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Monday, June 09, 2008

The obscurity of intellectuals: An initial taxonomy

When I denounced the obscurity of intellectuals last week, several (perhaps justifiably) irate responders noted that I did not explain why I liked some obscure writers and disliked others:  I had no definition of permissible obscurity, beyond my own prejudices (and an admittedly unwholesome desire to tap on the glass just to watch the snakes jump).

There is something to that objection.   Why, I ask myself, do I like puzzling through some stuff that many find obscure (say, Quine’s arguments against the analytic-synthetic distinction), whereas even reading a book review by Judith Butler on Arendt’s Jewish Essays induces nausea (of the non-Sartrean variety)?   

My critics are right:  I ought to have something to say about the matter.

To make some amends, here’s an initial distinction between two types of obscurity, which I hereby dub “the technical abbreviation” and “the shibboleth.”  The first seems to me useful; the second, pernicious.  (By the way, I do not claim that this dichotomy is an exhaustive taxonomy of obscurity:  I’m leaving out three other varieties of obscurity, denoted by myself with appropriate obscurity as “foundational ineffability,” “exoteric self-protection,” and “parabolic  mimesis.”  Holding the copyright on all but the second term – Leo Strauss’s estate’s got that one – I’ll provide a definition of all them in a later post).

What follows is (1) how technical abbreviation differs from shibboleth; (2) why the former is good and the latter, evil; and (3) why I think that Judith Butler – or, at least, her epigoni  – tend to use the latter rather than the former.  (Okay, that last is just to provoke you across the “jump”:  I’ve really nothing more to say about Butler).

1)    The technical abbreviation is simply a term, phrase, proper noun, Greek letter, or other symbol  that substitutes for a complex but uncontroversially well-defined concept.    “Elrod v. Burns,” the “Euler–Lagrange equation,” pi, and “offsides” (as in soccer) are all examples of technical abbreviation (herein illustratively denoted “TA”).  Think of “TA” as a promissory note, a means to simplify conversation among the initiated by making bulky concepts more portable.

The critical point about promissory notes is that they must be redeemed on demand.  The person who presents the term must be able to obtain cold, hard, cash value (to use William James' term) --  that is, a clear account of the TA’s sense, reference, or use (take your choice) -- from the issuer.  Otherwise, the putative TA will suffer from inflation.  In a linguistic version of Gresham’s Law, the inflated term is thrown around promiscuously precisely because it does not have to be redeemed, while genuine TAs are carefully hoarded precisely because they have real value and are costly to deploy.  Eventually, the inflated term is declined as valueless by those to whom they are presented.   

As an example of a real TA, take J.L. Austin’s concept of “infelicities.”  The term stands for a complex idea – in brief (and this is just another, slightly longer TA), a misfired or abused performative.  Note that I just gave you three more promissory notes – misfirings, abuses, and performatives – in exchange for one.  That’s a lot of redeeming to do – but Austin redeems all of his promises admirably in Lecture II and III of “How to do Things with Words.”   (Read it yourself:  It’s summertime, after all.  Pp 12-38 of the 1975 edition).  In general, the Brits seem to be pretty good at redeeming their TAs.  (Perhaps it is because they invented central banking in 1694 and therefore know the value of a sound banknote).

When Tommy Crocker accuses me of rejecting all academic disciplines that deploy TAs – in his words, “[l]aw, philosophy, economics, psychoanalysis, literary theory” – he does me an injustice.  I specifically stated in my initial post that I was referring to obscurity deployed to secure social status by signaling membership in an elite.  TAs are not really obscure in any undesirable sense, so long as the issuer stands by with sufficient specie to redeem the note. 

2)   My initial post referred to a different use of obscure terms, what I dub (incidentally, hereby using a performative) the “shibboleth.”  Taking my cue from Judges 12:1-6, the shibboleth is any term deployed for the purpose of distinguishing insider from outsider.   The key aspect of the shibboleth is that its users refuse to redeem the note with anything except a further note.  All one gets from them is more pretentious verbiage, which is just more promises for future payment of real cash at a later date.  This is a sure sign that the term is functioning as a badge rather than as a medium of genuine intellectual exchange.

Note that a shibboleth can simultaneously function as a TA.  (“Shibboleth,” after all, is Hebrew for sheave of grain:  if you need grain in Israel, the term could come in handy).  The defining mark of a shibboleth is its user’s purpose:  The user does not want the term to  serve any function beyond identifying those people who ought to be (metaphorically speaking) killed like the Ephraimites crossing the Jordan.  Hence, the shibboleth cannot be redeemed (i.e., explained) without destroying its value as a shibboleth.

