension, and couldn't yet put it in words. These are very human experiences. Kant, perhaps the epitome of a rational thinker, grappled with this issue too. He realized his explanation of the mind was incomplete, some things didn't fit, there had to be an exception - a special case for a human experience at the fringe of reason and feeling, where the mind thrashes against itself. He called it the Sublime.

If we accept, as Kant did, that some experiences are beyond reason, we must also accept that no amount of rational thought can explain those things. Logic will never sufficiently explain human experience. It is here that Dawkins' rational "one model fits all" approach breaks down. When your field of study involves trying to build a mathematical model of the universe, Kantian reason is appropriate. But when your field of study is human experience, there will be moments when the rationalist must admit defeat, put down the pen, and experience a moment of nonsense.

1 comment:

DW said...

You've still got to admit though, sometimes it is just bollocks :-)