Tuesday, July 22, 2008

xkcd on literary criticism

So, here’s Friday’s xkcd, called “Impostor”:

xkcd on literary criticism

The basic joke is that lit crit and sociology aren’t hard sciences, and the farther any field is from the hard sciences, the easier it is for any idiot to pretend to be an expert in said field. In addition to this explicit content, the subtext for the joke is that even the “experts” in these fields aren’t experts in the way that an engineer is an expert.

Now, I don’t think that literary criticism is a hard science. However, I think the joke becomes a bit of a cheap shot when this subtext is investigated. The joke is about knowledge communities in that the protagonist is seeing how long it takes for each group to realize that he doesn’t share the knowledge of their subfield.

While we can all debate the merits of literary criticism,—I myself have some doubts about its usefulness—what xkcd’s author Randall Munroe is charging here is that the knowledge community created by literary criticism has no boundaries, but is rather merely a set of cleverly-arranged buzzwords like “deconstruction” which are used to dazzle and distract instead of increasing knowledge. At this level, the joke also seems to be a sly reference to the hoax Alan Sokal perpetrated on Social Text, the cultural studies journal where he managed to get a “phony” article published.

The reason I think this joke gets its laughs cheap is that it is targeted at grad students. Of course English grad students can be easily bamboozled—they are also new initiates to the lit crit knowledge community, and like the protagonist of this strip they are unable to tell what fits into the field and what doesn’t. It would be slightly more difficult for him to pull this stunt with an English professor. This perspective flips the joke somewhat in that if Engineering grad students can be completely initiated into their knowledge community so quickly, it must not be as complex as the knowledge community of literary criticism.

5 comments:

Jason said...

Do you really think that, specifically on the question of theory, professors are all that more savvy than grad students?

For a lot of people, once you've settled into whatever your particular approach is, you just do that forever, and so you might well get duped.

(I agree, though, that the xkcd comic was fairly cheap/stale.)

John Jones said...

The professors I know are. But I see your point (and you’ve got the Sokal example on your side). But I think your comments support my point about the complexity of literary studies. How could you draw the boundaries around the “essential” knowledge necessary for a person interested in pursuing the field? The field is simply too diverse to create a manageable list. (But maybe I'm biased. Perhaps this is an issue in molecular biology as well?)

Anonymous said...

You are doing exactly what he's making fun of.

Tom said...

I laughed.

Anonymous said...

"This perspective flips the joke somewhat in that if Engineering grad students can be completely initiated into their knowledge community so quickly, it must not be as complex as the knowledge community of literary criticism."

Now that made me laugh! (Can't believe that I'm defending those glorified grease monkeys...)