For years I’ve been hearing off and on that there’s a school of thought that argues that the rhetoric of texts should be enigmatic and elusive so as to interrupt the logic of exchange characteristic of communicative capitalism. I can see the point of this. Since their emergence during the last century, mass media technologies have favored easily transmitted messages that tend to standardize identities and entities within the world. This sort of communicative structure has, in its turn, been put to all sorts of dark political purposes. Recognizing this, one can reasonably conclude that one strategy of resistance would lie in the creation of noise that disrupts the codes governing semiotic structures of communication that favor the powerful.
Nonetheless, I can’t help but feel that there’s not a little bit of bullshit in this line of argument. Before getting to that, let me emphasize that I’m here talking about works of theory, not literature and art (and I know this distinction is fraught and problematic). The problem is that this strategy seems to exchange one form of power and domination for another. In the first instance, we’re in the thrall of dominant codes that typify our identities and reduce us to good consumers. In the latter instance, however, we seem to become hypnotized by the text and thereby enslaved. Like the cult follower that believes that the leader contains a mysterious amalga or objet a around which our desire comes to pulsate, the enigmatic and elusive text comes to capture our desire and enslave us.
I began by looking for a point of resistance to the dominant codes structuring communicative capitalism. I turned to this thinker or that to find technologies of resistance at the level of the semiotic. Yet now I find that I’m trapped in the enigma or the elusiveness of that theorist’s writing. My goal begins to change. Where before it was strategies of resistance, now it’s understanding the theorist. Hours and years are now spent deciphering Lacan, Deleuze, Derrida, Adorno, Hegel, and so on. “They must,” I reason, “know what they’re saying, they must have a secret behind all of this, and I only fail because I haven’t read enough, haven’t done enough work tracking down their references, haven’t followed their lines of thought carefully enough!”
Paradoxically, then, such texts tend to produce university discourses. The product of identification with a hypnotic text is a divided subject ($) that has become caught within the thrall of the master-figure (S1), becoming their servant by endlessly doing commentary on their work. The old goal disappears– though to be sure, it’s still given lip service –and the new goal becomes a life devoted to understanding Heidegger, Hegel, Lacan, Deleuze, Derrida, and so on. Of course, there’s no end to this project insofar as it belongs to the nature of objet a to slip away.
Oh don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting that any of these thinkers should be rejected on the grounds of style. I’ve certainly gained much by becoming hypnotized by all the thinkers I’ve listed here. I do, however, think that style can be a form of power– sometimes hypnotizing us like the cult leader, at other times functioning as a shibboleth for privileged communities –and that it’s not clear that conceptual work, clearly expressed, can’t be a more effective strategy against communicative capitalism. Indeed, another danger that arises out of the enigmatic text is that it becomes mere noise for the broader society, having little to no effect outside the halls of the academies. I will suggest– perhaps imprudently –that such texts seem to suggest a somewhat poor regard to readers. To publish a text is to invite others to read. Those who read give their time. In a world saturated by information as ours is today, it seems somehow wrong to entrap others in your text when they wish to learn from you and give portions of their life over to you.