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Engineer Deconstructs Literary Criticism

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  • by glinden (56181) * on Friday January 09, 2004 @12:16PM (#7928806) Homepage Journal
    Another widely reported [salon.com] exploration into post-modernist literature was "Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity" [nyu.edu] by Sokal. Sokal says, in order to "test the prevailing intellectual standards, I decided to try a modest (though admittedly uncontrolled) experiment: Would a leading North American journal of cultural studies -- whose editorial collective includes such luminaries as Fredric Jameson and Andrew Ross -- publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if (a) it sounded good and (b) it flattered the editors' ideological preconceptions? The answer, unfortunately, is yes."
  • ...can be found here [answers.org]:

    Deconstruction is a theory that is beyond being intellectually bankrupt -- it is intellectually meaningless and thus had no intellectual capital to begin with!

    Crikey!
  • Cut-throat literati (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Ktistec Machine (159201) on Friday January 09, 2004 @12:21PM (#7928872)
    Wouldn't it be nice to work in a field where nobody can say you're wrong?

    You haven't been around any English departments, have you? My wife has an MA in English, and it sounds like the department was pretty vicious.

    I'd argue that it's a lot harder being in a field with "soft" realities. Anything you say is subject to criticism, and it's really hard to "prove" you're right. I'll take an objective field, where I can demonstrate truth or falsehood irrefutably, any day. (I know that's an overstatment: you can always debate the meaning of experimental results. But you get the idea.)

  • Must see link (Score:5, Interesting)

    by arvindn (542080) on Friday January 09, 2004 @12:25PM (#7928929) Homepage Journal
    Postmodernism generator [elsewhere.org]

    Consider the following paragraph from the article:

    The essential paradigm of cyberspace is creating partially situated identities out of actual or potential social reality in terms of canonical forms of human contact, thus renormalizing the phenomenology of narrative space and requiring the naturalization of the intersubjective cognitive strategy, and thereby resolving the dialectics of metaphorical thoughts, each problematic to the other, collectively redefining and reifying the paradigm of the parable of the model of the metaphor.

    Now read an essay by the postmodernism generator. Can you tell the difference? ;-)

  • by UrgleHoth (50415) on Friday January 09, 2004 @12:25PM (#7928934) Homepage
    So the only proof they can use is proof by intimidation?
  • by Hast (24833) on Friday January 09, 2004 @12:27PM (#7928956)
    My favourite example of postmodern papers is the Notes on postmodern programming [vuw.ac.nz]. AFAIC they wrote it in order to get their tickets payed to a symposium. They could have been srious, but that's a rather scary though considering it includes one page with a hand drawn and rather irrelevant image.

    Quite interesting and amusing though.
  • by Otter (3800) on Friday January 09, 2004 @12:36PM (#7929083) Journal
    Or, to put it differently -- nobody can say you're "wrong" but they can certainly deny your grant application, decline your papers, deny you tenure... Academics in those fields compete with a sort of gamesmanship and style that's every bit as cutthroat as being right.

    (Anyway, if humanities folk cross the line into any sort of political correctness, believe me that there won't be any reticence about declaring them "wrong", then.)

  • by jandrese (485) * <kensama@vt.edu> on Friday January 09, 2004 @12:41PM (#7929132) Homepage Journal
    Indeed, at the beginning of the article he even explains how he read the basic fundamentals of the field to determine weather or not there was any merit to the whole process. In doing so, he discovered that the whole exercise was not as difficult as first appeared and proceeded to explain in laymens terms how the whole thing works. That's why its a great article.
  • by Frymaster (171343) on Friday January 09, 2004 @12:41PM (#7929134) Homepage Journal
    i'm tempted to recall a scene in italo calvino's "if on a winter's night a traveller..." (a classic of po-mo lit):

    in said scene, a literary critic develops a program to count the frequency of words in a given book (ignoring prepositions, pronouns and the like) and then display the 20 most and least frequent words. the theory is that the core concept of the book can be gleaned by simply reading these lists.

