A modest proposal for postmodernists who decide to write plain English

Many of you will have seen the Postmodernism Generator, which for nearly twenty years has been spitting out algorithmically designed sentences, paragraphs and even entire essays in the style of postmodernist academic discourse. Much of its charm and authenticity comes from the wide range of references and sophisticated jargon that it can mobilize at a moment’s notice.

But in a way that’s too easy. Much harder would be to capture the much more prevalent mode of discourse that occurs when postmodernists descend to the levels of plain English. Once I show you an example, you’ll know exactly what I mean. I call it the Higher Dithering. Lots of words are taken up hovering around vaguely defined alternatives, resulting in the author saying exactly nothing. It’s the intellectual equivalent of that nightmare plane that endlessly circles Heathrow with no touchdown in sight.

This is not Carnap’s complaint against Heidegger: There’s nothing obscure here that pretends to be meaningful but really isn’t. Rather, it is a quite brazen attempt to drag out the failure of thought in prose out of some perceived obligation to reach an intellectually satisfying conclusion. It is the sort of thing that in pre-postmodern days would have been struck out by an editor as ‘filler’. In any case, it is certainly the replacement of thought.

Here is my example, kept anonymous to protect the guilty:

I have refrained from offering a settled version of how STS should do anthropology or   how anthropology should influence STS. Instead, my aim has been to illustrate some of     the productive discussions and tensions among scholars. I have done so because I believe     that they can inspire a continued conceptual-empirical innovation across STS and             anthropology…. More than anything, they illustrate that questions regarding the               relationship between researcher and interlocutors, and also the empirical and the               conceptual, are far from resolved. ….keeping these tensions alive may be the most               important resources we have for posing questions anew about how (scientific) worlds are   made, how to analyze this making, and how we allow analysis to be a proxy for               questioning our own conceptual repertoires.

Now, why can’t we simply let a computer programme generate this mechanical prose and spare the author the burden of having to generate it for herself? It might even leave her more time and space for thought itself!




Categories: Outflanking Platitudes, Rethinking The World, Sociological Craft

Tags: , ,

3 replies »

  1. Excellent! This is why the well-known basic plain English criteria of everyday words, few acronyms/initialisms, active voice verbs, short sentences, personal pronouns, and minimal nominalisation only scratch the surface of good communication. Having something useful to say is the main point.

  2. I am, I say shudderingly, an anthropologist. I wish I understood the paragraph produced, whether post, pre, or plain old modernist. I would like to understand it, I would like to delve into it further to see its plainativity or even its plainousness. However, I have no idea of whether it is mechanically produced or human. I know it clearly makes no sense to me. Does it have a deeper meaning? One which uncovers the pre-meanings of modern literature or is it merely tension producing or perhaps it is meant as pre-tension or, having been writ, past-tension, or maybe just pretentious.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *