Are social critics really that vague and incompetent?

Forgive my flashy title but, exaggeration apart, there is a serious issue that for some years is known but not getting as much attention as it should. Do social critics generate culture or as a matter of fact they actually just talk nonsense? That is the question that reiterates Noam Chomsky over and over. “Posturing”, as the famous linguist and political activist repeatedly says in one of his interviews on this subject (see below). What is it with their endless chattering that no one understands? Are they complicating their discourse making it incomprehensible for anyone because they are actually hiding their lack of ingenuity? Chomsky claims that because they have no theory, they attire public attention by creating a sensation in the reader of admiration while all they have is a rhetorical discourse. In reality, their skills are in the art of language more than the ability to develop an important social theory like they pretend.

Slavoj Žižek
Slavoj Žižek

Chomsky mentioned Slavoj Žižek and Lacan but of course there are many others. Even the French critics say that if they must have at least 10% of incomprehensible rhetorical jargon in order to be taken seriously. That ‘necessity’ is for two main reasons: to let the reader think she understands while deducting a conclusion based on her own knowledge and practically has nothing to do with what the author wanted to say or not. The second reason is to impress by having the reader believe he still has a lot to learn before he could reach a sufficient level to understand such overwhelming reflections.

Another example is in a most interesting article the moral philosopher Martha Nussbaum writes about the work of Judith Butler. The Butler’s dilemma about gender as a social construction is well-known across the academic and some of the public spheres. In fact, not only Butler’s claims for gender as a social artifice but also her political views, national as well as international (lately in a fierce pro-Palestinian, anti-Israel campaign). For Nussbaum, Butler prefers to “remain on the high plane of metaphysical abstraction.”

”It is difficult to come to grips with Butler’s ideas, says Nussbaum, because it is difficult to figure out what they are,”. As far as her social critic for gender issues, Nussbaum relies that ”hungry women are not fed by this (Butler’s so called theory), battered women are not sheltered by it, raped women do not find justice in it, gays and lesbians do not achieve legal protections through it.”

It seems that there is a cloud of a dangerous quietism above our heads in many provocative and/or populist rhetorical discourses. Where many social critics enjoy spotlight for their eccentric character more than a solid substance, the problems of the world seems to only of a rhetoric importance. Slavery, for example, was not abolished by complicated phrases and incomprehensible mystifications in a circular rhetoric. Strong arguments were needed, logical and ecumenical discourses followed by treaties and antidiscrimination laws. When Bartolomé de las Casas advocated in favor of the notion that Native American Indians were, in fact, humans with souls (according to the religious perspective of that time some said they weren´t), he did so with strong arguments and subversive performance to undermine the conventional and prejudice vision of his contemporaries. Women rights were only began to become a matter of importance when brave people engaged reforms and surfaced in spite and not because of social discourses.

The prestige in the literary world for certain philosophers is somewhat curious. In fact, a closer look on that reveals an appreciation for the obscurity of the rhetoric more than the real work of the thinking mind. However, a good sociolect should be aspiring for clarity in between its followers, instead of having a dazzled audience with no real substance. Take a look for example in the following video where Lacan is trying to answer a short rather fuzzy manifesto of a young rebel (a real classic moment from 1972 during a lecture at the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium).

So, all that is left for us, readers of social studies and fans of rhetorical argumentation, is to constantly search after the elusive theory. And certainly, never forget, it´s ok not to understand some perpetuated charlatan discourses, sometimes they are simply empty of any significant meaning. Chomsky says that if you cannot explain your idea to a twelve years old for him to completely comprehend, then forget about your theory and move on.

Chomsky on Zizek and Lacan:

So why not to start thinking for ourselves? We don´t have to follow blindly some incomprehensible diagram and mathematical equations to explain how we exist in an interaction with others or blurring a sound out to the air. We can learn the basics that all of them use and create our own world of definitions and complex theories and enjoy watching people faces while you share them (which is, by far, priceless).