(3)  Do Judith Butler’s terms function as shibboleths?  I leave that for you, my forgiving audience (all three of you), to judge.  My only data point from the last blow-out was that, when Stuart Buck repeatedly asked for someone to clarify Butler’s prose, he got no response.  (One Matthew Cole actually ponied up in response to my post, by defining Butler’s concept of “performative” as essentially equivalent to Austin’s.  I’ll accept that check any day, redeemable at  J.L. Austin’s Bank of Lecture I).

Really, I do not care to debate further the merits of Butler’s prose.  I’m more interested in the more general point – which is whether there is a social class out there (call them “intellectuals,” call them “Herbert”: The choice of phonemes is a matter of indifference to me) who routinely deploy TAs as shibboleths.  This class tends to specialize in matters both speculative and abstract, delivering propositions that are hard to verify, ideologically loaded, and poisonous in their capacity to inspire vindictive quarrels. 

I do not like this unnamed class of people.  I believe that they impede genuine intellectual exchange with inflated terms of dubious redeemability.  I call their social practices “intellectualism” as a sort of analogue to “scientism,” meaning the deploying of scientific-sounding terms as a conversation-stopper.  I believe that certain currents of ideas from certain nameless European nations, have a greater tendency to promote shibboleths than others.  (Incidentally, these currents also generate some good TAs as well -- and the TAs can be converted into shibboleths, as I noted above).  Finally, I see a lot of these folks in the Village, where I work.

I admit that the credo above is nothing but a summary of my prejudices.  I might be a philistine – indeed, certainly am, about some matters.  But, I say, better a philistine than a phony.  And you can take both of those TAs to the bank.

Posted by Rick Hills on June 9, 2008 at 12:05 PM in Rick Hills | Permalink


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John Haldane published an interesting article which runs along similar lines in First Things - here: http://firstthingsonline.com/article.php3?id_article=255 - you might enjoy it, if you have time...


Posted by: Jonathan | Jun 9, 2008 12:36:28 PM

And we wonder why the word "gobbledygook" was invented?

Posted by: Old Fart | Jun 9, 2008 4:29:38 PM

If you want TAs, listen to a couple of soldiers. I don't mean listen to them yarning--which would be amazingly interesting. I mean listen to them communicating on a professional matter.
They cannot afford, to use the bank note analogy, to have their TAs discounted by as much as a penny to the dollar. Not only do they have to know exactly what they mean, they have to know for sure that the other party knows exactly what the TA means.
That kind of obscurity is the gold standard of TA.

We drop from that to hazy, gauzy, inexplicable combinations of words which, even when explained, are inexplicable.

It would seem reasonable to believe that a coherent idea could eventually be communicated reasonably briefly. What costs time and hot air is the incoherent idea. From which one can presume that if the thing can't be explained, the speaker hasn't thought it through.

Posted by: Richard Aubrey | Jun 9, 2008 4:37:15 PM

I read the previous post and this on intellectual obscurity and I wonder, do most of the posters realize they are lampooning themselves?

Well that's enough intellectualism for the day...back to saving Western civilization from itself..

Posted by: Chris | Jun 9, 2008 4:51:34 PM

I think technical abbreviation are true words i.e. they function to transmit information about the world between humans. Shibboleths by contrast serve a social function of defining individuals as being inside our outside particular groups. Technical abbreviations are symbols. Shibboleths are wolf calls.

I think most of todays "intellectuals" use baroque articulation as a means of social competition. Most of their dialog doesn't actually translate into real descriptions of real events or states. For example, no one seems to be able to define "postmodern". Instead labeling something such as an artwork "postmodern" merely serves to identify as something not part of a traditional or mainstream pattern. "Postmodern" merely signals that the creator is part of the in crowd.

We spend a great deal of money hiring people to set around and tell each other how smart they are all. We could find better uses for the money.

Posted by: Shannon Love | Jun 9, 2008 4:58:05 PM

It J.L. Austin

Posted by: John Borgo | Jun 9, 2008 5:20:01 PM

Excellent post.

After hearing a lecture he gave on Freud, Katie Arens once asked Adolf Grunbaum why he hadn't discussed Lacan. "I refuse to read anyone who doesn't want to be understood!" he answered. Your distinction helps to flesh that out. People who use TAs are trying to be understood efficiently; people who use shibboleths are trying to keep from being understood by the wrong people.

Posted by: Dan Bonevac | Jun 9, 2008 5:29:28 PM

I guess another post on this is coming, but how do you classify terms that are not used (solely) with the purpose of distinguishing between insider and outsider, and yet cannot necessarily be cashed in like a TA? I imagine many non-TA obscurities are inadvertent -- say,"postmodern" or "efficient." If we wind up dispensing with the purpose-based distinction, I suspect this boils down to thoughtful and (ultimately) clear obscurities versus thoughtful and (ultimately) unclear -- like good intellectualism and not-so-good.

