Is it because I is thick?

I am not a philistine. Really, I’m not. Neither am I an inverted snob. I appreciate intellectual activity, and admire intellectual achievement. I appreciate also that subtle and difficult ideas often require subtle and difficult prose. If I find any writing incomprehensible at first reading, my usual response is to try to read it more carefully. But, read as carefully as I can, I’m sorry to say can make little sense of something like this .

Now, no doubt it’s unfair to pick on this when there are so many other pieces of writing I could equally have picked on, but this will serve as an example. It’s about literature, a subject that is close to my heart. I normally lap up writing about literature. And yet… All right, let us not be quick to pass judgement. Let us try to read this carefully. Here is the first paragraph:

What does it mean to talk about the end of literature? Literature is built around an impossibility, an impasse internal to it. But this means that the end of literature is, in fact, a condition of its possibility. If the representational problem at the heart of the literary were solved (rather than abandoned in its literary form, which is always a possibility), we would no longer be talking about literature; we would be gods or, no less fantastically, we would be in possession of Borges’s Aleph. The contradictions internal to literature (as with those internal to capitalism) are immanently its end in that their resolution would entail its supersession, but they are also the precondition for its functioning. The end is, in that sense, the a priori; in other words, to indulge in a paradox, the end is in fact the beginning: which is to say that literature’s conditions of possibility and its conditions of impossibility are one and the same.

Let’s start at the very beginning – a very good place to start, as Julie Andrews reminds us. It starts with a rhetorical question: “What does it mean to talk about the end of literature?” Never having spoken about the “end of literature” myself, I do not have an opinion on the matter. But the word “end” can have at least two distinct meanings in this context, and I am not sure whether the author is referring to the purpose of literature, or to its demise. Maybe what follows will clarify. So let us continue.

Literature is built around an impossibility, an impasse internal to it.

No clarification, then, but an assertion that seems unrelated to the opening sentence. What is this “impossibility” that literature is built around? What is this impasse that is “internal to it”? Well, maybe this will be clarified as well later. But so far, I have read two sentences, and two things are unclear to me: (a) What does the author mean by “the end of literature”? (b) What is the “impossibility” at the centre of literature?

Third sentence: “But this means that the end of literature is, in fact, a condition of its possibility.” Its phrasing (“But this means…”) seems to indicate that it follows from the statements made previously. It can’t follow from the first sentence, as that’s a question rather than a statement. So perhaps it follows directly from the second sentence (“Literature is built around an impossibility, an impasse internal to it.”). But this second sentence, at the very least, assumes a knowledge that I, for one, do not have: I do not know what this “impossibility” is that literature is built around. And even if we are to leave this part of it undefined for the moment, how can it follow from this that “the end of literature is, in fact, a condition of its possibility”?

But whether or not the conclusion follows rationally from what has been stated earlier, it’s emphatic enough. “In fact”. It is a fact. Incontrovertible. It takes its place with such other facts as “water boils at 100 degrees Celsius” and “Paris is the capital of France”.

All right, let us not worry about that: let us continue, and accept that the “end of literature” – whether that means the purpose of literature, or its demise – is necessary for literature even to be possible. Next sentence:

If the representational problem at the heart of the literary were solved (rather than abandoned in its literary form, which is always a possibility), we would no longer be talking about literature; we would be gods or, no less fantastically, we would be in possession of Borges’s Aleph.

Concentrate, Chatterjee, concentrate! “The representational problem at the heart of the literary”. I’d guess that this “representational problem” is the “impossibility” referred to in the second sentence. At last! Some clarification! But then again – what is this “representational problem”? We don’t really have a clarification at all: something that wasn’t explained is merely replaced by something else that isn’t explained either.

But whatever this “representational problem” is, if it were to be solved rather than “abandoned in its literary form” … Whoa, whoa there! Presumably, if the problem, whatever it is, is “abandoned”, that means it remains unsolved. But the author is specific here: “abandoned in its literary form” (my italics). This implies that this problem may conceivably be solved in some form other than the literary. What form is that, then? That’s not explained either, it seems. Well, let’s not get worked up over it: after all, I don’t even know what the problem is, other than it’s something to do with “representation”. But whatever this problem is, we, as humans, can’t solve it: if we could solve it, we would be gods, and therefore not human. Or we would be in possession of Borges’ Aleph, and that is equally impossible. OK, I get that: the long and the short of it is that, we cannot solve the problem. Whatever the problem is.

So let’s take stock: where are we?

1. There is a problem about representation in literature – although it is unclear what this problem is;

2. This problem is severe enough to be regarded as an “impossibility” – although what is impossible is unclear;

3. Literature could not exist if its end (meaning “purpose” or “demise” – take your pick) didn’t also exist;

4. It is impossible for humans to solve this problem. However, it is possible to leave this problem unsolved. But only in a literary form.

