Ask the Sphinx

So I've nearly finished polishing my Coleridge presentation paper. It took some doing to fight through the gleaming-bright hot hatred I've had for him ever since I realized I'd have to read him against a deadline, the old lunatic metaphysician. But, it's nearly over. All that's left is to go and read the paper in front of a jury of my peers who have glanced at the paper, underlined some sentences in much the same spirit that you blindfoldedly thwack a pinata, and have but one question: "Could you say more about...?"

It would scare me. But I've finally figured out this question's kryptonite. You can say anything -- it doesn't matter -- as long as you have this key in hand. You can talk about nothing. In fact, you're encouraged to talk about nothing. You can talk, if you want, in quasi-Marxist polysyllabics like "reified hegemony" and "superstructurally codified marginalization," even if those things really don't bear on the subject at all. Because if there's one thing quasi-Marxism has proven over the years, it's that it can be decal-slapped onto any conversation, so long as you preface your pseudo-opinion -- and this is all-important -- with the phrase, "There is a sense in which..."

"There is a sense in which..."

Because, no matter what you say, if you're vague enough, you're absolutely right. There is a sense in which pretty much everything that means nothing is, if not true, at least not false. You say "epistemological" if you're talking about what people know, and "metaphysical" if you're talking about what they believe, and you're halfway home. It doesn't matter if you're wrong. You simply beg out of your wrongness by claiming that "I would need to revisit the language, certainly," or that "I'm not thinking about this as rigorously as I would like to be."

(A useful corollary to "There is a sense in which," if you feel like you're using it too much -- a very real risk -- is, "Well, let me go ahead and problematize that by saying," or, if you're really an asshole, "...go head and re-problematize that...")

If you're feeling brave, you can slot new elements into the syntax. "There is an important sense in which..." if you think like you might be using some words that aren't totally alien to the conversation. Or even, if you want to seem like you're being more specific without providing any more information, "There is an important philosophical sense in which..." If you get crazy with it, you can start hybridizing and foreshortening terms into a kind of Cultural Studies stew. "There is an important -- and I don't know how else to put this -- theo-historico-ecclesiastical, you could say... or more specifically, a teleological, almost teleo-eschatological, in the truest sense of that word, way in which..."

So let's see how this works in practice.

Student: Yeah, I have a question about your paper. I notice that on page two you say, "Coleridge clarifies that this is not the divine distinction of election engendered by the separation of 'the Christian from the this-worldian,' but only 'the civilized man in contra-distinction from the barbarian, the savage, and the animal.'" Can you say more about that?
Me: Certainly. I'm actually glad you brought that up. See, there is an important philosophical sense in which Coleridge is superstructurally codifying a sort of marginalization that bleeds through social substrates.
Student: Can you say more about that?
Me: [flustered] Sure, I mean... I'm perfectly happy to grant you that there is a way in which what I said is not true. But there's also an important material-historical, and I mean Adorno, not so much Benjamin, though he would be useful methodologically, too... dialectic sense in which Coleridge is actually presenting a reified hegemony that it itself already encoded in the false consciousness engendered by the Anglican...


The important thing here is to seem like you know what you're talking about, without seeming like you're not surprised by the fact that you know what you're talking about.

Let's build something together.

So there's this new askwiki search engine. You ask it a question, and it answers it. It's "like an AskJeeves that actually works," says bOING bOING.

So, I'm like, ok, let's see what this thing's got. So I want to ask it a question that really has no answer, to see what it's got for me.

So I ask it, "who stole the cheese?"

A split second later, it responds, "There is a legend as to where cheese came from that says an un-named Arab nomad discovered that milk could be taken from animals, and began filling his water pouch with this milk. According to legend, one day he was out traveling when he became incredibly thirsty." It says, "From Article: Cheese."

So I go to the article, Cheese, and this story isn't even in it. Now I'm like, what's the fucking end of this story?!?

This is the most tantalizing search engine ever.

To the more straightforward question, "Was Frank Dux a liar?" the search engine returned the far more poetical and evocative, but ultimately more final answer: "As with virtually all sausages, hot dogs must be in a casing in order to be cooked." I see...

It's like having a really insufferable zen koan expert around to relay all your questions to.


Sisyphus said...

Heh heh. I'm actually glad we have a prof here who would respond to your comments here with "Mmm-hmm. Again. Only no polysyllables."

But if you _really_ want crazy-shit Cultural Studies stew, you have to know the proper way to throw in a "What is at stake here..." --- for some reason I have trouble connecting that to my actual point. Gotta go back to my Stuart Hall.

D said...

I think our professors find us all too pathetic and amusing to call bullshit on us all that much, which is kinda hilarious. In my department, though, I don't think we're allowed to use "What is at stake here" until our second year of grad school. But let me tell you, I'm chomping at the bridle and bucking the bit.

The other one I'm dying to use is, "I'd like to open up a space for..." And then, you know, to open up a space for something. Probably something about lesbians, or counter-imperialism.