We expect writing to speak plain truths–we assume truths are plain. We want the language, in general, to be plain-spoken. If a book cannot be simply opened up and read and grasped by an uninitiated reader, then it must be bullshit (“gibberish”). Writing that is not plain-spoken is difficult and therefore pretentious. People who claim to enjoy supposedly difficult writing are poseurs (or, possibly, elitists). Philosophy is suspect.
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.
In a sense, reading a difficult text is an exercise in slowing down the usual speed of reading and comprehesion and thus of training through repetition – reading and rereading, thinking through, connecting one clear idea to another, situating unclear passages in the context of the understood, working through a text in such a way is a philosophical skill, isn’t it?
The post continues:
My instincts tell me that this problem has to do with the culture of capitalism (and of course it has everything to do with education), but I have neither the time nor the energy to expand on that notion right now. (Having neither time nor energy being intimately related to said culture.)
I am not sure about this – it seems to me that the culture of plain truth comes before, and makes possible, the culture of capitalism. Think, for example, about Descartes: his Meditations on First Philosophy are written in a very commonsensical style, a sort of a “thinking aloud” style – that simplification of philosophy (vis-a-vis heavy Aristotelian style of pre-Cartesian thinking) constitues, in a way, a philosophical break. Such simplicity encourages seeking out “plain truth” – every time I dare to ask a simple question such as “What Is Thinking?” in my class, I usually get something very plain and simple like “It’s an ability to analyze, break things down, mentally take them apart” – the very possibility of “taking apart” assumes that thinking is all about simplification, about slowing down the act of actual thinking, about simple procedures, calculations, steps… A kind of thinking machine, a calculator, a computer…