Anyway, just like passwords, non-TA obscurities aren't all bad. In academic discourse, they also serve as signifiers or badges. Words like "postmodern" (example chosen at random, he adds hastily) may signal a would-be reader that an article adopts a certain approach or requires a certain belief system, regardless of whether there is widely accepted meaning to the term. Functions like "welcome, friend," "here be dragons," or "abandon hope, all ye who enter."

P.S. If I understand what you mean by TA, I seriously doubt that they are always sufficiently costly to employ. Recall the last time you worked in a big bureaucracy, or pull your CFR off the shelf . . .

Posted by: Edward Swaine | Jun 9, 2008 5:53:50 PM

"It would seem reasonable to believe that a coherent idea could eventually be communicated reasonably briefly. What costs time and hot air is the incoherent idea. From which one can presume that if the thing can't be explained, the speaker hasn't thought it through."

I agree.

As C.S. Lewis put it, "Any fool can write learned language. The vernacular is the real test. If you can't turn your faith into it, then either you don't understand it, or you don't believe it."

Posted by: Lyford | Jun 9, 2008 6:21:31 PM

Richard Feynman would readily agree. His approach was that if he couldn't break down a particular concept in physics to where it could be explained to a freshman physics student, then we didn't really understand it.

My approach is the same. If I don't think that I could explain a principle of neuropsychology to one of my 300 level students, then, at the very least, I don't understand it and therefore shouldn't talk about it.

Posted by: Jared McLain | Jun 9, 2008 6:40:08 PM

I find a certain irony in Richard Aubrey describing the TA's of soldiers, when his name immediately brings to my mind the even richer dialect of those who go down to the sea in ships. [One would never guess that I am both a former Naval Officer and a fan of the fiction of Patrick O'Brien.]

Back to the point our host makes, I would add that the TA's of both Soldiers and Sailors (and those giddy harumfrodites as well) are both TA's amongst themselves, and shibboleths for the uninitiated.

I thus conclude that the real difference between TA's and shibboleths is authorial intention.

Posted by: Rodney G. Graves | Jun 9, 2008 6:50:51 PM

This is gold. Well said. Too many pseuds out there. I want to keep to short words which in some sense, but I think a strong one, match your thought of true speech that can move from one good mind to the next.

Posted by: cymraig | Jun 9, 2008 6:58:29 PM

I liked the original post a lot better than this one.

First, I don't see any utility in the term "TA" versus "jargon." Is there some extra meaning here? If I wanted to be catty I'd accuse you of the common academic misdemeanor of putting old whine in new bottles so you can convince all your friends that you invented something novel ;)

Second, I am very unconvinced that the line between "TA" and "shibboleth" is clear enogh to be useful. As your own examples attest, there are many things we would all agree are TAs which require several recursive layers of explanation to make sense of. When was the last time you read the winners of the Nobels in chemistry, physics, or medicine, and had any sort of large clue WTF they were talking about? Usually it's 'so-and-so's research paved the way for MRI machines' or some such. You sort of have to take it at face value.

I don't think that science or engineering are fundamentally less obscure in this regard than the humanities. What's different I think is that science has a more easily-understood pruning mechanism for ideas that prove to be acarpous. Salk's vaccine or Crick's and Watson's double helix led to very clear, tangible results. String theory remains controversial because it's hard (some argue impossible) to test theory against reality.

By comparison, how do we rate the value of a concept like "performativity?" Leaving aside whether it is real or complete high-falutin twaddle, I can't as a layman figure out any way to rate it that isn't fundamentally self-referential. I could say count the cites the paper gets, but isn't that just a popularity contest?

Posted by: The Snob | Jun 9, 2008 7:13:37 PM

Put another way, some people are purely decorative. Plus, kitsch exists.

Posted by: ZF | Jun 9, 2008 7:24:47 PM

He doesn't post much anymore, but Jeff Goldstein at http://proteinwisdom.com is a bigtime intentionalist and at least used to argue a lot with those who claimed the reader's experience of prose (for example) is more important than the author's intent in writing it. It was always a fascinating discussion, if sometimes time-consuming and arcane. I'm very bummed that he's busy with other things, though I like his blog-mates fine.

He also writes in long sentences using words of many syllables, but his prose always seems to me to pass the "reasonable person" test: I'm not remotely in his field, but I can follow his ideas and form opinions about them based on it. (He's also a terrific haiku writer. But he does use a lot of expletives.)

Posted by: Jamie | Jun 9, 2008 7:40:58 PM

There are many useful non-TAs. Consider, for example, concepts that can only be defined ostensively.