    now i have tried this myself and can say, while it does not work to the level stated by calvino, it does certainly give you a feel for the book. different genres have noticable word distributions especially. it's easy to identify, say, a western or sci-fi or romance novel from these lists.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday January 09, 2004 @12:43PM (#7929154)
    Wesley Phoa has written a good text called [margaretmorgan.com]
    Should Computer Scientists Read Derrida? that i can only recommend. Unlike the usual Deconstruction-Bashers that don't bother to understand what Deconstruction is about, this text, written by mathematician, is pretty clued up!
  • As an avid reader, I have to say that this entirely true. But then again, deconstruction is not about being intellectual. It's about SEEMING intellectual, when in fact all you are doing is rewriting somebody else's work using the tersist means possible. In short: deconstruction is creative writing for essayists. It is a tool for those learning how to write. And expecting something so masturbatory to be anything more than a bit of clever fun is going to result in anti-intellectual rage.

    When you deconstuct a work, you create a paper which is impossible to fail on a theoretical basis, because each deconstruction is in fact its own theoretical entity. It's very hard to say, objectively, that a deconstruction is "wrong." And therefore, in the eyes of many professors, your grade on this paper can only be judged on its logical progression and its written style.

    In short: deconstructions can be interesting, can be fun, and show off a person's analytical and prosaic talents. But no, they aren't going to further the "intellectual" pursuit of writing. But this is no different from a forensics meet, where people argue a position they themselves may not hold, to showcase their oration and research talents. This is no different from a poetry slam or rap battle, where people read disconnected passages to gain a subjective edge over other poets. And it's certainly no different from engineers engaging in robot battles, code obfuscation contests, or blog entries about how literary criticism is bullshit.

    Incidentally, while deconstructionists can never be wrong because they write their own assumptions, literary critics in general CAN be. In fact, one of my favorite exercises in my 350 level discourse class was to rebutt a literary criticism from the New York Times magazine. Literary critics make mistakes in logic, levy unfair comparisons and make mistakes of intent all the time, and these often result in an unlikely hypothesis being legitimized. Hence the popularity of Ayn Rand!
  • by Dr. Evil (3501) on Friday January 09, 2004 @12:56PM (#7929305)

    Did he misrepresent himself?

    Did his joke go unnoticed?

    I agree with you that there are some engineering fruitcakes out there, but this may not be one of them.

    A creative, educated, "non-expert" perspective in a field can sometimes be very valuable. For instance, journalists. In tech, we know they're often full of garbage, but they do say the odd thing, which when interpreted by somebody with a deeper technical understanding can be valuable.

    Maybe a better example is the absurd blithering of a really bright first-year student.

  • by dantheman1210 (739254) on Friday January 09, 2004 @12:58PM (#7929320)
    I agree that some humanities fields can be brutal if they don't like what you had to say about something, but based on what my wife tells me (her degree is in sociology) it has more to do with if they like you personally. When she was going for her degree as long as she had a good raport with the prof she was golden, but if she differed with them on ideals or something she couldn't do anything right. While it gets me frustrated how she could do reports on books from reading the preface and get an A, at least in me CS degree I was either right or wrong based on fact and not some underpaid bitter little man's opinion of what was right.
  • > And it's certainly no different from
    > engineers engaging in robot battles

    Hm. I wouldn't lump this in with the obfuscated code contests. Programming a Robocode [ibm.com] bot, for example, is "clever fun", yes, but it's also a good exercise in learning more about search and evade techniques, trig, and so forth.

    A bot programmer is bound by the constraints of the bot environment - time allowed for each move, effect of a hit, etc - and thus must deal with those constraints to produce an effective bot. And the bots themselves are certainly "capable of being wrong" in that a poorly written bot will usually be crushed by the better ones.
  • by chmod000 (123913) on Friday January 09, 2004 @01:03PM (#7929380)
    The editors perceived something worthwhile in the article, and Sokal has no standing to insist otherwise, even if he is the author.


