451: Impostor

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If you think this is too hard on literary criticism, read the Wikipedia article on deconstruction.
Title text: If you think this is too hard on literary criticism, read the Wikipedia article on deconstruction.


While the comic is ostensibly about grad students, it is really Randall's way of poking fun at the relative rigor of different fields, reminiscent of 435: Purity. In the comic, Cueball attempts to pose as an expert in a given field (a recurring pastime of his) and sees how long it takes before the real experts detect his nonsense.

The first panel shows Cueball discussing an engineering problem with Ponytail. Ponytail is talking about an immediate practical problem involving heat dissipation. Cueball suggests 'using logarithms' to solve it. Logarithms are a mathematical tool used for expressing an exponential relationship as a linear one. While they may be used to model the effects of heat dissipation over time, Ponytail is looking for a way to change the rate of heat dissipation, like "water cooling." It only takes 48 seconds before he exposes himself.

The second panel shows a conversation with linguistic grad students who are apparently discussing the Finno-Ugric language family (a family of related languages that includes Hungarian, Finnish, and Estonian). Cueball asks if Klingon is included in this family. The linguists instantly recognize the meaninglessness of the statement — either because Klingon is a constructed language, designed to sound "alien" to avoid sounding like any human language (thus it cannot be part of any real linguistic family), or because "Klingon" is a recognizable pop-culture reference. Either way he has exposed himself after only 63 seconds of conversation. That all being said, the inventors of the Klingon language took the word order from the Finno-Ugric languages after research showed that the order of "predicate, subject, object" is least common in human languages, so there are at least some roots of Klingon language to analyze.

In the third panel, the humor comes from the fact that the idea of sociology existing to rank human beings on some arbitrary intrinsic value is not only ridiculous in a scientific context, but also politically offensive. Cueball unknowingly recreates the logic behind some of the worst crimes in human history, a problem sociologists are trained to be very aware of. However, it may be something that a less educated non-sociologist would assume could pass within the field. When he describes his unscientific and offensive approach, we see one of the sociology grad students facepalming in exasperation. Because a non-expert may be able to sound somewhat educated in sociology before making such a slip-up, it is four minutes into the conversation before he is detected.

In the final panel, he attempts to pass as an expert in literary criticism. This field notoriously uses a great deal of impenetrable jargon, so when Cueball makes up seemingly meaningless sentences, no one notices. His quip at "deconstructing the self" may be a meta joke about the field itself failing under deconstruction... (or this sentence may be a meta-meta- example of someone applying literary criticism standards to the analysis of this specific comic). We find that rather than being caught out within minutes as in the other fields, he has now published 8 papers and 2 books. The humor comes from the fact that he has accidentally made himself into a recognized authority in the field, despite not having any idea what he was talking about. In this panel, Cueball is sitting in an armchair in the position of an expert lecturing to a student, who sits at his feet apparently absorbing his inane statement.

This implies that the field itself has published a great deal of meaningless things that only superficially look meaningful through the impenetrability of the jargon. The title text challenges the audience to take a look at the Wikipedia article for literary deconstruction if they don't believe this criticism applies - the Wikipedia article in question is almost constantly flagged for "clean-up" on the grounds that it's a jumbled mess. An archive of the article as it was when this comic was published is available here.


[Caption above the panels:]
My Hobby:
Sitting down with grad students and timing how long it takes them to figure out that I'm not actually an expert in their field.
[For all four panels below, there are two frames crossing the border of each panel. The ones at the top left have a caption, and the one below right has the result of the timing.]
[Ponytail and Cueball are sitting across from each other in office chairs.]
Ponytail: Our big problem is heat dissipation
Cueball: Have you tried logarithms?
48 seconds
[Cueball is sitting in a chair at the center of a table looking left at another Cueball-like guy. To the right is a long black-haired girl.]
Cueball: Ah, so does this Finno-Ugric family include, say, Klingon?
63 seconds
[Cueball is standing with his hands up talking to another Cueball-like guy and Megan who has lifted her arm to palm her face.]
Cueball: Yeah, my latest work is on ranking people from best to worst.
4 minutes
[Cueball is sitting in an armchair with another Cueball-like guy sitting attentively in front of him on the floor.]
Literary Criticism:
Cueball: You see, the deconstruction is inextricable from not only the text, but also the self.
Eight papers and two books and they haven't caught on.

