Pop-matters has weighed in on the issue of difficult texts on his blog. I’m still trying to articulate what, exactly, constitutes a difficult text. I think that there are different sorts of difficulties and that they shouldn’t all be lumped together. Recently, for example, I picked up Simon Duffy’s Logic of Expression. I had high hopes for this text as it deals heavily with Deleuze’s use of the calculus in Difference and Repetition. However, I confess that I’m very disappointed with this text, despite the high praise of Smith, Patton, and Balibar. Why? I simply can’t penetrate it. This isn’t entirely Duffy’s fault. The work presupposes a lot of background knowledge in mathematics which I simply don’t have. As a result, it is difficult for me to penetrate what he’s discussing, or even know why it’s relevant. This work, I would say, is clear, but only insofar as one has a particular background knowledge. It is thus not a difficult text, though I find it impenetrable. I do think, however, he could have done a better job shuttling back and forth between concrete examples and mathematical abstractions. I’m of the view, regardless of what purists like Alexei say about metaphors and examples, that we should always use examples to illustrate points as a crutch for intuition and imagination in reaching “the concept”. This is part of what makes Badiou such a brilliant writer, regardless of what one thinks of his thought. It is also part of what makes Zizek great.
By contrast, it seems to me that there’s a different sort of difficulty that isn’t about background knowledge or familiarity, but about style. When confronting Hegel’s Science of Logic or certain texts by Derrida, the issue does not seem to be one of background knowledge, but appears to occur at the level of sentence structure itself. Marx might be added here as well, in some respects. Hegelians sometimes speak of the “dialectical sentence”. The dialectical sentence is inherently difficult stylistically, regardless of one’s background knowledge, perhaps because of how it seeks to evade the simplifications of the understanding (abstraction, thingly thought), making it very difficult to determine what, exactly the sentence is saying at all. In Marx there are similar difficulties. Marx wants to unfold the logic of what he’s dealing with, to make you experience it. Often you don’t know where you’re going or why it’s important. For example, in the first chapter of Capital, we begin with the commodity, but we have no idea how the commodity will be unfolded or analyzed or where this analysis is leading. Instead it’s as if Marx wants you to encounter the experience of the commodity itself.
Popmatters makes some good points about commodification of thought. S/he claims that any form of writing that slows down easy transmission is already a blow against the dominance of the commodity. There’s something to this very Adornoesque thought. I respect this thesis. I understand it. By the same token, as we’re struggling against a particular form that capitalism has taken today, I wonder if this is truly the most pragmatic strategy. We need weapons. We need careful analyses of our situation. There is a certain sort of style that turns you into a scholar by necessity, because you have to work through the intricacies of these mysteries. Are these stylistic approaches that we find in later Levinas, Lacan, Derrida, Deleuze, Adorno, etc., the most effective tools in such struggles, or do they end up inventing/making scholars that turn away from these struggles? I think, for example, that we could do better with Marx and that a certain sort of academic work should be strongly discouraged. The verdict is out for me.