Speaking Ill of the Dead with Style

The declining influence of hard-core French post-modernism has led to the unfortunate decline of a wonderful genre: the punchy, anti-post-modernist screed, an art perfected by Alan D. Sokal and his acolytes. The death of French philosopher Jean Baudrillard, however, has given Carlin Romano a vehicle for the outraged academic masses to once more express their contempt for Gallic jargon and obscurantism. His anti-eulogy in today’s Chronicle of Higher Education is worth a read by anyone who enjoys the odd dose of finely delivered invective. For example:

Like a French Ann Coulter with stumpy legs and nicotine-ruined lungs, but sans Coulter’s gift for punchy images, Baudrillard stalked fame by making outrageous declarations he knew to be false. In Fragments and other collections of interviews, he brayed egotistically about his brilliance while admitting he made up quotations in his scholarly work.

Or consider this attack on academic fads:

All veteran humanities people know the reasons: Intentionally obscure French philosophy is an established performance art; there’s money to be made, appointments to be secured, prestige to be garnered. Just as rich, white American pop-music execs grasp that giving a tyro singer one name automatically wins teenage fans, operators in the “master of thought” biz know that positioning a properly hieratic obscurantist correctly can lead scholarly publishers to issue any dreck the thinker produces and eventually trigger secondary trots on the “masters” by the same acolytes driving the whole process. Once a French thinker hits the mark, of course, no one dares shut him or her up, or suggests such plebeian activities as editing or rewriting.

Baudrillard, though, may be the screw-up who endangered the brand. His published writings were so bad, and his publicity-hound manner so obvious, that the image of incomprehensibility and clownishness attached itself to the “respectful” profile drawn by his advocates and they couldn’t rub it off.

In addition Romano informs us that, “No one will read Jean Baudrillard in 50 years, once those who made money off his antics fade. As in show business, so in academe. No fraud survives his enablers.” Elsewhere he discusses “Baudrillard’s blithe idiocies.”

The traditionalist in me balks a bit at excoriating the dead in the shadow of the funeral. The meanie in me, however, can’t help but enjoying Romano’s style.

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12 Responses

  1. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    I’ve labored (a labor of love as it were) through Sartre’s Being and Nothingness and the Critique of Dialectical Reason (as well as about everything else by him in English translation) and while these works were often obscure and difficult, especially on first reading, they are models of philosophical acuity and literary lucidity in comparison to the work of Baudrillard. Of course we shouldn’t take Baudrillard as emblematic of contemporary French philosophy, but I suspect there’s some painful truths in Romano’s rant. Perhaps it’s just a product of middle age musings and nostalgia, but French philosophy appears to have been in precipitous decline since the onset of post-structuralism and ‘hard core post-modernism,’ particularly when assessed by way of comparison with the likes of Sartre, de Beauvoir, Marcel, and Merleau-Ponty (there’s always exceptions to such generalizations, among which I would count the work of Foucault for one, and Vincent Descombes for another).

  2. Nate,

    I hope the seeming absence of any substance is not what you enjoy about Romano’s style. I can’t read the whole essay because it’s subscriber only, but I looked in vain at what you excerpted for anything actually resembling an argument. I did find a number of insulting ad hominem attacks — Ann Coulter is a punchier writer, huh? — and casual dismissal of entire movements of French philosophy by analogy to the Backstreet Boys — wow, that Romano is as clever as… Baudrillard! — but that’s about it.

    Romano’s screed, I think, says far more about his intellectual abilities than about Baudrillard and French philosophy. Sad: I thought the knee-jerk anti-poststructuralists had learned their lesson with Derrida. Who can forget his obituary in the New York Times, winningly entitled “Jacques Derrida, Abstruse Theorist, Dies at 74” — a title and sentiment with which Romano would no doubt agree. Fortunately, others didn’t: 5,000 academics from every conceivable discipline and of every ideological stripe signed a letter protesting the obituary. But hey, screw them, what do they know? Romano’s got the goods — and maybe, just maybe, someday he’ll let the rest of us know what they are…


  3. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    Although it hasn’t altered my opinion of him, there’s a fair discussion and assessment of Baudrillard’s work by Douglas Kellner in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (SEP) online: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/baudrillard/

    I’d be curious if Kevin finds Kellner’s treatment to be even-handed and largely on target.

    And while on occasion I could be counted among the ‘knee-jerk anti-poststructuralists,’ I do think Todd May has squeezed some value out of the political thinking of Foucault, Deleuze, and Lyotard in The Political Philosophy of Poststructuralist Anarchism (1994). Still, I suppose I remain a bit attached to grand narratives and ambitious theorizing, and a bit weary of transgressive temperaments and the valorization of subjugated discourses.

