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Inaccurate

i’m in ur Truth, killing ur ir0ny

The redoutable Ophelia Benson, still fuming at what she mystifyingly takes to be my insistence that criticism of Zizek is “impermissible”, now accuses me, in a post pleasingly entitled “Ironies”, of misrepresenting her own work in my published review of Benson & Stangroom’s Why Truth Matters last year. Since this is a slur on what passes for my “professional” reputation, allow me to recall that I wrote in the Guardian, at the end of a largely positive review:

Sadly, the authors also follow a modern tradition of lumping Jacques Derrida in with a bunch of his inferiors and slapping him around too, without showing persuasively that they have actually read much of the man’s work.

Benson now claims that this was “inaccurate”:

The inaccurate part is that we didn’t slap Derrida around, we slapped around some of his fans, which is a different thing.

In fact, on pp18-19 of Why Truth Matters, the authors say this:

But does it really matter? Is it worth bothering about? Academic fashions come and go. Dons and professors are always coming up with some New Big Thing, and then getting old and doddering off to the great library in the sky, while new dons and professors, hatch new big things, some more and some less silly than others. Casaubon had his key to all mythologies, Derrida had his, someone will have a new one tomorrow; what of it?

So this casually sneering comparison of Derrida’s oeuvre to the quixotic work of a fictional character, in the context of discussing “silly” “fashions”, is not an attack on Derrida? It’s just somehow about his “fans”? I don’t think so. Benson’s charge that my review was “inaccurate” is without merit: what is “inaccurate” is this defender of Truth’s account of what is in her own book. That’s ironic!

The “fans” do make an appearance later. On pp168-170 of Why Truth Matters, the authors first try a wan appeal to authority in citing Quine’s objection to Derrida’s nomination for an honorary degree at Cambridge, and then claim that the letters of complaint about the notorious New York Times obituary of Derrida (shorter version: French “abstruse theorist” who wrote “off-putting” books is dead) were written to protest the obituary’s “lack of unqualified admiration”: a plainly false characterization. Then they turn specifically to a letter by Derrida’s “fan” Judith Butler,1 and end up saying this:

As a matter of fact why should we not simply conclude that much or most of Derrida’s renown is the result of frequent mention by Butler and others like her? That he merely has what in US electioneering and public relations circles is called “name recognition,” which is well known to be quite independent of merit and quality. Serial murderers have much higher name recognition than any intellectuals, and it’s not because of their precision of thought (though it may be because their thinking takes some unanticipated turns). [p. 170]

Lol. But perhaps you think that the insinuation that Derrida’s renown was entirely divorced from any “merit and quality”, and the sniggering segue from Derrida to “serial murderers”, constitute another slapping around of Derrida himself and not just of his “fans”, to be counted along with the Casaubon jibe?

Benson & Stangroom’s unserious attack on Derrida is, you will have noticed, rather like Hari’s unserious attack on Zizek (“you end up hating the academics who take this non-thought seriously”). That’s ironic too!2

  1. As the first commenter on her new post points out, Benson now misrepresents Butler’s letter as claiming that criticism of Derrida is “impermissible”, by means of selective quotation: Butler’s statement that “There are reasonable disagreements to have with Derrida’s work” is left out from what Benson cites of the letter. Another irony from the indefatigable champion of “reasoned argument and the requirement of reference to evidence” (Why Truth Matters, p.171). To be fair, this might not be a deliberate attempt to mislead so much as an unconscious inability to see anything that contradicts her idée fixe – or, of course, mere incompetence.
  2. Yet another delicious irony: when I bother to correct false claims of fact made by OB and her commenters, I am accused of engaging in “nitpicking” or “distraction”. They’d make a great bunch of “postmodernists”!
28 comments
  1. 1  Jasper Milvain  May 3, 2007, 12:32 pm 

    As of now, if I read correctly, you are objecting to her tone in objecting to your tone in objecting to her tone in objecting to your tone in objecting to Johann Hari’s tone in objecting to Zizek. There are occasional breaks, mostly on her side, to lament that the other side is concentrating on tone (bafflingly opaque, excessively dismissive, overly picky) rather than getting down to the hard work of looking at subtance. I think this one may be beginning to exhaust its entertainment value.

  2. 2  Steven  May 3, 2007, 12:40 pm 

    A devastatingly accurate précis. I do apologise – normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.

