Electronic Journal of Sociology (1995)

ISSN: 1198 3655

A Comment on Fox

Carl H.A. Dassbach
Department of Social Sciences
Michigan Technological University

I confess that, with few exceptions, reading anything POMO makes me angry - angry because reading an incomprehensible text is a waste of my time, angry because contempt for the reader is evident in the POMO style, and angry because POMOs claim that their gibberish represents a higher order of knowledge. As a result, I try not to read POMO.

Not everyone, I realize, gets angry about POMO. In fact, post-modernism is quite popular. Try as I might, the only way that I can fathom POMO's popularity is that in comprehensibility impresses some people, especially the insecure and naive. I can even understand this because it once impressed me. In my youth, I read and re-read Althusser's READING CAPITAL because, in my naiveté, I attributed its incomprehensibility to my own ignorance (No one, I thought, would print an incomprehensible book!!!). Several readings brought me to different conclusions. First, the book was, at best, an extended gloss on the Introduction to the GRUNDRISSE and whatever was important in the book had already been said by Marx in a much simpler and elegant manner. Second, the incomprehensibility of the book was not due to my ignorance but resided in the text itself. Since then, one of my most important criteria for evaluating a text is its ability to convey meanings which are collectively understand. I no longer equate bewildering prose with great insights. Instead, I am guided by Hegel's observation: "the force of the mind is only as great as its expression."

It is with these `prejudices' that I read this paper. In my (admittedly) limited experience with POMO and my (admittedly) biased opinion, this paper epitomizes all that is bad about POMO: conceptual vagueness, incoherence, reliance on jargon and formula, creating and baiting straw men, and misinformation.

Conceptual vagueness is evident in the discussion of the very first word of the title - "intertextuality." I have read the paper three times and I still do not understand "intertextuality," even though it was the author's avowed intention to explicate the concept. I could not, for example, explain intertextuality to someone else and when I try to explain it to myself, my explanations are either so abstract that they make no sense or so trivial that they are not worth mentioning, e.g., intertextuality refers to the fact that texts refer to one another.

The main reason for this conceptual vagueness is the incomprehensibility of the text. Consider the passage quoted below.

I shall argue that intertextuality is a means to demonstrate the limits of discourse, but also, significantly, a stratagem by which it becomes possible to challenge and resist discourse - to open up the possibilities of becoming other.

What is this author saying? It sounds nice, in fact, it sounds impressive but the passage lacks all shared, and therefore substantive, meaning. Instead of communicating ideas which can be understood by a community of individuals, POMO relies on jargon and formula which no one understands, not even, I fear, the author. Practitioners of POMO indulge in what Adorno has called a "jargon of inauthenticity." Instead of moving discourse toward meanings which, despite all the imprecisions of language and intersubjective communication, strive to be collectively understood, practitioners of POMO string together jargon - "discourse," "resist" and "becoming other" - into empty formulae and pass this off as not just meaningful "discourse" but as higher insights into the world. The emperor however, has no clothes.

The obfuscation and exaggeration typical of POMO is evident in the passage below:

Postmodern analyses challenge the ontological status of modernist claims to knowledgeability concerning the world. Consequently, when such approaches are applied to social theory, the privilege which has been claimed by modernist social scientific discourses is dissolved

If one analyzes this passage and the subsequent argument, we find that obfuscation and exaggeration are really a means to mobilize one of POMO's most popular rhetorical devices: creating and attacking straw men. For this author (as well as many `disciples'), a popular straw man takes the form of "modernist claims to knowledge as privileged insight into the real." This claim, POMOs argue, must be disputed and destroyed. The fact of the matter is that the `claims' to the privileged status of knowledge made by "modernists" only exists in the minds of the high priests and priestesses of post-modernism. They create this "giant" so that they can tilt with it. No serious dialectical or critical thinker would make such a claim. Perhaps, tilting with the giant of `knowledge as reality' makes good reading in France where they are, I guess, still struggling with the empiricist legacy of the Cartesian `revolution' ("I think, therefore I am" ergo "I have thought it, therefore it exists"), but the relativity of knowledge and the inability to truly know the world has been told to us for a long time and in far simpler and accessible language - try Kant, Hegel or Mannheim.

Still, this straw man keeps rearing his head throughout much of the first part of the paper:

Re-introducing a recognition of the intertext is implicitly a critique of sociological logocentrism. As such, it clearly challenges sociology's privilege to speak authoritatively about 'the social'. As Game (1991:18) has it, sociology's fiction is that sociology is not fiction). But I would suggest that at the same time, this analysis opens up the possibilities for a social theory which is no longer obsessed by efforts to attain some kind of (semi-) transparent mediation of knowledge of the world by the human observer (Flax 1990; Hutcheon, 1989). If no privilege is attached to particular discourses, social theorists may explore far more widely texts which contribute to the fabrication of the social. In short, it proffers a new richness of 'data' of the social, fabricated in intertextuality: the play of text on text in novel and unending combinations of differance.

Despite the fact that most social scientists would admit that nobody, except the most crass empiricists, claims to "speak authoritatively about the social," POMOs continue to wage a `war,' in the name of the relativity of knowledge, on the social sciences. POMOs even claim that their position is rooted in some higher and special insight into the human condition. In reality, their position is one of ignorance based on failure: ignorance of the most basic and fundamental texts in sociology and the sociology of knowledge due to a failure to practice what they preach, i.e., `intertextuality.' When straw men can no longer be baited and jargon becomes meaningless even for the post-modernist, they resort to another weapon: misinformation. Consider the passage below:

Perhaps the fundamental difference between traditional historical accounts and the genealogical method developed in Foucault's writing (1976; 1979; 1984) and based in Nietzsche's explorations of a genealogy of morals (Lash, 1991: 260), is that while the former emphasizes continuity and the logic of events in terms of cause and effect, genealogy discloses discontinuity and the continual writing and re-writing of the world in discourse.

No traditional historian would claim to understand or explain history in terms of the "logic of cause and effect." Narratives may appear to take this form but everyone with one-tenth of a brain knows that causal explanations (in the strict sense of the natural sciences) are IMPOSSIBLE in the social and historical sciences.

I could go on but I won't. Instead, let me conclude with two observations. First, this text is, in my opinion, neither better nor worse then most POMO texts. Like most POMO texts, it relies on flawed logic, distortion, exaggeration, jargon and formula to clothe the incomprehensible in the guise of the profound. Second, POMO may have initially offered powerful insights and a liberatory potential but these have been neutralized by its acceptance and growing popularity. As a result, POMO, as it is practiced today, is a discourse of obfuscation which stands in opposition to the most basic, human aspect of all communication - intersubjectively shared meaning.