Random Post Modern Essay Generator

Like the postmodernism generator, but funnier

Good news for pomophobes, Julian Baggini has a new game poking fun at certain critical postures in academia: Žižuku. I much prefer this to the postmodernism generator as a satirical tool.

The postmodernism generator is something that follows language rules to produce gibberish. This is funny, so long as you don’t read the sort of material that it purports to send up. I’m not saying that a lot of postmodernism isn’t twaddle, but it’s a recognisably different sort of twaddle. The reason Sokal’s hoax was funny was that it was indistinguishable from some of the straight material in Social Text. Essays from the postmodernism generator aren’t going to pass muster with another journal, even if the references are altered. Comparing the output of the Postmodernism Generator with postmodern scholarship is like comparing a Lorem Ipsum generator to a Latin text. Superficially similar, but not close enough.

What I do think is interesting is that if you loaded it with genuine references, and a bit more thematic connectivity then v2.0 might produce genuine pomo text but that’s another matter.

Žižuku requires a bit more work, but I think it’s a lot funnier because I can foresee this having serious potential. It’s from Baggini’s review of Slavoj Žižek’s Violence. In it Baggini notes a constant.

Žižek arranges his book like a piece of music with different movements, with chapter subheadings such as “allegro moderato”. This is fitting, because Žižek is something of a virtuoso, but as a player of paradoxes. His great riffs take one of a finite number of forms. There is the simple psychoanalytic trope of claiming that however something seems, its true nature is the precise opposite. Then you have the repeated claim that a certain position entails its opposite, but that both sides of the paradox are equally real. Then again, there is the reversal of common sense, in which, whatever the received wisdom is, Zizek postulates the opposite.
And that really is it: Žižek simply repeats these intellectual manoeuvres again and again, albeit brilliantly, supplementing them with Lacanian embellishments such as the objet petit, the Other and the Real.

It’s a good review and I recommend reading it all, because Baggini recognises that it can be a helpful way of seeing things from a new perspective. Yet while psychoanalysis might be rooted in the idea of humanity, applied ad infinitum it’s clearly every bit as mechanical and dehumanised as the postmodernism generator.

That’s Žižuku!

You win by taking any widely accepted idea and inverting it to reveal a paradox, so in the case above I was aiming for postmodernism as mechanistic method. Assertions without evidence count. For more examples read the review.

They’re discussing the rules at Talking Philosophy. One addition I’d make is that a statement which can be backed up with evidence should score more than an assertion. The point is that while it’s a satirical game which illustrates a limited repertoire of imagination, it doesn’t mean that the findings are valueless. Drugs trials for example attempt to follow an established furrow of methods, but it’s that adherence to method which allows the validity of their findings to be judges. Similarly Žižuku at one level clearly undermines the authority of Žižek’s method and reliance on Lacanian tropes. Yet it also embodies the essence of postmodernism in being by its very nature playful and contradictory. By rejecting the normative approach of orthodox academia it thus constitutes a suitably subversive tool for critical enquiry.

…and that’s Žižuku!

Now supposing I want to write a paper of Žižuku and get it published, where should I submit it to? There would be a key difference between my paper and Sokal’s. Sokal knew his paper was nonsense when he submitted it. I in contrast, like Baggini says of Žižek, wouldn’t really be able to tell whether my paper made sense or not. If academics accepted it anyway, would that be validation enough?

I worked out where I could send a paper to, using Žižuku to illustrate something which I genuinely believe, which would blur the lines between satire and scholarship further. In the end I’ve decided that I really don’t need to make extra work for myself right now.

In recent years, the field of academic publishing has ballooned to an estimated 30,000 peer-reviewed journals churning out some 2 million articles per year. While this growth has led to more scientific scholarship, critics argue that it has also spurred increasing numbers of low-quality “predatory publishers” who spam researchers with weekly “calls for papers” and charge steep fees for articles that they often don’t even read before accepting.

Ten years ago, a few students at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) had noticed such unscrupulous practices, and set out to have some mischievous fun with it. Jeremy Stribling MS ’05PhD ’09, Dan Aguayo ’01 MEng ’02andMax Krohn PhD ’08 spent a week or two between class projects to develop “SCIgen,” a program that randomly generates nonsensical computer-science papers, complete with realistic-looking graphs, figures, and citations.

SCIgen emerged out of Krohn’s previous work as co-founder of the online study guide SparkNotes, which included a generator of high-school essays that was based on “context-free grammar.” SCIgen works like an academic “Mad Libs” of sorts, arbitrarily slotting in computer-science buzzwords like “distributed hash tables” and “Byzantine fault tolerance.”

The program was crude, but it did the trick: In April of 2005 the team’s submission,“Rooter: A Methodology for the Typical Unification of Access Points and Redundancy,” was accepted as a non-reviewed paper to the World Multiconference on Systemics, Cybernetics and Informatics (WMSCI), a conference that Krohn says is known for “being spammy and having loose standards.”

When the researchers revealed their hoax, calls started coming in from the likes of The Boston Globe, CNN, and the BBC. Stribling’s phone was ringing off the hook thanks to his name being listed first on the paper. (“Randomly listed first,” he adds proudly.)

In the wake of the international media attention, WMSCI withdrew the team’s invitation to attend. Not to be deterred, the students raised $2,500 to travel to Orlando, Florida, where they rented out a room inside the conference space to hold their own “session” of randomly-generated talks, outfitted with fake names, fake business cards, and fake moustaches.

At the time the stunt may have seemed like nothing more than a silly “gotcha” moment in the tradition of the “Sokal affair,” in which an NYU physicist wrote a nonsense paper that was accepted by a journal of postmodern cultural studies. But SCIgen has actually had a surprisingly substantial impact, with many researchers using it to expose conferences with low submission standards. The team’s antics spurred the the world’s largest organization of technical professionals, the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE), to pull its sponsorship of WMSCI; in 2013 IEEE and Springer Publishing removed more than 120 papers from their sites after a French researcher’s analysis determined that they were generated via SCIgen. (Just a few weeks ago Springer announced the release of “SciDetect,” an open-source tool that can automatically detect SCIgen papers.)

The trio of CSAIL alumni have since moved on to other things: Aguayo is a technical lead at Meraki; Krohn, who co-founded both SparkNotes and the dating site OKCupid, now runs Keybase, a startup aimed at making cryptography more accessible; and Stribling had stints at IBM, Google, and Nicira before joining Krohn’s team at Keybase this month.

But even a decade later, the team’s creation improbably lives on. Stribling says the generator still gets 600,000 annual pageviews that manage to crash their CSAIL research site every few months. The creators continue to get regular emails from computer science students proudly linking to papers they’ve snuck into conferences, as well as notes from researchers urging them to make versions for other disciplines.

“Our initial intention was simply to get back at these people who were spamming us and to maybe make people more cognizant of these practices,” says Stribling, before deadpanning: “We accomplished our goal way better than we expected to.”


For the 10-year anniversary, the team reconvened for a project that’s once again aimed at predatory publishers.

“SCIpher” lets you hide secret messages inside randomly-generated calls for papers (CFPs) that appear to be coming from (fictional) conferences with names like “the LYGNY Symposium on relational, software-defined technology.”

Entering a secret message into SCIpher create text for a ready-to-send CFP that the CFP’s recipient can throw back into the generator to recover the original message.

Stribling says he views SCIpher as a cheeky way to trade secrets — not to mention, to poke fun at conferences’ ridiculous, jargon-filled names.

“We combined almost-pronounceable acronyms with random buzzwords cribbed from the SCIgen grammar to evoke the kind of niche specialization that results from thousands of concurrent conferences clamoring for authors,” says Stribling. “Plus, while an encrypted email would be a big red flag for some investigators, in our experience when you send out a call for papers, it's very unlikely that anyone will read it.”

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