Posts Tagged ‘Jacques Derrida’

Johns Hopkins interviews me on “René Girard and the Mysterious Nature of Desire.”

Friday, August 10th, 2018
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A little mysterious himself.

Bret McCabe makes a brief appearance in the pages of Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard. The humanities writer for Johns Hopkins University, where René Girard spent some of the most important years of his life, was interviewing JHU legendary Prof. Richard Macksey a few years ago. They had been discussing the renowned 1966 Baltimore conference, organized by Girard, Macksey, and Eugenio Donato, which brought French thought to America. Then Bret McCabe finds a Davidoff matchbox nestled among Macksey’s papers. As a madeleine famously recalls Proust to his past, so the matchbox stirs distant memories in Dick Macksey: “I haven’t had Davidoff since Jacques Derrida was here.”

Last spring, Bret did a Q&A with me for Johns Hopkins University about “René Girard and the Mysterious Nature of Desire.” It went up on the Johns Hopkins website this week. An excerpt:

While Evolution of Desire is written for a general reader, I imagine that general reader is probably going to have some interest in and familiarity with literary criticism. How would you describe Girard’s theory of mimetic desire for a layperson, and why it has such lasting significance?

I’d start this way: We want what others want. We want it because they want it. These desires are shaped by our restless imitation of others. When the coveted goods are scarce, these desires pit us against one another—on an individual level, on a community level, and on a global scale as well. It causes divorces and it causes international wars. It causes children to fight over a five-buck toy in the sandbox.

Legendary Dick Macksey at JHU

René Girard wrote: “All desire is a desire for being.” It’s a phrase I use often because this imitated desire is powered by the wish to be the person who models our desire for us. We think that this person possesses metaphysical qualities we do not. We imagine the idolized individual has the power, charisma, cool, wisdom, equanimity. So we want that person’s job, shirt, car, spouse. The relationship, as he wrote, is that of the relic to the saint.

The nature of desire is mysterious. René said: “Desire is not of this world. That is what Proust shows us at his best: it is in order to penetrate into another world that one desires, it is in order to be initiated into a radically foreign existence.” No wonder he was such a devotee of Proust!

Follow him on Twitter: @BretMcBret

That passage succinctly answers the second part of your question as well. Our most fundamental longings—throughout the centuries—are addressed in his corpus. That is why it is important, and always will be important.

The final question from Bret: 

Finally, I know it’s a bit of folly to ask such things, but as you point out in both your introduction and postscript, Girard is actually somebody who might have something to tell us about right now. He died in 2015, prior to the elections in 2016 and 2017 in Europe and the U.S. What do you think Girard has to tell us about our current time and the highly polarized world in which we currently live?

Want to know what I answered? Check it out here.

Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard: “an important biography … beautifully felt and written”

Monday, July 30th, 2018
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Arielle Emmett and friend Lu Ze in Harbin, China

We’re having a bumper crop of reviews and articles for Evolution of Desire: A Life of René GirardThis one appeared as a LinkedIn essay, “Mob violence and the roots of martyrdom: Cynthia Haven’s exploration of the philosopher René Girard.” It’s provenance is impeccable: journalist Arielle Emmett, a 2018-19 Fulbright Fellow headed for Africa. She has written for Smithsonian Magazine, Newsweek, The Boston Globe, and others. The LinkedIn piece is here and below:

This book about French anthropologist René Girard should put Cynthia Haven in the ranks of top literary biographers. Her exploration of Girard, a philosopher who developed a stunning theory of mob violence, scapegoats, and martyrs, is beautifully felt and written – illuminating for those who care about the origins of violence and religion, the schisms between Continental and Analytic philosophy, and the impact that mimetic desire and Greek tragedy has had on the evolving story of civilization.

Haven’s meticulous research displays deep historical knowledge and passion for the machicolated fortresses of Avignon, Girard’s birthplace, along with the American campuses – Indiana University, Johns Hopkins, University of New York Buffalo, among others – he frequented and taught in post WWII until his death in 2015. The author’s greatest strength is placing Girard’s ideas about “mimetic desire” and copycat scapegoatism within the context of 20th and 21st century war and mob violence. Haven’s resurrection of Girard is an important reminder of why wars still happen – and why strict adherence to religious ideologies are just as likely to tear societies apart than heal them.

