Shine on you crazy [Jared] Diamond

Ok, since everyone on here seems to be writing about Jared Diamond, including Jason, I am going to go ahead and jump on the bandwagon too.  I can’t resist.  What can I say?  I’m a complete opportunist.

A true story in which Jared Diamond plays a key role: During my undergrad I had two back-to-back anthropology classes. One was an archaeology/ethnohistory class about the European conquest of the Americas. The second was a course focused on pastoralism that took a cultural ecology/environmental anthropology approach. Both were excellent classes that I remember well to this day. Fantastic classes, actually.  One day, Diamond came up in class #1. My prof said: “Don’t waste your time with Guns, Germs, and Steel. Diamond’s arguments are terrible and full of environmental determinism.” In the next class, on the same day (no joke), my prof in class number two also brought up Guns and said, “It’s a GREAT book you have to read it.”  He was emphatic.  Considering the strong opinions: I read the book.* Now, there are plenty of ecological and environmental anthropologists who could certainly teach Diamond a thing or two…but I can’t think of any who have written a comparable book that’s going to end up in a lot of hands in the general public. So, by default, Diamond wins.  Besides, if Diamond has all these people reading his book, well, maybe we have something to learn from what he’s doing.  Style?  Presentation?  Choice of publisher?  What’s he doing that we’re not?  Hmmm.  Something to think about.

So, how should anthropologists respond to the likes of Diamond (and others like Charles Murray)? Well, here’s my solution: write better books than those folks, and get them out in public view.  Done.

If you look at the sheer number of Amazon reviews of Diamond’s Guns it’s pretty interesting: 1,265 total reviews. People read that book…for better or worse. In contrast, Richard B. Lee’s ethnography of the San people has 16 reviews. Roy Rappaport’s classic Pigs for Ancestors has one review. Susan Stonich’s 1999 The Other Side of Paradise: 2 reviews. Anna Tsing’s excellent Frictions: 5 reviews. Ben Orlove’s Lines in the Water: 2 reviews. Questioning Collapse has 11 reviews.

Compare with other books that cross into somewhat anthropological territories:

Charles Mann’s 1491: 309

Stephen Jay Gould’s Mismeasure of Man: 106

Murray and Herrnstein’s The Bell Curve: 217

Natalie Angier’s Woman: An Intimate Geography: 142

Hot, Flat, and Crowded by Thomas Friedman: 294

The World is Flat by Thomas Friedman: 207

Rachel Carson’s classic Silent Spring: 191

Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine: 492

Diamond’s Collapse: 509

Diamond’s Third Chimpanzee: 114

Interesting, no?  Are the number of Amazon reviews the best indicators for assessing impact? Maybe, maybe not. But they do tell us a little something about what general readers are willing to take the time to read and discuss. And contemporary anthropology isn’t exactly getting a lot of air time. People outside of our own circles aren’t talking about what we’re doing, and the Charles Manns and Jared Diamonds of the world are doing our anthropology for us.

However, books like David Graeber’s Debt: The First 5,000 Years and Gillian Tett’s Fool’s Gold give me hope. Anthropologists have plenty to add to all kinds of important conversations that truly matter today.  There is plenty of excellent anthropology out there. This isn’t just a bunch of now-I’m-ending-the-post-on-a-good-note-feel-good-puffery.  I am dead serious here.  We have no shortage of good material and ideas to add to the maelstrom that is public discourse.  Now we just have to write the books that need to be written–and find ways to get those books to wider audiences, one way or another.**

 

*How could I NOT read that book after two of my favorite profs had such clashing and very visceral reactions?  Seriously.

**Of course it’s easier said than done!!!  This is a blog post!  What do you want from me?  Now, let’s all get to work writing 500 page masterpieces.

Ryan Anderson is a graduate student in anthropology at the University of Kentucky. He is currently writing up his dissertation, which is about the politics of development in Baja California Sur, Mexico. You can reach him at ethnografix AT gmail dot com or @publicanthro on twitter.