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Jun 9, 2008 7:49:51 PM

From a story in the Chronicle: Richard Feynman, the late Nobel Laureate in physics, was once asked by a Caltech faculty member to explain why spin one-half particles obey Fermi Dirac statistics. Rising to the challenge, he said, "I'll prepare a freshman lecture on it." But a few days later he told the faculty member, "You know, I couldn't do it. I couldn't reduce it to the freshman level. That means we really don't understand it."

Feynman, like most professors, knew that the best way to demonstrate that you understand something is to try and teach it to someone else, particularly someone not in your specialty area.

Posted by: Stuart Buck | Jun 9, 2008 7:58:40 PM

Early in my (belated) graduate career I found that some profs could break down complex ideas into explanations simple enough to help me get started on understanding the complex. Others either couldn't or wouldn't. I eventually came to use that as a way to differentiate the makers from the fakers. It appeared to me that those who have thought deeply and well on a subject turn out to be really, really good at explaining that subject. Those who think superficially, not so much.

And postmodernism reminds me of the advice on how to sculpt an elephant: get a huge block of marble, then chip off anything that doesn't look like an elephant. The people I've attempted to discuss postmodernism with have some ability to tell me what it's (probably) not, but none has ever been able to tell me what it *is*.

Posted by: JorgXMcKie | Jun 9, 2008 8:11:56 PM

"And postmodernism reminds me of the advice on how to sculpt an elephant: get a huge block of marble, then chip off anything that doesn't look like an elephant. The people I've attempted to discuss postmodernism with have some ability to tell me what it's (probably) not, but none has ever been able to tell me what it *is*."

It's not easy. But if you are asking this question out of genuine curiosity and not as invective, I'd highly recommend reading chapter seven, "The Postcolonial and the Postmodern," (pp 137-157) from Kwame Anthony Appiah's "In My Father's House" - which is honestly one of the greatest non-fiction books I've ever read. His conceptual discussion of postmodernism is superb.

If you won't do that, let me at least give you a rough 'n' ready definition for political philosophy - my discipline - with the caveat that this definition probably doesn't get you much cash value if you try to exchange it with a scholar of architecture, literature, sociology or art (though Appiah speaks to these disciplines as well, and political philosophy, much more elegantly than I'm about to).

In the philosophy of politics, modernism's two great edifices are liberalism and Hegelianism/Marxism. Both of these schools of thought take a certain set of ontological assumptions about what agency, selfhood, reason and history are and legitimize a political program from that basis. The ontology of liberalism involves transcendently singular individual selves, the ontology of Hegel and Marx with a community conceived as a singular consciousness. Postmodern political philosophy - I'm aiming to catch social constructionism, deconstructionism and post-structuralism with my admittedly broad net - basically encompass the whole range of anti-foundationalist approaches to politics that reject unitary ontologies of self or community as a way of legitimizing a political program. The most famous example is Lyotard. He uses Wittgenstein's philosophy of language to ground an argument about prescriptive claims being legitimized by local discourses; he rejects "meta-prescriptives" like Kant's or Hegel's because they try to fit one set of rules over all language games. What you'll find uniting basically all of the loose paradigm of "postmodernists" in political philosophy is that they argue that the normative claims about politics circulated by modernists are somehow contingent on a claim to absolute knowledge, when really all we have is contingent knowledge. Nietzsche's "genealogy," Foucault's concept of "episteme," Derrida's "differance," even Dewey's "inquiry" (plus a plethora of others) all kick the ontological legs out from under modernist political projects.

Posted by: Matthew Cole | Jun 9, 2008 8:49:33 PM

There is another, more sinister underlying reason why nonsense has taken over the "fine" liberal arts, namely the indoctrination of children to NOT QUESTION A WORLD OF IN-GROUP ARBITRARY FAVORITISM via the one thing children *can* understand as well as adults: art. With an aura of High Seriousness one room of great expressionist art like Van Gogh and some astonishing surrealist canvases with nonsensical "art criticism" wall cards next to them, is followed by room after room of piles of junk from hardware stores glued together, the most famous work of art of all being an upside down toilet, followed by rooms full of literal and ugly scribbles and even canvases with a colored square or two on them, which are only describable by wall cards written in the same nonsensical prose that eventually art school teachers who take control of the minds of artistically inclined students FORCE students to learn to reproduce if they ever expect a degree, which there is no point to, since MOST art schools no longer even teach students how to DRAW (!).

Their main teaching is actually that same endeavor that the early church and fanatical religious right now continue: hard science as a way to knowledge is an ARBITRARY, utterly unspecial way to knowledge. A student who asks about the utterly factual truth that a benzene molecule is a perfect hexagon of six carbon atoms with specific vibrational patterns, or the fact that a triangle is the smallest polygon that will enclose space on paper, is ANSWERED WITH DEEPER LAYERS OF LITERARY POO POO, and any further questioning is, with High Seriousness, treated as not only heretical, but as a sign of stupidity worthy of failing grade points. Devaluing that which is rare and talent-filled is mere icing on the cake. This is a successful system that continues to produce an adult population who does not question expert academic authority, so rather than a mere status play, it's also a major power play. And it's *SO* sneaky too!

