Show-Off Professors

A new Jeffrey Eugenides short story quotes Derrida. Quote 1:

In that sense it is the Aufhebung of other writings, particularly of hieroglyphic script and of the Leibnizian characteristic that had been criticized previously through one and the same gesture.

Quote 2:

What writing itself, in its nonphonetic moment, betrays, is life. It menaces at once the breath, the spirit, and history as the spirit’s relationship with itself. It is their end, their finitude, their paralysis.

“A little Derrida goes a long way and a lot of Derrida goes a little way,” said a friend of mine who was a graduate student in English. These quotes show why. In Theory of the Leisure Class, Veblen argued that professors write like this (and assign such stuff to their students) to show status. I have yet to hear a convincing refutation of this explanation nor a plausible alternative. Is there a plausible alternative?

Veblen was saying that professors are like everyone else. Think of English professors as a model system. Their showing-off is especially clear. It’s pretty harmless, too, but when a biology professor (say) pursues a high-status line of research about some disease rather than a low-status but more effective one, it does — if it happens a lot — hurt the rest of us. Sleep researchers, for example, could do lots of self-experimentation but don’t, presumably because it’s low-status. And poor sleep is a real problem. Throughout medical school labs, researchers are studying the biochemical mechanism and genetic basis of this or that disorder. I’m sure this is likely to be less effective in helping people avoid that disorder than studying its environmental roots, but such lines of research allow the researchers to request expensive equipment and work in clean isolated laboratories — higher status than cheap equipment and getting your hands dirty. I don’t mean high-status research shouldn’t happen; we need diversity of research. But, like the thinking illustrated by the Derrida quotes, there’s too much of it. A little biochemical-mechanism research goes a long way and lot of biochemical-mechanism research goes a little way.

17 Replies to “Show-Off Professors”

  1. This may have several causes, beside vanity.

    (1) People tend to emulate the best researchers… and, unfortunately, they pick up both their qualities and defects. So, these English professors may simply write this way because they have trained themselves to look like other professors in order to become one. In effect, these bad habits become “social viruses”.

    (2) It is well known that departments tend to hire new professors who look like them. It is likely that the candidates who do not write such nonsense appear different, even rebellious, and they are less likely to be hired.

  2. Another explanation is simply to obfuscate real meaning in a way that will prevent criticism and/or hide the fact that nothing new or interesting is being said. I notice this especially in papers that can be expected to receive critical review, or in papers where the conclusions are rather obvious and already known by common sense.

  3. See also an excellent article called, “Letter From Yale“, by Helena Echlin. I’ve reproduced the first two paragraphs below.


    I am sitting in a windowless conference room. The walls are lined with sets of leather-bound books with gold-lettered spines. ‘The ode must traverse the problem of solipsism,’ a young man is saying. He pauses for a long time. Underneath the table, one leg is twisted around the other. A stretch of gaunt white ankle shows between trouser and sock. ‘In order to approach participating in.’ He pauses again, his body knotted like a balloon creature made by a children’s entertainer. Finally, in one rush: ‘The unity which is no longer accessible.’ My fellow students utter a long soft gasp, as if at a particularly beautiful firework.

    ‘Brilliant,’ says the professor. ‘Very finely put. But I didn’t quite understand it. Could you repeat it?’ I write the sentence down in my notebook, like everyone else in the seminar. The ode must traverse the problem of solipsism before it can approach participating in the unity which is no longer accessible. When I have pieced it together, I realise he is talking nonsense. I am struck by the thought that literary criticism – at least as it is practised here – is a hoax.


  4. The alternate explanation is that they genuinely are able to find meaning (decode?) these fragments of Derrida/other theory guys and it isn’t the bullshit you think it is.

    I definitely don’t endorse this hypothesis, but it is there.

  5. Seth, Seth – anyone who had the privilege, as I had, when as a Yale graduate student in English in the 70s, I watched Derrida, visiting for a summer or a term, spend a long lunch “fascinating” an attractive young woman at the Old Heidelberg, would not be casting about for a plausible alternative. For one golden moment – which stretched from the 60s to the early 80s – humanities professors of reputation had access to the pleasures that only poets were reputed to have had in the 19th and early 20th centuries – but with regular meals and TIAA-CREF to look forward to. And it wasn’t only the male professors: an untold tale is the liberties that prominent women deconstructionists took with handsome, glowering young critics who burned with a gemlike flame. However I am too much of a gentleman to name names.
    When, with my Ph.D. from the greatest English department the world had ever or would ever know in hand, I arrived at my first (and last) teaching job at BU, an English professor in his late 40s put his arm around my shoulder and said, “Sam, let me give you some serious advice about your career. You’re 27 now? The first thing to go is your stomach, and we [we intellectuals? we scholars?] can’t afford that. Sit-ups, my boy. Sit-ups. You’ll thank me in 20 years.” He waved me into a seat in his office, next to the day-bed covered with an Indian cotton print I hadn’t seen since the late 60s.
    The life of the mind.

  6. Look at a rorschach image long enough, and you’re bound to see something that is not there. The brilliance of the humanities profession was to write about it and then sell their writings to the collegiate masses.

  7. Remember that humanities professors are under pressure to publish lots of original research but the research they do doesn’t lend itself to any kind of qualitative measurement, so they’re only evaluated based on quantity. This creates a “signal to noise” problem: there are too many articles and books published and they’re all longer than they need to be. If you have a 1/2 way clever idea that merits a short article, you turn it into a book, etc. I’m sure there are some worthwhile ideas in there somewhere, but it’s not worth sorting through all the crap to get to it.

  8. Microbiology isn’t useless in the same sense that literary criticism is.
    DNA sequencing gets better much faster than Moore’s law and DNA synthesis gets cheaper as well.
    While they are basic technology that don’t cure illnesses by themselves, they are tools that allow us to better understand our bodies and to build proteins and RNA ourselves.
    is an example of how research into siRNA’s with were discovered through high status research can cure Ebola.
    It’s cured monkey and they still have to do human trials but if we have an effective new way to combat viruses than it’s worths a lot.

    It’s not a cure that got created through researching Ebola itself. Without doing basic biochemical research we probably wouldn’t even know about siRNA’s.

    It’s also not possible to do stuff like that without having the basic microbiology toolkit that high status folk created.

  9. ChristianK, I partly agree. Showing off isn’t the only thing going on. Some sorts of work are inherently more useful than others and the desire to display status doesn’t change that, it just reduces the usefulness. For example, perhaps 95% of research done by Berkeley engineering profs is useless — I’ve heard that estimate. Well, 5% useful is a lot more useful than is coming out of the English department.

    On the other hand, your example is telling because Ebola is incredibly minor compared to diabetes, cancer, heart disease, depression, and so on. The stuff that most people suffer and die from. Somehow the high-status researchers never get around to shedding useful light on those problems — look at what’s won the Nobel Prize in Medicine in the last 10 years. And even in your example, the research has yet to demonstrate actual practical value. And I assume you’re trying to find an example of practical value of high-status research.

  10. It’s odd that this subject consistently evokes such rancor from educated people ostensibly interested in common-sensical analysis.

    I’m an English PhD student at Cambridge, and about the most self-deprecating / self-loathing one you’ll find. I don’t think particularly highly of the field and I don’t intend to make a career of it. But this critique takes a completely wrong-headed approach. You ask: ‘…is there a plausible alternative?’ Well, of course there is: namely that, despite being an exclusionary discourse that uses difficult and seemingly unnecessary terms and concepts, literary criticism is a system of intellectual exchange that does in fact make sense to many who read it, and progressively develops relevant ideas. A little Derrida goes a long way because, as in physics e.g., a lot of thinking stands behind each little aphorism. The fact that most people not immersed in the lingo find this stuff superficially perplexing doesn’t differentiate it from microbiology, economics, analytic philosophy, math, psychology … or any academic discipline.

    You might as well ask why mathematicians, or better economists, communicate via equations rather than simple language. There are internal benefits to conducting closed dialogues using jargon, and it’s downright naive to think that at least some of these literary critics aren’t using this ‘abstruse’ language responsibly to help them think through difficult questions. Obviously there are plenty of “bad” professors who whip out $5 words to bowl over the opposition, just as there are sloppy economists who use jargon of their own (or equally meaningless equations and models) to give the impression of surety.