    Sokal published a follow-up to the article describing all the intentional bogosity used in it, an article which those selfsame self-deceived editors rejected as "not meeting intellectual standards".


    The editors saw something worthwhile to themselves, it is true: an opportunity to preen their feathers and strut their scientific sophistication in public. That the principles of postmodernism failed to disclose to them the hook inside the bait, a hook obvious to most geeks who read the original article, oughtn't to escape your attention.


    Another thing to consider is, postmodernists claim to be able to deconstruct anything. That goes for your post, as well. You have no standing to insist that it means any particular thing, if I want to see it otherwise.


    It's a goose-and-gander thing.

  • by kiwimate (458274) on Friday January 09, 2004 @01:06PM (#7929433) Journal
    Although I'm not a literary critic, I am married to one, and she always disagreed with Derrida (the father of deconstruction theory, as I understand it). Interestingly enough, we had the chance to listen to him present a seminar a few years ago in Auckland, New Zealand, as he was participating in a conference sponsored by the Auckland University School of Philosophy.

    So we went to listen to him speak (unfortunately not on deconstruction, but she was still very excited to have the chance to hear him). We left the Town Hall after the seminar and my wife said to me "Dammit, now I can't dislike him any more, he's so nice". A few seconds pause, then "But he's still wrong about deconstruction".

  • by melquiades (314628) on Friday January 09, 2004 @01:19PM (#7929650) Homepage
    Sokal's experiment demonstrated that peer review standards in deconstructionist journals are low. It did not demonstrate, however, that the whole discipline is meaningless, just that one journal (albeit a respected one) was unable to distinguish the meaningless from the meaningful.

    About a year ago, my parents gave me an amusing little animatronic toy which (allegedy) responded to voice commands. "Kuma! Sing me a song!" you'd say, and its little lights would flash and it would play a tinny little melody. Then you'd say "Kuma! Hing freeb gafrob nok!" ... and its little lights would flash and it would play a tinny little melody.

    Reasonable conclusion: Kuma cannot differentiate English from nonsense.

    Unreasonable conclusion: All English is nonsense.
  • by Otter (3800) on Friday January 09, 2004 @01:20PM (#7929662) Journal
    Perhaps this will resolve your misunderstanding on why "no on seems to have made that argument"?

    I'm probably obtuse, but -- no, I still don't understand. Your point is that Sokal is making a similar argument, right? And is his argument invalid?

    My spin is just the opposite of his. If I'm a Social Thought editor, the argument I make (out of sincerity or out of damage control, as the case may be) is this: all this talk of "trust" and "deception" is irrelevant. Dr. Sokal submitted a provocative article and we published it. He can declare it to be gibberish, but that no more invalidates our decision than any other instance in which a reader declares some text to be nonsensical.

    To put it differently, my reaction is the same as Sokal's "Or are they more deferent to the so-called ``cultural authority of technoscience'' than they would care to admit?" I'm just surprised that they gave up so easily.

  • by JWhitlock (201845) <John-Whitlock&ieee,org> on Friday January 09, 2004 @01:20PM (#7929668)
    Umberto Eco [themodernword.com] is one of my favorite authors, and an academic in the field of semiotics. Semiotics is a bit hard to define, but a quick definition is the study of how humans use signs and language to communicate. My thought was, if this obviously intellegent and interesting author can devote whole books to semiotics, there might be something to it.

    After some searching, I found Semiotics for Begineers [aber.ac.uk], which was a pretty good introduction to the field, and written with enough clarity that even this programmer could figure out the strange language. Go give it a try.

    It might also help you as a programmer. We use esoteric language all the time, like '\n', 0xDEADBEEF, deques and queues, stdout, stderr, stdlog, etc. etc., and semiotics tries to explain how these somewhat random characters can be attached to ideas, so that our community can send the characters back and forth to communicate the ideas. However, if it comes to an assembler class vs. a semiotics class, please take the assembler class.

