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Bad Faith VIII

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David Thompson casts an eye over the postmodern scholarship of “radical cyber-feminist”, Carolyn Guertin.

“Postmodern prose is perhaps best approached as an exercise in posturing and phonetics, of couching slim and trite observations in needlessly Byzantine language… Efforts to fathom deep meaning, or meaning of any kind, are generally exhausting and rarely rewarded. More often, what you’ll find is essentially a pile of language, carefully disorganised so as to obscure a lack of content.”

Thanks to the blogging psychoanalyst, Shrinkwrapped, I came across a dissertation called, rather implausibly, Quantum Feminist Mnemotechnics: the Archival Text, Digital Narrative and the Limits of Memory. The work in question, by “radical cyber-feminist” Carolyn G. Guertin, is apparently the basis of a forthcoming book of the same name. Faced with such an imposing title, one can practically hear the boundaries of human knowledge squealing as they expand. Naturally, I had to find out more.

On visiting Guertin’s website, I discovered that the author is a Senior McLuhan Fellow in the McLuhan Program in Culture and Technology and a Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Toronto. As a “scholar of women’s art and literature and new media arts,” Dr Guertin also shapes young minds at the Universities of Athabasca and Guelph, Canada, and is a frequent guest speaker at conferences and events across Europe. Her works, I learned, have been published “in print, online and in real space.”

Space crops up quite a bit in Guertin’s dissertation, as do various mathematical, quantum mechanical and geometric terms, the bulk of which are misused in a series of strained and incoherent metaphors. In keeping with many purveyors of postmodern theorising, Guertin has been careful to appropriate fragments of scientific terminology that sound fashionable and exciting, and uses them with no apparent regard for their meaning or relevance. (Entanglement and Hilbert Space are mentioned casually, with no explanation and for no discernible reason.) Consequently, it’s difficult to fathom the author’s supposed intention, or to determine exactly how far short of that objective her efforts have fallen. Instead, we’re presented with what amounts to a collage of grandiose jargon, habitual non sequitur and unrelated subject matter — including feminism, web browsing and space-time curvature — bolted together by little more than chutzpah:

“Within quantum mechanics, the science of the body in motion, the intricacies of the interiorities of mnemonic time – no longer an arrow – are being realized in the (traditionally) feminized shape of the body of the matrix.”

And,

“Where women have usually been objects to be looked at, hypermedia systems replace the gaze with the empowered look of the embodied browser in motion in archival space. Always in flux, the shape of time’s transformation is a Möbius strip unfolding time into the dynamic space of the postmodern text, into the ‘unfold.’”

And furthermore,

“As quantum interference, the unfold is a gesture that is a sensory interval. In this in-between space, the transformance of the nomadic browser takes place; she performs the embodied knowledge acquired in her navigation of the world of the text.”

I hope that’s clear to everyone.

Guertin takes care to drop the obligatory menu of names — Baudrillard, Burroughs, Deleuze, Derrida, Gibson and Guattari among them — though the actual relevance of many citations is, again, far from clear. The more sceptical among us may even suspect a number of them have been included arbitrarily or for reasons of cultish connotation, rather than for any logical or evidential relevance.

I should, I think, mention that Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze have been debunked at length in Alan Sokal and Jean Bricmont’s book, Intellectual Impostures, chiefly for producing “a handful of intelligible sentences — sometimes banal, sometimes erroneous,” and for what the authors describe as “the most brilliant mélange of scientific, pseudo-scientific and philosophical jargon that we have ever encountered.” Readers unfamiliar with Guattari’s prose may benefit from a mercifully brief, and by no means unusual, example:

“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 machinic 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.”

At this point, readers may detect a strange similarity of Guertin’s chosen prose style with that of Guattari. It needn’t be Guattari, of course. It might as well have been Baudrillard or Derrida, or half of the names in Guertin’s annotations. One ream of postmodern gibberish is difficult to distinguish from any other, and this is not by accident. Buzzwords are carefully chosen — along with gratuitous neologisms and misused terminology — generally to build sentences of such opacity and length that readers will be suitably intimidated.

The intention behind such wilfully unintelligible text is, it seems, not to invite thought or reward it, but to repel and discourage it. This is done by exhausting the reader’s efforts to comprehend and reducing him to a state of demoralised dishonesty, whereby absurd and vacuous statements are repeated and endorsed, regardless of incomprehension and for fear of appearing stupid. By publicly endorsing vacuity, and making great claims in its name, the unsuspecting student has thus been painted into a corner and any subsequent rethinking entails an intolerable loss of face and credibility. Few of us like to admit to being duped, least of all those who’ve been duped rather badly. This may explain the heated defensiveness that surrounds even the most absurd material of this kind.

