Towards a hermeneutics of pretentious claptrap: has post-modernism gone postmodern?

Eh? Now what’s he on about?

Let me explain. My highly educated readership will obviously know what ‘pretentious claptrap‘ is: I assume that’s what drew them here in the first place. ‘Hermeneutics’ might be a bit more challenging though. Especially if you turn for enlightenment to the Stanford Dictionary of Philosophy:

“The term hermeneutics covers both the first order art and the second order theory of understanding and interpretation of linguistic and non-linguistic expressions”

Fortunately, Wikipedia has a more user-friendly definition:

“The branch of knowledge that deals with interpretation, especially of the Bible or literary texts”

So you could say that the question ‘what do we mean by hermeneutics?’ is a tautology. Glad we cleared that up.

All well and good but – assuming you’ve stayed with me this far – why am I banging on about an obscure word that basically means ‘explaiining stuff’? Bear with me.

The genesis of this post can be traced to me having ideas above my station. One manifestation of this condition is that I have a subscription to the Times Literary Supplement (TLS). By any stretch of the imagination this is a high-brow publication and, while it’s not always a right riveting read, it does contain many interesting articles as well as – and here’s the crux – lots of reviews written by academics of academic books written by other academics.

And they do love their big words, those academics.

I think I have a reasonable vocabulary, but there’s scarcely an issue goes past where I don’t have to resort to my iPad’s built-in dictionary for clarification of something. Sad sack that I am, I make a note of most of these big words, in the vain hope that one day I might get an opportunity to drop something erudite into conversation. Regrettably, I have yet to find an excuse to make casual mention of ‘oneiric’ (of or related to dreams or dreaming), ‘aleatory’ (random) or ‘chthonic’ (relating to the underworld).

On the other hand, this blog itself is an unalloyed example of ‘lucubration’ (piece of writing, typically overwrought), even if, sadly, it’s not ‘lapidary’ (elegant and concise).

One word that keeps cropping up with noticeable regularity is ‘hermeneutics’: 10 times in the past twelve months according to the search facility on the TLS website. That seemed quite a lot for what is hardly an everyday expression. So I conducted a broader exploration on the internet (other search engines are available).

The specific phrase ‘Towards a hermeneutics of…’ (TAHO) yielded no less than 482,000 results. Here’s a small selection of examples from near the top of that list. I swear I am not making any of these up:

  • TAHO Historical Consciousness
  • TAHO Performance Arts Documentation
  • TAHO Quantum Citation
  • TAHO Online Social Media

and my absolute favourite:

  • TAHO Aegean Bronze Age Ship Imagery

Why is TAHO such a common academic ‘tic’? Is there some rule that requires all academic papers to include this tortured phrase in the title? Intrigued, I dug a bit deeper, which is how I learnt of the ‘Sokal Affair”.

Briefly, in 1996 the eponymous Professor Sokal wrote a paper entitled ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’. This was published in Social Text, an academic journal of ‘postmodern cultural studies’.

Whatever they are.

In this paper, Sokal argued that Quantum Gravity, far from being part of the fabric – indeed the very mechanics – of the universe, was no more than a social and linguistic construct. More broadly, he argued that physical reality – “an external world whose properties are independent of any individual human being” – was “dogma imposed by the long post-Enlightenment hegemony over the Western intellectual outlook”.

To put this in terms that even I might understand, this is broadly equivalent to saying that my belief that 2 + 2 = 4 is no more than a demonstration that I am hidebound by bourgeois concepts of numeracy. Probably due to my upbringing and/or inherent racism and sexism.

The paper was a fake, being composed, according to Sokal himself, of ‘a pastiche of left-wing cant, fawning references, grandiose quotations, and outright nonsense’. No wonder it got published in an academic journal.

He had written it as a protest specifically against a growing trend for some academics – especially exponents of some achingly fashionable types of literary criticism – to take it upon themselves to criticise scientific theory as if it was literature, thus rather losing sight of the demonstrable facts that science (usually) tries to deal in.

Well, I found it amusing.

But what I’m still confused about is this: presumably, all the academics who have published papers with TAHO in their titles since the Sokal Affair are aware of it. So, is the use of TAHO postmodern irony?


Or do they really talk like that?


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