  4. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    One last thing: Kevin might have posted a link to his touching piece on Baudrillard at Opinio Juris: http://www.opiniojuris.org/posts/1173350531.shtml

  5. Nate Oman says:

    The piece is a screed not an argument, and can only be enjoyed as an example of clever invective.

  6. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    Finding enjoyment in the odd dose of ‘finely delivered [or “clever”] invective’ bereft of any argument (I do think, however, that one can construct an “argument” from Romano’s rant) strikes me as a species of vicarious perversion with family resemblance to schadenfreude and lacking in any redeeming psychological or ethical qualities (hence not an innocent pleasure). Perhaps the ‘meanie’ in us is better ignored or suppressed or overcome: acknowledging one’s darker proclivities is important, but that should hardly serve as a rationalization to indulge them. Indeed, taking pleasure in such invective might be considered an instance of reason in passion’s service, i.e., taking pleasure in reliance on a specious and imperfectly intelligent rationalization for doing passion’s bidding, effectively trumping the reason(s) intelligence understands and what reason affirms and develops (with apologies to John Finnis). If this be an irritating dose of moralizing, so be it.

  7. Nate Oman says:

    Patrick: Thanks for the little homily. No doubt my crabbed soul is the better for the sermon. I also think that you are right that one can find in Romano’s screed an argument in the sense of conclusions that purport to be supported by premises. It does not purport, however, to be a careful analysis of Baudrillard thought.

    I disagree with you about invective. There are reasons other than schadenfreude or some other ethical failings that Cicero’s speeches on the Cataline Conspiracy have survived for two millenia. Well-done invective is an exercise in wit that distills down ponderous arguments a few sharp and well chosen barbs. In this sense it is not only an exercise in rhetoric (a skill that any lawyer ought appreciate anyway) but of real thoguht as well.

  8. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:


    With all due respect, not without reason did Plato attempt to provide philosophical criteria for the determination of proper and improper rhetoric, rhetoric as such lacking intrinsic justification without reference to proper means and ends or purposes. I having nothing against wit, believing it can and should be employed without reliance on vituperative language. Insult and abuse are rightly thought to be characteristic of fallacious ad hominem arguments so distillation or not, we should eschew such language as counterproductive. Cicero’s orations are beside the point, being not at all comparable to Romano’s ‘screed’ and ‘clever invective:’ for they hardly amount to a litany of abusive ad hominem reasoning (his language more colorful than mean-spirited). In fact, Cicero can be said to exemplify the proper integration of emotion with reason, rather than the subordination of the latter to the former, the difference in part crystallized by the difference in right motivation, i.e., motivation by right reason(s).

  9. robert says:

    For a litany of Cicero’s “abusive ad hominem reasoning,” I would refer Patrick to Plutarch’s collection, and to his comparison of Cicero to Demosthenes: “Cicero’s immeasurable boasting of himself in his orations argues him guilty of an uncontrollable appetite for distinction…as if he were engaged in a boyish trial of skill, who should speak best, with the rhetoricians, Isocrates and Anaximenes, not as who could claim the task to guide and instruct the Roman nation.” Cicero, a man who sat in the middle of Athens and decried: “But where are the beautiful youths?” Just as Cicero missed the point, so do we: “The deceiver is more just than the one who fails to deceive, and the one who is deceived is wiser than one who fails to be deceived.” If we must grant a partial truth to these words of Gorgias, then we can cast a reasonable doubt on Romano’s Baudrillard: models are not erected because they are true; they are true because they are erected as models.

  10. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    Even if one concedes a lack of humility and related human failings (e.g., the wish for distinction or glory) on Cicero’s part, this has nothing whatsoever to with a dependence on or frequent resort to abusive ad hominem reasoning (i.e., your quotes are irrelevant in that regard).

  11. robert says:

    “Another illustration of [Cicero’s] love of praise is the way in which sometimes, to make his orations more striking, he neglected decorum and dignity…To use this sharp raillery against opponents and antagonists in judicial pleading seems allowable rhetoric. But he excited much ill-feeling by his readiness to attack anyone for the sake of a jest.” Thus Plutarch.

  12. Patrick S. O'Donnell says:

    Plutarch wrote a century after Cicero’s death and I would prefer quotes from Cicero himself to be persuaded of a penchant for the abusive ad hominem, or a predisposition to ‘finely delivered invective.’