22 thoughts on “Shine on you crazy [Jared] Diamond

  1. Read the comparisons on Jason’s post and look for active verbs and simple sentences. These journalistic books are written to a fourth-grade level. Learn to do that and to simplify, and you’ll get the readers. Whether you save any subtlety is the risk.

  2. Jprs — I picked up on that, too! Diamond is by far the better writer, and Jason’s selections only confirm my desire to ignore Lee, even if Diamond is a plagiarist and lacks nuance. The man tells stories.

    If I were training apprentices in anthropology, I’d first make them excellent journalists and novelists, and only then teach them theory and send them into the field. Actually, I’d love that for myself. If you can recommend a mentor who can teach me to write like Diamond, I’m there.

    When I read, I see that men and women remembered for their wisdom — Jesus, Buddha, Lao Tzu, Nasruddin, the desert mothers — all captured our world in vivid images and lasting stories. Polemicists like Jonathan Swift and Voltaire are remembered for their compelling satires and portraits. Their contemporaries with delicate arguments are forgotten

    If words are in our anthropological toolbox, we should be using them well. I’m tired of reading anthropologists or qualitative sociologists on fascinating topics like college life, sex, drugs, gossip and intrigue, or exotic others — and falling alseep. That takes a special skill, as if academic language is beaten in to us, and words that would connect us to the people around us are stolen while we sleep.

    In “I am Charlotte Simmons,” novelist Tom Wolfe writes a book that’s twice as compelling a critique of universities as anything Rebekah Nathan wrote — and the man goes out and does fieldwork before he writes.

    In choosing to publish in academic presses and journals, we train ourselves to display “subtlety” to our colleauges, while missing a wider audience entirely. I don’t know why we’re surprised.

    I’d love to be a popularizer, and to teach others to do the same. I know I need a lot of work on this, but studying and imitaing popular authors might help us merge our nuanced ideas into a form that can be easily and widely read, discussed, and absorbed. If you know anyone else with the same mission, please let me know!

  3. Maurice Bloch, in the chapter ‘where did anthropology go?’, wrote about this retreat of anthropology from the interests of the general public and argues that this is so due to the neglect of the insights from the natural sciences (evolutionary biology and psychology, cognitive science, etc…) by cultural anthropologists. Diamond’s books (or Pinker’s or Dawkins’ for that matter) are said to be terrible but it seems that, unless anthropologists try to engage with the issues brought up by natural sciences, they do not employ the right means to challenge them.

  4. There’s also the institutional, systemic problem of exposure. Graeber’s book is great, but: 3 NPR interviews, none aired. Think that happens to Diamond? No, his book gets made into a TV series.

    Ideas that justify or support the status quo get airtime.

    Not saying it’s hopeless, just pointing out another obstacle to keep in mind.

  5. Celia,

    Their contemporaries with delicate arguments are forgotten

    Consider the contemporaries of Jesus, Buddha, Laozi, the desert mothers, etc (and neglect the fact that there likely was no single person called Laozi, and that the Buddha left no corpus of literature himself, and neither did Jesus for that matter).

    Thales, Anaximander, Empedocles, Democritus, Zeno, Plato, Hanfeizi, Aristotle, Lucretius, Mengzi, Plotinus, Marcus Aurelius, Sima Qian, and Epicurus were some of their contemporaries.

    Forgotten? Not at all. Bad writers? Some of them; most not. Diamond writes more like exoteric Aristotle than like Laozi, in any case. Clearly communicating ideas is important, but those ideas have to be clear in the first place. I wonder what clear ideas anthropologists can contribute.

    There’s no anthropological consensus, and no single item of knowledge that can be agreed on by all anthropologists. Even the nature of reality is contested. I saw a comment on one of the Hau threads that claimed that discussion of difference in human beings was good because it allowed for the introduction of a “Heideggerian ontology”, by which we are supposed to believe that people who believe different things literally live in different universes. That idea is not only not clear, it is not in good sense. It is preposterous. The only support given to it is ipsedixitism. As long as terrible ideas like that are acceptable in anthropology, good ideas will be dragged down in a mire – and writing books in a simple style with such pitiful ideas will only continue to prevent anthropology from leaving the academic backwater in which it wallows.