Girard took on virtually every school of modern philosophy, replacing French structuralism, deconstructionism, American pragmatism and Freudian thinking with a more streamlined theory of collective desire. Clans, tribes, and whole societies are ruled, in the main, by competitive jealousy beyond envy, a universal need to have or be what the “Other” is having or being. Accounting for Homeric myth and even the modern mob story (read Shirley Jackson‘s “The Lottery”), Girard began his lectures on a seminal book, Violence and the Sacred (1972), with this observation: “Human beings fight not because they’re different, but because they are the same, and in their accusations and reciprocal violence have made each other enemy twins.”

The desire to find scapegoats and to invest individuals – whether women, ethnic minorities, Nazi collaborators or modern power figures – with the murderous guilt of an entire tribe or civilization also produces an “opposite” phenomenon: the sacred anointing of martyrs. “Human society begins from the moment symbolic institutions are created around the victim, that is to say when the victim becomes sacred,” Girard explained. Think Iphegenia and Helen of Troy, Joan of Arc, Emmett Till, John F. Kennedy, and Martin Luther King, to name a few. “With Violence and the Sacred, René Girard would present all human history as a crime thriller, in which the murderer escapes undetected, and the private investigator – in this case, Girard himself – is left only with hints and clues,” Haven writes. “Girard,” she continues, “was a theorist, but one with a complicated relationship to the very notion of theories…He wished his own work not to be taken as a foolproof formula, but as a working dynamic of human society.”

Haven attacks the Girard story with a combination of biography, “you are there” journalistic observation, and direct, often witty interviews with the philosopher himself. She knew Girard for eight years. As part of the story – and some readers may find her descriptions of academic politics somewhat daunting – Haven describes the rude ego battles between French structuralists and the “new wave” of post-structural thinkers, among them Jacques Derrida and the neo-Freudian Jacques Lacan, a psychoanalyst who emphasized the importance of language in subjective constitution. René Girard stood apart from them both, assigning greater weight to the realities of human inheritance and social behaviors.

Though he was ultimately elected to the prestigious L’Académie Française, Girard was certainly never as celebrated or as controversial as many of his French contemporaries. Haven therefore deserves much credit for choosing to explore Girard’s life and work. The philosopher drew from a careful study of anthropology, history, and literature to illuminate, even presage the repeat cycles of horror and violence in 20h and 21st century life. And Haven draws important connections between Girard’s work and the salient examples of mob violence and martyrdom creation in America – for example, the murders of blacks during the Civil Rights Era, the attacks of September 11, 2001, the shootings and riots in Baltimore, and lately, the mass beheadings of Americans – on video – by ISIS.

Toward the end of his life, Girard increasingly focused on the contributions of forgiveness in breaking cycles of vengeance among competitive clans and tribes. His ability to draw connections between religiosity and war, forgiveness and healing are instructive as we face a world where ethnic violence and scapegoating not only continue, but frequently escalate.

For the totality and relevance of this analysis – and the care for which she devotes herself to Girard’s biography and foundational ideas – Haven has delivered an important biography that readers of philosophy and desire will thoroughly enjoy.

Be still my heart! France takes note of “The French Invasion”

Monday, December 18th, 2017
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A belated postscript to last week’s Quarterly Conversation publication of a single chapter from Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard, which will be out in April (you can find the essay here; and our post about it here). It describes the 1966 Baltimore conference that René Girard organized, with Richard Macksey and Eugenio Donato, that brought French thought to America – and with it Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida.

A few days ago, a friend from Paris sent us a Tweet we might otherwise have overlooked. Pierre Assouline is one of France’s most visible critics, and he’s on the Goncourt jury, which awards France’s most prestigious literary award. Moreover, he has more than 32,000 Twitter followers, so that tweet was retweeted more in the days after this screenshot. We lost track of the other French posts after that. But our hard little heart fluttered a bit to see France taking note.

We were also pleased to hear that “The French Invasion” is one of the tony Quarterly Conversation‘s top hitters, with 10,000 readers in the first few days. Give it a click if you haven’t. As one reader said a few days ago, “Haven’t read anything on the internet in a while that’s given me so much pleasure.”