  • by drooling-dog (189103) on Friday January 09, 2004 @01:22PM (#7929691)
    Engineer's Disease has claimed another victim.

    I don't entirely disagree with you, but... Maybe it's because engineers and scientists live in a world where there's usually a clear distinction between what's correct and what's not, and an emphasis of substance over form. They're expected to actually know what they're talking about, and it's usually painfully obvious if they don't. That's why you'll never hear about a humanities prof sneaking a nonsensical paper into, say, Physical Review Letters as a joke.

    On the other hand, I've met and seen people insulted by plenty of computer geeks who - almost uniquely among professionals - seem to think that their little sub-island of knowledge is the only one by which true intelligence is measured, and will take every opportunity to let you know this. I almost never encounter that attitude with scientists, lawyers, or physicians. Must have something to do with maturity and social skills, but in my observation puberty is not the cure.

  • by leoaugust (665240) <leoaugust&gmail,com> on Friday January 09, 2004 @01:32PM (#7929840) Journal

    In the spirit of "postmodern literary criticism" I choose the essay itself as my "text" and here are the exciting results.

    The basic enterprise of contemporary literary criticism is actually quite simple. It is based on the observation that with a sufficient amount of clever handwaving and artful verbiage, you can interpret any piece of writing as a statement about anything at all.

    Well, I tried to see if I could "see into" the essay as a satire and a wicked, though blunt, assessment of the current administration. I thought that the essay was a coded satire and similar to the work of Jonathan Swift, but without the humor and imagination. (Full Disclosure - I am an Engineer by training.) So here my application of the 5-Step methodology to "deconstructing" the essay.

    "Deconstruction" is based on a specialization of the principle, in which a work is interpreted as a statement about itself, using a literary version of the same cheap trick that Kurt Gddel used to try to frighten mathematicians back in the thirties.

    I really don't know what Godel wrote but I have read an interpretation of it via Douglas Hofstadter's - Godel, Escher, Bach. Here is where I do find the similarities in the prescription laid out by Hofstadter and in the essay.

    Step 5 -- Derive another reading of the text, one in which it is interpreted as referring to itself.
    Hofstadter calls it "Self-Reference."

    Step 4 -- Convert your chosen distinction into a "hierarchical opposition"
    Hofstadter calls it "Tangled Hierarchies."

    Step 3 -- It is a convention of the genre to choose a duality,
    Hofstadter calls this the "Figure/Ground" Duality.

    Step 2 -- Decide what the text says.
    Hofstader starts of with trying to see the meaning of "This sentence is false."

    Step 1 -- It also allows the literary critic to extend his reach beyond mere literature.
    Hofstadter extended his reach beyond Mere Godel into Bach's music and Escher's Art.

    And here is where I can extend beyond mere literature into the nature of politics, govt, and the current administration.

    However, the choice of text is actually one of the less important decisions you will need to make, since points are awarded on the basis of style and wit rather than substance, although more challenging works are valued for their greater potential for exercising cleverness.

    True, it doesn't matter if I choose to focus on the current administration, or the mad-cow outbreak. The choice of the subject is actually one of the less important decisions that I have to make.

    The broader movement that goes under the label "postmodernism" generalizes this principle from writing to all forms of human activity, though you have to be careful about applying this label, since a standard postmodernist tactic for ducking criticism is to try to stir up metaphysical confusion by questioning the very idea of labels and categories.

