The academy of nonsense

Feb. 8, 2022, 11:13 p.m.

In the final paragraph of his essay “Towards a Libidinal Economy of Three Modern Painters,” literary critic Frederic Jameson makes a startling pronouncement: “Photorealism,” he declares, is “the aesthetic ideology and the fullest living expression of that sterile thing which is consumer capitalism or the société de consummation.” Aware that such a statement demands prompt justification, he continues: “No doubt [photorealism] projects [consumer capitalism’s] view of itself and thereby legitimates it. Are we then ourselves implicitly condemned by the hallucinatory fascination that it exercises over us? Perhaps. And yet this gleaming depersonalization of the commodity vision is strangely silent about its own fundamental impulse, which it neither affirms nor denies, in all the icy neutrality of the reified eye.”

Readers unversed in academic jargon might feel a wave of bewildered anguish when confronted with the above paragraph. Who could extract meaning from declarations about the “icy neutrality of the reified eye” or the “depersonalization of the commodity vision”? What should we make of the “implicit condemnation” contained in our “hallucinatory fascination” with photorealism? Are we disturbed for preferring Chuck Close to de Kooning or Courbet to Cézanne? Are we brainwashed for feeling nothing but a vague sense of unease and despair when confronted with a Jackson Pollock painting? Jameson, to his credit, remains noncommittal. Perhaps we are sick, perhaps we are not. The reified eye, in all its icy neutrality, will not reveal the implications of its “fundamental impulse” so easily.

It is difficult to trace the logic that leads Jameson to his conclusions. The essay, first published in 1979, is chock-full of nonsense clauses. By “nonsense clauses,” I mean phrases intelligible only to distinguished professors, humanities doctoral students, precocious undergraduates interested in “theory” and, perhaps, erstwhile Tumblr users. Ostensibly, the text contains Jameson’s reflections on the works of three modern painters — Willem de Kooning, Paul Cézanne and Franz Gertsch — but readers should be forgiven if they lose the plot of Jameson’s arguments along the way. Nonsense clauses, after all, have a way of lulling us into a peaceable stupor. We read that de Kooning’s canvasses give proof of “the fragmentation of the modern senses and of the modern body,” which is itself a product of the “psychic ‘division of labor,’ the advanced form of which can be observed in [this] reification and autonomization of the various senses from one or another.” What do these sentences mean? Jameson makes no attempt to explain. He tells us these ideas come from “Schiller, Marx, Lukács and Weber.” The subtext is clear. We should not question the conclusion of such intellectual titans. We should swallow our questions and nod along, lost though we might be.

This is not to say that Jameson’s writing contains nothing of value for ordinary readers. Buried between the nonsense clauses, we find lovely musings on the antagonism between the paintbrush and the palette-knife, the symbolism of ochre in Provence and near the U.S.-Mexico Border and the narrative scheme of still lifes. Jameson makes a fascinating comparison between Cézanne’s paintings and Flaubert’s prose, both of which, he claims, lend themselves to two distinct viewpoints — “nose-close and ten feet away.” In Cézanne, the “nose-close” perspective reveals the individual brushstrokes that harmonize into houses, trees, tablecloths and human faces when viewed from ten feet away. In Flaubert, it reveals the individual sentences and unequal phrases that coalesce, miraculously, into the formal unity we appreciate from a distance. Unlike, say, Edward Said or Alain Badiou, Jameson does not write in deliberately arcane prose. He does not pepper his writing with indecipherable neologisms or puzzling rants about set theory. At his best, he manages to be both funny and penetrating in his analysis of contemporary American society.

But the essay’s brief moments of lucidity quickly cede to the rushing tide of nonsense. The brush and the palette-knife become symbols of an “eternal and irreducible combat.” The former “gave us the strands of mingled color in a kind of streak suspension” and the latter “enacts the Utopian dream of an effortless collapsing or compression of all matter back into itself.” In the hands of an “ideology of volume,” ochre transforms from mere clay pigment into “a nascent intensity” which “knows its own specific density.” The “triumph of ochre,” we are told, is one and the same with the “celebration of libidinal repression.” Not even the still life escapes untouched by the jargon tide. The white folds of its tablecloth herald “the momentary suspension of the basic tensions of the repressive operation” and “hold out the Utopia of a release from the peculiar infernal machine of intensification and its inevitable reversal.”