I can’t help thinking at this stage that it’s just as well that it is possible to leave this problem unsolved, because if it were impossible either to solve the problem or not to solve the problem, we’d really be well and truly buggered.

At this point, I admit, my mind starts to wander. I am only four sentences in, and try as I might, I cannot make sense of any of the four sentences I know I’ve read. My eyes wander too, and light upon the opening words of the second paragraph: “To speak a little more clearly…” At last, I think to myself! I knew if I persevered long enough, I’d find enlightenment! So I skip to this second paragraph, and find this:

To speak a little more clearly, I would say that the institution of literature, only a little more than two centuries old, is structured around a central dynamic, namely a dialectic that plays out between an impulse toward the sublime (an anti-representational practice that, because it forswears representation, remains true to its object at the cost of losing it as object) and an impulse toward allegory (a representational practice which, because it is representational, in taking hold of its object deforms it absolutely). Borges, in “El Aleph,” was fully aware of this dilemma; possession of the Aleph does not make its owner a better poet. It seems to me, though I don’t have time to more than gesture toward it here, that this dynamic can be played back from the beginning, like an algorithm, in a number of different contexts and situations, and that in each case it will have a definite endpoint, an impasse internal to it which finally cannot be superseded.

My eyes wander further, and light upon the words “I want to say something very simple, probably too simple…” I read on, and find this:

I want to say something very simple, probably too simple, about literary criticism and Marxism, and that is that the forms of attention required by literary analysis are particularly congenial to Marxism. Why would this be? It would not be outrageous to claim that literature in the modern sense and the dialectic were born in the same place, at the same time (Jena, at the turn of the nineteenth century, in the circle around the Schlegels and their journals and, in the case of Hegel still feeling his way through the Jena “system-drafts,” decidedly at its margins). So a genealogical case might be made (but it would be far beyond my competence to make it) that in the twentieth century these sibling rivals discovered themselves to be long-lost brothers…

Fair enough, I admit it: I’m thick. I love literature, and I love reading about it, and, I flatter myself, I have, in my time, read some very intelligent and complex analysis of literature. I am also prepared to make an effort with difficult writing, and to think as clearly as I can. But this – and this is far from a sole example – defeats me, and it can only be because I’m thick. So I’d be grateful if someone out there could explain this to me. Just the first four sentences will do.

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13 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by alan on April 15, 2010 at 10:50 pm

    I think that this is just a long winded way of saying that describing the world requires complete knowledge; we do not and cannot have complete knowledge; any narrative will inevitably be an incomplete description of the world; given the effort involved, the fact that someone has written a story means that if they are not merely in the business of entertainment then they are making important claims about the world; these claims will not only be incomplete but woefully incomplete rather like the strong claims of Marxism to have a complete theory of history.
    Yes I really do think this person is saying something that trivial and banal.
    As for me, I’m human, not an ‘Aleph’, and the proper study of Man is Man. The claims we make; the futile attempts to struggle with and create meaning out of human existence (deforming the world when reaching for the sublime) that literature represents, do speak to me and are important to me. What else can we do ? Get religion? I hope not.

    Reply

    • Ah – so that’s what he is trying to say? Then why the hell doesn’t he say it?

      Leaving aside for the moment what he may or may not be trying to say (and one can really only conjecture on that point – although your conjecture is possibly as good as any), I do feel that serious literature deserves serious discussion. What it doesn’t deserve is this kind of gobbledegook.

      As for, as you put it, “getting religion” (which could mean anything from a simple-minded acceptance of fairy stories to a profound commitment arrived at as a consequence of long and serious thought) – that is a related but different issue which is probably not worth getting into here. That one’s for another day. My concern here is the great disservice done to literature by sheer gobbledegook passing itself off as analysis.

      Reply

  2. Posted by Carolyn on April 20, 2010 at 6:46 am

    I don’t know why you bother, Himadri. I would have got to ‘condition of its possibility’ following something about impossibility and that would have been it. In fact it was it; I haven’t, even with your help, tried to follow much more.

    I do have to admire your perserverence and wonder how you have time to try and analyse this sort of nonsense.

    Cheers, Caro.

    Reply

    • I think I want to guard against being accused of not having made the effort to understand. I do appreciate that there is some writing that is difficult because the thoughts it presents are difficult, and it is not right to dismiss such writing as “nonsense” without making the effort to understand. This is why I try to give the benefit of doubt to any difficult writing, and try to make an effort. But with stuff like this, the expenditure of effort merely shows how poor it is, both in terms of thought and in terms of expression. Even little things – such as saying “in fact” when presenting something that is clearly *not* a fact, but merely an assertion – merely goes to show how little thought the author has actually put into the writing. It wouldn’t perhaps matter so much were it not that there’s so much of this type of nonsense around passing itself off as something deep and significant. Good literary criticism is an admirable thing, but this sort of thing merely gives all attempts at serious writing a bad name.