    It is very interesting that such a standard postmodernist tactic for ducking criticism was used by Mr. Donald Rumsfeld who was awarded the prize of 'Foot in mouth' prize for [cnn.com] for it, and actually came very close to being awarded the "Man of the Year" by Time Magazine ! (Rummy declined honor as 'Person of the Year [hillnews.com]) His award winning poem was trying to create a metaphysical confusion by the following :

    The Unknown [msn.com]
    As we know,
    There are known knowns.
    There are things we know we know.
    We also know
    There are known unknowns.
    That is to say
    We know there are some things
    We d

  • Re:Must see link (Score:3, Interesting)

    by urbazewski (554143) on Friday January 09, 2004 @01:36PM (#7929901) Homepage Journal
    Realign the phase inverters to calibrate the flux of the tachyon field...

    A techno jargon generator would produce text that would seem equally comprehensible/incomprehensible to someone unfamiliar with the definitions of the terms used. Just because I don't understand something doesn't mean it doesn't make sense, what's interesting about the article is that it recounts the author's attempt to find out if literary criticism has content or not.

  • by MrHanky (141717) on Friday January 09, 2004 @02:08PM (#7930344) Homepage Journal
    I'm not a card-carrying follower of the Church of Deconstruction, but I've studied it a bit, and tried to understand it. It's true that deconstruction would state that no statement is true. And that's a contradicion. But that doesn't mean it's not true. Or wait, it does. The point is, it doesn't make deconstruction less interesting. Deconstruction demonstrates how language fails, how logic is undermined by rhetoric and vice versa. The statements people draw from it are far less interesting than the thinking that leads to them. Like in all kinds of philosophy.

    First, the usual disclaimer: This is a tough subject, and English is not my native language. All errors in logic and expression result from that. :-)

    That article you linked to is terrible, and the logic behind it is false or non-existant. And apparently not very honest: The author attacks deconstruction for confusing artificiality with convention and deceptive and false. However, his own argument against it is dependent on the same confusion.

    Even if "all language systems are conventional" (this can't be called a "major tenet of deconstruction," as the author claims. The major tenet would be that all language is artificial, and that's something completely different.) necessarily must be a conventional statement if the statement is true, wouldn't in itself make it a self-contradictory statement. It would merely make it part of the same hermetic, conventional, language system. Now, this language system might be quite self-contradictory, and deconstruction is the philosophy of self-contradicion in the language systems, so the author isn't so far off. He just avoids the real issues of deconstruction, which have nothing to do with convention, and everything to do with artificiality.

    Ferdinand de Saussure is important here, but not in the way the author thinks. The idea that the relationship between signifier (expression) and signified (meaning) is arbitrary does not lead to that meaning has "nothing to do with reality," but it does lead to the obvious fact that the two (meaning/reality) are different. What we think of the world is not the world. That should be pretty obvious: The word "I" is not the same as the person who utters "I." That a word is a fact about language, and not a fact about the world, follows from this. "Falsely," the author claims, but without any argument.

    He goes on to state that Derrida's "most controversial idea," that "linguistic meaning is fundamentally indeterminate," means the same as "I cannot utter a word of English." This is plain bad logic, and also not very good rhetoric. A better analogue would be "You don't understand a word of what Derrida is saying," and that statement would be true (if said to the author of the article).

    This article's main tenet (n : a religious doctrine that is proclaimed as true without proof), is as you quote: Deconstruction is a theory that is beyond being intellectually bankrupt -- it is intellectually meaningless and thus had no intellectual capital to begin with!, and the author goes out to scare people away from those who do not share that doctrine by spewing a lot of nonsense.

    His main argument seems to be that Derrida doesn't follow his "master" Saussure in everything, and that is somehow "illogical", then he rounds off with concluding that "there is indeed one way to God," which he also means is "epistemologically self-evident." This article is just a bunch of anti-anti-religious propaganda. He's scared that deconstruction will destroy Authority, not truth.
  • Excellent article (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Damek (515688) <adam@@@damek...org> on Friday January 09, 2004 @02:11PM (#7930385) Homepage
    I often feel very defensive of "the humanities" (and how fun it is to lump many different disciplines under one label!), mostly because I was a half-n-halfer in college: I studied Anthropology. I generally understood a lot of what "postmodernism" was about, but have never attempted to summarise it like this guy so deftly has here:

