On Friday we posted an excerpt from an interview in which linguist Noam Chomsky (something of a political celebrity himself) excoriates Jacques Derrida and Jacques Lacan, along with Lacan’s superstar disciple, Slovenian theorist Slavoj Žižek, for using intentionally obscure and inflated language to pull the wool over their admirers’ eyes and make trivial “theories” seem profound. He calls Lacan a “total charlatan.”
Yep. As the pop star Neecha sang, “Those who know they are profound strive for clarity; those who would like to appear profound to the crowd strive for obscurity.” And there was also the philosophy collective, Depeche Mode, whose seminal paper on the political use of language, “Words Are Very Unnecessary: They Can Only Do Harm,” is still influential today.
People like Karen Armstrong have said that religious fundamentalism is a wholly modern movement, not a premodern one, born as a result of feeling threatened by the advance of science and technology. In essence, once fundamentalists accepted the challenge to prove the literal truth of their mythic stories, rather than be content with them as allegories, they stepped onto a playing field they were woefully unprepared for. I recently read someone — I forget who — saying something similar about postmodernism and critical theory. Much of modern science is extremely specialized and incomprehensible to a lay reader. So, in a misguided attempt to compete with science and retain the humanities’ relevance, postmodernism tried to incorporate similar jargon and specialization. But as Chomsky has said before on this topic, the difference is that if he wants to get a layman’s understanding of the latest theories in physics, he can find someone capable of explaining it to him on a level he can understand. With theory, the bafflegab is the point, and it can’t be stripped away without leaving banality standing there, naked and embarrassed.