It’s almost the end of the semester and it’s time to finally talk about “what is philosophy?” in my classes, partly because there’s enough sense of what students have been reading, partly because I like to get all misty-eyed and reflective by the end of the class to cover over my exhaustion from all the intellectual efforts that a 15-week semester requires… This is the time when someone will inevitably ask me about whether so-and-so is/was “intentionally obtuse/difficult” – and I will of course try my best to explain that so-and-so was dealing with complex issues or was not writing for beginners or was writing for a different type of a beginner – but every time I wonder: What is so horribly wrong with being intentionally incomprehensible?
I suppose one might say that there is a clear expectation of comprehension when a student comes to a philosophy class – yes, they know they will be reading some difficult texts, but the honest assumption is that if they do not get it right away and if they pay attention in class, they will eventually understand what is being said. Their difficulty – they think – comes from their lack of skill, bad teaching, educational setting etc etc. But it cannot possibly be the case that the difficulty might come from the author’s intentional attempts to confuse the reader, to mislead the reader, to fool the reader. We all share the same fundamental trust, the same attitude and thus the accusation of the “intentional confusion” is a damning accusion: philosophers who dare to play with their readers’ expectation of comprehensibility are charlatants, savages, criminals who cannot be trusted. Take a look at Stanley Fish’s recent revival of the “theory wars” – there’s a strange paradoxality in the accusations of incomprehensibility: it is contemptible because it is against the very nature of human co-existence but yet it is admirable because those who “get away with it” can apparently continue conning everyone into believing they have genuine ideas. It’s the fascination with the Great Criminal. Strangely enough, it only takes an average reader of New York Times to expose the fraud, but somehow The Academics and Co. cannot see through the bullshit.
So, what is so wrong about being intentionally incomprehensible? “Everything,” we are told. “It’s weird for the sake of weird, it’s pomo stuff, it’s pure pretention and elitism, it’s a misuse of public trust, it’s philosophical uselessness and careerism…” This morning I was trying to explain why reading difficult philosophical texts in the introductory class could be considered in itself a philosophical activity and could teach something in itself without any reference to a particular material, a specific topic. That talk reminded me of an old church lady I knew when I was a kid, she used to tell everyone that her favorite part of the Gospels was the genealogical opening of Matthew: “Just reciting those names,” she used to insist, “gives me spiritual power, because if this is the Word of God, then everything must be beneficial.” I thought the lady was clearly a nutcase, I still think so, but something about her attitude was fascinating – in her belief that nothing is meaningless when it comes to a religious text, she was willing to incorporate even the smallest and less significant elements in order to support her faith, but in a strange twist she made a reading of a list of names – that all have a certain meaning and a place in the general structure of the story – into a mostly magical activity that bordered on empty recitation, a kind of an opposite of meaningful reading. It seems to me that the question about the ultimate wrong of “intentional incomprehensibility” can be approached from a following angle: Intentional incomprehensibility is wrong because it is not believed to be possible. It is in the nature of human communication to want to be understood, it is the functional element of our very humanity – anyone who tries to be incomprehensible is still assuming that very “nature” and is thus seen as only playing with things that are considered “sacred” – meaning, language, communication, reflection – these are the names we continuously recite with a kind of a pagan fervor. One cannot be intentionally incomprehensive but only intentionally disrespectful toward the ideas of comprehension and thus within the general horizon of comprehensibility – otherwise it’s all chaos, it’s all dark and scary…
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