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It could be that no one understands the literary criticism, even if they read it. The panel shows a student listening to Cueball. A fun, alternative explanation is that Cueball has found his real niche! A natural genius in literary criticism! (I know that's not what he's driving at. Stick with my first explanation.)Theo (talk) 13:22, 13 August 2013 (UTC)

I know this is easy to find, but the wikipedia article on deconstruction is very relevant. There should be a link in the explanation. 01:05, 30 April 2014 (UTC)

I believe the multiple issues listed in the Deconstruction Wikipedia article speak for themselves:

This article has multiple issues. Please help improve it or discuss these issues on the talk page. 20:10, 27 June 2014 (UTC)

I'm wondering how anyone can make enough sense of that article to notice bias. :) NealCruco (talk) 17:24, 31 January 2015 (UTC)

I think that, on the literary criticism explanation, Randall wrote "Eight papers and two books and they haven't caught on" to mean that he talked about eight papers and two books, not that he has already had a literary criticism writing career consisting of eight written papers and two books and no one has noticed. 04:19, 16 July 2014 (UTC)

I disagree. A 'paper' usually means an academic paper, not literary work. Then, the books part follows suit. --NeatNit (talk) 06:52, 3 August 2014 (UTC)
Could also be a reference to the Sokal Hoax...implying he did the same thing over and over but without the "reveal." (talk) (please sign your comments with ~~~~)

Given the "Eight papers and two books" that the narrator has written on literary criticism, could this actually be talking about impostor syndrome, where the author believes that they're frauds and that they're not as good as people think they are, but in actual fact are knowledgable in their field? --Sophira (talk) 04:13, 23 November 2015 (UTC)

I find the claim "Since Klingon is a constructed language, designed to sound "alien" and to avoid sounding like any human language, it cannot be part of any real linguistic family."- specifically the "since it's constructed, it can't belong to a real language family"- to be rather dubious. Now, full disclosure, I have absolutely no formal education in Linguistics- the closest is that I'm in my first year of learning German- but there's no reason a conlang can't belong to a language family.

For example:

  • Anglish, English's form of linguistic purism that aims to remove all foreign influences (or at least romance influences) from the language is arcane and distinct enough from normal English to the degree that it can be considered a separate language almost (about the same difference as between English and Scots). Anglish is pretty obviously constructed (a lot of vocabulary was mangled together to talk about modern concepts that didn't exist prior to foreign influences), but it's not a stretch to say it belongs to the Germanic language family.
  • Esperanto is probably the world's most famous Conlang, but it was greatly influenced by the author's experience with language. It takes its grammar from Slavic languages and its vocabulary from Germanic and Romance languages; while it might not be an obvious member of any language family, I wouldn't call it a stretch to classify it in one (or more!) based on its influences.
  • The biggest issue is that "real language family" is a dubious term- a group of related-but-distinct conlangs could be said to belong to the same language family, and it would be a real language family- if they're real languages, they form a real family.

Now, the given example of Klingon probably doesn't belong to any earthly families since it was meant to be alien, but the cause-and-effect statement is just a little fishy. Hppavilion1 (talk) 21:35, 30 March 2017 (UTC)

Membership in a language family is based on common descent, not a featural analysis. As such, Esperanto absolutely cannot be classified as Germanic, Romance or Slavic, even if it is in large part a relexified version of its creator's native dialect of Polish. That said, you're correct that there's no reason a conlang couldn't be part of a language family. For one, if I use a reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European and derive a language from it by applying sound changes, what I've made is both a conlang and an Indo-European language. For another, if I create a language and then derive daughter languages from it by applying sound changes, that's an entire family of conlangs. (Klingon doesn't have such a language family, as it happens, but Marc Okrand has written about some dialectal variations.) 06:07, 18 December 2018 (UTC)

When the literary critic is sus!😳 04:02, 12 February 2021 (UTC)

Let me just lie down on a motorway quickly. Beanie (talk) 14:03, 25 March 2021 (UTC)
getoutofmyheadgetoutofmyheadgetoutofmyhead 12:40, 28 April 2021 (UTC)

Note that Randall seems to have spelled it "Impostor" and not "Imposter". I am getting among us vibes now.-- 19:11, 9 December 2021 (UTC)

The title of the work that was referenced in the third panel: Sortists:Why Social Rankings Appear. (Omg colonception wow :))(oh no) GetPunnedOn (talk) 22:56, 4 July 2023 (UTC)

The Wikipedia article mentioned is long as shit. I am impressed with literary critics' ability to extend things unnecessarily. ...wait a second. Psychoticpotato (talk) 21:24, 25 April 2024 (UTC)