Friday, 10 May 2013

Pseudo-profundity and Intellectuals - I'm on BBC Radio 3 tonite

I will be on BBC Radio 3 The Verb Tonight discussing "intellectuals" and pseudo-profundity. I had a right old punch up with Prof Paul Taylor (Communications Studies, University of Leeds). But we made up afterwards over cake.

You can here it live tonite 10pm and on the website for a week after that:

Here is a quote from Baudrillard that Paul chose for the programme:

For ethnology to live, its object must die. But the latter revenges itself by dying for having been "discovered", and defies by its death the science that wants to take hold of it. Doesn't every science live on this paradoxical slope to which it is doomed by the evanescence of its object in the very process of its apprehension, and by the pitiless reversal this dead object exerts on it? Like Orpheus it always turns around too soon, and its object, like Eurydice, falls back into Hades ... the logical evolution of a science is to distance itself ever further from its object until it dispenses with it entirely: its autonomy evermore fantastical in reaching its pure form.

I suggested this quotation was a combination of a banal observation and a falsehood, tarted up with a reference to Greek mythology. I read out an edited bit from my book Believing Bullshit: How Not To Fall Into An Intellectual Black Hole:


Pseudo-profundity is the art of sounding profound while talking tosh. Unlike the art of actually being profound, the art of sounding profound is not particularly difficult to master. As we’ll see, there are certain basic recipes that can produce fairly convincing results – good enough to convince others, and perhaps even yourself, that you have gained some sort of profound insight into the human condition.

State the obvious

To begin with, try pointing out the blindingly obvious. Only do it i-n-c-r-e-d-i-b-l-y s-l-o-w-l-y and with an air of superior wisdom. The technique works best if your pronouncements focus on one of life’s big themes, such as love, money and death. So, for example:

We were all children once
Money can’t buy you love
Death is unavoidable

State the obvious in a sufficiently earnest way, perhaps following up with a pregnant pause, and you may find others begin to nod in agreement, perhaps murmering “Yes, how very true that is”.

Contradict yourself

A second technique is to select words with opposite or incompatible meanings and cryptically combine them in what appears to be a straightforward contradiction. Here are a few examples:

Sanity is just another kind of madness
Life is a often a form of death
The ordinary is extraordinary

If you’re an aspiring guru, why not produce your own contradictory remarks? The great beauty of such comments is that they make your audience do the work for you. Their meaning is not for you, the guru, to say – it’s for your followers to figure out. Just sit back, adopt a sage-like expression, and let them do the intellectual labour.

None of this is to say that such seemingly contradictory remarks can’t convey something genuinely profound. But, given the formulaic way contradictions can be used to generate pseudo-profundity, it’s wise not to be too easily impressed.
Sadly ( it’s not just lifestyle gurus etc  who use language in this way)  some corners of  academia are dominated by intellectuals whose writing amounts to little than pseudo-profundity. Strip away the academic jargon and pseudo-scientific references from their impressive-sounding pronouncements and you’ll find there’s precious little left.

Those thinkers often referred to as “post-modern” include more than their fair share of such jargon-fuelled poseurs. So easy is it, in fact, to produce convincing-looking post-modern gobbledegook that a wag called Andrew Bulhak constructed a computer programme that will write you your own “post-modern” essay, complete with references.
I just did and received an essay that begins:

The primary theme of Cameron’s model of neostructural Marxism is the common ground between society and culture. Sontag’s analysis of Debordist situation states that society has objective value. However, Marx promotes the use of Marxist socialism to analyse class. Debordist situation holds that the goal of the observer is deconstruction. Therefore, the subject is interpolated into a neostructural Marxism that includes art as a paradox. Several materialisms concerning semanticist subdialectic theory may be found.

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