    So, what are we to make of all this? I earlier stated that my quest was to learn if there was any content to this stuff and if it was or was not bogus. Well, my assessment is that there is indeed some content, much of it interesting. The question of bogosity, however, is a little more difficult. It is clear that the forms used by academicians writing in this area go right off the bogosity scale, pegging my bogometer until it breaks. The quality of the actual analysis of various literary works varies tremendously and must be judged on a case-by-case basis, but I find most of it highly questionable. Buried in the muck, however, are a set of important and interesting ideas: that in reading a work it is illuminating to consider the contrast between what is said and what is not said, between what is explicit and what is assumed, and that popular notions of truth and value depend to a disturbingly high degree on the reader's credulity and willingness to accept the text's own claims as to its validity.


    This is the meat of the article, and, to my mind, accurately picks out that which is of value in the humanities.

    As far as I'm concerned, the humanities need a major overhaul. Those majoring in english or art should have their science requirements increased beyond whatever they are now. At the same time, I think the sciency types of the world should be similarly forced to undertake a number of humanities courses. But the humanities teachers should be forced to explain themselves in terms as simple, obvious, and concise as the author did above.

    Now, back to my botany studies...
  • by Animats (122034) on Friday January 09, 2004 @02:11PM (#7930388) Homepage
    Science has some of the same problems as literary criticism. Go back to the Kuhn vs. Popper debate to understand this. The hard-line position is that science proceeds by someone proposing a hypothesis, testing it experimentally, encouraging others to test it, and if it survives testing, it moves up to a theory. Hypotheses which are not experimentally falsifiable are not useful. The "soft" position is that science is a cultural construct and hypotheses need not be testable. Kuhn, the proponent of the "soft" position, won a famous debate on this subject in 1965.

    The "soft" position is unpopular because it leads to the conclusion that many "sciences" aren't. Psychology, sociology, and most of economics lose out. So do the "retrospective" fields, like paleontology. They're considered belief systems, not sciences. Since there are more people in those fields than in the hard sciences, this is an unpopular position.

    Engineering makes it clear which position is right. Engineering is based entirely on results which are experimentally falsifiable. Only results tested by experiments which could fail, but didn't, have predictive power. Engineering is about prediction. Without prediction there is no reliability.

  • by divisionbyzero (300681) on Friday January 09, 2004 @02:24PM (#7930542)
    Obviously, all humanities professors are not idiots. Some of it is valid (note I didn't say true, even less of it is true), but most isn't. Most of them know that most of it is horse shit.

    So, why do they do it? Tenure. Publish or perish. Truly original, basic research in the humanities is so rare that they have decided that it isn't possible and make shit up instead. Not only that but the shit has to conform to the dominant style.

    It all started with the rise of feminism in academia during the late sixties. Again some of the original feminist works are great and society is a better place because they were written. However instead of accepting that and moving on to other aspects of society the same paradigm of these original works was applied to every conceivable group of people in every conceivable area.

    This approach has some validity and occurs in other fields as well (e.g. studying the movements due to gravity of every type of thing), but in the humanities it is usually the case that they are doing something comparable to using a theory of electro-magnetic force to explain the movement of the stars. It's either a clear misapplication of the theory or the explanatory value of the theory in that circumstance is miniscule.

    The paradigm? Show how this group could have possibly been oppressed. If you are lucky, for maximum emotional effect, you'll be able to show how the opressed were actually superior to the oppressors.

    For a truly wonderful example of this kind of scholarship, read anything by Judith Butler.

    Disclaimer: I am not trying to say that there isn't some worthwhile stuff going on, but the demand that professors produce research creates the perfect evironment for pointless and fraudulent research. And that's true for all disciplines.