    Pick up a difficult book in any field (and Derrida, by the way, is considered difficult even by the most pretentious literary critics) and you’ll likely find the language almost incomprehensible. The difference is that in economics or philosophy, the chosen idiom is selected to give the impression of straightforward facticity and self-evident truths. Continental philosophy and the lit crit it inspires uses a language that appeals not to pseudo-scientific reason, but to emotive, poetic, and theological understanding. As such it’s an easy target—and often rightly so—for outside criticism. But is it any different to ‘demonstrate’ the non-existence of God via axiomatic principles or to ‘guarantee’ future growth in a market using a variable-laden equation than to make a point about the metaphysics of language using saccharine poetics?

    Plenty of literary theory is bollocks — indeed, it’s probably the case that a greater percentage of it is showy, flimsy, and superficial than is the case in economics or microbiology (I’ll reserve judgment about philosophy and mathematics). What’s funny is that no one has trouble accepting that they don’t understand economic theory or microbiology (or even philosophy and math), but just a hint of the ridiculous in this kind of humanities work sets people on the war path and spurs an overarching critique of academia. In truth, academics are probably much less likely to bluster and pose in order to further their careers than are consultants or bankers—most have their heads too far up their own, um, Aufhebungs to act so pragmatically! In this sense academics of all stripes, microbiologists included, deserve critique. But the suspicion that they’re a bunch of peacocking con men is a red herring.

  11. Nick, I’m not making fun of English professors. I’m saying their behavior reveals something important about professors in general. This particular trait, harmless in English professors, does plenty of harm when shown by those professors who are supposed to find solutions to our health problems.

  12. Sorry, I think my longwindedness obscured my point (ironically). I understand that you’re not making fun of English professors (though you can and should). My point was simply that the behavioral trait you’ve identified may be somewhat mis-observed, and as a result may say something different about the other professors you’re interested in.

    i.e. Contra Veblen, English professors are for the most part not showing off for career purposes (or other nefarious ends), rather this kind of language demonstrates a different kind of closed dialogue—one which professors in other fields may well mirror. There is definitely a cynical market force at work in academia. However I think the kind of professors we’re talking about here represent a different vector: the power of believing in your own bullshit.

  13. See this excellent essay by Richard Dawkins. I’ve reproduced the first couple of paragraphs below.


    Published as “Postmodernism Disrobed”, Nature 394, pp 141-143, 9th July 1998 and, in abbreviated form, in A Devil’s Chaplain.

    Suppose you are an intellectual impostor with nothing to say, but with strong ambitions to succeed in academic life, collect a coterie of reverent disciples and have students around the world anoint your pages with respectful yellow highlighter. What kind of literary style would you cultivate? Not a lucid one, surely, for clarity would expose your lack of content. The chances are that you would produce something like the following:

    “We can clearly see that there is no bi-univocal correspondence between linear signifying links or archi-writing, depending on the author, and this multireferential, multi-dimensional machinic catalysis. The symmetry of scale, the transversality, the pathic non-discursive character of their expansion: all these dimensions remove us from the logic of the excluded middle and reinforce us in our dismissal of the ontological binarism we criticised previously.”

    This is a quotation from the psychoanalyst Félix Guattari, one of many fashionable French ‘intellectuals’…


  14. Nick, Veblen didn’t say — and I’m not saying — that people show off like this “for career purposes”. He didn’t give an explanation, nor do I. If I had to guess, I suppose it goes back to something ancient, much older than careers, whatever the reason for chicken’s pecking order. When someone buys a very expensive watch, it’s obviously for showing off, but not for career advancement.

    I’m afraid I don’t understand what you mean by “the power of believing in your own bullshit.”

  15. Re “the power of believing in your own bullshit”, here’s a quote from the artist Paul Chan in The New Yorker (May 23, 2008):

    “Part of the pleasure of reading Derrida is precisely that I do not have to understand him. Comprehension is not the game. I don’t care what he thinks he’s saying–I want to read word for word, and pay attention so much that I begin to hallucinate. Which I think is a very reckless way of reading, but for me a productive one.”

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