An analogy is apt, to add force to my point. Both finely designed nightstands and Mondrian paintings have quite high value, though the later is worth many THOUSAND times as much as the best nightstands made in our modern era. And there are literally millions of hobbyist craftsmen in America alone who create heirloom quality nightstands in home woodworking shops, along with hundreds of THOUSANDS of custom woodworking businesses, but there are approximately ZERO craftsmen who create Mondrian reproductions, nor their own creative version of one, for themselves or resale, even though the cost would be literally only about $20 to do so and ONE HOUR of time, rather than the $20K a typical complete woodworking studio costs and WEEKS of work a finished nightstand requires. Would the same wordworker reproduce fine talent-based paintings if he could? Yes! But he can't, since fine painting cannot be learned in a year, by a nearing retirement aged adult.

The Industrial Revolution created more demand for talent-based art than there were artists around to make, so using the false theory that "normal people" at did not "appreciate" Van Gogh (which is wrong since it was only literal peasants in the town he lived in who didn't like them, but they caught on in Paris as soon as they began appearing there shortly after his death), so the false "fact" that normal people simply did not APPRECIATE the value of novel art was suddenly used as an excuse FOR THE EXACT SAKE OF MAKING ART NORMAL PEOPLE HAD NO INTEREST IN.

But the nouveau riche insisted on buying SOMETHING as status symbols once common items like hand-painted dinnerware was reproduced by machine etc. and they could no longer buy functional or even decorative products that most anybody of slightly upper class could afford just as well. A vacuum was created, and con art filled the void, as it does to this day. The only option is to finally DEVALUE that which is nonsense in literature, pseudoscience and the arts. But that cannot be achieved because suddenly rich people (there is almost no old world fortunes left that compare in size to what is created anew each decade as advances in technology is made) who are one or two steps below the celebrity worthiness of guys like Steve Jobs, but who made fortunes in, say, polymer-reinforced cement, in their private life want *in* on High Society and their only ticket is to collect the art of talentless, THEORY-BASED artists. So they literally have million dollar piles of store-bought wrapped candy pieces (worth $20), piled in their corner, with a wall card above it.

The most damning evidence if you live in a city like mine with almost 1000 galleries, is that during gallery openings which are announced in full page ads in glossy magazines with NO images, NOBODY TALKS ABOUT OR EVEN LOOKS AT THE ARTWORK! They chatter away about artworld gossip, and snubbingly backturn anybody who pronounces Van Gogh's name to like "van go" instead of "van gosh" with guttural emphasis. And what does the artist do? He smiles, shakes hands, says very little about his work (since that's for the gallery owners and critics to do!), and if he actually has any talent, is especially careful not to talk about his work.


[P.S. My background is that of a Joyce lover who sees Finnegans Wake as a poetic masterpiece, so I am able to enjoy purposeful punning and delightful nonsense such as:

"A sewerful of guineagold wine with brancomongepadenopie and sickcylinder oysters worth a billion a bite.... Sexcaliber hrosspower.... The wagrant wind's awalt'zaround the piltdowsns and on every blasted knollyrock.... Right rank ragner rocks and with these rox orangotangos rangled rough and rightgorong. Wisha, wisha, whydidtha? Thik is for thorn that's thuck in its thoil like thumfool's thraitor thrust for vengeance. What mnice old mness it all mnakes! A middenhide hoard of objects!.... Venuses were giggliby temptatrix, vulcans guffawably eruptious and the whole wives' world frockful of fickles.... The Pythagorean sesquipedalia of the panepistemion.... A round a thousand whirlingig glorioles.... A sing a song a sylble; a byword, a sentance with surcease; while stands his canyouseehim frails shall fall."

It also contains one of the most classically humane passages ever written:

"Ugly and futile: lean neck and thick hair and a stain of ink, a snail's bed. Yet someone had loved him, borne him in her arms and in her heart. But for her the race of the world would have trampled him underfoot, a squashed boneless snail. She had loved his weak watery blood drained from her own. Was that then real? The only true thing in life? His mother's prostrate body the fiery Columbanus in holy zeal bestrode. She was no more: the trembling skeleton of a twig burnt in the fire, an odour of rosewood and wetted ashes. She had saved him from being trampled underfoot and had gone, scarcely having been. A pour soul gone to heaven: and on a heath beneath winking stars a fox, red reek of rapine in his fur, with merciless bright eyes scraped in the earth, listened, scraped up the earth, listened, scraped and scraped."

This makes the additional point that nonsensical prose can be not only poetically beautiful instead of ugly, but enjoyed by normal bookworms like myself, unlike the prose which has infected the Humanities.]