Postscript on 12/20: There’s more: The popular economist Tyler Cowen has featured Evolution of Desire as the lead news item on his website here.  Wikipedia tells me he is #72 among the “Top Global Thinkers” in 2011, by Foreign Policy Magazine.

Can’t write? Failing your exams? You, too, can be a great philosopher! Derrida did it!

Monday, April 13th, 2015
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derrida-shakespeare

A colleague in Southern California alerted me to the current exhibit at the University of California at Irvine: Through Discerning Eyes: Origins and Impact of Critical Theory at UCI. The new exhibit, which runs through mid-September, spotlights the personal papers of many famous thinkers, such as Jacques Derrida, Paul de Man, Edward Said, and J. Hillis Miller, housed in UCI Libraries Special Collections and Archives’ Critical Theory Archive. But the showstopper seems to be the paper above from Derrida, which is appearing in the social media. The essay on Shakespeare, written in English, received a 10 out of 20.

In case you can’t read the diagonal handwriting in red across the top by the anonymous grader, it says this: “In this essay you seem to be constantly on the verge of something interesting, but, somewhat, you always fail to explain it clearly. A few paragraphs are indeed totally incomprehensible – Probably this essay would have been good with just a little more work in it. As regards language, your English is not idiomatic enough (if generally correct). My advice is: read a lot of English, pen in hand.” I have my questions about the writing of the grader, frankly. “but, somewhat, you always fail…” Huh? And his English is not idiomatic enough? And what good does it do to read a lot of English with a pen in your hand?

Derrida

Loser.

On the facing page, “quite unintelligible” is scribbled over an entire paragraph. I don’t know about Derrida being “unintelligible,” but it is barely legible, at least in this tiny image. The exam is dated 1950 – Derrida would have been 19 or 20 years old, and he was in the “khâgne” – educational preparation for one of France’s grandes écoles.

During these years, according to the exhibit, “Derrida met many individuals who have played an important role in his life, including Pierre Bourdieu, Michel Deguy, Louis Marin, and his future wife, Marguerite Aucouturier.” “By the end of 1952,” the description continues, “he had gained admittance to the Ecole normale supérieure.” That’s a big deal.

According to the Critical Theory website, on one occasion when Derrida failed his entrance exam, a juror remarked: “Look, this text is quite simple… You’ve simply made it more complicated and laden with meaning by adding ideas of your own.” He later failed his initial license exam for philosophy. “An exercise in virtuosity, with undeniable intelligence,” one juror wrote, “but with no particular relation to the history of philosophy…Can come back when he is prepared to accept the rules and not invent where he needs to be better informed.” Failing is commonplace on these rigorous exams. Derrida failed several times before passing – but the comments were brutal.

The New York Review of Books writes that during one exam, Derrida “choked and turned in a blank sheet of paper. The same month, he was awarded a dismal 5 out of 20 on his qualifying exam for a license in philosophy.”

The moral of the story? According to Jack Cade in the comments section: “How many Jaques Derridas get rejected and discouraged by, essentially, the hegemonic systems of thought that are in every discipline? Read, judge, and grade more generously. Not easier, just wiser.”

Robert Harrison: Literature is “the living voice of our inner lives.”

Wednesday, February 19th, 2014
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A different kind of thinking  (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Just like a natural man. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

Literature is “the living voice of our inner lives.” That’s one reason why, according to Stanford author Robert Pogue Harrison, “when everyone is stumped, invariably we turn to the poets.”

He addressed a small evening crowd at Piggott Hall as part of the “How I Think About Literature” series last week (Stanford prez John Hennessy was the previous speaker; we wrote about his visit here). Though we’ve written about Robert before (oh, here and here and here, among other places), the pleasure never palls. He always presents stuff we didn’t know before and a p.o.v. we hadn’t previously considered.

For example, his discussion this time hinged on the “deponent verb” of ancient Greek, which Robert described as “a verb with an active meaning that takes a passive form.”  Hence, the speaker “is not the author or generator of thought.”

“A text like Ovid‘s Metamorphosis thinks me,” he said. The Dante scholar, referring to the Divine Comedy, said that “the whole poem may seem bizarre, medieval, superannuated” even after you study its historical and philological roots. The key is that deponent verb again: “you have to allow it to think you, to recognize yourself in it. … Let the poem do the thinking through me.”

