Thursday, April 30, 2009

On Bull Shit: When Bull Shit has meaning.

While this article is a little harsh on the rarefied obtuse language favored by the literary theorists, it's still an interesting article.

While it is true that the language of literary theory is often obfuscating and it is often hard to tell good theory from bad theory so long as the same fancy words are used, as demonstrated by the column's writer, or by the physicist (Alan Sokol) that got what he called mumbo jumbo published in a literary theory journal, that doesn't mean it is all bad, it just means that it is an inexact art.

Reading what Sokol wrote which tried to combine ideas from quantum physics with words from literary theory, I actually think it contained useful ideas despite the author's protestations, and it doesn't demonstrate that literary theory is all bull shit.

What literary theory taught us is that the meaning of a work can be disconnected from the author's intentions. And many novels, works of music, paintings, have power and meaning far beyond what the original author foresaw. And there is nothing wrong in that. There is beauty in the stars without the need for intention (unless you want to claim that the beauty of the stars is evidence for God).

Also, I recently came across the Journal of Wine Economics (I was shocked that such a thing existed) and read an article on how in randomized controlled experiments, nearly all the judges at the most prestigious US wine competition gave identical wines significantly different scores, even when tasting then from the same flight. (This was a useful antidote from having to worry too much about taking wine too seriously).

However, while this study shows that taste is inexact, it doesn't show that there's no such thing as good wine and bad wine, just that there's a lot of noise.

And so just like it may be hard to judge good vs bad literary theory, it doesn't mean that all bull shit is without meaning.

(I've been meaning to read the book On Bullshit, been carrying it around, but haven't gotten around to it yet).
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