The hip and the dead

The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense
December 24, 2004

Ever since the overload of ill-informed and often downright philistine criticism that followed the sad death of Jacques Derrida, I have begun to develop an almost protective attitude towards anyone who is accused, however crassly, of being a deconstructionist or postmodernist and then promptly lampooned for their incapacity to write good old straightforward commonsense English.

So the news that The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense would provide "very witty and useful ammunition against pretentious aspects of postmodernism" induced a certain weariness. But at least this duo of academics - a historian and a philosopher - insist on telling us before they get going that their comic anthology has a serious purpose. "If human intelligence matters, if clear thinking and reason and open eyes are good things, then fashionable nonsense really is important and worth resisting. The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense is our contribution to the fight against the erosion of reason."

Really? How much internal evidence is there of such high-mindedness? Not much. Here is the entry for Walter Benjamin. "By far the hippest member of the Frankfurt School. Committed suicide for one thing, which is always a dead give-away of hipness. To be sure Benjamin did it to escape the Nazis, rather than because he was bored or alienated or to make an existential statement, so in that sense it was less hip; but still."

What are we to make of this? Does the inclusion of Benjamin in the book mean that he wrote fashionable nonsense? If so, why are we invited to laugh at details of his life rather than his work? And who would be amused by this entry? Presumably only those who recognised Benjamin's name and regarded him as the sort of overrated figure who deserved such dismissive treatment.

Let's try again. "Derrida, Jacques: He invented DECONSTRUCTION. Nothing more need (sic) to be said. Except that he's got sexy white hair. And he was friendly with Paul de MAN, which caused a little local difficulty. And, of course, there was the whole bust-up about the honorary degree from Cambridge. But mainly he invented deconstruction." Again, this is obviously aimed at the knowing (who else would pick up on the allusion to de Man's Nazi past?) and again it ducks any satirical engagement with the work for a couple of biographical nudges and a 1066 and All That throwaway.

But there is relief around the corner. Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom may allow themselves far too many cheap shots at predictable postmodernist targets, but elsewhere they go hunting less familiar prey and to much greater comic effect. Here they are on "repressive tolerance". "Marcusian term for 'you just can't win'. Well, it's typical, isn't it. You no sooner get through explaining how the BOURGEOISIE manages everything and represses the hell out of all of us when what does it do, it says 'no, we don't, you can do anything you want to, go ahead. Take all your clothes off, make fun of us, grope each other in public, scribble obscenities, we don't care.' So now what do we do? What can we do but decide that's the most repressive move of all and ask Marcuse to give it a name for us."

This is funny and clever. As is the entry for "class-in-itself". "The working class has an irritating tendency not to recognise that it carries the hopes of mankind on its shoulders." Or how about "semiological opposition". "Has to do with the way semiotics explains that words mean what they do by not meaning other things: so cat means cat because it doesn't mean bat or mat or car. Therefore, if you're writing a story in which a cat sat on a mat and a rat and a bat in a hat sat in a car, you'd better pay close attention and proofread it several times."

Benson and Stangroom have an excellent ear for the clichés of ordinary academic language. "Demonising: Sharply criticising something that I approve of." "Nitpicking: What to accuse people of when they say you have your facts wrong." "Significant: Adjective to use of work that you suspect is not well-founded or even sane but is by someone on your side." They also contrive to be witty and accurate about matters such as crop circles, creationism, homeopathy, reductionism ("reducing something we like to something we don't") and synchronised swimming.

"A fight against the erosion of reason"? Hardly. It almost warrants one of their own definitions. How about "a phrase used by two academics who fancy making a pot of money out of selling a funny book to fellow academics at Christmas while at the same time trying to claim with misplaced portentousness that it might just qualify for a place in the next research assessment exercise. (See also HAVINGITBOTHWAYS.)

Laurie Taylor writes a column for The Times Higher .

The Dictionary of Fashionable Nonsense: A Guide for Edgy People

Author - Ophelia Benson and Jeremy Stangroom
Publisher - Souvenir Press
Pages - 121
Price - £9.99
ISBN - 0 285 63714 2

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