Much of the talk was enjoyably digressive: He added that students must understand the theology of the poem. “I will not be able to read the Divine Comedy in a way that renders it pertinent if I don’t know it’s theology. That’s different than subscribing to the theology that subtends the poem.” Here’s the fun part: he cited Eric Auerbach‘s insistence that, despite its title, The Divine Comedy is a poem of the secular world. Robert noted that “historical individuals pervade it. He’s always on earth – he can’t let it go. Even Paradiso is filled with despair about the state of the secular world.” So true. Robert thought modern readers would have a natural affinity with Paradiso, “if there’s anything most present in the world, it is religious intensity.” (Funny, he said to a class a few years ago that “we live in the Infernal City.” Robert must be having a good year – here’s one reason why.)

Dante_Giotto

He’ll do the thinking, thank you very much.

Back to deponent verbs: No surprise that the author of Forests: The Shadow of Civilization and Gardens: An Essay on the Human Condition says that “nature does most of my deep thinking,” and that this particular muse is understandably gagged and silent in a place like New York City (except for Central Park).  Nevertheless, “literature thinks me in a way that nature doesn’t.”

“Literature is a response to the injunction of the Delphi oracle, ‘Know thyself,’” he said. Literature is a “crusade of self-knowledge.”  A book such as Emma Bovary, he said, teaches us “how much more in us than circumscribed by egos or identities.”

“Philosophers do not illuminate much, but literary authors do,” said Robert, who is a regular contributor to the New York Review of Books. “I believe that literature knows what philosophy attempts,” and reveals it “in a compelling and full-bodied way.”

He ought to know. He has deep roots not only in literature but in philosophy, since he says he was steeped in Martin Heidegger as a student. He also had a chance to see firsthand the inhibiting effect of philosophy as as a student at a “very Derridian” Cornell in the 1980s, as fans of the French philosopher duked it out with the aficionados of the school of hermaneutics. The domination of Derridian discourse gave him a sense of “claustrophobia … a closed indoor room where verbal games were being staged. … The verbal choreography did not excite me as much as it excited my peers and professors.”

He said that the movement Jacques Derrida fostered was “the quintessential academic enterprise,” an observation confirmed “by the fierce determination and lengths it went to secure and hold onto institutional power, especially in the U.S.”

montanari

Sidekick.

“For me, I wanted literature to remain an adventure … new encounters that were utterly singular.” For that reason among others, he said, “I don’t practice literary theory – I always resisted it as a graduate student.” He said you won’t find a literary theory promulgated in his books. “Where it fails is that it does not provide a model for emulation. That can do students a disservice” because he offers no tools to apply or replicate his line of thought.

The problem with literary theory, he said, is that literary theorists know in advance what they’re going to find, even though “animosity toward theory can blind you.” He added that “there’s a lot of confusion in graduate schools that doing theory is a way of doing philosophy … it’s a very sorry way of doing philosophy, because it’s not embedded in the discipline.”

Most of the talks in the “How I Think About Literature” series have been monologues. But Robert sat on a stool and chatted with grad student Dylan Montanari, who doubles as Robert’s production manager for his popular radio show, “Entitled Opinions.”  We always complain about boringness of lecture format, he said, but we still deal in “deadening monologues” most of the time.  “The dialogical format liberates thinking,” he said.  “It takes it out of the straitjacket.”

Jacques Derrida 1982 Return To Prague

Derridian games

Robert also told us a little about his forthcoming book, Juvenescence, slated for release later this year by the University of Chicago Press. “The book poses a simple question that has no simple answer: How old are we?”  While our cultural age is “the ground of time,” for each of us as individuals, “aging changes perception.” He cited another philosopher, Immanuel Kant, adding that “time is not the same form of intuition in youth as in age.”

Giacomo Leopardi, too, wrote about how things appear differently to perception with age.  Youth perceives the  “infinite promise in nature – but nature is unspeakably cruel,” said Robert. Hence, Leopardi lamented to nature: “Why do you deceive your children so?”

“Literature defines the laws of chronology,” he added, which gives us a chance to get our own back. “Where does the future reside in a text? What is still unspoken and unthought?” he asked. “Literature is much more pregnant with the unspoken than philosophy” which “doesn’t have and many pockets of futurity.”