  3. 3  pete  May 3, 2007, 3:59 pm 

    *grabs popcorn and pulls up chair*

  4. 4  Leinad  May 3, 2007, 4:17 pm 

    I object to Jasper Milvain’s tendentious attitude towards what is a blogging confrontation of singular importance to the arrestive conciousness of the blogosphere – and portentiously it’s concurrent actualisation of its inherent discursive properties (the Deleuzean ‘hyper-actualite’) which Zizek characterises as: “Lenin refracted through Han Solo, astride the liberal-democratic Death Star – the Enlightment armed with terrifying wisecracks” – obviously a topic Milvain considers so highminded to be beneath him…

  5. 5  Steven  May 3, 2007, 4:22 pm 

    But this too is a brilliant analysis! How to satisfy all my readers at once?

  6. 6  pete  May 3, 2007, 4:26 pm 

    *eats popcorn*

  7. 7  Alex Higgins  May 3, 2007, 4:58 pm 

    #4

    I was going to say that.

  8. 8  Jasper Milvain  May 3, 2007, 6:06 pm 

    Bravo. It turns out there was entertainment value left.

  9. 9  Cian  May 4, 2007, 6:04 pm 

    I feel sick. That Butterflies and Wheels place is like Harry’s Place for pseudo-intellectuals. Group think, sneering and standing up for common sense. Thanks for that.

  10. 10  Cian  May 4, 2007, 6:39 pm 

    This seems relevant. From Mark Kaplan on a previous Hari article on Derrida (who he really doesn’t understand, judging by the article here:
    http://comment.independent.co......e28279.ece

    http://charlotte-street.blogsp.....tered.html

    “It is not the mere fact of non-agreement that renders something intellectually illiterate, it is what is being said. This is worth drawing attention to only because of a familiar rhetorical ploy: pretending that your interlocutor is objecting to dissent as such rather than the content of what you said, and thereby insinuating his irrationality and intolerance.”

    and also (on a previous stupid article on Derrida by Hari):
    http://charlotte-street.blogsp.....-dead.html

    “Hari objects that his article has elicited insult rather than refutation, but Thought seems to have left no indentations here in which refutation might find a worthy foothold. A serious argument, after all, also provides the criteria by which it is to answered.”

    This is also excellent:
    http://antigram.blogspot.com/2.....s-you.html

  11. 11  Franklin  May 4, 2007, 8:49 pm 

    That Butterflies and Wheels place is like Harry’s Place for pseudo-intellectuals. Group think, sneering and standing up for common sense.

    Similar charges have been leveled at Artblog.net, although not by anyone I’ve been especially impressed with. I happen to be a big fan of common sense and as such don’t equate it with sneering and groupthink, but that just tells you how these conversational vectors go past each other without intersecting.

    As an unabashed modernist, my total appreciation of postmodernism amounts to this: it correctly suggested that the tenets of modernism ought not be taken too seriously. It ends there. Beyond that, pomo is an exercise in verbigeration. Art writing, which is my area, has suffered terribly for adopting it. So has art.

    Here’s the unfortunate part for Steven: I had never heard of Zizek and was trying to make a decision about whether to investigate his work further. From the ongoing conversation between Hari, Unspeak, and B&W, I now gather:

    1. Hari thinks Zizek is on the side of totalitarianism

    2. Poole thinks Hari writes idiotic and anti-intellectual things

    I still don’t know why I should explore Zizek.

    The above response to Benson is similar. Here you are trying to pin her down on – let me see – that she did in fact slap around Derrida, contrary to her claim that she slapped down Derrida’s followers. I’ve been in enough of these conversations to navigate them by smell, and I know where this is going: Derrida and Butler are going to continue to look like purveyors of horseshit, and you will be quite satisfied with a prissy critique of Benson’s intellectual capabilities. It is as if neither Zizek nor Derrida nor Butler need a defense against the out-group riffraff, in your estimation. But they do, sir.

  12. 12  Steven  May 5, 2007, 1:42 am 

    There is something about appeals to “common sense” in Unspeak, rather sceptical.

    If you tell me that Derrida “looks like” a purveyor of “horseshit”, I do not consider that deserving of a serious defence, sir.

    Meanwhile there’s quite a lot about what Zizek actually says in the comment thread on “Postmodernists”.

  13. 13  Adam Kotsko  May 5, 2007, 2:24 am 

    Who came up with this rule against dismissing unserious criticism? (“All you’ve done is show she’s not worth taking seriously — why not advance your own argument?” Well, because she’s not worth taking seriously, and she’s the topic of the post!) I think that having permission to ignore unserious criticism (“Derrida is a bullshit artist”; “Zizek advocates mass slaughter”) is an absolutely essential time-saving device.

