Groucho Marx as Professor Wagstaff in Horse Feathers (1932)
I don’t know if there is a statute of limitations on confessing one’s sins, but it has been six years since I did the deed and I’m now coming clean.
Six years ago I submitted a paper for a panel, “On the Absence of Absences” that was to be part of an academic conference later that year–in August 2010. Then, and now, I had no idea what the phrase “absence of absences” meant. The description provided by the panel organizers, printed below, did not help. The summary, or abstract of the proposed paper–was pure gibberish, as you can see below. I tried, as best I could within the limits of my own vocabulary, to write something that had many big words but which made no sense whatsoever. I not only wanted to see if I could fool the panel organizers and get my paper accepted, I also wanted to pull the curtain on the absurd pretentions of some segments of academic life. To my astonishment, the two panel organizers–both American sociologists–accepted my proposal and invited me to join them at the annual international conference of the Society for Social Studies of Science to be held that year in Tokyo.
I am not the first academic to engage in this kind of hoax. In 1996, in a well-known incident, NYU physicist Alan Sokal pulled the wool over the eyes of the editors of Social Text, a postmodern cultural studies journal. He submitted an article filled with gobbledygook to see if they would, in his words, “publish an article liberally salted with nonsense if it (a) sounded good and (b) flattered the editors’ ideological preconceptions.” His article, “Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity” (published in the Spring/Summer 1996 issue), shorn of its intentionally outrageous jargon, essentially made the claim that gravity was in the mind of the beholder. Sokal’s intent was not simply to pull a fast-one on the editors, but to challenge the increasingly popular “post-modern” view that there are no real facts, just points-of-view. His paper made the bogus case that gravity, too, was a “social construction.” As soon as it was published, Sokal fessed up in another journal (Lingua Franca, May 1996), revealing that his article was a sham, describing it as “a pastiche of Left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense … structured around the silliest quotations [by postmodernist academics] he could find about mathematics and physics.”
Sokal’s ruse was more ambitious than mine. He wrote an entire article. I simply wrote a 368-word abstract. He submitted his for publication. I just submitted mine to a conference. Although his paper was filled with absurd statements, it actually reached a conclusion–however bogus–that gravity was still an idea open to serious debate. In doing so, Sokal actually had a serious point to make about the silliness of much “post-modern” thinking that viewed science as a version of the humanities where all views should be given equal weight.
My paper had no point at all. It was filled entirely with non-sequiturs. I didn’t even bother to mention anything about “the absence of absences,” because I had no idea what it meant and would have thus revealed my ignorance of the panel’s organizing theme.
In writing my abstract for the “Absence of Absences” panel, I violated every rule of good writing to which I usually try to adhere. Here’s how it happened.
In early January 2010 an email arrived in my inbox from a colleague. He had forwarded to me an announcement of a panel, called “On the Absence of Absences,” that several American sociologists were organizing for an international conference in Japan sponsored by the Society for Social Studies of Science and the Japanese Society for Science and Technology Studies. The announcement said the following:
This panel addresses absences–the gaps, silences, and remains within the construction of knowledge and ignorance–in order to contribute to an ongoing STS dialogue; one that has roots in Bloor’s “sociology of error” to more recent work in agnotology (Proctor and Scheibinger) and in residues (Bowker and Star). From feminist and postcolonial theory, we have learned to be continually vigilant about the dynamics and non-dynamics in knowledge construction and application. This panel addresses these negations, unseen crevices, deletions, and leftovers from multiple perspectives. Its aims to identify and theorize some of those areas that demand our vigilance in order to broaden and provide systematic ways to understand how absences and gaps are a continual part of social interactions and our STS studies. Interested Presenters: Please send us a brief abstract and title of your talk with your name, email and affiliation. We would like contributions no later than 15 January to compile and submit the session.