“The whole history of poetry is about age, but not about inhabited age,” Robert said. “Poetry offers an abundance of phenomenological insight.” The child is father to the man – a cliché – but Wordsworth took it to an offbeat conclusion: that the adult is dependent upon, and answerable to, the child that accompanies it throughout life.

He used Gerard Manley Hopkins poem to a young child, “Spring and Fall” as illustration. And just because it’s public domain (and also because it’s beautiful), we’ll use it to conclude this loosely strung concatenation of quotes and thoughts from one of our favorite Stanford maestros.

hopkins

Long light from a short wick.

Spring and Fall

Margaret, are you grieving
Over Goldengrove unleaving?
Leaves, like the things of man, you
With your fresh thoughts care for, can you?
Ah! as the heart grows older
It will come to such sights colder
By and by, nor spare a sigh
Though worlds of wanwood leafmeal lie;
And yet you will weep and know why.
Now no matter, child, the name:
Sorrow’s springs are the same.
Nor mouth had, no nor mind, expressed
What héart héard of, ghóst guéssed:
It is the blight man was born for,
It is Margaret you mourn for.

 

What do Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway, Philip K. Dick, and Jean-Paul Sartre have in common?

Thursday, September 13th, 2012
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Hermann Hesse finds true love

I have a lot of writing to finish between now and Sunday night – I’ll be going at it 24/7.  Meanwhile, you might want to check out Buzzfeed’s “30 Renowned Authors Inspired by Cats.”  There’s also more at Writers and Kitties.

Mark Twain was an obvious choice.  But I combed through to see if they were going to remember some of the world’s most famous cat-lovers.  Colette, for example, who famously said, “Plus je connais les hommes, plus j’aime mes chats.”

Mississippi and J.B. (Photo: Bengt Jangfeldt)

She’s there, along with Truman Capote, Ernest Hemingway, Edgar Allan Poe, Philip K. Dick, Hermann Hesse, Edward Gorey, George Plimpton, Jacques Derrida, W.H. Auden, and Jean-Paul Sartre make the cut.  But where’s T.S. Eliot, for goodness sake?

A few other notables were missed.  Where is Joseph Brodsky and his famous cat Mississippi?

I’m not entirely sure Vikram Seth is a cat-lover, but I think he must be.  The gnarly old tomcat Charlemagne, in The Golden Gate, is one of the great literary cats. I could find no photo of him with cats – only this from Delhi Walla, which is as close as I’m going to get tonight.  And since my own copy of Golden Gate is loaned out to a good cause, I found this sole sonnet (the novel is composed of Pushkin tetrameter sonnets), in which the lawyer John is warned of his romantic competition for the heart of fellow attorney Liz.  I like the way these fleet, four-footed sonnets fit onto wordpress better, next to a photograph, without awful line breaks:

Vikram Seth and fan

Ah, John, don’t take it all for granted.
Perhaps you think Liz loves you best.
The snooker table has been slanted.
A cuckoo’s bomb lies in the nest.
Be warned. Be warned. Just as in poker
The wildness of that card, the joker
Disturbs the best-laid plans of men,
So too it happens, now and then,
That a furred beast with feral features
(Little imagined in the days
When, cute and twee, the kitten plays),
Of that familiar brood of creatures
The world denominates a cat,
Enters the game, and knocks it flat.

Charles Bukowski and friend

Speaking of Vikram Seth, let’s take a moment to give equal time to dogs.  I have in mind one that played prominently in Seth’s novel, An Equal Music. It’s St. Augustine’s small white Maltese dog in Vittore Carpaccio‘s Saint Augustine in His Study, in Venice’s Scuola di San Giorgio degli Schiavoni. It’s from Carpaccio’s mature period – he began it in 1502 and completed it in 1507. It’s one of seven panels he made, still in the Schola, depicting the guild’s patron saints.

On Vikram Seth’s authority, I shlepped to the Schola a decade or so ago. It’s tucked away on one of Venice’s sidestreets and not easy to find.  It was worth it. The schola is dark and mysterious and pure magic. The painting everything he said it would be.

Highly recommended.

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A saint's best friend...Carpaccio's Augustine in his study

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

Monday, August 1st, 2011
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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?”