Far from being an outlier in the panorama of modern academic writing, Jameson’s essay is paradigmatic. Thousands of scholars and students around the world read his musings on the “Utopian dream” of the palette-knife and nod in reflexive assent. Many of them spend the bulk of their graduate or professional careers constructing arguments about art and society couched in the same jargon as “Three Modern Painters.” Their bookcases are lined with texts written by thinkers like Jameson, Edward Said, Judith Butler, Jacques Derrida, Slavoj Zizek and other doyens of contemporary political and aesthetic theory. Their talks and seminars, accessible only to a select group of initiates fluent in the jargon, often revolve around coaxing meaning out of nonsense clauses. To be sure, many among them (Jameson included) are bright and accomplished scholars. But even the sharpest academic minds can fall prey to the temptations of nonsense.

The unfortunate truth is that no one is safe from the excesses of the academy. The cacophony of jargon has a way of hypnotizing people. Spend enough time around anyone who partakes in seminars on “theory” (literary, aesthetic, political or otherwise) and you’ll start to notice the vocal tics. According to them, we are surrounded by abstractions –– “structures,” “systems,” “individual and collective consciousness,” “subjectivities,” “the Other.” The only thing that can save us from these abstractions are more abstractions, more theories and most importantly, more academics to guide us through the bleak wasteland of nonsense. 

Well, you might ask, who cares about all of this? Who cares about Frederic Jameson? Who cares about what academics think or write? Why should we care about obscurantism and nonsense clauses and weird theories about the nature of reality? Why care if scholars tend to prefer foreign loanwords where English translations would suffice? Doesn’t one solemn invocation of dispositifs or Begriffsgeschichte inspire more awe than one hundred utterances of “apparatus” or “conceptual history”? Who cares if intellectuals don’t adhere to consistent capitalization? (Jameson speaks often of “Syntax” and “Desire” and the “Other,” and he rarely justifies the choice to treat these words as proper nouns.) Why worry if their writing seems mainly to confuse, rather than clarify? Who reads academic writing, anyway?

The short answer to the “who cares” question is: we all should. As students, we should worry about what comes out of the academy because it directly affects our education. As citizens, we should care about what comes out of the academy because it indirectly affects our culture. Theories developed in the academy inevitably seep into popular discourse, albeit in simplified forms. If you want to have a serious conversation about teaching “Critical Race Theory” in schools, you should understand some details of the academic frameworks developed in the 1980s. If you believe that gender is performative, or that it is not, you should to be familiar with the work of Judith Butler and other queer theorists. The examples could go on. They are not necessarily limited to theories coming out of the humanities. Suffice it to say, we would be foolish to buy into the myth that the academy is an ivory tower set apart from society. Nothing could be farther from the truth. The debates that take place in the academy, esoteric and inscrutable though they may often seem, eventually affect all of us. 

Here, I should make a confession. I am not a fan of most categories of “theory,” and I am certainly not a fan of the category of theory into which Jameson’s writing falls. I am not compelled by explanations of the world that rely on concepts like the “reified eye” or the “libidinal apparatus.” These concepts might, in theory, have much to teach us about the realities they purport to reflect. But in practice they are often sterile abstractions, born amidst and destined to perpetuate nonsense clauses. They are examples of how to distort words and obscure meaning. When Australian philosopher David Stove proudly proclaimed that “nothing which was ever expressed originally in the English language resembles, except in the most distant way, the thought of Plotinus, or Hegel, or Foucault” (three thinkers whom he deemed especially eager to abuse language), he had clearly forgotten about, or never heard of, Jameson, Said, Judith Butler and innumerable other tenured “theoreticians” at universities across the English-speaking world.

Of course, ideas have consequences. In particular, bad ideas have bad consequences. The worst kind of ideas are those that manage to be both bad and hard to understand. You get the sense that they’re bad ideas, but you can’t quite put your finger on why, mainly because there’s no “why” to put your finger on. This is what often happens to me when I read someone like Jameson. I get the sense that many of his conclusions are utterly improbable and, at times, slightly offensive. (It does smack of elitism to suggest that a preference for realism over abstraction reflects an ignorant devotion to consumer capitalism.) But I would be hard-pressed to offer clear refutations of his “arguments,” if the foregoing extracts can be called that. Against incantations about “libidinal economies” and “reified objects,” I have only the dull shield of ordinary language. This is, surely, no fault of Jameson; it reflects my own failure of imagination. Ideally, I should meet his nonsense clauses with nonsense clauses of my own. We could spar to intellectual stalemate on the pages of the New Left Review. Our dispute would inspire mild interest in faculty lounges across America and the world. It all just seems a bit bothersome. Maybe it would be better to set aside my uncertainty and fall in line. Today we live in an era of nonsense. Tomorrow, we can hope, clarity will come back into style.

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