Jon Hates Jacques (Or Rather His Style)

Jon Cogburn shares his frustration with (an allegedly) Derrida-imitating author whom he cites in his post on the matter:

[Again, WTF? I would gripe in detail about this as I have the previous sentences, but Marder’s prose has sucked my soul dry until I am a now an exhausted shadow of my former self. Help. Me. I. Am. Barely. Able. To. Type. This.

But, luckily, the whole paragraph concludes by reiterating what has come before.]

I have written before, or rather, I have blogged before about my own frustration with the style of, say, late Leonard Lawlor and others, that is to say, Derridean style. I have to say I read Jon’s post with much giggling enthusiasm, and yet I am uneasy about general dismissal of turgid prose as such. I think that I am ambiguous about the matter for several personal reasons, but mainly because I think we tend to blame some types of writing not because they are unnecessarily obscure or nearly non-sensical (see Jon’s examples), but because the effort put into deciphering this sort of a text sometimes does not pay off, or rather, is not perceived as deserving of our efforts due to unlikely return on the investment. Let me explain. Two quick points:

1) Kant or Hegel or Heidegger or any of the important so-called analytical philosophers are not easy or accessible, they are simply considered worth our time, that is, we are told they are worth the effort and therefore we put in the effort. But when it comes to new authors, especially if they (intentionally or not) imitate the masters, the issue is not whether one can get through a difficult book or not – hopefully any educated person can read through any book they choose to – but whether it is worth our time to do so. In other words, if accessibility was the ultimate criterion of worthiness, too many books would be left unread.  I have read many books of many different styles (and so have you), some were enjoyable in their turgidity, some were annoying in their imitating and ultimately empty verbiage, but none were judged to be good or bad based solely on their style, I think.

2) Behind accusations of intentional obscurity and put-on complexity (not from Jon, but generally speaking), there are often accusations of elitism, charlatanism, and disrespect/arrogance. These particular accusations go beyond style of the book. Take Derrida. He was quite clear in some essays, and quite annoyingly gut-bustingly and knee-crushingly dull and unclear in other essays. And yet in many talks, presentations, discussions and interviews he was able to communicate his ideas quite clearly and simply, while still being persecuted (metaphorically, of course) for his obscurity and supposedly intentional “let’s-fuck-with-their-head”-ness. To put it differently, I wonder what is the real reason why we hate people’s style and whether it has anything to do with that style? When I hate some Derridean mumbo-jumbo, I’m not hating their style as such or my own potential waste of time, I hate the posturing, the pretense, the thin layer of bullshit that covers such exercises of coded insider-talk, and yet I cannot claim that I get all of this from the text itself, there must be more to it.

Needlessly complicated prose is frustrating, yet the idea of accessibility as a virtue is a rather slippery one and anyone who ever tried to explain a “simple” philosophical notion to students knows that there is simple and there is simple. Yes, sometimes complexity is a way of hiding one’s ignorance or some lack of original thought (which is very useful in any academic setting), but that is not always the case – complex subject matters sometime require complex expositions, otherwise we end up with idiotic nonsense such as this:

First, from our cultural distance, it is evident that Kant’s arguments against masturbation, for the return of wives to abusive husbands, etc., are gobbledy-gook. This should make us suspicious that there might be other parts of Kant, too, that are gobbledy-gook, for example, the stuff that transparently reads like gobbledy-gook, such as the transcendental deduction, and such as his claims that his various obviously non-equivalent formulations of the fundamental principle of morality are in fact “so many formulations of precisely the same law” (Groundwork, 4:436, Zweig trans.). I read Kant as a master at promising philosophers what they want and then thowing up a haze of words with glimmers enough of hope that readers can convince themselves that there is something profound underneath.

Second, we cannot expect ordinary people to be better philosophical moral reasoners than Kant. Kant’s philosophical moral reasoning appears mainly to have confirmed his prejudices and the ideas inherited from his culture. Therefore, we should be nervous about expecting more from the philosophical moral reasoning of people less philosophically capable than Kant.

Go figure!

10 thoughts on “Jon Hates Jacques (Or Rather His Style)

  1. Mikhail,

    Excellent points all.

    I agree with what you write here and am going to give the book another go after I read Hagglund’s Radical Atheism.

