Against needless complexity

by Emrys Westacott

PDSP1-16477887dtSome things are simpler than the experts would have us believe. Recently I watched the EUFA Champions League final between Atlético Madrid and Real Madrid. In the build up to the match there was, naturally, a great deal of expert analysis focusing on matters such as the history of games between these clubs, the psychological stratagems of the coaches, the defensive systems to be used, and the potential impact of the rival superstar strikers Cristiano Ronaldo and Diego Costa. These were supplemented with all sorts of statistical data made possible by modern technology. Here's an excerpt from a preview of the game in The Guardian:

“[Real Madrid] have won a higher proportion of their games without Alonso in the starting line-up (80%) than with him (65.2%) in the league this season, but they will miss his ability to break up play in front of the back four. The side have conceded 1.13 league goals per game with him compared to 0.91 when he has been in the line-up……”It's no coincidence that since [Arda] joined in 2011, Atlético have scored more goals per game 1.81) with Arda in the starting line-up than without him (1.56).”

Here's what happened. Costa was not fully fit and had to be substituted after nine minutes. Ronaldo had a fairly quiet game, effectively neutralized by excellent defending. Atlético took the lead due to a rare and hence very surprising error of judgement by Real's goalkeeper, the great Ikar Casillas. It looked like they were going to win 1-0, but deep into injury time Real's defender Sergio Ramos equalized with a simple direct header from a corner kick . (The header could have been easily blocked had Atlético placed men by each goalpost, and why any team doesn't do this, especially when defending a corner in the last minute of the game, is a total mystery to me…..but I digress.) After having had the cup dashed from their hands, Atlético were finished, and in extra time Real always looked like they were going to win, which they eventually did 4-1.

My point is this. The sophisticated analyses of the experts seemed to bear little connection to the crucial events that actually decided the outcome of the game: a goalkeeping error and a poorly defended corner. This happens often. For instance, the 2010 World Cup semi final between Spain and Germany pitted against one another teams with interestingly contrasting styles of play. The pundits discussed at length such matters as whether Spain's intricate passing game would or would not create openings behind the German midfield, and so on and so forth. But in the event Spain won when seventeen minutes from the end their muscular centre back Carlos Puyols barged through a crowded penalty area and headed in a corner. That was the decisive event.

I see examples of excessive sophistication in analysis­ in many areas.

One obvious one is literary criticism. Here is the abstract of an article published in the March 2007 issue of PMLA (Proceedings of the Modern Language Association):

“Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events is adolescent in the sense provided by Julia Kristeva–it offers critical insight into the breakdown of categories that support representational and ethical certainties. The ethical stance of its author, Daniel Handler, is complicated-urgent, resonant, distressing-caught in the devious irony endemic to metafictional play and to the sensibility of Generation X. Such irony casts light too on literary criticism's changing treatment of the critical subspecialty of children's literature as well as on its renewed but uneasy interest in ethics as revision of past humanism. A Series offers an ethics of practice, one that recognizes its dependence on the impulses it critiques. Just as the books' postmodern orphans improvise in the face of menace that doesn't stop, Handler's irony pictures a world where ethics can never be more than a provisional entente negotiating impossible ideals.[1]”

Of course, the sort of sophistication on display here is different. Whereas the soccer pundits offer predictions and explanations of events, literary criticism typically provides an interpretation of texts. Instead of irrelevant statistics being cited to give a spurious sheen of scientific objectivity, we have references to iconic theoreticians that serve to suggest philosophical depth, up-to-dateness, and, quite often, political relevance. Julia Kristeva is one of the most popular of these: an article on Beowulf in the May 2006 issue of PMLA claims that Grendel's mother is monstrous “in ways that resonate with Julia Kristeva's comments on abjection and the maternal.” But names like Lacan, Irigary, Deleuze, Derrida, and Foucault crop up fairly regularly.

I am not saying that the work of Kristeva and co. isn't worth discussing, any more than I'm denying the accuracy of the soccer statistics cited earlier. I am skeptical, though, about whether such work really illuminates the literary texts to which it is applied. To be fair, sometimes it can. Freud's ideas about unconscious sexual desires have been used by critics to uncover levels of symbolic meaning in texts, and we are now accustomed to this and find such claims quite plausible. But often the introduction of heavy theory into literary criticism seems to be pretty gratuitous, motivated more by the critics' concern to establish their intellectual credentials than by genuine relevance to the literature under discussion.

Politics is another area in which one often finds a similar disconnect between the sophistication of expert analysis and what is really justified or needed. Consider this abstract of a January 2011 PMLA article:

“Recent psychoanalytic theories have the historicizing potential to rearticulate discourses relegated to the shadows of institutional and popular psychosocial knowledge. In particular, they can illuminate a shadow discourse secreted in the history of gender politics: a form of masochism that produces political solidarity by mobilizing narcissistic gratifications. Such solidarity derives from masochism's ability to idealize perceptions about collective power—a process legible in first-wave feminism and in the jingoistic imperialist ideals of masculinity that opposed it. This essay argues that feminism has lost sight of a nonsexual form of masochism vital to its own history that could energize its ongoing political projects. Recent relational psychoanalysis emerges as a fertile source for techniques of reading that produce revisionary historicist interpretation. Moreover, reactivating psychosocial dynamics obscured by the historical conflation of masochism with sexuality can reconnect feminism and other political movements with important strategies they may have prematurely disavowed.”

I won't try to translate all of that into ordinary English. But the key claim seems to be that feminist causes (its “ongoing political projects” such as, presumably, the fight for equal pay and opportunities, efforts to reduce the incidence of violence against women, or the struggle to increase the number of women in government and senior management) would have been, and would be, more successful if feminists were aware of and embraced a kind of non-sexual masochism. Whether doing this would involve merely a change in they way feminists think or a change in behavior and lifestyle is unclear. But that is beside the point. The point–or at least my point–is that the successes and failures of feminism have little or nothing to do with feminists forgetting or remembering “a form of masochism that produces political solidarity by mobilizing narcissistic gratifications.” There are much more obvious and important factors responsible, such as entrenched old boy networks, persisting stereotypes and prejudices concerning women, inadequate maternity leave, the lack of affordable good quality childcare, impoverished and culturally disadvantaged social environments, and so on.

The reasons for excessive sophistication and complexity vary. Media experts on sport or politics perhaps feel a need to say something “expert” to differentiate themselves from the millions of amateur pundits out there watching or reading what they say. Academics need to publish as part of the tenure and promotion game, so they have to try to find something new to say: in the humanities originality can easily matter more than plausibility since the most plausible ideas are often the most obvious and familiar. And intellectuals generally fear appearing naive or simplistic. The love of paradox and the frequent inversion of conventional opinion that has long been a characteristic of French philosophy seems to be fueled by this anxiety, and something similar affects the work of of those influenced by the leading French theorists.

I am obviously not saying that we should eschew entirely sophistication, subtlety, and complexity. Sometimes truth is complicated, and subtle thinking is needed in order to grasp it. Sometimes challenges to the obvious or the familiar lead to genuinely interesting insights. I am not championing simple-mindedness or philistinism. But we should be aware that there are forces at work driving people to develop analyses that go beyond what is necessary, useful, or plausible. And when we encounter such analyses, we should greet them with a skeptically raised eyebrow and a Gallic shrug.

[1] I chose something from PMLA because I'm familiar with the journal and with its preference for theoretically charged articles of this sort; and I chose this particular example because it concerns a work that many people will be familiar with; many articles in PMLA discuss literature that is relatively obscure.