    Ophelia Benson is not worth taking seriously. Derrida, Butler, and Zizek are. I don’t know how much of an “argument” is required for these kinds of statements.

  14. 14  Franklin  May 5, 2007, 5:45 pm 

    There is something about appeals to “common sense” in Unspeak, rather sceptical.

    Ooh, scare quotes. Boogety boogety.

    If you tell me that Derrida “looks like” a purveyor of “horseshit”, I do not consider that deserving of a serious defence, sir.

    Well, I was speaking generally and wasn’t really asking for one. I’m sure you have something else to do with your afternoon. I note instead that ad hominem replies that don’t address the original criticism are part and parcel of the postmodernist project. Unfortunately, it has to be this way. Once you subscribe to a philosophy that consists entirely of rhetorical flourishes, no other defense is possible.

    Meanwhile there’s quite a lot about what Zizek actually says in the comment thread on “Postmodernists”.

    I didn’t find that to be the case, but maybe we have different metrics. So I’ll flat out ask: why should I investigate Zizek?

    Ophelia Benson is not worth taking seriously. Derrida, Butler, and Zizek are. I don’t know how much of an “argument” is required for these kinds of statements.

    Probably none, if you’re through with conversation. By the same time-saving method I arrive at the conclusion that Derrida, Butler, and possibly Zizek are not worth taking seriously and Benson is. If you’re content to leave it at that, so am I.

  15. 15  dsquared  May 5, 2007, 9:56 pm 

    I thought I had linked in the past to the very excellent Grice Fund but apparently I haven’t, and need to correct this mistake immediately.

  16. 16  Steven  May 6, 2007, 12:12 am 

    I note instead that ad hominem replies that don’t address the original criticism are part and parcel of the postmodernist project.

    I addressed Benson’s criticism that I was “inaccurate” in my characterization of her co-authored book, by showing that I wasn’t. Sorry if that bothered you, or if attention to matters of fact seems to you in general “prissy”. It takes all sorts.

    Now, you speak of the “postmodernist project”. Interesting. You are aware, I suppose, that Zizek doesn’t think much of Derrida (nor did Baudrillard, by the way, though he was kinder about it) and that each of the three is doing very different things? No, I don’t suppose you are.

    So I’ll flat out ask: why should I investigate Zizek?

    Sir, I really don’t care whether you do or not.

    Though, as is now sadly clear to me, you certainly shouldn’t trust Hari’s account of the Zizek film.

  17. 17  Steven  May 6, 2007, 12:14 am 

    Oh, the Grice Fund is a wonderful idea. If only I had donated a week ago.

  18. 18  Franklin  May 6, 2007, 4:46 am 

    …and that each of the three is doing very different things?

    Moose turds, deer turds, and elk turds are also quite different from one another, speaking of matters of fact, which rather do interest me, thanks. But they are of varying importance, and so, for instance, Zizek lying down with dictators and Hari misusing the word infinite are not equivalent offenses, a distinction that seems to have been trained out of you. Ah, the inherited abuse of academic culture in the humanities. My heart goes out to you.

    Sir, I really don’t care whether you do or not.

    Undoubtedly, but that wasn’t my question, was it? And this rather proves Benson correct about your How Dare You Not Worship My Idol mentality.

    The Grice Fund really is quite funny, even with me as the object of the joke. I wonder, though, if charity has gone the way of common sense in this circle – a real virtue turned presumed vice? Well, lacking the former, you’ll have need of the latter sooner or later. Until then, Godspeed.

  19. 19  Steven  May 6, 2007, 1:13 pm 

    Zizek lying down with dictators and Hari misusing the word infinite are not equivalent offenses

    That’s true: the first is made up and the second actually happened.

  20. 20  Franklin  May 6, 2007, 6:02 pm 

    Or rather, having read a bit of Zizek, “‘made up’”.

  21. 21  abb1  May 6, 2007, 7:43 pm 

    Is Zizek now, like, a new Chomsky or something? All this venom… Weird. Can’t really imagine an Emmanuel Goldstein figure looking like Slavoj Zizek – sweating, twitching, spitting, making fun of chocolate laxative.

  22. 22  Richard  May 7, 2007, 4:16 am 

    For once I’m with abb1: why does Zizek touch such a nerve? I seem to recall Steven giving no larger an endorsement in his original post than “he seems quite clever and might be worth spending some time on”… some hundreds of comments later, we’ve got quite the hornet’s nest.

    I wonder what would happen if I threw Wallerstein or Goldstone into the mix – people who’ve written quite provocative things in economic-historical traditions – would anyone care as much about them?

  23. 23  Mike D.  May 7, 2007, 12:24 pm 

    Steven, FYI, Ophelia Benson is now calling you a “sloppy reader and writer” and a “groupthinky chump”!

  24. 24  Steven  May 7, 2007, 1:59 pm 

    Fascinating! I don’t know much about Lacan, but I think this might be a classic case of “projection”.

  25. 25  dsquared  May 8, 2007, 10:32 am 

    ahhh logrolling … Hari’s review of Benson & Stangroom was significantly more favourable than yours (and seems to concentrate at surprising length on the Derrida bit, which was actually the weakest part of the whole book by a long chalk). I love the final sentence:

    There should be a law demanding every purchase of a Jacques Derrida “book” be accompanied with a free copy of this shimmering, glimmering answer

    in particular, as well as advocating a totalitarian policy on book retailing that only Turkmenbashi could love, Hari invents a new form of scare quote. Although Derrida’s output certainly look like books, are generally treated by the publishing trade as if they were books and perform many of the functions of books (propping up wonky tables, swatting moths, pressing flowers etc), they are actually “books” in name only, their true nature being something else.

  26. 26  Steven  May 8, 2007, 3:12 pm 

    Surely some brave and righteous liberal should stand up against this sort of literary Stalinism? Does Hari need reminding that the Nazis really burned books as well as “books”? Etc etc.

    Meanwhile I notice with bemusement that Hari has an opinion on Don DeLillo:

    Compare that to postmodernist fiction, a form of torture so heinous that it surely contravenes the Geneva Convention. Look at the execrable novels of Don DeLillo or David Foster Wallace, trapped in self-referential Derridan word-games and irrelevance while a world warms and wails outside their pages.

    This doesn’t describe any Don DeLillo novel I’ve read, though to be fair, I’ve only read ten of them. Perhaps Hari was thinking of one of the others. There will be more on DeLillo coming here to unspeak.net on Thursday, “postmodernist fiction” fans…

  27. 27  Andrew Bartlett  May 9, 2007, 5:45 pm 

    I remember reading Hari’s review of ‘Why Truth Matters’ and being struck by the way in which he described/attacked the humanities and studies of the social in academia, as refracted through the book he was reviewing. The key point, to me, was that it seemed to bear no resemblance to the academic world that actually exists, leading me to wonder what, with a bitter awareness of the looming irony, just what the were empirical sources for OB’s and JS’s argument was. It wasn’t so much that I felt I needed to have an argument about the particular texts and ideas that OB and JS concentrate on. Rather, it was that the texts and ideas that they concentrate on seem to have very little profile within the actual practice of studies of the social as I have experienced them. This leads me to think that all this, well, crap, about truth (Truth?) being under threat is more probably than not a conclusion drawn from very shaky empirical grounds – a presumption that it is possible to understand the workings of an academic community by reference only to some externally popular texts*, rather than by reference to the actual practices of the community. This is a mistake no sociologist of science would make, yet, for all that OB and JS and JH and the like describe/attack their ideas, it is one they make, and in spades.

    *It is pretty clear that you cannot get a grip on the in practice knowledge of a community solely by reference to the texts, as read externally to the community. Take the relatively non-controversial area of physics – someone external trying to get a grip on the contemporary state of knowledge in the physics community would not have the contextual knowledged acquired by members of that community that is required to discrimate between the important, the trivial and the crank.

  28. 28  Steven  May 10, 2007, 1:36 pm 

    it was that the texts and ideas that they concentrate on seem to have very little profile within the actual practice of studies of the social as I have experienced them

    Interesting point. There seems to be a general tension in this sort of “thinking” between a) lamenting that the “postmodern” garbage is hugely influential and so destroying civilization; and b) criticizing it on the basis that people don’t take it seriously anyway. Thus Benson & Stangroom think it is an argument against Derrida to point out that he is not much cited by analytical philosophers in Anglophone philosophy departments. Meanwhile Hari thinks that Zizek is part of a sinister cabal of academic “postmodernists” who all adore him; yet in the film Zizek actually says that he has virtually no influence in academia at all. This bit goes unreported, of course, since it would spoil the conspiriological fiction.



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