Ziauddin Sardar has been reading some Radical Thinkers.
Taken together, the works selected by Verso embody the creation and development of a dissenting tradition that set out to question and subvert the established order. Yet while this was once the principal strength of these thinkers, it has become something of an Achilles heel. A collective reading exposes all that has gone wrong with radical thought in the 20th century. Traditions, and intellectual traditions in particular, rapidly ossify and degenerate into obscurantism…It is time to…move forward from Baudrillard’s and Derrida’s postmodern relativism to some notion of viable social truth; and for criticism to stop messing about with signs and signifiers, and instead confront the increasing tendency of power towards absolutism.
Ossification and obscurantism are indeed (I would say) the problems. Endless pivoting on one spot, is what all too much Theory reads like. It is indeed time to move forward. That one spot has been well and truly pivoted on by now, so move on.
Radical thought, as exemplified by this list, suffers from three fundamental problems. First, jargon. These thinkers have developed a rarefied terminology that they employ to talk among themselves to the exclusion of the majority – on whose behalf they presume to speak. This tendency has been directly responsible for the intellectual decline of the left…The second problem is theory…At its worst, theory becomes little more than a tool of tyranny. Paul Virilio’s The Information Bomb (2000) provides a good example. Virilio’s analysis of information technology and the relationship between science, automation and war is knee-deep in theory but perilously short on insight, offering hardly any advance on Jerry Ravetz’s 1971 classic Scientific Knowledge and its Social Problems.
This is what I’m saying. Pivoting on one spot. All too often Theory seems to be nothing but an exercise in taking the jargon out for an airing, to show one’s peers that one knows how to deploy the vocabulary properly, and then taking it home again, with nothing in particular accomplished. This is a deeply unimpressive activity, which five minutes spent with a good new book in history or philosophy or law or a mix of disciplines will show up for the empty sack it is.
Look for instance at a sentence in this piece on academic language in the Guardian the other day. I think the writer of the piece is wrong about the problem with it.
When several noun phrases of this type gang up, they leave non-experts gasping for breath, as in “Deconstruction’s relentless questioning of the authority of perception and thought discovers the heterogeneous conditions of significance, the conditions of both theoretical coherence and deconstructive play.” Critical theorists probably find this subject-verb-object sentence child’s play. For the rest of us, there are too many files to unzip.
No, I don’t think so, I don’t think the problem is all the nouns at the start, I think the problem is that the nouns don’t refer to much of anything – they just represent some pivoting. That sentence says very little, and what it does say is both obvious and familiar. That sentence isn’t difficult as opposed to child’s play, it’s vacuous and preening and irritating. In fact it seems to be all about pretending to be difficult and hoping to awe the peasants with a display of erudition while in fact just messing around like a toddler in a mud puddle. The writer is saying ‘Get this – too many files to unzip, right? Difficult, right? Deep? Searching? Relentless? Don’t you wish you were me?’