Saturday, March 9, 2013

The intellectual equivalent of crack cocaine

That's what the British historian Geoffrey Elton once called Post-Modernist Philosophy, i.e. that branch of modern philosophy/literary criticism typically characterized by a, shall we say, less than wholehearted commitment to clarity and simplicity of expression. The genre is represented in the libraries by reams of apparently meaningless prose, the authors of which claim to get at truths that would otherwise be out of reach of ordinary language. Here's a nice example, the product of the subtle mind of one Felix Guattari:
“We can clearly see that there is no bi-univocal correspondence between linear signifying links or archi-writing, depending on  the author, and this multireferential, multi-dimensional machinic catalysis. The symmetry of scale, the transversality, the pathic non-discursive character of their expansion: all these dimensions remove us from the logic of the excluded middle and reinforce us in our dismissal of the ontological binarism we criticised previously.”
I'm with Elton. This writer, it seems to me, is up to no good, trying to pull the wool over the reader's eyes, using confusion as a weapon to persuade the reader of his superior insight. You read it, you don't quite get it (or even come close to getting it), and it is then tempting to conclude that whatever he is saying, as it is beyond your vision, must be exceptionally deep or subtle or complex, too much for you to grasp.

You need some self confidence to come instead to the other logically possible conclusion -- that the text is actually purposeful nonsense, all glitter and no content, an affront against the normal, productive use of language for communication, "crack cocaine" as the writer gets the high that comes from appearing deep and earning accolades without putting in the hard work to actually write something that is insightful.

Having said that, let me also say that I am not in any way an expert in postmodernist philosophy and there may be more to the thinking of some of its representatives than this Guattari quote would suggest.

In any event, I think there's something deeply similar here to John Kay's point in this essay about Warren Buffet. As he notes, Buffet has been spectacularly successful and hence the subject of vast media attention, yet, paradoxically, he doesn't seem to have inspired an army of investors who copy his strategy:
... the most remarkable thing about Mr Buffett’s achievement is not that no one has rivalled his record. It is that almost no one has seriously tried to emulate his investment style. The herd instinct is powerful, even dominant, among asset managers. But the herd is not to be found at Mr Buffett’s annual jamborees in Omaha: that occasion is attended only by happy shareholders and admiring journalists.
Buffet's strategy, as Kay describes, is a decidedly old-fashioned one based on close examination of the fundamentals of the companies in which he invests:
If he is a genius, it is the genius of simplicity. No special or original insight is needed to reach his appreciation of the nature of business success. Nor is it difficult to recognise that companies such as American Express, Coca-Cola, IBM, Wells Fargo, and most recently Heinz – Berkshire’s largest holdings – meet his criteria. ... Which leads back to the question of why Berkshire has so few imitators. After all, another crucial insight of business economics is that profitable strategies that can be replicated are imitated until returns from them are driven down to normal levels. Why do the majority of investment managers hold many more stocks, roll them over far more often, engage in far more complex transactions – and derive less consistent and profitable results?
The explanation, Kay suggests, is that Buffet's strategy also demands an awful lot of hard work and it's easier for many investment experts to follow the rather different strategy of Felix Guattari, not actually working to achieve superior insight, but working to make it seem as if they do, mostly by obscuring their actual strategies in a bewildering cloud of complexity. Sometimes, as in the case of Bernie Madoff, the obscuring complexity can even take the very simple form of essentially no information whatsoever. People who are willing to believe need very little help:
... the deeper issue is that complexity is intrinsic to the product many money managers sell. How can you justify high fees except by reference to frequent activity, unique insights and arcana? But Mr Buffett understands the limitations of his knowledge. That appreciation distinguishes people who are very clever from those who only think they are.
One final comment. I think finance is rife with this kind of psychological problem. But I do not at all believe that science is somehow immune from these effects. I've encountered plenty of works in physics and applied mathematics that couch their results in beautiful mathematics, demonstrate formidable skill in building a framework of theory, and yet seem utterly useless in actually solving or giving insight into any real problem. Science also has a weak spot for style over content.


  1. Mark,

    I really enjoy your writing both here and in Ubiquity, and I think you make a good overall point in this post. Deliberate obfuscation under the guise of complexity is a strategy many mediocre performers in many disciplines use to justify their existence.

    However, that doesn't mean the world is simple.

    If I take a random paragraph out of one of those Nature papers on networks in finance, I'm likely to find it hard to make sense of, particularly if I read it completely out of context. Since I actually studied physics and now work in finance, I can only assume that someone with no background at all in these areas will have an even more difficult time.

    Does this mean that these papers are non-sense shams and the writers mere cynical hacks cloaking themselves in complex language to avoid detection? I kinda doubt it. If I don't understand the papers, I think my appropriate first response is to realize that I may not understand because I am not an expert in the area. This is not the same as concluding that the papers are correct, or simply deferring to the judgements of the so called experts. In the end, all I can do is read the papers and see for myself, ¿no?

    In this vein, allow me to ask how many of Felix Guattari's books you have read. Perhaps you have at least read his famous collaborations with Gilles Deleuze -- Capitalism and Schizofrenia? In my opinion, a lot of the more opaque writing in these books turns out to not only have meaning, but actually a lot of insight as well.

    In truth, I don't really want to defend the writing style in these books. I think they could have communicated the same ideas much more clearly and succinctly (in fact, you might read as a more readable introduction to their ideas). But I think I was rewarded in wading through the complexity of these books on the working assumption that maybe, just maybe, these guys had spent a lot more time thinking about the subject than I had, and might have some complex yet useful thoughts about it that had not occurred to me.

    I always end up feeling bad for people that let the complexity of a specialized language, whether it's math or post-modern prose, get in the way of their learning something new.

    1. Clark,

      Thanks very much for that thoughtful comment. You're right -- I'm being unfairly dismissive of en entire category of thought and the many people who worked hard to create it. As I mentioned, I am very much NOT an expert in post-modern philosophy, having only read a handful of texts (and none of Guattari's in their entirety). To be honest, I've found it hard to persist on those texts as I very quickly tend to feel that I'm wasting my time since the author, it seems to me, hasn't worked very hard to express his or her ideas clearly. Maybe my suspicion is wrong.

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