I admit I had no idea what any of this meant. But I took that as a challenge. So I wrote a few hundred words of complete nonsense and in January 2010 submitted it to the panel organizers under the title, “Music, Religion, Politics, and Everyday Life: The Tensions of Utopianism and Pragmatism in Movements for Change.” Here’s what I sent them:
From the scribes and rabbis who wrote the original Torah, to the troubadour-activists who sang “Which Side Are You On?” and “Waste Deep in the Big Muddy,” to the gangbangers and hip-hoppers who create contemporary street rap, the relationship between culture, politics, religion and everyday life has been poorly understood. As Bloor observes: “In fact sociologists have been only too eager to limit their concern with science to its institutional framework and external factors relating to its rate of growth or direction this leaves untouched the nature of the knowledge thus created.” There is an obvious tension between romanticism and reality, between humanity and barbarism, between self-reflection and communal expression, which pervades both the written word and the oral tradition. Can a society promote utopianism and dystopianism simultaneously, while allowing its governing officials, whether military conquerors or democratically elected, to perform the necessary day-to-day functions of street-cleaning, sanitation, animal rescue, industrial production, hunting-and-gathering, maintaining law and order, and (what Heideger called the “organicity of intellectual work”) educating children and reproducing the next generation. We might call this a kind of scientism of contradiction, or the contradictions of scientific production, or the contradictory intellectual discipline of everyday life. In other words, can the rigors of so called “pure” intellectual work (including those of the priestly class and its modern counterparts), the artistry of craftwork (or the craft of artistry), and the degradations of subsistence agriculture, mining, factory work, and retail sales co-inhabit the same society without igniting the ticking time bomb of social implosion, as we’ve recently seen in riots in the French suburbs and in the ghettos and barrios of Los Angeles? How, in other words, does the globalization of both production and knowledge work (the so-called “Walmartization” of societies) challenge our ability to think clearly about what is true in contrast to what is delusion? Self-delusion and self-discipline inhibits the reflective self, the postmodern membrane, the ecclesiastical impulse forbidden by truth-seeking and sun worship, problematizing the inchoate structures of both reason and darkness, allowing knowledge, half-knowledge, and knowledgelessness to undermine and yet simultaneously overcome the self-loathing that overwhelms the Gnostic challenge facing Biblical scribes, folksingers, and hip-hop rappers alike. Sociologists ignore these topics at their peril.
Note the two quotes that appear in my abstract. I’d never heard of David Bloor before, but his name showed up in the announcement about the panel, so I looked up one of his writings and lifted a sentence into my abstract, although the quote I selected has no relevance to anything else in the abstract. The quote from Heidegger (whose name I misspelled in the abstract) is a complete fabrication. I made it up. Name-dropping is always useful in academic circles.
A few weeks after submitting this abstract I received an email from Professor Wenda Bauchspies of the Georgia Institute of Technology, one of the organizers of the panel, informing me that my paper had been accepted and inviting me to present it at the Tokyo conference in August of that year.
Professor Bauchspies soon sent me another email listing the other papers that had been accepted for the panel. They had the following titles:
- “Agnotology and Privatives: Parsing Kinds of Ignorances and Absences in Systems of Knowledge Production.”
- “Science, Ignorance, and Secrecy: Making Absences Productive”
- “Alter-Ontologies: Justice and the Living World”
- “The Motility of the Ethical in Bioscience: The Case of Care in Anti-ageing Science”
- “Mapping Environmental Knowledge Gaps in Post-Katrina New Orleans: A Study of the Social Production of Ignorance”
- “The Absence of Science and Technology Equals Development?”
Using the Internet, I researched the works of my fellow panelists. Each had an impressive track record of publications and academic appointments at respectable universities, including the University of Arizona, the Georgia Institute of Technology, Washington State University, the University of Exeter (England), and Cardiff University (Wales). (Indeed, I’ve learned that versions of each of the papers they presented in Tokyo have subsequently been published in scholarly journals).
Once my abstract was accepted, I had to decide whether to turn it into a full-blown academic paper (typically about 15 to 25 pages) and travel to Tokyo to deliver it at the conference in person. I wasn’t sure I had the fortitude to turn one page of gibberish into at least 15 pages of gibberish, which I would then have to summarize in 10 minutes in front of an international audience of academics. I was also reluctant to ask my own college to pay for me to travel to Tokyo to pull off this hoax.
I felt somewhat guilty when I received another email from the panel organizer that said, “I look forward to meeting you in Tokyo.”
Ultimately, I couldn’t bring myself to carry out the hoax to its logical conclusion. I decided that I would be absent from the panel on the “absence of absences.” I never registered for the conference, although my abstract appeared in the conference program. Given its provocative (although meaningless) title, it is even possible that some conference-goers showed up at the panel expecting to hear my presentation.
