On “Bullshit Jobs”

Referring to cultural Marxism, especially the Frankfurt School, Noam Chomsky once said, “I don’t find that kind of work very illuminating… The ideas that seem useful also seem pretty simple, and I don’t understand what all the verbiage is for.” While I think there’s much of value in the so-called Western Marxist tradition—for instance, I’m partial to Georg Lukács (more so than to Adorno and others in the Frankfurt School)—I have to admit I strongly sympathize with Chomsky. But his criticism generalizes, and is even truer in other areas: since well before the mid-twentieth century, a large amount of work in the humanities has been prone to unnecessary and sometimes incomprehensible verbiage. Later this tendency came to be associated with postmodernism, for it was most pronounced in the writings of such luminaries as Derrida, Lacan, Kristeva, Deleuze, and Foucault, as well as their hordes of epigones. By the end of the twentieth century, a vast field of “Theory” had reached maturity, encompassing much of philosophy, anthropology, psychoanalysis, and literary, film, and cultural studies.

As an anthropologist, David Graeber works in this broadly conceived “interpretive” tradition (I call it that because it consists essentially of endless cultural and social “interpretations” or “theories,” often playful and highly verbose conceptual exercises). He has an advantage over many of his peers in that, while not a particularly great writer, he can…

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