    And that, I think, is the point behind the Bloch article to which Giulio refers.

  6. The man tells stories.

    There was a certain failed Austrian painter who was a brilliant teller of tales. I mean, he knew how to cut through the complexities and deliver a message that the average man could grasp!

    (Am I saying that Jared Diamond is Adolf Hitler? Definitely not. Am I saying that people should perhaps be suspect of charisma and rhetorical grace? Definitely.)

  7. Jprs:

    “Read the comparisons on Jason’s post and look for active verbs and simple sentences. These journalistic books are written to a fourth-grade level. Learn to do that and to simplify, and you’ll get the readers. Whether you save any subtlety is the risk.”

    I don’t really think the issue is just a matter of simplicity vs complexity. Maybe in *some* cases. But it’s also about clarity in writing, style, and even how and where we publish books. I don’t really buy the argument that in order to be appealing and readable to wider audiences our books must be turned into “fourth grade level” material. Natalie Angier is hardly writing at a fourth grade level, let alone Charles Mann or Diamond (whether you like any of them or not). Complex material can certainly be presented in a clear (and interesting) manner, IMO.

  8. As long as terrible ideas like that are acceptable in anthropology, good ideas will be dragged down in a mire – and writing books in a simple style with such pitiful ideas will only continue to prevent anthropology from leaving the academic backwater in which it wallows.

    This.

    We have too many monographs written in obscure language because the ideas are laughable when written in plain language. Anthropologists once studied the exotic and in so doing became a bit exotic themselves. Exotic is too hard to come by in the real world nowadays. A charlatan’s substitute for exoticism is a willingness to say nonsensical things.

  9. Although writing is definitely important, I would challenge the idea that this is always and only about writing or the quality of ideas. Back in 1996, Jonathan Benthall, who was already an experienced editor of Anthropology Today had this to say:

    Although some aspects of anthropology appeal to various sectors of the public, the fact is that a large part of what anthropologists have to say requires intellectual effort, and moreover is often rather disturbing to people’s peace of mind. (Benthall 1996:136)

    Again, this is from 1996, Jonathan Benthall’s “Enlarging the conext of anthropology: The case of Anthropology Today” found in Popularizing Anthropology (MacClancy and McDonaugh, editors). We do have to keep in mind that requiring intellectual effort and disturbing people’s peace of mind is not always a good recipe for popularity.

  10. Hey Jason:

    “Although writing is definitely important, I would challenge the idea that this is always and only about writing or the quality of ideas.”

    I definitely agree with you there.

    “We do have to keep in mind that requiring intellectual effort and disturbing people’s peace of mind is not always a good recipe for popularity.”

    I agree to an extent. But then, it’s not like Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine” is exactly a pleasant little story about contemporary society. And that book has gotten its fair share of readers. Same goes with Vonnegut’s “Slaughterhouse Five,” or Orwell’s 1984. Dickens’ “Bleak House.” Upton Sinclair’s “The Jungle.” For a more contemporary work, check out some of the work of Charles Bowden. I mean, it’s a challenge to be sure, but is certainly is possible to disseminate powerful, critical, informative, or even sometimes upsetting books to wider audiences in order to communicate ideas. There are tons of examples in literature and journalism. So it can be done, and maybe we have something to learn from how others do it. I mean, if we have ideas, messages, or conclusions that we feel matter, and some members of the public don’t want to hear it…then what? Is that fact going to stop us?

