UPDATED: With his characteristic acerbic wit, Adam Kotsko coins the term “Academic Stockholm Syndrome” to describe what I was trying to get at. After 50 comments in response to this post– many of them lecturing me about the relationship between expression and content that anyone who studies Derrida, Lacan, Heidegger, Hegel, or Deleuze is familiar with… And many of these responses missing the irony that they’re able to explain clearly what they’re claiming can only be articulated through a particular style –this might be the one remark that actually paid attention to what I argued in the post.
Perverse Egalitarianism has an interesting post up on “difficult books”. A taste:
I have been thinking along the similar lines recently as I was revisiting the old issue of trying to use “difficult texts” in my Intro class: the rationale for me has always been that I will expose my students to a type of writing that in itself will allow me to teach them a skill. For example, even though Plato’s dialogues are quite “easy” to read, or at least I can say that most college students find the form of a conversation between several people to be quite easy to grasp, we spend a lot of time trying to explain why it is important to ask about the essences of things like “justice” or “piety” – the style of a dialogue itself is never really an issue, because the subject matter is what is most important. Is it possible, for example, to use a text by Deleuze or Derrida or Blanchot as a way of exposing a group of students to the style of philosophizing that, because it is impossible to clearly see the actual subject matter, would draw attention to itself?
Assuming that the students actually read, or try to read the difficult text, is it possible to coherently argue in favor of such an experience of confusion? Does it make sense to say:”Yes, I know some of you told me in private that you tried to read the text but you couldn’t understand anything, but that is precisely what I expected would happen. Now that we are in class we can read the same text together and see if we can figure it out, because that is the skill we are trying to acquire in addition to being introduced to a contemporary thinker.” In a sense, if students could read and understand an essay by Derrida, they wouldn’t need to be in an Intro class.
Hopefully I have enough “cred” to inveigh against “difficult books” (I am, after all, mired in the work of figures such as Deleuze, Lacan, Hegel, etc., who are the worst of the worst), but I have increasingly found myself suspicious of the “difficult work”. On the one hand, I read texts in the sciences that express extremely complex ideas in very basic prose. Somehow I’m just unwilling to concede that what Hegel is trying to talk about is any more difficult or complex than what the biologist, complexity theory, economic social theorist, ecologist, or quantum physicist is attempting to articulate. This leads to my concern. I wonder if terribly dense styles such as we find in figures like Deleuze, Lacan, Hegel, Derrida, etc., etc., etc., aren’t a form of intellectual terrorism. Please do not misunderstand me. I am not referring to the quality of their concepts or arguments. What I am referring to is a general writing strategy that demands so much work on the part of the reader in the art of interpretation, that by the time you’ve managed to make heads or tails of what Lacan is arguing or Hegel is seeking to articulate or Deleuze is seeking to theorize, you have so much invested that you simply cannot think critically about that figure.
Among the post-structuralists, at least, style was a way of subverting the metaphysics of presence and identity by drawing attention to the differential, the play of the signifier, our inability to pin down meaning due to the inherent polysemy of language. There’s an implicit politics here as well. The metaphysics of presence and identity is seen as being attached to centralized and totalizing social systems similar to the “Great Chain of Being”, where you have the sovereign giving decrees on high. However, isn’t there still an insidious power structure at work in these textual strategies as well?
On the one hand, post-structuralist texts (and other similarly obscure texts) take on the logic of the veil. When confronted by the veil our desire is evoked. We are led to wonder what is behind the veil. The veil suggests something hidden, something tantalizing, something just out of reach. “What is it that Derrida is saying?” “What is the secret of Hegel’s Logic?” “Is Guattari saying anything at all?” The veil in writing either produces a violent reaction of rejection or a sort of hypnotic attachment in the reader like a moth drawn to a flame. On the other hand, if the effect of hypnotic attachment is successfully produced, if we become convinced that the text hides a secret, we become locked in a power relationship with text and authorship where the author is now a master containing the truth of a secret, and the reader is perpetually inadequate, always close to the elusive truth of the secret of late Heidegger, late Lacan, Deleuze, Derrida, etc., while also always falling short. Far from freeing the reader, far from liberating them, the reader instead is locked in identity as a disciple and apostle of the text, devoting, perhaps in the extreme case of the scholar, their entire life to the hermeneutics of the text that has now become sacred. In short, this textual practice stands in stark opposition to its often stated aim.
Does this mean I cease to read such figures or reject them out of hand? No. I do believe they hide secrets. However, if Badiou has contributed one thing to Continental thought, if one thing lasts in the case of Badiou, I hope it is the rejection of stylistic virtuousity. This is not an endorsement of Badiou’s ontology but of his ethics of writing. I confess that I harbor some resentment of the hours of my life penetrating a text, navigating the stylistic gymnastics of some thinker, to grasp a concept that is really rather simple and which could have been articulated far more directly. If someone can articulate string theory in a straightforward way I don’t see why they cannot do so with ereignis. I’ve spent my fair amount of time defensively defending the writing style of figures such as Lacan, Derrida, Heidegger, Deleuze, etc., etc., etc. What I realize is that what I was defending was not their style but the value of their concepts and arguments despite their style. As per Lyotard’s remarks at the beginning of Differend, I would like to gain some time. We live, we work, we must integrate superhuman bodies of information. Perhaps a little consideration is in order.