Posted by: -=DrNikFromNYC=- | Jun 9, 2008 9:29:46 PM

I thought I'd press the point about intentionality raised above by Edward Swaine. Unlike some definitions of bullshit -- think of Jerry Cohen's definition of bullshit as something that is "unclarifiably unclear" -- the definition of a shibboleth requires that a person utter something with the purpose of distinguishing insiders from outsiders. That's either an overly restrictive condition, or a limitation of the metaphor. Focusing on intentions is a way to attack the pretentiousness of some people who say or write things that are obscure. But that trivializes the problem with obscurity. If the main problem with shibboleths is that people use them to create a special class so they can talk exclusively to each other, it's hard to see why that should matter very much in this context. What's wrong with people getting their kicks by creating a special language for themselves? If you don't want to talk to them, (thankfully) no one is holding a gun to your head.

The problem with obscurity isn't the pretentiousness of people who say obscure things. Some people who say such things aren't doing so out of pretentiousness or a desire for social exclusivity. They may say such things for all kinds of reasons, including that they just haven't thought very much about what they are saying. (This was Orwell's point.) Not thinking about what we say is dangerous because we often come to believe what we say. If what we say is nonsense (or bullshit), then we may come to believe nonsense (or bullshit). That is something worth worrying about -- but we can do that without imputing any particular motives.

Posted by: Micah Schwartzman | Jun 9, 2008 10:09:14 PM

Micah and Edward press me on why the intention of the speaker to distinguish insider from outsider should be a necessary condition of "bad" obscurity. Surely, they write (if I understand them correctly) there are instances of obscurity that are simply sloppy or thoughtless speech that do not qualify as intentional shibboleths.

I agree -- but I did not intend to provide an exhaustive definition of "good" and "bad" obscurity. (Milton's "Paradise Lost," for instance, is filled with wonderful obscurity -- but few TAs). TAs are one form of acceptable obscurity; shibboleths, of bad. An exhaustive taxonomy will have to await someone smarter than I. I'm just a law professor, after all, and I'm trying to keep the posts under 1,000 words.

Posted by: Rick Hills | Jun 9, 2008 11:06:27 PM

Einstein said explanation should be as simple as possible--but no simpler.

In that vein I think you need a bit more than TA vs. shibboleth. Here's my 5-way stab (specialist language, stuffy language, erudite language, priestspeak, and ideologue-speak):

1. specialist language used within a field for efficient communication. This is your TA. Bill Gates once said that everything 80% of computer users use should be in the operating system. Likewise concepts used a lot in any field get acronym'd or abbreviated.

2. stuffy language--=passive construction-filled, syntactically ornate--used to hide within or to make oneself seem objective. I spent decades editing engineers' stuff and most of them write this way. Their profs taught them to communicate this way. It's stuffy, buries the reason you should read it at the end, and could often be half as long and still say as much. Sadly, a lot of times these people had to be carefully taught to write so badly. If they wrote more like they spoke they'd do fine by and large.

3. Erudite language used to express complex/nuanced/complicated ideas. In a way this is just the technical lingua franca of people with extensive liberal arts educations. Most synonyms express something a bit different from their fellow synonyms, and reductionist language may be indadequate to expressing subtle thoughts without getting prolix.

You wouldn't use such language on your Uncle Jack from Saskatoon. Then the same language that served well in a peer-to-peer conversation would be rightly judged as simply choosing to express yourself precisely without, however, communicating.

The Prophet said: "Speak to each in accordance with his understanding."

4. Priestspeak. This is using purposely obscure language to preserve your job or social status by making it seem you have special knowledge not available to the groundlings. The first translators of the Bible into English were burned at the stake, after all.

I believe this comes from the fact that a small number of people are both mediocre and ambitious. Our sitting president would be such an example, but we all know many others. Such people infect organizations like viruses. And they have to neutralize or eject genuinely talented people around them in order to make things safe for themselves. Here is where language is used to attack people, and where obscuritanism becomes a form of aggression.

5. Ideologue-speak. Here's where you get terms that purport to be plain English but are in fact obscuring language. For example, antiabortionists will say "I believe life begins at conception." Sounds perfectly clear. But it's not--not remotely. They're really using coded language to tell fellow believers that they believe that we're ensouled at the moment of conception. But they know they can't talk about ensoulment to secular audiences, or even liberal religious ones. So they hide behind putatively clear but in fact purposely obscuring language. "Pro-choice" also hides behind itself, though perhaps not so perniciously.

Here such terms are used to win debates before they begin, through various framing devices, all freighted like my example. The terms gain tremendous mana (Polynesian concept of great spiritual power invested in certain objects/places), and thus are not debatable. And they often hide their antonym. Thus if I'm pro-life...you're pro-death. I'll never SAY that. But you and the audience will think it, perhaps subliminally.