  11. Writing clearly and intelligently for a popular audience is hard work. Much, much harder than writing journal articles or technical books or blog posts. I am holed up in the Texas hills right now trying to write a “trade book” about my research, and it is incredibly difficult. In addition to the actual book writing, you need to write promotional proposals and blurbs that are not like anything we do in academia. You need to find an agent; presses like Norton won’t accept proposals or manuscripts from mere authors; they will only deal with agents. Agents want a query, and if they like it they will request a book proposal and sample chapters. Query instructions say that you need include a sentence, “This is the first book to …..” I write passages that I think will be popular, worrying that colleagues will think they are ridiculous and ego-maniacal.

    I sit here looking at Savage Minds instead of completing chapter 2, hoping for something other than the form-letter rejections I’ve gotten so far from agents. There is a tie-in with blogs, though. Writing blog posts is definitely good training for writing seriously for the public – both in the sense of the regular practice of writing, and also in the sense of communicating directly without over-intellectualizing things.

    And in the end, even if one succeeds in writing a trade book that people actually buy and read, many or most of one’s colleagues will look at the work as fluff, mere popularizing, not serious academic scholarship.

    So there are many reasons why there are very few good, popular anthropology trade books. Writing them is a pain in the butt, something not everybody can do (the jury is still out about whether I can do this or not). In my case, it is entirely possible I will look back at my sabbatical project as a massive waste of time. Or maybe I will be the next Jared Diamond. I’d be happy to talk about archaeology and anthropology on Letterman or the Daily Show. Just contact my agent……

  12. As a graduate student I so agree with what you wrote Ryan. I was just about to fire off a grand email to you complaining about the language used in most anthropology research and papers that make them so inaccessible that barely 1% of the population could ever read it. As for the comment about ‘dumbing down to a 4th grade level’, this statement reeks of elitism and really defines a problem in anthropology, we would rather be irrelvent and published in an obscure publication than make ourselves more explainable and have some actual effect in the real world. Thank God for Nancy Scheper-Hughs and other like her, reading her book in undergrad was the main reason I decided to keep going with anthropology, in the hope that engaged anthropology will win out over ivory tower existentialism.

  13. A few years ago I befriended an English instructor at a community college. He is quite the character as attested by his classroom lectures that more resembled carefully crafted comedic performances. After getting to know him a bit, he revealed his attempts at “making some coin”, which basically meant selling a successful book or two. I took from his personality that he’d probably aim to write books that reflected his own personal likings–short stories or social critiques. But he said it was not that easy, at least not if “making coin” is the objective. I had no clue what the fuss was about until he described the simple economics of the situation. There is a market and a demographic of potential book buyers. You either appeal to this market or roll the dice. I guess he isn’t much of gambler? In any case, an analysis of past and present book buying trends and the demographics of book purchasers may be a place to start. Then, write in a way that is understandable, this however should not mean “at a fourth grade level”. If an esteemed analytic philosopher (here I’m thinking Prof. Searle) can write complex arguments, counter-arguments, and philosophize in clear and lucid prose, then I don’t see why other have such problems with the task. My four grains of corn.

  14. The answer is simple, Ryan, but incredibly difficult: get a New York agent. US trade publishers will not look at a manuscript unless it comes from an agent. How do you think David made a smash hit with Debt?

    I had such an agent after the US rights on The Memory Bank were sold for $50,000. He proposed supporting me for a year while I hung out in American cities learning how the people talk and think. I had left Cambridge for the bohemian life in Paris and I was up for it. I set out on this journey, but soon gave it up. I had to dumb down my prose and here’s the thing, I wanted to get the argument right and that required more precise language, not less. So I wrote books like The Hit Man’s Dilemma that no-one has heard of and published a dozen articles a year for a decade. My view now? That it was all a waste of time. Academics don’t read any more.

    I coulda been a contender! You try contacting a New York agent? Impossible. Catch 22 is you have to be in to get in.

  15. If an esteemed analytic philosopher (here I’m thinking Prof. Searle) can write complex arguments, counter-arguments, and philosophize in clear and lucid prose, then I don’t see why other have such problems with the task. My four grains of corn.