    It all comes back to money. If the universities produce more research, they get more money (e.g. grants, fellowships, etc).
  • RTFA (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Glass of Water (537481) on Friday January 09, 2004 @03:28PM (#7931316) Journal
    You jerk, that sentence from the article was meant to illustrate the sillyness of postmodern jargon. It's the only sentence that doesn't make sense.
  • by bmedwar (693432) on Friday January 09, 2004 @04:11PM (#7931911) Homepage
    The problem where people in a certain sector only get interactive feedback from others in the same sector applies well to TV news anchors and newspaper writers. There is an inside look at Dan Rathers in a book by a Bernard Goldberg, "Bias". He notes how Rathers is surrounded by people who think exactly the same way he does. This leads Rather to thinking his views are centered within the mass population.
  • Tolkien (Score:3, Interesting)

    by np_bernstein (453840) on Friday January 09, 2004 @04:39PM (#7932331) Homepage
    I want to a highschool where literary critism was a normal event in literature classes. I've always been opposed to this nonsense, since I started out as an artist and have heard people reading things into paintings I've done, or paintings that have been done by people I know: paintings which in many cases mean absoultely nothing. In addition, a good percentage of the art teachers I've had have taught "tricks" like blind contour drawings as basis for paintings, and using color schemes that apply a meaning even when no meaning exists.

    In any case, in my softmore year, we were assigned the hobbit which we had to read, and then explain what the book was really about. Aside from having read the book several times prior to the class, I happened to have the first official U.S. priting, which had a rather extensive introductory letter by tolkien. Aside from the very beginning, which talked about how this was the first printing, and not to purchase the book from other U.S. publishers (they did not have the rights to publish it and were not giving him residuals) he went on to discuss the meaning of the book -- speciffically, the entire lack thereof. He disavowed the book being a metaphore for anything, and asked the reader to accept it for what is was - a story, a flight of fancy, a fantasy which he wrote for nothing other than the purpose of enjoyment. I photocopied the introducion, wrote a quick appology for not disecting the meaning of the book considering that I felt it would be disrespectfull of the author to read meaning into it when he has specifically asked his readers not to. I got a D-.
  • by Crazy Eight (673088) on Friday January 09, 2004 @06:17PM (#7933581)
    Can you really claim that Postmodernism had a clear programmatic aim such as the one you describe? I don't doubt that there were noble political ideals informing some it's creative thinkers -- however quietly those ideals may have been tucked beneath the apparatus they errected -- but now that everything is said and done can't we just admit that it was mostly bullshit?

    Have you ever seen The Princess Bride? Remember the scene where the Prince is about to toast and drink with Wallace Shawn's character Vizzini the "intellectual" leader of the "bad guys". The scene's set up spawns a monologue for Vizzini wherein he thinks aloud about who's going to be a victim of "Iocaine" poison. His rationalizations about which goblet to pick begin with an attempt to read The Prince and spin off into absurdity without ever completely loosing a thread of "smart sounding" logic. The humor of the scene stems from Vizzini's solipsitic outsmarting of himself.

    I think most of the publication that came from this literary/cultural movement should be perceived as we are supposed to perceive Vizzini. The character died because he was so enamoured with his own ability to "talk smart" that he lost sight of the original problem.

    I remember reading the article /. is pointing out here a long time ago (this may be a dupe). The points made about the self-containment of the Humanities' academic community are worth as much as Sokal's example. A mutual admiration society whos members compete for the captain's chair in the Flying Wedge of avant garde literary criticism is bound to go a little nuts.

  • Re:Science (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Colonel Cholling (715787) on Friday January 09, 2004 @06:35PM (#7933770)
    There are a lot of good things about modernistic thinking, but there are a few that aren't so good, too, like a blind faith in Science with a capital S to tell us absolutely everything about everything.

    Thank you for pointing this out. As a graduate student in philosophy with an interest in continental philosophy (including postmodernism), I've had to deal with numerous attacks of the sort used in this article, claiming that postmodern thought is just intellectual posturing with no real content. These criticisms are particularly vehement coming from people in more technically oriented fields, who are often upset because continental philosophy doesn't follow the same Scientific Method they've been spoon-fed since middle school. They then go on to criticize the movement for not adhering to the standards of a world-view which it is trying to move beyond. It's a bit like someone saying Einsteinian physics is nonsense because it can't be reduced to Newton's laws.