      Reply

  3. This is what happens when Anglo-American critics use Lacan’s style as a writing template. What rubbish! It pains me that this is written in the same language that gave us the lucid, clear prose of Bertrand Russell. Pathetic the critics and thinkers who hide their mediocrity behind big words and twisted syntax.

    Reply

    • Hello Miguel, I agree fully. This sort of things brings into disrepute the study of the arts as a serious discipline.

      Whenever this sort of thing is criticised, it is the reader who is often blamed for not making the effort to understand. Yes, obviously, difficult ideas can ften require difficult vocabulary, or difficult syntax, and the reader is frequently obliged to work hard. But what I was attempting to demonstrate here is that this is not always the case: there is much that is difficult simply because the quality of writing is very poor; and, in addition, it has nothing whatever to say.

      I feel a bit bad picking on this one when there are so many other examples that are equally bad, but not only is the quality of writing here execrable, it is also utterly devoid of anything that is worth saying.

      Reply

  4. Great stuff Himadri – it raised a laugh or two. Takes gut to stare into the abyss like you did – if you’d read only a few sentences more you’d have become one of them. Glad you didn’t join the horde – aside from reading Orwell the only cure is decapitation.

    Reply

  5. Posted by Brian Marick on June 20, 2014 at 1:16 pm

    Without claiming the quoted piece is any good, I note most of your complaints are about a lack of definitions. But works of criticism, no less than literary works, don’t occur in isolation: they’re part of a conversation.

    It’s *possible* that terms such as “the end of literature” are so well known in that conversation that participants would find it odd to see them defined. Notice that the piece also doesn’t define “Marxism” or give a synopsis of “The Aleph” – the reader is expected to know that.

    Every field has its jargon, and every field has outsiders complaining about its jargon.

    Reply

  6. Posted by Brian Marick on June 20, 2014 at 1:37 pm

    In the shower, I thought of how I might write the beginning of an article about something I did at work:

    “One can use a fire-and-forget messaging system (such as AMQP) and a distributed store (such as Redis) to create the effect of parallel synchronous messaging. Assume that you have a single process (a “consumer”) that both causes changes to, and consumes, resources managed by independent processes (typically running on their own cores but not coresident with each other or the consumer).

    There are a ton of assumptions about the reader’s knowledge there, and I doubt I would define any of those terms anywhere in the paper (though a determined reader might be able to deduce them – but only through a process very much like the one you went through).

    Reply

    • Hello Brian, and welcome. And thank you for your comments.

      I do indeed accept that each discipline acquires jargon, that is usually accessible only to those familiar with that discipline. I am myself an operational research analyst, and have presented papers at professional conferences; and yes, I too have used terminology that I wouldn’t expect laymen to understand. Your point is indeed well taken. The piece of writing you supply relating to issues in your area is a good example of this. However, as an experiment, please allow me to jumble up some of your terminology a bit:

      One can use a single process (such as “AMPQ”) in relation to a fire-and-forget distributed store (a “consumer”) to create the effect of parallel synchronous messaging, assuming that you have a single process (such as “Redis”) that both causes changes to, and consumes, resources managed by independent processes (typically running on their own cores but not coresident with each other or the consumer).

      Now, I am sure you would recognise that as mere gobbledegook. Similarly, were I to read a passage where technical terms relating to, say, statistical analysis, were to be used in such a garbled manner, I’m sure I would be able to say within seconds that this was nonsense. However, even leading academic journals in the area of critical theory seem unable to recognise this sort of thing. This inability even by leading practitioners to recognise gobbledegook in their own area is not even an isolated incident. I am sure this sort of spoof could never pass undetected in my area, or in yours. I’d challenge anyone to write a spoof paper in statistics, say, and get it approved for a specialist journal. That academic journals and examiners have fallen for this sort of thing in the area of critical theory – not just once, but on several occasions – hardly inspires much confidence, does it? At the very least, it makes me far less inclined to give them the benefit of the doubt.

      As I said at the start of my post, I am, usually, prepared to give the benefit of the doubt: I accept that there are many things I do not and never will understand. It is easy to give the benefit of the doubt in areas such as law or medicine or engineering, say, where the results of the theory are tangible and clearly visible. In areas where the results are not so tangible, it becomes more difficult; but even here, I am prepared to give the benefit of the doubt. For instance, I have been trying to read recently Anthony Kenny’s fascinating book History of Western Philosophy, and, although it is written as an introduction for laymen, I am finding it an intellectual struggle. (I am also enjoying the struggle, by the way.) I give it the benefit of the doubt because when I do succeed in untangling some knotty passage, not only does it make sense, it is also utterly absorbing. But there are a great many -isms (post-structuralism, deconstructionism, etc.) where, once I have managed to unpack the idea from the writing, the idea turns out either to be banal, or unsupported by evidence or by argument. (Most of the time, the idea is incapable even of being unpacked.)

