The signaling function of pomo language?

Here’s something interesting. The wonderful Jen McCreight linked to an excellent post on male (etc.) privilege, which illustrated the concept through a parable about a nordic dog who cluelessly turns down the shared AC on a lizard (trust me, it actually works if you read it).

In the comments section many of the usual, predictable, responses that always appear in privilege discussions showed up. Lots of “hey, this captures my experience, thanks”/”oh, I understand now, thanks”/”cool, this is a great way to explain it.” and lots of “unfair! privilege in the sociological sense doesn’t always lead to privilege in outcomes!”/”you don’t understand how hard it is to be a male too!” Unsurprisingly, the second category yielded a vigorous debate.

Then someone busted out a comment that was squarely in the second category, but was written much like it could have come straight out of the postmodernism generator. A representative excerpt:

This is a pretty radical colonization and denial of the absolute otherness of an Other, not to mention a startling assumption of self-presence. Is it really incontrovertibly demonstrated that the reason these women dislike cat-calls is entirely clear to these women? I don’t think so.

This narrative’s attempt to problematize epistemology (which looks a lot like a non-reciprocal version of Levinas’ ethics) has, in addition to false objectivity (a “view from nowhere”, if you will, that traditionally represented the interests of white men, and in feminist movements the white upper-middle class academia) the added problem that it can’t adjudicate (at least on its own) between perceptions of privilege and discrimination and actual privilege and discrimination.

And… people took it seriously. Significantly more seriously than the “unfair!” category comments that made the same sort of claims without the obscurantist* pomoese.**

I think there’s an insight in this. I’d previously thought that most deconstruction, postmodernism, etc. (pretty much that whole school except Foucault, who actually has said things worth reading) were maintained mainly because of cognitive dissonance reduction — that those who struggle through, say, Derrida, are motivated to believe that the effort is worthwhile because otherwise they must believe that they’ve wasted their time and mental blood/sweat/tears.

But perhaps obscurantist pomoese also serves a signaling function — in certain discourse communities,*** it indicates, perhaps, “I’m the sort of person who thinks hard about issues like that under discussion, and should be taken seriously.” Or, perhaps, less charitably, “I’ve had similar academic training to yours, my thoughts are likely to be valuable.” Or, less charitably still, because of the political associations of obscurantist pomoese, “I’m a fellow member of the left, my views are not to be casually dismissed.”

* Should you think I’m being uncharitable by describing the pomoese in question as “obscurantist,” just ask yourself what it could possibly mean to “problematize epistemology” (particularly if it’s supposed to mean something different from “raise doubts about [some particular instance or claim of] knowledge”), and how in the 136 Buddhist hells some parable about a dog and a gecko could do it.

**Google suggests I’ve actually coined the usage “obscurantist pomoese.” How is this possible?

***Yeah homiez, I said “discourse communities.”


One Response to “The signaling function of pomo language?”

  1. Daniel S. Goldberg Says:

    I think the signaling function is probably the most important point.

    Professionalization is fundamentally about power, and power is deeply, deeply linked to language, technical, arcane language that differentiates the professional expert from the dilettante layperson.

    So to signal belonging, professional status, membership, etc., the language is critical.

    And I am so pleased to hear you, akin to Professor Leiter, exclude Foucault from the general disparagement of pomodom (b/c in truth Foucault was a bad@ss and at least some of what he wrote was very very important in thinking about health and illness in the West. Although I think, and have gone on record as saying, that those of us interested in the latter topics have not spent nearly enough time on the most interesting and compelling pieces in Foucault’s canon. /end threadjack)

    Hope the diss writing is going well. Come back soon; the blogosphere needs you.

Leave a Comment