Martin Heidegger was no Steve Martin. Pictured on the back cover of his seminal tract, “Being and Time,” with frown and furrowed brow, it’s difficult to imagine this German phenomenologist cracking a joke. Yet, this fall, mulling over his magnum opus for class, I eked out a few laughs at his expense. Encountering impossible semantic permutations of the word “being”—capitalized and uncapitalized, infinitive and participle, singular and plural—I took to narrating the most esoteric examples aloud. What else could I do with a phrase like “Being means the Being of beings”? So abstract, Heidegger’s words seemed completely hollow—devoid of meaning, else hyper-meaningful in ways that eluded my 20 year-old brain. Faced with the daunting task of reading 80 pages in 10-point font, all I could do was laugh.
Heidegger, I surmise, would not have been amused. Amongst his academic aficionados, such an act marks me as intellectually unserious or even blasphemous. I like to think that my laughter was neither of the two: Innocuous in tone, it evidenced the basic—and, at the time, insurmountable—fact that I simply had no idea what Heidegger was saying. To me, “Being and Time” was philosophical Dada, the Jabberwocky stripped of satire and iambic meter. Sure, the work possessed some semblance of sense, its sentences cohering in the internal logic of English grammar. Recited with intonation and interspersed with caesura for dramatic effect, the book’s claims certainly sounded significant. Yet, despite its enigmatic profundity, I could not help but impute a certain absurdity to Heidegger’s prose. For all I knew, “Dasein” might as well have been Orwell’s “two plus two equals five.”
Chuckling at academic writing has a long history. In 419 B.C., Aristophanes derided Socrates’s philosophizing as opaque and specious. Today, a website—the Postmodern Generator—crafts a new grammatically correct and vaguely coherent scholarly article, complete with footnotes and a fake department, each time the viewer hits refresh. (“The Consensus of Collapse: Baudrillardist Simulacra in the Works of Debord” by Ludwig M. Werther, Department of Gender Politics was a recent output). And, up until 1998, the journal Philosophy and Literature held an annual Bad Writing Contest which celebrated “the most stylistically lamentable passages” in recent academic work.
Judith Butler, a professor at U.C. Berkeley best known for theorizing gender as performative, recently received the journal’s accolades for a 98-word sentence—which, admittedly, was entirely inscrutable. Several months later, Martha Nussbaum, herself a feminist academic at the University of Chicago, penned a scathing critique of Butler’s oeuvre for The New Republic. Through its “ponderous and obscure” prose, Nussbaum argued, Butler’s writing created “an aura of importance,” which “bullied the reader into granting that, since one cannot figure out what is going on, there must be something significant going on.” In reality, Nussbaum contended, Butler simply rehashed stale concepts: Obscurity filled the void engendered by her lack of substantive content. Exhausted by deciphering Butler’s prose, the reader had little energy (or patience) remaining to assess the veracity of her claims. Nussbaum further assailed Butler for what she deemed “bad-faith feminism.” Retreating from political engagement to self-indulgent scholarship, Butler’s gender politics proved decidedly hollow. “Feminism demands more and women deserve better,” Nussbaum concluded.
Arbitrating the in-fighting amongst contemporary feminists, Camille Paglia chimed in against both Butler and Nussbaum, would take tomes, not a column. What is clear, however, is that some philosophers—particularly those grounded in the Western Continental tradition—engage in an almost compulsive drive to make complicated. Replete with cryptic neologisms and allusions, the writings of Butler and company often leave the reader as mystified as Alice in Wonderland. Yet, the fault does not rest solely with the authors: Readers too indulge the tendency to speak in intellectual tongues. Stand in an abstract art gallery, even one filled with blank canvases, and the din of theoretical citations overwhelms. Viewing these works that appear eminently simple, the spectator finds not nothing, but rather, a surfeit of things that could be said. Ultimately, as my art history professor jests, modernist art appears to partake in one long inside joke to which the spectator is not party.
Upon joining the Mad Tea-Party, Lewis Carroll narrates, “Alice felt dreadfully puzzled. The Hatter’s remark seemed to her to have no sort of meaning in it, and yet it was certainly English. ‘I don’t quite understand you,’ she said, as politely as she could.” Coming into section that week, where recourse to parody seemed ill-advised, I was forced to admit the obvious: Heidegger’s concept of being was far beyond the grasp of my own. Three lectures and one final exam later, I had managed to reconcile with the philosopher who enjoined his readers to eschew philosophical abstraction on his own breathtakingly abstract terms. If we were never going to be friends, at least I could respect his monumental intelligence for what it was—equal parts profound and abstruse.
In the end, beyond elucidating the question of being, Heidegger taught me that all academic disciplines are forms of gibberish—specialized lexicons that must be mastered before they can glean any insights. Each is comical in its own way, whether through overzealous use of the word “being” or too much C++.
Perhaps, after all, it’s not so bad just to laugh.
Courtney A. Fiske ’11, a Crimson editorial writer, is a social studies concentrator in Lowell House.