Saturday, July 26, 2003

Invisible clear thinking 

By way of Arts and Letters Daily, Robert Fulford writes about the lack of good writing in the humanities. Now, in economics we've long had this problem which was pointed out to us by Donald McCloskey (now Deirdre -- see her book Economical Writing for more), but I guess I had assumed it was better elsewhere. I realize this is somewhat selection bias. If a paper is cited often enough in my field, I'll slog through it no matter how turgid the prose or dense the mathematics; that's my job. But I don't have to read badly-written fiction or (for the most part) badly-written history. Jack once lent me Post-Modern Pooh, which I tried to read, and the one word to describe my reaction was "incredulity": Surely it isn't that bad, is it?

Well, maybe it is.

(Dennis) Dutton (of AL Daily) quotes Paul H. Fry, professor of English at Yale. He finds this in Fry's A Defense of Poetry: "It is the moment of non-construction, disclosing the absentation of actuality from the concept in part through its invitation to emphasize, in reading, the helplessness -- rather than the will to power -- of its fall into conceptuality."

Readers may imagine (as Dutton says) that they are too ignorant to understand "the absentation of actuality." Academic theorists take advantage of the innocent reader's natural humility. In this case, Dutton suggests: "The writing is intended to look as though Mr. Fry is a physicist struggling to make clear the Copenhagen interpretation of Quantum Mechanics. Of course, he's just an English professor showing off."

Nobody's ever accused me of having 'natural humility', but I have no fargin' idea what Fry is trying to say. So my reaction is simply to say, "Book sucks. Next!" and wish Alan Furst would write a new novel. But these practitioners of "pomo babble" -- Fulford attributes this quip to John Leo -- are crossing over into my own area.
In recent years leftist academics have been enraptured by Empire, a 500-page anti-globalization book by Michael Hardt and Antonio Negri, published in 2000. Empire collects all possible criticisms of free trade and wraps them in prose like this: "In the logic of colonialist representations, the construction of a separate colonized other and the segregation of identity and alterity turns out paradoxically to be at once absolute and extremely intimate."

To commit a sentence like that is to subtract from the sum of human knowledge. But it is not really exceptional, and its authors are much admired for their fresh version of leftist "thinking."

Moreover, I dare you to take a look at any course that discusses globalization and see if you find Empire, then see if it's balanced by a book such as Johan Norberg's In Defense of Global Capitalism. I can tell you which book is better written. And as William Sjostrom points out, it's not just Empire -- Negri simply can't write.

As Ambrose Bierce wrote, "Good writing is clear thinking made visible." And pomo-babble is making muddled thinking invisible.