Postmodern prose is perhaps best approached as an exercise in posturing and phonetics — of couching slim and trite observations in needlessly Byzantine language; or as what Sokal and Bricmont refer to as “a gradual crescendo of nonsense.” Efforts to fathom deep meaning, or meaning of any kind, are generally exhausting and rarely rewarded. More often, what you’ll find is essentially a pile of language, carefully disorganised so as to obscure a lack of content.

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As Shrinkwrapped notes, Guertin’s ‘conclusion’ is suitably postmodern, mulling as it does on the difficulty of arriving at a conclusion. In a rare moment of relative lucidity, we learn: “The whole concept of reaching a conclusion or drawing conclusions is, of course, antithetical to the nature of this kind of literature as much as to my aims in this work as a whole.” Instead of any attempt to summarise her thoughts, such as they are, Guertin veers from vacuous pseudo-argument to vacuous pseudo-poetry, and resorts to listing a series of words in no perceptible order:

“Agency, noise, flow, différance , interface, objects, events, duration, intervallic space, topology, complexity, ecstasy, incorporation, inscription, translation, heterotopic space, hierophanies, hysteria, hybridity…”

This goes on for some time:

“…intervallic space, topology, complexity, ecstasy, incorporation, inscription, translation, heterotopic space, hierophanies, hysteria, hybridity, chora, translation, transformance, interference, entanglement, chaos, Hilbert space, speed, resonance, rupture, rapture, wanderlust…”

And so on.

It’s important to understand that nonsense of this kind is rarely arrived at by accident. It’s highly unlikely that mere clumsiness and mental dullness would produce such determined vacuity. It’s less probable still that so many academics and students would, by chance and dullness alone, produce vacuity with such eerie uniformity. To produce ‘work’ of the generic emptiness shown above — or here, or here, or here, or here – requires practice and dedication. One might forgive genuine stupidity and a lack of mental wherewithal, but when people who aren’t entirely stupid are determined to embrace stupidity and to propagate that stupidity as the height of intellectual sophistication, well, that’s harder to excuse. In a saner world, Guertin and her peers would be laughed out of every room they entered, and a gentle pelting with soft fruit wouldn’t go amiss.

In my recent discussion with Ophelia Benson, I suggested that PoMo ‘theorising’ has most obviously served far-left ideologues, specifically those, like Guertin, whose ideas wouldn’t withstand critical scrutiny of the most elementary kind. One notes, for instance, the number of PoMo traffickers who label themselves as “activists” or “radicals” of various far-left causes. And one notes that almost all of the architects and key figures of politicised postmodernism have embraced leftist politics, often of an extreme kind. If, to quote Foucault, “reason is the ultimate language of madness”, and if, as Jean-Francois Lyotard argued, notions of truth and clarity are synonymous with “prisons and prohibitions,” then adherents of this view are free to believe whatever they wish to believe, regardless of contrary evidence or logical errors, and regardless of the practical fallout of such beliefs.

If words can be read to mean the opposite of what they do, and if anachronistic subtexts can be projected to suit the reader’s own preferences, then a world of false opportunity has been opened. If hierarchies are flattened into a spectrum of incompatible yet equally valid “narratives,” then one can argue that the second-hand ‘revelations’ of Muhammad are equal in rigour and sophistication to the epistemology of David Hume, or that aboriginal rock painting is on an aesthetic par with Bach; or that gender is entirely a social construction with no biological basis. Or, against all evidence to the contrary, that Socialism is compatible with individual freedom and general prosperity.

Some, like Simon Blackburn, have argued, rather woollily, that postmodern theorising isn’t that bad, some of it at least; and besides, its influence is fading. Well, let’s hope so. But politicised PoMo has for decades cast its shadow over hundreds of thousands of minds. Minds that have been encouraged to deconstruct the tools of rational thought in order to repeat political preferences of a remarkably similar kind, and in a remarkably similar way.

In Why Truth Matters, Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom quote David Lehman’s Signs of the Times, a lamentation on the state of English departments, in which he recounts being told, “If you want to make it in the criticism racket, you have to be a deconstructionist or a Marxist, otherwise you’re not taken seriously. It doesn’t matter what you know. What counts is your theoretical approach. And this means knowing jargon.” As I noted here, the pervasiveness of postmodern theory is uniquely pernicious in that it has explicitly marginalised expectations of accuracy, coherence and truth in favour of ostentatious political conformity. Some might call this intellectual vandalism. This is the legacy of postmodern thought, as trafficked by many academics of the left — the freedom to blunt the senses and be triumphantly, shamelessly wrong. Provided, of course, everyone is wrong in exactly the same triumphant way.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
David Thompson is a freelance writer whose work appears in The Observer, The Times and The Guardian. He is also a regular contributor to Eye: The International Review of Graphic Design. An archive of his work can be found at his website.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Sunday, April 8th, 2007.