The Plain Truth, Please!

Richard Crary of The Existence Machine muses about the difficult reading:

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…


11 thoughts on “The Plain Truth, Please!

  1. That’s why in an interview about academic writing and the broader culture Spivak referred to the book as a “defective form” because it moves at a slower speed than the broader culture in which efficiency is of the essence. This seems like a better metaphor than the notion of a bomb a mutual acquaintance of ours tends to insist upon. Accordingly, Spivak herself insists the book becomes oppositional, quite literally, it carves out a space in which we can think. So if we are to follow this logic then books are especially oppositional when they are obscure, difficult or “intentionally incomprehensible.” It would seem that difficult texts force us to surrender control, both of the difficult text at hand and of the conceptual apparatus that anchors our understanding of the world. Adorno, in his “Words From Abroad” is himself accused of obscurity by using foreign words, writes about this stuff (a theme you nicely point out throughout your post):

    attempts at formulation that swim against the stream of the usual linguistic splashing in order to capture the intended matter precisely,and that take pains to fit complex conceptual relationships into the framework of syntax, arouse rage because they require effort.

    So, ok, for one there is an aspect of cultural conditioning here, or, a cultural learning structure that clearly resists anything but a clear unambiguous presentation of ideas. The broader culture teaches us as readers to approach texts in a certain affective manner. Difficult texts challenge our affective disposition by introducing and even allowing for a new and different disposition; a disposition which sets its sights on something new, but also recognizes and critiques the disposition imposed on us by the broader culture. I think Deleuze/Guattari’s distinction between major (repeats a social structure of control by insisting on the use value of language as communicative) and minor language (language that “stutters,” but subtends the major language) would be germane here. Regardless, in negotiating difficult texts there is a sense of shock, but perhaps this shock can be mobilized as a positive, like a “cool, dude” (assuming our students talk like that). Maybe it’s better to pitch this stuff more affectively–so these texts become an affective interruption of the over regulated linguistic structures that govern thought. So, one of the questions then, towards this more affective line of thought is how we as teachers may be able to foster ways that allow students to experience an obscure or difficult text affectively, but in a positive (affective) way, rather than in a negative affective manner. As in: “holy shit, this hurts my tender brain, gives me a headache, it’s hard so it must be bullshit!” However, all of this is complicated more by the institutional setting in which we are working , e.g. a classroom within a broader college machine that tends to determine how such texts are experienced. So, to suggest that philosophy, theory, difficult fiction etc simply detaches itself not only with say, structure, but with “the establishment” is to as far as I can tell, risk festishizing and sentimentalizing a space that is already overconditioned, overcoded or in Deleuze’s terminology, territorialized.

    Mikhail, didn’t we see a panel presentation about such things when affectivity was the hippest buzzword in cultural theory at that conference circa 2003–you know, the 18 hour drive…I could be wrong.

  2. That was a long drive, by far the longest drive on my life, but the conference was fun, wasn’t it? Despite the creepy house…

    So, one of the questions then, towards this more affective line of thought is how we as teachers may be able to foster ways that allow students to experience an obscure or difficult text affectively, but in a positive (affective) way, rather than in a negative affective manner.

    I think it’s what I was trying to say – how do I use a difficult text to create a kind of learning event that could come both from rational realization of certain connections between ideas and irrational engagement which would be affective. I think we can both agree that teaching isn’t all about lecturing or reading or exposition of texts as commentary – there’s a certain educational event that, when it does take place, affects both the students and the instructor. I think this is what everyone who ever taught knows: sometimes it is good to teach a difficult text to be able to engage it from a perspective of a commentator and not just as a reader. I think difficult texts allow us to achieve at least two things: a) show the smart-asses that they are not as smart as they think because they “get” Plato (education through gradual but consistent humiliation), and b) raise the level of discourse from simple “S is P” to a kind of philosophical discussion that we as teachers would enjoy (education through raising the expectations and thus making sure that those who “make it” will learn a great deal).

  3. That was a fun conference, in fact, we actually made friends at the conference despite you dressing like a Mormon! By the way, I had completely forgot about the house and all the creepy religious iconography that saturated it! And we got a parking ticket in front of the house to boot–more confirmation that God hates us.

  4. Perhaps, and I certainly would have appealed to my status as Jew, but as I remember it I don’t think they even asked me, I’m beyond help! I think they asked you right in front of me, but I don’t recall you jumping at any chance to attend church then or….ever! Face it, you’re just as screwed as me, Mikhail!

    That phrase Homer uses to describe Flanders on The Simpsons kept coming to mind that weekend, viz., Churchy Le Femme.

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  7. Mikhail, I didn’t quite do justice to your discussion here in my reference. I really like your focus on the pedagogical opportunities afforded by ‘difficult’ texts. And I couldn’t agree more with your description of education as a process of gradual humiliation designed to produce people we’ll actually enjoy talking with.

    Shahar, I also agree about the affective pitch. In my experience students have one of two basic reactions to a text they find difficult. They either think “This is stupid” or they think “I’m stupid.” The first group needs to be gently humiliated out of their self-defeating hubris, the second gently encouraged out of their self-defeating humiliation. Usually both can be accomplished at once by showing the second group how to be smart with the text, in the process demonstrating to the first group that their smart-assy reaction was narrow and ignent.

    I must be an old-fashioned liberal. I still think of learning to read as a process of empowerment.

  8. You’re right, indifference is a much more powerful defense. I’d say that in many cases it’s actually a second skin layered on top of arrogance or insecurity (but what am I saying, so often arrogance is itself an anxiety defense). So there’s a lot of therapy in teaching… have you found any strategies that get through better than others?

  9. Yes.

    I think it’s useful to distinguish indifference from dispassion or disinterest. I tell my students that the very best thing about history (my field) from a learning standpoint is that it’s not interesting. That is, they don’t have an interest in it – it’s not in their interest. As a result, they can look at history dispassionately and actually learn how to do a quality analysis without their interests slipping in and distorting things.

    (Of course they do anyway; standpoints, biases and prejudices are fully portable. But the fewer there are and the less immediately activated, the more chance that ‘differance’ can expose them.)

    Gramsci had this view in relation to learning dead languages. He thought the ability to analyze disinterestedly and think systematically was actually one of the elite skills that kept them on top and that the proletariat needed; and that a more practical, relevant, immediately interesting public education was accordingly a swindle and a tool of domination. Confirming people in their common sense when that common sense has always already been hegemonized is not liberatory education.

    Well, Gramsci was a bit of a discipline freak, but the point is good. So I think if we’re doing it right we’re showing students the mental dispositions to think more deeply and effectively; and like any skillset, that does take discipline and practice.

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