Posts tagged with humanities

The Audacity of Despair

by David Simon (creator of The Wire)

  • arch cynicism about the public purpose of television
  • The Wire is not hyperbolic about our inability to solve our own problems.
  • The news media buries and forgets relevant information.
  • New Orleans was not destroyed by Hurricane Katrina. An untethered barge breached the retaining wall, destroying the Ninth Ward.
  • Three years later during Hurricane Gustav, another barge was unsecured in the same canal.
  • The Wire is not about sinister people doing sinister things. There’s no fun in that. There’s no drag in writing a show about bad guys and good guys. First of all, it’s not credible. And second of all, it’s not where the real evil lurks.
  • As a reporter: “Every time someone dragged out a statistic, I immediately distrusted it as [probably fabricated or] dubious [method]”
  • Management: No sooner does someone invent a useful measure of institutional progress, than someone else begins to game it to the point that the measure becomes useless.
  • "In my city [Baltimore], every single effort to quantify progress was an effort by somebody to advance themselves.”
  • People are promoted or leave to another job before anyone figures out what they got was dross.
  • Cops retire with a pension despite making zero progress in 40 years in the war on drugs.
  • Why? is the only of the 5W’s+1H that matters. That could have made journalism “a game for grown-ups”.
  • Bulls∗∗t US government claims about progress in Vietnam.
  • More profitable for Chicago Tribune Company’s shareholders to stop asking Why?—and lay off reporters.
  • This was due to their monopoly: they didn’t need top-quality journalism to compete. But the drop in quality, if efficient at the time, made the papers soft targets when the Web became big half a decade later.
  • He thinks Internet reporting is less magazine-like and more frothy. I contend ∃ both.
  • Crime wasn’t going down anymore. So robberies became larcenies. Aggravated assaults became common assaults. Felonies were leached down to misdemeanors.” Robberies in southwest Baltimore went down 70%. The commander was promoted to head of CID. Next boss went in, crime went up 70%, he took the flack.
  • "40% decline in crime, but the murder rate stayed constant. [red flag] The only thing that that says rationally is that they’ve opened up a gun range in West Baltimore and they’re better shots.”
  • Any reporter who had any sense of his beat would know this was a huge red flag, would dig deeper into the data and call the complainants.
  • "How is it that we’re able to talk about this in an entertainment medium—television—but not in journalism?”
  • Curfew for Blacks in Baltimore (fallacious arrests). ACLU tries to sue, but by the time it wends its way through the courts the practice has stopped; the Mayor has become Governor.
  • "If you walk into The Other America and ask people how they feel about certain things, you’re likely to hear how they feel.”
  • "We stole facts from real life, but thematically the people we stole the most from were Euripides, Aeschylus, and Sophocles."


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’ outed….

scientist and polemicist Richard Dawkins, Postmodernism Disrobed. A review of Intellectual Impostures published in Nature 9 July 1998, vol. 394, pp. 141-143.


Above we read an assertion without evidence. Dawkins posits that an intellectual impostor with nothing to say would write in a certain way. But where’s the proof? I guess whoever’s reading this book review is assumed to already know what Dawkins (Sokal/Bricmont) are talking about and agree with his implications: namely, that postmodernists have nothing to say, and that they cultivate an obtuse literary style to obscure the fact (and that this somehow also attracts followers).

Who says “chances are”? Dawkins’ attack amounts to a flame.


Here is a not-unusual passage written in that other famously obtuse jargon, mathematics:

The prototypical example of a C*-algebra is the algebra B(H) of bounded (equivalently continuous) linear operators defined on a complex Hilbert space H; here x* denotes the adjoint operator of the operator x: H → H. In fact every C* algebra, A, is *-isomorphic to a norm-closed adjoint closed subalgebra of B(H)….

That’s from Wikipedia’s article on C* algebras. I think the language is similarly impenetrable to Guattari’s. But mathematics = science = good and humanities = not science = bad, at least in the minds of some.

Here is an excerpt (via @wtnelson) written for teachers of 4–12-year-olds, 40 years ago, by Zoltán Pál Dienes:

psychologically speaking, relating an object to another object is a very different matter from relating a set of objects to another set of objects. In the first case, perceptual judgment can be made on whether the relation holds or not in most cases, whereas in the case of sets, a certain amount of conceptual activity is necessary before such a judgment can take place. For example, we might need to count how many of a certain number of things there are in the set and how many of a certain number of these or of other things there are in another set before we can decide whether the first and the second sets are or are not related by a certain particular relation to each other.

Clear as mud! Clearly Z. P. Dienes was an intellectual impostor with ambitions to collect a coterie of reverent disciples.


I don’t know enough about postmodernism to opine on it. I just get annoyed when putatively sceptical people casually wave it off without proving their point.

(And if you’re going to point me to the Sokal Affair or Postmodernism Generator CGI, I’ll point you to At Whom Are We Laughing?.)


In Lacan: A Beginner’s Guide, Lionel Bailly describes his subject as “a thinker whose productions are sometimes irritatingly obscure”. He goes on:

Most Lacanian theory [comes from his]  spoken teachings…developed in discourse with…pupils…. [Various modes of presentation which are appropriate in speech] make frustrating reading. …leading the reader toward an idea, but never becoming absolutely explicit…difficult to discover what he actually said…thought on his feet—the ideas…in his seminars were never intended to be cast in stone…freely ascribes to common words new meanings within his theoretical model…Lacan, despite the fuzziness of his communication style, strove desperately hard for intellectual rigour….at the end of the day, it is … clinical relevance that validates Lacan’s model. [Lacan being a psychoanalyst and his ideas coming out of that work.]

So there’s an alternative hypothesis from an authority. Bailly admits the communication style was poor and gives reasons why it was. But rather than judging the work on rhetorical grounds, we should judge it on clinical merit—the ultimate empirical test!

Compare this to Dawkins. Besides the suppositions I already mentioned, he chooses words like: “intellectuals” within scare quotes; ‘anoint’, ‘revere’, ‘coterie’—to undermine the intellectual seriousness of his targets. Who are the empiricists here and who relies on rhetoric?


The most obvious image of a laughable hipster should be a half-time art-school student whose parents are going to provide him/her with a cushy job and/or money so s/he doesn’t really have to work but can just learn some stuff, party/hang out, make some art, and do a little-of-this little-of-that. Maybe have his/her own record label or vanity company or charity or eat instagrammable food or wear cool clothes or whatever, and be beautiful.




Hey, that actually sounds like a nice life I would like to have for myself.


Since art and learning and performing and consuming of those kinds of things are ends in themselves, it’s like this stereotypical character already has what the rest of us would use up our potential leisure time working to be able to afford. In that case the hipster hatred can be just a form of envy.

The methods of topology, when applied to cultural analysis, provide a rigorous, yet unabashedly humble investigation of the nature of cultural relationships.

—Brent M. Blackwell