    Not only does Searle write brilliantly clear books in which he explains everything that he uses, he’s also writing about topics that anthropologists think are so extraordinarily complicated – ontology! intentionality! Searle is literally talking about the very ontological topics that are supposed to concern anthropologists, and yet his books are read.

    The reason analytic philosophers tend to write well is because the whole idea is to step from logical point to logical point, and to illustrate the ideas well with choice examples – Gilbert Ryle’s description and illustration of category mistakes is a case in point. It can get very complicated, but there’s always a direct route to the ideas, and explaining the basics is not so much of a chore. It also has the benefit of reminding academics of the basics, which is important, so that both academics and the general public can end up reading the same works and getting similar uses from them. Continental philosophy, by contrast, does not work in this way. I’m tempted to say that it doesn’t work at all. Language is used to conceal the sophistical pseudo-argument employed. That anthropologists typically draw on continental philosophy and also have problems producing high-impact, popular, comprehensible books is not a coincidence.

  16. Is it true that academics don’t read anymore or, alternatively, that they are only able to read a microscopic fraction of what gets published?

    Re anthropology in particular, it is important to realize that in just under a century we have gone from a world in which, Jack Roberts told me back in 1966, the year that I started graduate school at Cornell, that he could remember a time when the entire membership of the American Anthropological Association could meet at a big ranch house outside of Tucson. I can also remember my first AAA meeting, circa 1969, at which the number of anthropologists and anthropologist-wannabe’s attending was already several thousand. Add the impact of a publish-or-perish audit culture over the subsequent decades and the result is perfectly predictable—the publication of hundreds of new books and thousands of new articles every year. Nobody is going to read all that.

    Breaking through to reach a large audience is, thus, a combination of art—good writing—plus choosing currently hot topics in public debate. David Graeber and Gillian Tett have both hit the sweet spot. Both are excellent writers and their topics — debt and financial speculation — are the hot-button issues of the day. Those of us who write on topics like kinship in Papua New Guinea or personhood in Sumatra? We are in the long tail and need to think about how best to follow Seth Godin’s advice and find and grow our own small tribes of people who share similar interests.

    That’s my two cents.

  17. @MTBradley:

    “There was a certain failed Austrian painter who was a brilliant teller of tales…”

    True. But maybe these failed Austrian painters can be balanced out with the tales and lessons of former General Electric PR workers (Vonnegut). There are many tales, and many tellers of tales…words are open to many uses. So I don’t see why we should let the existence of certain kinds of writers get in our way. In fact, it’s all the more reason why other, competing stories should be told, no?

    @M.E. Smith:

    “Writing clearly and intelligently for a popular audience is hard work.”

    Good point. Good luck with the writing!!!

    “And in the end, even if one succeeds in writing a trade book that people actually buy and read, many or most of one’s colleagues will look at the work as fluff, mere popularizing, not serious academic scholarship.”

    For me, this is another key issue. If this kind of writing is always looked down upon, then that surely won’t encourage people to head in this direction. Funny how some folks assume that anything that appeals to wider audiences can’t be “serious.” That kind of logic has always sounded pretty condescending to me. Thanks for bringing up this point, Michael–I think this is an important part of the equation here. What do we mean by “serious scholarship,” after all?

    @CJR:

    “I was just about to fire off a grand email to you complaining about the language used in most anthropology research and papers that make them so inaccessible that barely 1% of the population could ever read it.”

    Funny. I know what you mean. Sometimes it seems that we all start writing with so many internal references and phrases that we are basically communicating in a different dialect. In fact, that IS pretty much what we’re doing. After a few lines, most people aren’t going to have any idea what we’re talking about. It’s our own little form of code switching and talking amongst ourselves. Something like that.

    @t’arhe:

    “If an esteemed analytic philosopher (here I’m thinking Prof. Searle) can write complex arguments, counter-arguments, and philosophize in clear and lucid prose, then I don’t see why other have such problems with the task. My four grains of corn.”

    YES. Agreed. I appreciate your four grains. Thanks.