    I think part of what frustrated me about Marder’s book is that I found the various tropes (Heideggerian chiasmus, Nietzschean “loftiness,” Heideggerian pining after a lost age, etc.) actually really not very difficult, but rather boringly generic, dialectically useless, and aesthetically ugly.

    Some time last year while reading about Noel Carroll’s discussion of critics of popular art, I realized that both Carroll and the critics (Greenberg, Adorno, etc.) shared the assumption that modern art is “challenging.” Carroll just argues that not all art has to be this way. But the realization hit me like a fist that most of the examples that aestheticians like Danto and Bell put forward are in fact catastrophically simple minded once you know what the work is supposed to be saying (according to the art theory of the time). In visual art it’s usually some self-reflexive meta-comment on the genre itself (often combined with something calculated to piss off the bourgeoisie). “Modern painting is about painting” etc.

    Well if the main point of all this is the message, and it’s the same message over and over again, then in no sense is what you are doing “challenging.”

    I had the same feeling with Marder’s first paragraph, which is why in the post I tried to explicitly enumerate the t(r)icks (Derridean use of hyphens and parentheses being one of them) he relentlessly piles up.

    I agree that Derrida himself is often doing something performative and interesting, but once it’s a tool bag of affects that can mindlessly be put into sentences to construct the paragraph like Marder’s first. . . well then there’s no point to it that I can see. Analogously, I no longer see the point of the “commonplace-transfiguring” act of putting some object off the street in the gallery. It was a brilliant gesture when Duchamp did it, but (in the case of Fountain) since the point of it is the gesture, there is no reason to do it again.

    In Marder’s case, he has a fascinating topic. What is added to the discussion by using such simpleminded prose tricks? I really don’t get it.

    Let me conclude by saying again that I agree with your interesting thoughts about the relative nature of complexity. And your point about how one’s reaction to style is often a reaction to something else is fantastic. I also realize that when these thoughts are properly thought through, they might undermine what I’m saying here.

  2. I’m sure we are very much on the same page in our reaction to idiosyncratic style and I think bringing in the art criticism is a great perspective here (many parallels to be explored, I think, and since I’m rereading Alex Ross’ excellent book on contemporary music – The Rest Is Noise – I think I have some things to think about).

    I wonder if a completely different type of music could be brought in here: metal. Not to suggest it’s all the same, but much of metal is based on the creative use of cliches, not necessarily some creative invention, but a creative reinvention/repetition. For the outsider, all metal sounds the same, but for those in the know, there are multiple variations of detail and nuance.

    Maybe shuffling around cliches reads boring to us, but some “insider” is really enjoying the subtleties of Marder’s opening paragraph?

  3. Yeah, that seems clearly right to me.

    I mean you are almost certainly describing the phenomenology of the hiring committee at Dusquene.

    Strangely with metal, I’ve been able to engage with some of my best students to get them to explain the subtleties to me. Though I still don’t enjoy most of the music, I appreciate its aesthetic virtues just because the metal geeks can explain so well both what the subtleties are and why they have aesthetic value.

    I have tried to have an analogous conversation with people who use the linguistic tropes described in my original post, but it’s never gone very well though. . . Usually it is justified in terms of a performative function that goes beyond what is literally said. But I’ve found that reading novels works much, much better in that regard. . .

    • Certainly, one can explain the subtleties (not me though, but those who are more able), but there’s something to listening practice that helps hear those subtleties and then eventually understand and enjoy them. This is of course already beyond Marder’s style, all I’m saying is that it took time for all of us to “get” and then to “enjoy” our favorite books/music. But I’m with you on the kind of exclusivist stance that “if it’s accessible/popular, then it’s kitsch/pop”… Hagglund is very accessible in that sense, so I think you’ll get through it quickly. I think I read it over a short visit to in-laws.

  4. Yeah, another great point. “Getting” a genre or style isn’t a matter of it being explained to us, but rather requires immersion.

    The guy who wrote the great book “The Shock of the New” (I’m blocking on his name, something Hughes) said one the smartest I’ve yet heard about the “canon wars” at American Universities in the 1980’s. A bunch of professors were warring over what twenty or so books their students would read. But the vast majority of those students would never go on to read any other books than the ones they were forced to in college. But if you’ve only read twenty or so books, you are not going to be capable of understanding any of them.