I assume the panel was successful, although I never heard from the organizer or any of the other panelists inquiring why I didn’t make it. I even allowed myself to ponder the possibility that all of them were absent. Although I never wrote a paper or gave a presentation, my abstract can still be found on a website devoted to preserving the papers and proceedings of various academic conferences.
Although this episode may seem like a waste of time, I did, like Sokal, have a serious point to make in submitting the abstract. I wanted to pull back the curtain on academic pomposity.
American higher education is under attack by pundits, plutocrats and public officials who believe that many professors don’t work hard and that what they produce is of little value to society. Most of their attacks are off-base, but there is a grain of truth in their claims. Academics who believe in the mission of higher education–teaching, research, and public service–need to defend academic freedom, but some of our colleagues have to clean up their acts, because it is difficult to defend the indefensible.
There are many academics who write books, articles, and technical papers for colleagues in their own areas of expertise, but who also know how to translate their work into prose accessible to the general public. They share a commitment to the idea that colleges and universities–subsidized directly and indirectly by taxpayers–have an obligation to serve society. That means climbing down from the ivory tower and sharing their knowledge with people who aren’t academics. The tradition of liberal arts colleges and land-grant universities alike is the notion of “enlightenment,” which means educating, explaining, and illuminating ideas that might be practically useful or simply interesting for their own sake. Over the past decade, there’s also been growing interest in getting both professors and students to participate in various forms of public service, including a big increase in student internships and engagement with the worlds outside the campus.
While it is true that some academics write for non-academic general audiences in books, magazines, and newspaper articles, most scholars–and a growing number of them–are content to write books, journal articles, and conference papers that will be read by a very small group of fellow specialists.
I am more than willing to admit that just because I don’t understand something doesn’t mean it isn’t well reasoned or accurate. But the proportion of things published in academic journals has become less and less accessible to anyone who isn’t a specialist in that field. We live in an era of increasing academic specialization. As academia becomes more and more fragmented and balkanized into more narrow niches, an increasing proportion of what academics produce is unnecessarily obscure and obtuse, and, not surprisingly, poorly written. Graduate students read this drivel written by their academic elders, and then seek to emulate it, perpetuating the rule of pompous prose.
In the 39 years since I finished graduate school, specialization has become more and more narrow, so that even people in different subfields of the same discipline–say, Japanese history and colonial American history, or Renaissance literature and Southern poetry–aren’t expected to understand, or at least judge the quality of, others’ work. I realize that all academic disciplines have their own language, concepts, history, disputes, and intellectual paradigms that require a level of specialized knowledge to fully understand. I can read, but I can’t understand, most articles published in physics, zoology, or mathematics journals.
I am a professor with a Ph.D. in sociology who now teaches in a political science department and chairs a department of urban and environmental policy. In other words, I do not have strong disciplinary loyalties and think that the boundaries between many academic fields are pretty blurry. I believe that most social scientists–sociologists, historians, economists, anthropologists, geographers, and political scientists–should be able to read and understand most of what their fellow social scientists write, if only they would write in relatively clear prose. Although I’m not formally trained in English literature, or art history, or other humanities subjects, I can grasp the basic points, if not the nuances, of most articles published by scholars in these fields, if they are written to be understood rather than to impress and intimidate.
In his 1959 book, The Sociological Imagination, the sociologist C. Wright Mills mocked fellow sociologist Talcott Parsons not only for his “grand theory” ideas that seemed to have no connection with social reality or serious social problems, but also for his incomprehensible and convoluted prose, such as the following sentence:
A role then is a sector of the total orientation system of an individual actor which is organized about expectations in relation to a particular interaction context, that is integrated with a particular set of value-standards which govern interaction with one or more alters in the appropriate complementary roles.
If Mills were alive today, he’d be saddened by the exponential growth of bad writing by academics, especially by those on the left. The problem of academic jargon is not confined to a single political or ideological wing, but it certainly dominates much of the writing by leftists in the social sciences and humanities. I consider myself a person of the left, and my research and writing–focusing on American politics, urban policy, social movements, and labor studies– generally explores issues of social justice and democracy. But I have little patience for much of what passes for left-wing academic writing in the social sciences and humanities, which emphasizes criticism (often called “deconstructing” or “problematizing” by academics) of conservative and liberal ideas and social institutions, but makes little or no attempt to figure out what to do to make things better.
