"I hope today to complicate our notion of cahiers — grievances — and the role they played in the States-General of 1789." The professors and graduate students at the symposium nod appreciatively. They have heard or read similar justifications untold times before. The author explains that he or she will "complicate" our understanding of some event or phenomenon. "In this article," writes an ethnic-studies professor, "I seek to complicate scholars' understanding of the 'modular' state by examining four forms of indigenous political space." Everyone seems pleased by this approach. Why? The world is complicated, but how did "complication" turn from an undeniable reality to a desirable goal? Shouldn't scholarship seek to clarify, illuminate, or — egad! — simplify, not complicate? How did the act of complicating become a virtue?
The refashioning of "complicate" derives from many sources. One recipe calls for adding a half cup of poststructuralism to a pound of multiculturalism. Mix thoroughly. Bake. Season with Freudian, Hegelian, and post-Marxist thought. Serve at room temperature. The invitees will savor the meal and will begin to chat in a new academic tongue. They will prize efforts not only to complicate but also to "problematize," "contextualize," "relativize," "particularize," and "complexify." They will denounce anything that appears "binary." They will see "multiplicities" everywhere. They will add "s" to everything: trope, regime, truth. They will sprinkle their conversations with words like "pluralistic," "heterogenous," "elastic," and "hybridities." A call for "coherence" will arrest the discussion. Isn't that "reductionist"?
Unfortunately, such a recipe is often used to cook theology in the academic kitchen, as anyone who has taken graduate theological courses can attest. It's even affected my own field of interest, Patristics, which has now been folded into Late Antiquity, whisked free of its theological content, baked in a shell of social theory, and served neither cold nor hot. The result is a goopy and inedible mess that's lost all the salt of the Gospel, but is generously frosted with Foucault's excrement.