So this is a very tricky form of obscuritanism--hiding in plain sight, as it were.

Not much of this goes on at the conscious level in most ideologues' minds. It's just what they use instead of reasoning.

During the Kerry vs. Bush campaign some researchers gathered a group of Demo and GOP partisans and had them consider material for and against their guy and the other side's guy whilst being monitored in an MRI machine.

They behaved identically. The thinking areas high in the brain never lit up. Everything got processed down at the chimp level, with an accompanying rush of endorphins as they proceeded to excuse and minimize their guy's shortcomings and exaggerate and demonize the other guy's shortcomings.

You can see why it's so hard to debate ideologues--they do indeed take everything personally. And the use of obscuring language is easily justified, because all ideologues share a firm belief in their ends justifying their means.

Posted by: Ehkzu | Jun 9, 2008 11:19:17 PM

Matthew Cole,

I didn't understand a word of what you were saying.

Posted by: anon | Jun 9, 2008 11:26:28 PM

I claim copyright on "exoteric mimesis", so nobody use it, ok?

Posted by: Kevin | Jun 9, 2008 11:49:54 PM

Ehkzu: "hiding in plain sight".

"But the Emperor has nothing on at all!' cried a little child." - Anderson

"What greater vanity is there than that of those who concern themselves more with the name than with the fact? But of that kind of men, who pay more attention to the appearance than to the reality, there are some to be found at any time." - Vasari

"I am the emperor, and I want dumplings!" - Ferdinand I

"Oh, that dawdling, oh, those hesitations, oh, that not believing that good is good, that black is black, that white is white." - Van Gogh

"From the beginning of time, women have complained that men have been unfaithful to them for the sake of novelty, for the sake of other women whose novelty was their only merit." - Voltaire

"When a poet is not in love with reality his muse will consequently not be reality, and she will then bear him hollow-eyed and fragile-limbed children." - Nietzsche

"The richest soil, if uncultured, produces the rankest weeds." - Plutarch

"It is good to be learned in the things that are hidden from the wise and the intellectual ones of the world but are revealed, as if by nature, to the poor and simple, to women and little children." - Van Gogh

"And words. They are not in my dictionary." - Joyce

"Language is a virus from outer space." - Burroughs

Posted by: -=DrNikFromNYC=- | Jun 10, 2008 1:04:56 AM

Matthew: a notion of postmodernism that includes Dewey (of all people!) doesn't help the case, I'm afraid. I daresay that any concept that encompasses both Dewey and Foucault is so incoherent as to be worth disposing of on those grounds alone. (I know people have tried this, but, really, let's face it...)

Posted by: Paul Gowder | Jun 10, 2008 2:26:13 AM


Thanks for the reply. You certainly addressed part of what I was asking -- whether intention is a necessary condition of bad obscurity. The intended payoff, though, wasn't simply that you add another category (especially since the comments seem to be breeding those like tribbles). Rather, if *your* purpose was to use purpose to provide a means of distinguishing between good and bad obscurity, it strikes me as an assaying technique with low accuracy -- and that as you explain it, other fundamental distinctions might do a better job of explaining your tastes. One might be the post-hoc willingness of an author to try to explain, which is distinguishable from her original intention. More likely, it's the actual capacity of an author to explain a term upon inquiry, rather than intention. This might be what all these Feynman allusions are ultimately getting at, though one might clarify that it matters most whether someone in the author's discipline, not just the author herself, can explain. I think very few of us are in a position to adopt his view that if "I" couldn't explain it to freshmen, "we" really don't understand it.

By this point, though, commenting in this thread feels like the dance contest in "They Shoot Horses, Don't They?" Now, with more footnotes!

Posted by: Edward Swaine | Jun 10, 2008 9:35:44 AM

Edward Swaine suggests that "bad" obscurity ought to be defined by "the actual capacity of an author to explain a term upon inquiry, rather than intention." Several other comments make a similar point -- that a teacher or author is guilty of obfuscation if they cannot explain the concepts that they use.

But, as admirable as such herculean explanatory powers might be, they surely are not necessary for a person to deploy a TA without obfuscation. The reason is that language works by division of labor.

Example (Hilary Putnam's, not mine): I use the term "gold" occasionally, but i do not know the molecular weight of gold, and I cannot tell the difference between "gold" and "fool's gold." If someone asked me how to distinguish gold from fools' gold, I'd tell them to consult an expert. But I am still entitled to walk into a jewelry store and say, "I'd like to buy a gold watch" without being accused of using a shibboleth or, more generally, of being unpardonably obscure. As Hilary Putnam noted in the early 1970s, language users divide labor over the the meaning of general terms -- not only natural kinds, by the way -- implicitly referring to this body of expertise when they use the terms.