I also have little patience for the kind of embarrassingly obtuse writing style preferred by many postmodern and allegedly leftist academics that obscures more than it enlightens and is often a clever mask for being intellectually lightweight. Professor Daniel Oppenheimer of Princeton University made a similar point in an article published in the October 2005 issue of Applied Cognitive Psychology entitled, “Consequences of Erudite Vernacular Utilized Irrespective of Necessity: Problems with Using Long Words Needlessly.” The Atlantic in March 2006 summarized Oppenheimer’s point thusly: “Insecure writers tend to reach for the thesaurus.”
Here are several recent examples from my own field of urban studies.
I was recently asked to review a paper submitted to the Society for Existential and Phenomenological Theory and Culture for its upcoming annual conference at the University of Calgary in Canada. The paper was entitled “Detroit: Sense of Place and Self-Overcoming,” which I hoped would have something to do with the class and race struggles of the city’s working class, which has suffered due to the decline of its auto industry and Michigan’s increasingly right-wing and anti-union policies. Instead, here’s how the author summarized his ideas:
We build, maintain, and structure cities. Cities, however, maintain and structure certain attitudes in us. Given the attitudes generated by our sense of a place, critical perspectives that only target overt structures within city systems are incomplete. Jacobs outlines several design aspects of the city that are “Anticity…” Hardt and Negri identify the task of the politics of the metropolis as “…to organize antagonisms against hierarchies and divisions of the metropolis…” To fully engage the attitudes generated by our sense of a place requires what Nietzsche describes as self-mastery. Though important factors, design and politics alone are insufficient.
A prominent urban scholar at Harvard describes his latest research project as following:
Through a conceptual distinction between concentrated urbanization (agglomeration) and extended urbanization (operational landscapes) … we aim to investigate the historical geographies of the capitalist urban-industrial fabric in ways that supersede inherited metageographical binarisms while opening up new sociological, cartographic and political perspectives on the contemporary global-urban condition.
This same professor recently co-authored an article with two colleagues, published in a journal called City, which they summarized thusly:
Theoretical, conceptual and methodological choices must be framed in relation to concrete explanatory and interpretive dilemmas, not ontological foundations. In engaging with the limits and possibilities of recent assemblage-based work in urban studies, our concern has been to help forge new analytical tools for deciphering emerging patterns of planetary urbanization, which have unsettled the coherence and viability of earlier intellectual frameworks. As urbanization is changing, so too must urban theory change, and it must do so in ways that provide critical purchase on emergent sociospatial divisions, conflicts, struggles and transformations at all spatial scales and across divergent places and territories. To this end, responding to several strands of the debate on assemblage urbanism that has unfolded in previous issues of City, here we clarify our meta-theoretical stance, address several methodological questions and reiterate our arguments regarding the importance of a reinvigorated geopolitical economy of planetary urbanization. We insist on the importance of abstraction as a necessary methodological moment in any reflexive approach to urban knowledge formation.
Detroit and other American cities face enormous problems–poverty, homelessness, suburban sprawl, decaying infrastructure, underfunded schools, pollution, racial profiling by cops, and others. Professors and researchers who study and care about cities–and whose work is subsidized directly and indirectly (through foundation grants and government-sponsored financial aid to students) by tax dollars–have an obligation to help address these problems, in part by explaining the roots of the urban crisis and what’s needed to address it. It is difficult to see how this kind of abstract theorizing and impenetrable prose contributes to improving our cities.
I am sure that the other people who were on the “Absence of Absences” panel in Tokyo are serious scholars who care deeply about their research and can explain it in plain language if asked to do so. But as long as academics write primarily for tiny niches of other academics in language that obscures more than it enlightens, the general public will justifiably continue to question the value of higher education and whether their hard-earned tax dollars should be invested in the work of scholars who seem to have little interest in making their ideas accessible to the general public or useful to society.
Peter Dreier teaches politics and chairs the Urban & Environmental Policy Department at Occidental College. His latest book is The 100 Greatest Americans of the 20th Century: A Social Justice Hall of Fame (Nation Books, 2012). This article originally appeared in The American Prospect.
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Link: Academic Drivel Report: Confessing My Sins and Exposing My Academic Hoax