Palling Around With Pootwattle

Pootwattle(TM), created by the Writing Program, University of Chicago

You’d think that Facebook, Twitter, Timescast, and Youtube would provide ample opportunities for work avoidance when one is on leave and trying to write a book. You’d be wrong. The devil who sits on my shoulder was delighted to discover Pootwattle the Virtual Academic™, created and managed by the writing program at the University of Chicago. Complete with scruffy white locks, spectacles, a pipe, and a collar-length beard, Pootwattle generates random sentences from phrases “common in many academic fields.” Clicking on “Generate a sentence” just now, I got “The teleology of the natural does not undermine the unanalyzed arbitrariness of process.”

What fun! Let’s do another. “The invention of narrative sequence is closely allied with the eroticization of linguistic transparency.” And since it’s Tuesday (actually, every day seems to be Tuesday in Pootwattle’s world), let’s call on Smedley, the Virtual Critic™, to respond to Poot’s assertion. “Pootwattle’s insipid but useful investigation of the relationship between the invention of narrative sequence and the eroticization of linguistic transparency,” Smedley snidely replies, “adds one more episode to his unacknowledged and unconsummated love affair with metaphysics.”

Do the sentences make any sense? Let’s unpack “The marketing of panopticism is, in the most fundamental sense, the discourse of enlightenment rationalism.” Well, panopticism is the term invoked by Foucault to figure constant surveillance in the contemporary world, using the image of a prison with a central guard tower surrounded by walls containing the prisoners’ cells. A discourse, in its most basic sense, is a conversation, but since we’re in Foucault territory, we’re probably using the term to describe a more formalized way of thinking that enforces certain political or cultural codes of power. Rationalism, according to Bourke, is a philosophy in which “the criterion of the truth is not sensory but intellectual and deductive.” When you add enlightenment to the phrase, you acquire both a historical development and a political angle. Putting all this twaddle together, we get a sentence claiming that people who believe in working through issues (especially political issues) intellectually are actually promoting a culture of constant surveillance. However randomly the sentence was generated, it does actually say something—even something controversial. The problem is that it appears simultaneously vacuous and elitist.

To determine whether Pootwattle was taking things way too far, I attempted a random keyword search among academic articles. The following (taken, admittedly, out of context) are a few of the sentences I found among the first paragraphs of essays published in the last couple of years:

–[His] metaphysics is the first and in many respects only philosophical account of reality that describes the action of mind as an indeterministic process in a chance world which allows for the development and embodiment of final causes in an evolving reality.

–Differential inclusion includes those whose degrees of deviance are muted through mimetic approximation, but whose deviance of difference never becomes undecipherable.

–In confronting such conventions of critical analysis, my text necessarily reflects on the economy and ideology of the theatricality inscribed in our experience.

Pootwattle, my friend, I believe you have met your match.

The folks who created Pootwattle have this generous explanation of the problem afflicting such sentences:

“Some of the phrases the program uses have a bad reputation among non-academic readers, who dismiss them—wrongly, we think—as ‘jargon.’ This bad reputation may be a little unfair to academics, who are hardly alone in their tendency to use specialized terms of art. We don’t think … that terms of art are always a bad thing. And the sentences created by this program are hard to read even when the phrases they use are relatively familiar. ‘The specular economy’ is a specialized term. ‘Analysis’ is not.

“… The culprit, we think, isn’t this word or that, but … the way the sentences express action. … When actions are expressed as a verb, like ‘analyzes,’ the doer of the action is named as the subject of the verb: ‘Julia analyzes.’ But when an action is expressed in a noun, like ‘analysis,’ the sentence can omit the doer of the action: ‘Analysis of your financial records reveals bankruptcy.’ Who did the analysis? The sentence just doesn’t include this information. … Of course there’s nothing wrong with a word like ‘analysis’ in itself. But when too many of a sentence’s actions are expressed as nouns, then their effects start catching up with readers. … A noun like ‘articulation’ can be changed to the verb ‘articulates.’ And who articulates? Some readers won’t need this information, but some readers might. It’s up to the writer to make that judgment.”

That argument makes sense to me, and it applies not only to my Pootwattle sentence but also to the ones I found in academic journals. The verb in my sentence is is, even though the unpacked sentence describes the actions of certain thinkers. The other sentences have similarly indeterminate verbs: is, describes, allows, includes, are muted, becomes, and reflects, all propping up complex terms of art. This is the stuff of composition classes, yes. But in our most elevated intellectual conversations—both the written ones and those we attempt to carry on at academic conferences—we’ve lost sight of argument as action. We’ve become Pootwattles.

Still, it’s fun to boot him up. Let’s see what I get today. “The authentication of difference actively utilizes the legitimation of the hidden.” Smedley, what’s your view?



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