      Once again, it could be that it is I who am at fault. However, I have come across a great many instances (both within my discipline and without) where ideas of extreme complexity have been expressed with lucidity; or, failing that, in such a way that they may, admittedly with some effort on the part of the reader, be made sense of even by laymen. How probable is it then, I ask myself, that each and every idea within these particular -isms is so much more complex than any other idea as to resist the very possibility even of the occasional shaft of lucidity?

      Would I have written a professional paper in the manner of the writing examined in my post? Honestly, I don’t think so. I don’t think I’d make an assertion without at least some supporting evidence, or without some reference pointing the reader to supporting evidence – unless, of course, the assertion were so self-evident as to be axiomatic. Is that assertion in the second sentence so self-evident as to be axiomatic? I really don’t think so. Is the term “the end of literature” so well-known within this particular discipline as not to require definition? I had actually done a bit of research before writing the above piece, and I did not get the impression that it was. I even spoke to a couple of people who were graduates in English literature, and had studied critical theory as part of their course: “the end of literature” meant nothing to them either. I appreciate that my research into this area was not exactly exhaustive, and if I were to be corrected here – with appropriate evidence cited – I would be happy to retract and to apologise. However, as I said, I find myself most unwilling to give this particular area the benefit of the doubt. An intellectually rigorous area would not be taken in by hoaxes such as the ones I linked to above – not even once.

      On top of everything else, even if we were to leave the content out of it, it strikes me that people with such tin ears for the rhythms of English prose really have no business pontificating on literary matters.

      However, having got all that off my chest, I do accept the general point you make: each discipline does indeed acquire its own jargon, and when practitioners of that discipline talk amongst themselves, they don’t always define terms they assume to be well-known within their circles. But if we want to avoid the situation where each set of academics speaks to itself and only to itself, it is important to allow some point of entry to interested and intelligent laymen, even if only to acquaint them with some of the fringes of the discipline. The discipline of modern critical theory has, it seems to me, most conspicuously failed in this respect.

      Reply

      • Posted by Brian Marick on June 23, 2014 at 1:55 am

        I think we’re in agreement. My own field of dabbling-interest is “science studies”. There are ways to ease into it, from whatever your biases. In my case, Feyerabend’s /Against Method/ blew me away in the 80’s. I didn’t know what to make of it. I disapproved in principle, but his obvious affection for science and its details made it hard to dismiss him.

        I later read more acceptable-to-someone-who-went-to-CalTech authors like Kuhn and Lakatos. They wrote in a language I found congenial, even though they were saying that things weren’t as simple as (for example) Popper’s description of the scientific method made things seem.

        Then I happened to audit some seminars with Andrew Pickering, another science studies professor. (The advantage of being a “townie” in a University town.) Seminars tend to speak in plain(ish) language, so I was able to link his ideas about the development of science to some of my ideas about Agile Software Development – to the point that I ended up contributing a chapter to his next book. http://www.amazon.com/The-Mangle-Practice-Becoming-Cultural/dp/0822343738

        More to the point, by talking to someone in the thick of a particular ongoing discussion, I was able to place authors within that conversation. That helped me get value out of both straightforward authors like Bruno Latour http://www.amazon.com/Science-Action-Scientists-Engineers-Through/dp/0674792912 or Ian Hacking http://www.amazon.com/Representing-Intervening-Introductory-Philosophy-Natural/dp/0521282462 and also less… forthcoming authors like http://www.egs.edu/faculty/donna-haraway/articles/donna-haraway-a-cyborg-manifesto/

        The important thing is that, with background, I can skim something like Haraway, cut through the trendy jargon, skip past the of-its-time shibboleths, and fairly quickly extract an idea or two that may serve me well later.

        If these people were paid to write for me, I’d be annoyed at the preparation required to read them. Since they’re not, I’m not.

  7. Posted by alan on June 21, 2014 at 2:29 pm

    Brian, given that I also have to convince a non-technical management audience I doubt that I would be that opaque. I regularly try to make clear the distinction between synchronous and asynchronous messaging, what a ‘transaction’ means in IT terms, and the benefits and pitfalls of distributed solutions versus a single threaded approach.
    Part of the reason for spelling things out is that often ones technical audience is so in love with the technology that they haven’t paid attention to the nasty specifics of the business requirement. Also, I hate email abuse of the kind where detailed reasoned argument is responded to by one sentence questions that illustrate that nothing has been read or thought about but is just a gambit intended to obfuscate and ‘put the ball back in your court’ – so I try to cover most escapes.
    But yes, you have a point.
    However, whilst accepting your point, I’ve read enough of the kind of thing being criticised in the blog post to lose my usual charity towards other people’s writing.

    Reply

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