    Just to maintain my /. credibility I should point out that I have been using Linux since 1993, can code in C and Python, and made A's in physics as an undergrad (calculus-based physics, mind you, not that wimpy Physics for Humanities Majors crap.) Not everybody who reads Baudrillard or Lyotard is technically inept. I just know better than to accept the technological world-view as the be-all and end-all of human knowledge.
  • by Squiffy (242681) on Friday January 09, 2004 @09:25PM (#7934865) Homepage
    The parent author is very literate and has some interesting ideas, but since s/he exposes an ignorance that is unusual for someone who seems otherwise intelligent, I'll venture that s/he's actually a troll. I'll bite just for fun.

    "If language was really so easy to break down, analyse and interpret in a definitive matter, why is it that NLP is still in its infancy...?"

    You don't need to be a deconstructionist to parse natural language. NLP is still in its infancy because common sense is often necessary to remove syntactic and semantic ambiguities.

    "Science would benefit from the application of deconstruction and any other theory that might help it sort out what it means to claim that something is true, valid or meaningful."

    Scientists aren't fools; they understand a theory as an interpretation of evidence, and consciously use the word "true" as a brief way of saying "so likely as to lie beyond the shadow of reasonable doubt." This understanding is the basis of the scientific method and is essential for success in academia (even though silly politics are too).

    "Is it possible that there are two versions of science, both true? I suppose. Maybe particle/wave theory is an example. Maybe the controversies in superstring theory are other examples."

    No. Wave/Particle duality is part of a single theory that is half wrong when either component is taken away. Controversies in String Theory are aesthetic because all String Theorists agree that future experiments, as difficult as they will be to devise and conduct, are necessary if the theory is to hold water. More generally, in the scientific community all disagreements about a theory are aesthetic: they vanish when the theory is shown to predict the behavior of a system better than the prevailing one.

    "language is not capable of specificity"

    You can never completely eliminate the possibility of being misinterpreted, but you can get arbitrarily close. In other words, you're theoretically right but practically wrong.

    "with jargon, social and cultural perspectives, indeterminacy of the writer and reader, etc, the quest for the grand unified theory is not possible."

    Is it possible that your claim is incorrect? If so, then it is possible that "the quest for the grand unified theory" is possible. If it's possible that it's possible, then it's possible. So the remotest possibility of folly renders this claim completely wrong.

    If you would argue that this claim must be absolutely correct, you won't get my vote without a fairly rigorous proof.

    Instead I'll assume that by "not possible" you mean "highly unlikely". I'll counter that with the observation that misunderstandings in the scientific community are naturally ironed out by the rigor that scientists employ when making their arguments.

    In particular, jargon is an important part of that rigor rather than a hindrance to it. I believe it was you who wrote, "Jargon is necessary to identify complex (or specific) ideas in a minimal amount of words/time." (So is language capable of specificity or not?)

    Your entire argument is so strongly based on the need to take great care when proclaiming something to be true that I'm surprised you were so bold in this final claim. More than anything else, this is what has me thinking you're a troll.

    Alright, I've had my fun. If you meant all of the above sincerely, I apologize for calling you a troll.
  • by Gilmoure (18428) on Saturday January 10, 2004 @12:55AM (#7935838) Journal
    What is this trust in submissions? They are publishing a professional journal and part of the professionalism is reading the submissions and deciding their merit. An editor and publisher is responsible for what they publish. If they get egg on their face, it's their own fault. If they want to be taken seriously, they have to own their work (publishing their journal) and accept all derogations and accolades. So they made a bad call. It does not matter whether the material they published was bogus by intent or error. It is their job to pick the good from the bad.

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