    So I’m really torn about this. On the one hand I agree that you can’t really make a discerning judgment unless you’ve put in the requisite listening (or reading, or eating, or whatever) time. But on the other hand, I worry that this fact might be used to apriori dismiss any criticisms of whole genres.

    I mean I think I’ve listened to enough jazz at this point to have an informed opinion that the Dixieland and swing stuff is fantastic and that bop is not. But for my friends into jazz it’s a prior that when I say that bop sounds (and feels, I used to be a good enough guitarist to play this stuff; now I play rawk for kicks, which is way less demanding) just like practicing scales on stage, that it is a priori that I’m just being difficult or haven’t listened to enough bop. Well sure there’s a lot I haven’t heard. . . but there will always be a lot you haven’t heard or read just because life is finite. I don’t want it to be a priori that every judgment about a genre is unwarranted. . . though maybe that’s just the epistemic condition one is in?

    • That’s why I think that most of our reading early on (let’s say graduate school or earlier) is a kind of exercise in authority worship – someone told us to read Kant and Hegel, however indirectly, there’s no way one just picks those books up and starts reading them (and if there’s a genius that did, it’s an exception that proves the rule). Later we forget it and say things like “Yes, I became interested in Kant because I was thinking about the epistemological problems of blah blah blah” – our default tradition becomes our natural way of doing philosophy. When I read Kant, I don’t see turgid prose, when I read Hegel I struggle but I keep at it. When I read “accessible prose” I get suspicious that it is too simplistic. That’s just education/experience speaking – there’s no universal standard of philosophical writing.

  5. When I hate some Derridean mumbo-jumbo, I’m not hating their style as such or my own potential waste of time, I hate the posturing, the pretense, the thin layer of bullshit that covers such exercises of coded insider-talk, and yet I cannot claim that I get all of this from the text itself, there must be more to it.

    There must be someone else in the room to which this posturing is dedicated. Not quite the big other but something alike. Maybe in case of Marder it is just Derrida?

    One can summarize the fascination for awkwardness and obscurity by the observation that someone has gone too far but it works. We are sensitive to this much like we are for a tiny injustice or a physical imbalance which blow a hole in our world. Bad style becomes an evil spirit that haunts us when we attempt to be committed.

    • I wonder if the Big Other is a kind of projection of one’s academic insecurities? From my own experience, it seems that the less I know about the subject matter the more I want to create an illusion of expertise by using all the correct turns of phrase and appropriate code words and such. For example, take most recent “debates” concerning realism – if you say “naive realism” you are signaling a whole set of issues without having to go into it, you immediately situate yourself and people know who you are and where you stand.

      I can’t judge style very well in English – I can tell you what sort of prose I like (Adorno, for example, writes beautifully as far as I’m concerned), and what I don’t like, but I wouldn’t go so far as to declare something to be “bad” because I don’t happen to like it, I’m not Graham Harman, you know? I don’t have the chutzpah.

      • From my own experience, it seems that the less I know about the subject matter the more I want to create an illusion of expertise by using all the correct turns of phrase and appropriate code words and such.

        Monkey see, monkey do. In programming people who have no proper grasp of what a program is doing but immitate stylistic decisions of the original authors in order to pacify the big alien being are sometimes degradingly called “code monkeys”. Even though this kind of programmers “don’t get it” they can nevertheless be very productive. So it’s a phenomenon not reserved to academia.

        Unlike grey vampires who are mostly a fable, working contrarian to a structure can really suck your energy, no matter if its programming or scholary work. Opposed to its bad image, monkeying is a truly rational choice. Think about poor Jon with a Marder text, which had to be translated in every little remark just to yield something which didn’t even make sense. Awful. Marder instead managed to monkey Derrida, fill the forms with his own content and was successful enough to build a carreer on it.

        Heidegger, Derrida but also Adorno are generous authors for imitation, and there is also theoretical justification in their work which reflects in parts the inseparability of content and style. On the other end might be someone like Kant. No one complies to Kants baroque style, but Kant has become an author for endless take-home-value without feeling much remorse. One can short-circuit this with the demand for philosophy to become “scientific” i.e. produce only theorems with take-home-value. Style is rendered to be irrelevant and the history of philosophy is turned into its prehistory.

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