Michael Ellsberg: “They were drawn to it, like flies…”

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Author, author! No... not the guy...

The website of Cambridge University’s Catherine R.D. La Tournier includes this passage from her 844-word essay, “Derridaist Reading and Dialectic Modernism“:

If one examines Derridaist reading, one is faced with a choice: either accept dialectic modernism or conclude that consensus is created by the masses, but only if reality is distinct from consciousness; otherwise, we can assume that the collective is capable of truth.

However, the characteristic theme of the works of Madonna is a self-fulfilling totality. Any number of constructions concerning the paradigm, and eventually the dialectic, of cultural culture may be discovered.

In the works of Madonna, a predominant concept is the concept of neotextual language. It could be said that the premise of predialectic desituationism holds that reality must come from communication, given that Lacan’s critique of dialectic modernism is invalid. Several theories concerning Derridaist reading exist.

Exciting, innit?

A lot to answer for...

But not for the reason you think.  In fact, it wasn’t written by a human.

As it says on the bottom of the page: “The essay you have just seen is completely meaningless and was randomly generated by the Postmodernism Generator. To generate another essay, follow this link. “The Postmodernism Generator was written by Andrew C. Bulhak using the Dada Engine, a system for generating random text from recursive grammars, and modified very slightly by Josh Larios (this version, anyway. There are others out there).”  In other words, the program randomly generates grammatically-correct yet meaningless English prose from a pre-determined mix-and-match vocabulary list, according to Michael Ellsberg in Forbes’s  “Why Trying to Learn Clear Writing in College Is Like Trying to Learn Sobriety in a Bar.”

Each time you refresh the page, it spews up a whole new set of garbage – just like the kind you might read in one of the trendier journals.

Ellsberg claims that “the style of writing you’ll pick up from your humanities professors in college, and which you will be encouraged to write, is so formulaic, that passable versions of it can be produced automatically by a computer program.”

“I must say, I think I could have submitted this very essay in most of my humanities and social science classes at Brown and received a passing grade—possibly even an A for my ‘subversive dialectical critique.'”

Drinking for sobriety

Ellsberg contends that bad writing nowadays is not sloth or ignorance – it’s a deliberately aped style from legalese, DMV bureaucrats, and most of all university professors.  He writes that “despite the amount of writing you do in college, you’re about as likely to leave there having learned to write clear, compelling prose as you’re likely to leave a kegger with clear mental faculties.”

Then he tells another story:

Indeed, a NYU physics professor named Alan Sokal, so fed up with this kind of bullshit writing in academia, did something of the sort. He submitted a paper entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” to Social Text, a major scholarly journal of postmodernist critical theory.

The journal published the paper, which contained lines such as the following:

[A]s Lacan suspected, there is an intimate connection between the external structure of the physical world and its inner psychological representation qua knot theory: this hypothesis has recently been confirmed by Witten’s derivation of knot invariants (in particular the Jones polynomial) from three-dimensional Chern-Simons quantum field theory.

What Sokal didn’t tell the editors of Social Text right away, but later revealed to the public, was that the article was a deliberate hoax, liberally and intentionally peppered with absurdities, and baldy false or meaningless statements. He wrote it simply to see if they would publish such gibberish.

And publish it they did. Because the editors of Social Text—like most humanities professors—are in the business of writing and publishing bullshit. Sokal merely offered them more of their preferred substance, and they were drawn to it, like flies.

[A]s Lacan suspected, there is an intimate connection between the external structure of the physical world and its inner psychological representation qua knot theory: this hypothesis has recently been confirmed by Witten’s derivation of knot invariants (in particular the Jones polynomial) from three-dimensional Chern-Simons quantum field theory.”

Read the whole rant here.  It’s fun.

Postscript on August 5:  More fun!  This from John Lawler:  “Don’t forget the Chomskybot, http://rubberducky.org/cgi-bin/chomsky.pl, which has been performing this service for linguists for decades. What, you though [Noam] Chomsky wrote all that stuff himself?”


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6 Responses to “Michael Ellsberg: “They were drawn to it, like flies…””

  1. Leonard Kress Says:

    Wow! It’s been a while since I was in grad school–but, yes, I do love this. Even the story of this is something worthy of Borges.

  2. Kate Marie Says:

    Rather serendipitously, my copy of Helen Pinkerton’s Taken in Faith arrived today, and the first poem I opened it to was this:

    Literary Theorist

    Abusing its otherness, its soul and wit,
    He rapes the text, claiming its benefit —
    And that, inscrutable, it asked for it

  3. Jeff Sypeck Says:

    Despite what Ellsberg claims, I’m not sure undergraduates actually learn jargonic bureaucratese from professors–because how many college students read their professors’ writing? I taught for 11 years and found that many undergrads were already fluent in the murky, Latinate, passive, imprecise language of bureaucracy long before they got to my classroom. It’s true that from grade school to college (and especially grad school–ugh), teachers deserve blame for failing to point out the depressing awfulness of this sort of writing, but I think there’s room to debate whether most teachers actively inculcate it. (The materials written by university administrators, on the other hand…)

  4. Cynthia Haven Says:

    I knew a graduate student who used to have to read his texts standing up, for obvious reasons.

  5. John Lawler Says:

    Don’t forget the Chomskybot, http://rubberducky.org/cgi-bin/chomsky.pl, which has been performing this service for linguists for decades. What, you though Chomsky wrote all that stuff himself?

  6. Cynthia Haven Says:

    You’ve been added as a postscript, John. You’re a star!

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