    @JK Hart:

    “The answer is simple, Ryan, but incredibly difficult: get a New York agent. US trade publishers will not look at a manuscript unless it comes from an agent.”

    Hmmm. Maybe I need to start my own agency…

    “I coulda been a contender! You try contacting a New York agent? Impossible. Catch 22 is you have to be in to get in.”

    Catch 22’s abound. Well, my main point here is that the way to challenge the likes of Diamond is through publishing and communicating our work–in one way or another. I think the best response to a book like Diamond’s would be a well-written book that takes account or more historical, political, and human factors–along the lines of Mike Davis’s “Late Victorian Holocausts” maybe. But then, as you point out, there are serious logistical problems with actually getting ourselves *into the conversation*, so writing the books is only part of the problem we face. It’s a good point. Maybe, when it comes down to it, we will have to go around the whole book publishing thing (which could be a dying model anyway) and find ways to do the digital equivalent of what Shepard Fairy used to do with his work (ie pasting it in plain view of the public). Who knows?

    @Al West:

    “That anthropologists typically draw on continental philosophy and also have problems producing high-impact, popular, comprehensible books is not a coincidence.”

    Ya…but I’m not sure if I agree that drawing upon Continental Philosophy is the main problem here. For me, it’s a matter of *how* people draw upon certain ideas, wherever they happen to come from. I don’t buy Gayatri Spivak’s argument, for instance, that her writing is written in a certain way because that’s the only way it can be. I just don’t buy it. Some of her writing is impenetrable, IMO. I think there is a way to draw upon complex ideas and still write in a clear, interesting, and readable way. Orwell made that point a long time ago. But you’re right that sometimes a lot gets hidden/obscured behind seemingly complex prose. I guess I am just not willing to lay all the blame here on Continental Philosophy…I don’t really think that’s the issue here. But we can agree to disagree on that one…

    @John M:

    “We are in the long tail and need to think about how best to follow Seth Godin’s advice and find and grow our own small tribes of people who share similar interests.”

    That’s a good point too. And I think this is an important avenue–developing and exploring different possible audiences. I think this is a good strategy to aim for…but the Diamond issue is a case in which anthros get frustrated because his arguments are getting massive air time, and they disagree with what he’s saying (or at least, some do). So, in this case, people are looking to find ways to inject themselves in the conversation, whether through books, op-eds, or what have you. As many have pointed out, not an easy gig to get into. But, there are times when it might be important to try, especially when folks like Charles Murray are out there publishing their views.

    Anyway, thanks for all the comments everyone!!!

  18. Hi Ryan,

    Thank you for continuing this thread and all the responding. Going back to an earlier issue, your point is well taken that there are difficult and challenging pieces people are reading. In fact, to add something to that idea, I note that shortly after Guns, Germs, and Steel (1997), Diamond put out Why is Sex Fun? (I thought it was same year, but apparently it was 1998). In keeping with your accounting, it gets 39 Amazon reviews.

    I can’t help picturing a puzzled Diamond wondering why a book like Guns, Germs, and Steel was flying off the shelves while Why is Sex Fun? languished in the background. (It also fits in with @MTBradley’s comment on my post that Diamond is like Madonna.)

    My earlier comment was simply to hope to provide some historical background for previous popularizing efforts in anthropology and to steer away from anthropologists beating up on each other. I certainly don’t want to say anthropologists should not be trying.

  19. Hey Jason!

    “My earlier comment was simply to hope to provide some historical background for previous popularizing efforts in anthropology and to steer away from anthropologists beating up on each other.”

    Agreed. And I think those are very important components to add here: 1) the historical aspect lets us know that this isn’t exactly a new issue, and that others have worked toward these goals before us. I think it pays off to learn about and explore those efforts–and to give credit where credit is due; and 2) I agree that it is also much more productive to move beyond the anthro bashing. Critique is good, but there has to be more. That’s why I ended the post the way I did: I do think that anthropology has a lot to offer, and that’s why I really like your focus on the moral optimism of the discipline. We have lots to add to all these conversations, and we have to think critically, pragmatically, and then *productively* about how to go about doing that. It might require some creativity, but I still think there are ways of doing some things differently so that we can, in the end, find ways to tackle these sorts of dilemmas about publication, communication, and what is basically anthropology in public.

