20 April 2008

On Homi Bhabha's writing

Homi Bhabha, of Harvard University, is renown for his obscurantism. As is well known, he won the 1998 "Bad Writing Competition" award (from the journal Philosophy and Literature) for this fine specimen: "If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to 'normalize' formally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality."

When I come across such complex concatenations of desultorily assembled conceptsthe referents of jargonistic and literarily obscure terms that, in their aggregative totality, constitute an idiosyncratic phraseology of which there is no available lexicon for definition and disambiguation, I like to play a little game. This game involves negating a word in the sentence (e.g., with a logical particle, like "not" or "non-"), or replacing it with its antonym. I then ask: Now what does the sentence mean? How has the meaning changed? If I cannot discern any semantic difference, I conclude that the sentence is meaningless.

For example, replace the word 'formally' with 'informally' in Bhabha's sentence above, giving: "If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to 'normalize' informally the disturbance of a discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality." Now what does the sentence mean?

Or replace 'discourse' with 'non-discourse', giving: "If, for a while, the ruse of desire is calculable for the uses of discipline soon the repetition of guilt, justification, pseudo-scientific theories, superstition, spurious authorities, and classifications can be seen as the desperate effort to 'normalize' formally the disturbance of a non-discourse of splitting that violates the rational, enlightened claims of its enunciatory modality." How does this change the meaning of the sentence?

Whitney's "Lovesong to Homi Bhabha," below, plays this game with one of Bhabha's essays, "DissemiNation: Time, Narrative, and the Margins of the Modern Nation" (available here). Ironically, when used to tell her story -- she accidentally entered Prof. Bhabha's office while looking for another building -- his words make some sense; the piles of abstract phrases can be filled with almost any meaning, put into any new context. Ironically, the only context they may not make sense in is his own essay, which becomes a mess of abstractions that float away, unanchored.

Science journals are highly intelligible—although they use specialized languages, they also use the "common person's" syntax (to use Bhabha's pharse). Thus, all one has to do to understand a scientific paper is learn the parlance (and know the concepts). Bhabha's work, on the other hand, involves highly complex syntax. Consequently—and this is the ultimate pointthere's nothing one can read, study, memorize, research, etc. to make such writing intelligible. It is, therefore, hopeless!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Bhabha at the Ecological Urbanism Symposium: http://klaustoon.wordpress.com/2009/04/12/ecological-urbanism-ii-koolhaas-kwinter-bhabha/