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Showing posts with label Barthes on clarity. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Barthes on clarity. Show all posts

Tuesday 30 April 2024

On Difficulty and Obfuscation



Parliamentarians of the English Civil War period expressed the hope that one day the laws of England might be compressed into “the bigness of a pocket book”. That still gets quoted because it expresses a common feeling that things which affect our lives ought to be intelligible to us. We don’t want to break a law because we don’t understand it and, equally, we do want to defend ourselves in language which is our own. Cromwellians thought that the heart of the problem was not failure to be clear and concise but that the powerful and their lawyers benefitted from obfuscation. I think they were at least half right.

But the successes of the natural sciences over recent centuries are inseparable from the development of languages which only a very small number of specialists can really expect to understand and deploy. We accept the difficulties of mathematics and scientific theories as a price we must pay for extraordinary achievements of engineering (in the broadest sense) from which everyone can in principle benefit. We accept that most of us do not have talent and will not have time to get inside what scientists understand. There are no short cuts; you just have to be very talented, willing to work hard and not envy the very occasional prodigy who seems to understand effortlessly.

But in relation to the world of lived experience - the Lebenswelt of the phenomenological tradition in philosophy – it’s still thought we should be able to understand that experience ourselves though perhaps occasionally accepting the help of those proficient in some theoretical knowledge of which we have only a vague understanding.  Sign up with a counsellor or analyst and you expect them to know something you don’t. Equally, you might well expect them to be able to make relevant parts of their thinking accessible to you in some way. How else could therapy work? It’s not supposed to be magical or mystical.

Donald Winnicott thought that making his thinking accessible was part of what would make it therapeutically effective. He gave radio talks and wrote essays which any moderately well-educated reader could understand. The contrast between, say, false self and real self lends itself to fairly ready understanding and can be illustrated with examples. Of course, some would now object that it encapsulates some kind of humanist myth or ideology. If so, that would also be true of Jacques Lacan’s early use of a parallel contrast between the empty word (parole vide) and the full word (parole pleine). Both sets of contrasts point towards interventions a practising therapist could deploy. But therapeutically useful ideas can, in fact, come from anywhere. The concept of gaslighting takes its name from a successful film (Gaslight 1944) the story line of which gives a very clear exemplification of a kind of psychological manipulation which the term accurately identifies.

But there are those who claim to illuminate the world of lived experience but do so in prose which is either difficult or obfuscating. And it is sometimes difficult to know which is the case. Roland Barthes wrote that clarity is the virtue of prose which is designed to persuade. But not everyone wants to persuade.

Some writing is more like musing or ruminating in which the author is primarily addressing themself; this is true of many passages in Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble. The reader’s task then becomes that of trying to work out what is the problem which has set off the rumination and where the musing might be headed.  Some will give up, thinking that the author is ducking the job a writer is supposed to undertake.

Other writers may just want to jolt you into thinking afresh and use whatever devices they reckon might yield that result. The danger is that we don’t get beyond their opening move. When Wittgenstein offers an (oracular?) “If a lion could speak, we could not understand him” it’s easy just to stare at the words and sigh, “Such wisdom!” rather than asking, “How do you know that?”, “Why shouldn’t we understand a lion who could speak?” In fact, since Wittgenstein wrote there has been great progress in characterising the structure and functions of things like chimpanzee calls. Lions may just be less approachable. The case illustrates a general problem with much philosophy: if it tries to rule a priori (without the need for evidence) that certain things are impossible it may subsequently be upstaged by empirical evidence demonstrating the contrary. Early Wittgenstein-inspired academics writing about human language were remarkably na├»ve, supposing that languages were really all rather like their own, and backed up by some local equivalent of the Oxford English Dictionary. Then linguists started to look seriously at how creoles develop and that upset several applecarts.

Finally (at least for the length of this piece), there are the sad cases. Early on in life, academics working in the human sciences discover that a well-trodden route to fame lies in being allusive, difficult and downright obscure. Though novelists may have been the first to realise that there were bones you could throw to the professors, other writers and academics themselves have more than caught up. The later work of Jacques Lacan is something suitable only to be pored over in long, inconclusive seminars and unread research outputs; it does not connect to any obvious therapeutic practice.  If you invest so much time in what is really theological study, it is very hard to conclude that your god may not be all you’ve hoped for. Back in 1979, Richard Wollheim (the centenary of whose birth has recently been celebrated) wrote a long piece in the New York Review of Books after reading a great deal of Lacan’s work. At the end he simply remarked “It’s not really my cup of tea”. But no young academic who has just completed a Ph D on Lacan and now hoping for its publication can afford such dismissive disinvestment from very recent labours. 

Imitating rebarbative prose is not the same thing as deploying someone’s theories to advance understanding. That distinction may be a useful guide to separating the difficult from the obfuscating. A difficult or relatively difficult theorist - say, Pierre Bourdieu or Michel Foucault – can inspire new work which extends the application of a theory to new fields and maybe in the course of doing that introduce some amendments into the original theory. In contrast, imitative writing does no more than add to the corpus of imitations of the Master. As with didactic novels, the reader yawns and forgets.