  20. I think there is a way to draw upon complex ideas and still write in a clear, interesting, and readable way.

    There is. But continental philosophers don’t have complex ideas. Usually, they have silly ideas, or dumb ideas, or ideas that they have never bothered making sense of, even to themselves. There are exceptions, I’m sure. Foucault, whose ideas actually are quite simple, was capable of giving a good account of himself in person, even to analytic philosophers.

    But I think the reason Spivak writes so badly is that her ideas are really bad. The same goes for Homi K. Bhabha, and also for Deleuze, Heidegger, Lacan, and probably as far back as Fichte. Not only could/can these people not write, their ideas, such as they can be identified, are extraordinarily vague and jargon-laden, and they are never explained clearly – deliberately, I think. It’s nonsense. But it sounds profound, readily lends itself to idiosyncratic interpretation, and provides what is at least considered to be a left-wing-and-literature-friendly alternative to scientific inquiry or analytic philosophy.

    On top of that, analytic philosophy is hard.

    I can find several points of disagreement with Searle’s position in Making the Social World – in particular, with regard to the relationship between mutual belief and collective intentionality, and also with Searle’s claim that social facts are desire-independent. There are also empirical as well as formal problems, and many places where engagement with ethnographic material from the non-Euro-American world could have improved the ideas.

    I can disagree with him because I can understand everything he writes, and I can find room for improvement, and that has nothing to do with idiosyncracy and everything to do with Searle’s clarity. I can’t disagree with Deleuze, because nothing he ever wrote makes a lick of sense, and the stuff that kind of seems to is outright wrong, or ludicrous (ie, the idea of the “chaosmos”, or what can be made of his pseudo-empiricism).

    If you can’t make sense of the ideas espoused and really don’t understand the writer except in a personal, idiosyncratic way, then what makes you think there are any good ideas in there at all?

    If continental philosophy could somehow be abandoned by social scientists, we’d all be better off. And we’d all have readily available bacon, what with all the flying pigs.

  21. @Al West:

    “But continental philosophers don’t have complex ideas…There are exceptions, I’m sure.”

    Well, I can understand your argument, even if I don’t see things in quite the same way as you. Still, as you say, there are exceptions.

    “Foucault, whose ideas actually are quite simple, was capable of giving a good account of himself in person, even to analytic philosophers.”

    I think there’s plenty to draw from Foucault, whether his ideas are simple or complex or whatever. I like how he approached certain things. I find his work interesting, and that’s good enough for me.

    “But I think the reason Spivak writes so badly is that her ideas are really bad…”

    Maybe. I was convinced that she wrote that way to make grad school take longer than it needed to. Spivak is not at the top of my list.

    “If you can’t make sense of the ideas espoused and really don’t understand the writer except in a personal, idiosyncratic way, then what makes you think there are any good ideas in there at all?”

    For me, this isn’t really a big issue. I pick and choose. If something seems to be of interest, I check it out. If it’s impenetrable madness along the lines of Homi Bhabha, no thanks. I am not a hard-liner when it comes to declaring allegiance to particular schools of thought, camps, whatever. Most of the writers in this camp are not at the top of my list…but at the same time I’m not really going to make a call for a blanket prohibition. I don’t see the point.

    “If continental philosophy could somehow be abandoned by social scientists, we’d all be better off. And we’d all have readily available bacon, what with all the flying pigs.”

    Funny. You know, Al, I’m starting to get the sense that you don’t like continental philosophy! Hmmm.

  22. My apologies to go off on a tangental thread. Could anyone recommend some accessible anthropology literature? What would be 5 (or so) good books a generally educated person could read?

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