That's why my analogy of a promissory note is, I think, useful: It is not necessary for the person exchanging the note to redeem it. The note need merely be redeemable somewhere. The whole point of negotiability is that I can give you the term/note (e.g., a term like "gold," or "offsides," or "New Delhi"), and you can redeem it somewhere else.

Posted by: Rick Hills | Jun 10, 2008 10:26:52 AM


I meant to be making a similar point about division of labor -- see the last two sentences of the first paragraph. I think this means that I failed any obscurity test that can be devised. Where we may differ is with what follows; personally I think references to group capacity further handicap any inquiry into the user's purpose, which for you is the critical inquiry.

Posted by: Edward Swaine | Jun 10, 2008 10:44:46 AM

I'm still not sure what, exactly, is supposed to be wrong with using terms of art as shibboleths. Is it that people who use shibboleths ("shibbolites"?) are using obscurity to create obnoxious social distinctions? Or that they are luring the unsuspecting into thinking that important social distinctions exist when they really don't? Or that others will be mislead into muddled ways of thinking? Or that it's not very nice to bait clear-thinking people (law professors?) into wasting their time debunking the obscure? Or is it something about the value of clear thinking for "genuine intellectual exchange." (Or all of the above?) My point above was only that if what you care about is clear thinking, then the term of art/shibboleth distinction isn't tracking the relevant value. If what you care about is going after a certain form of snobbery in the Village, maybe it's more useful for that.

Posted by: Micah Schwartzman | Jun 10, 2008 10:53:54 AM

"Shibbolites" is simply lovely: Thanks for that.

As for my "purpose-based test" for unjustifiable obscurity, like all purpose-based tests, it is partly rooted in "judicial" manageability (with the caveat that the "judiciary" is all of us). The road to obscurantism might be paved with good intentions, so a purpose-based test is under-inclusive. But, even if bad intentions are not necessary, I maintain that they surely are sufficient, for defining intellectually anti-social behavior.

And now I will finish my grading: Only two exams left.

Posted by: Rick Hills | Jun 10, 2008 11:21:39 AM

"The profound mind seeks clarity. The mind that wishes to be seen as profound seeks obscurity." --Goethe, from memory

I observe that physicists and mathematicians are deliriously happy to redeem (Rick's term) or unpack (my term) their TAs. Indeed they compete among their peers to see who can express a new concept more succinctly, and to relate it to an established, fundamental concept.

E.g. quantum mechanics (1930s) is an immensely cool idea. What's even cooler is that QM builds upon the mathematical foundation of Hamiltonian dynamics (1833). And Hamilton, in turn, is a restatement of Newton (1687)... who in turn unified the work of Galileo, Kepler, and Copernicus. In retrospect it all forms a nice, smooth evolution of a single idea, gathering steam and confidence over five centuries.

Of course, it wasn't until 1996 that Sokal brought QM into full flower. :-)

Posted by: gopher | Jun 10, 2008 1:32:58 PM

The Snob said:

I don't think that science or engineering are fundamentally less obscure in this regard than the humanities. What's different I think is that science has a more easily-understood pruning mechanism for ideas that prove to be acarpous. Salk's vaccine or Crick's and Watson's double helix led to very clear, tangible results. String theory remains controversial because it's hard (some argue impossible) to test theory against reality.

Posted by: The Snob | Jun 9, 2008 7:13:37 PM

While this is pretty much true, note that we may be bumping up against some ultimate limits to our ability to prove some scientific theories. If you think of an atom smasher as a kind of microscope, we may need a bigger one than we can build to really prove/disprove string theory if we find that we have to peer at stuff at the Planck level. Because the smaller the thing you're looking at, the bigger the smasher you need.

It's conceivable that advances in observing the universe may make up for this, but here again we may be approaching ultimate limits.

I know, some bozo at the U.S. Patent Office in the 19th century predicted they'd have to close shop soon because everything would soon have been invented.

Nevertheless a bunch of really interesting questions may remain forever beyond our ability to answer them. Ever since the ancient Greeks started the empirical express (with a pause for the Dark Ages), thinking humanity has had a sense of learning just going on forever.

This may turn out to be so but there's no empirical reason to just assume it. We may wind up approaching some areas frustratingly asymptotically.

Posted by: Ehkzu | Jun 11, 2008 4:48:10 AM

Thank you for this interesting article.
I am dyslexic and just battled my way through a Religious Studies A-level. I found myself in very murky water where the line between Shibboleh's and TAs got VERY blurred.

This is something that's been a bee in my bonet for a while, so I'm glad I've found someone sum up my rants into into a much more concise form!

Posted by: Sebastian Bechinger-English | Jul 1, 2008 9:08:41 PM

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