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So Kenneth James, a Cornell undergrad, asks Delany about the influence of poststructuralist theory on his work, expressing a tendency to find it suspicious. "I understand that ideas can be complex and difficult to express," he says, "but the notion that some ideas are so complex that you practically have to reinvent the language in order to express them seems pretty suspicious to me. No idea is that complex; it just can't be."

To which Delany responds, "What you've brought up is the whole problem of "difficult discourse"--I've often wondered if it shouldn't be called the problem of "complex rhetoric."...Our country values "common" sense and "simple" language. It's part of our whole democratic notion--part of a necessary vision of democratic workings. What this means, however, is that to speak or write a complex rhetoric is to speak against the American grain, as it were--to speak outside the American tradition. This is one reason difficult discourse initially raises our suspicions and distrust.

"You still have to ask: What are the reasons to speak against the grain--tp speak outside the tradition? There are a number of philosophical reasons that take a fair amount of complexity to explain. But there's at least one reason that can be put in the "simplest" language you want:

"Thousands of lies, reams of nonsense, and barrels of bullshit are put out each day in unadorned, straightforward language. And they're swallowed right down--because no one is initially uncomfortable with the "simple" rhetoric. People assume sentences such as "Thousands of lies, reams of nonsense, and barrels of bullshit are put out each day in unadorned, straightforward languages" are somehow less rhetorical, and more transparent to truth, than, say, this sentence which both criticizes the assumptions about it and quotes it--when, indeed, both setences are equally rhetorical, only coming from different rhetorical traditions, the inner one only more familiar than the outer (or marginal) one.

"Because "simple" language is the language we have come to trust, it's easier to utter falsehoods and nonsense in it. Because "difficult discourse" is the language that, by tradition, we distrust, we've always got someone ready within it to poke holes in the newest offering, ready to call that offering into question, ready to show that the currently aspiring emperor really is buck naked. To the extent a writer has a choice whether to present his or her ideas as difficult or simple discourse, to choose the difficult is to choose the road along which people are waiting to ambush your ideas, attack and hack them into dead pieces, where people are ready to dismiss you out of hand or simply to bury you by ignoring you, where the cruelest criticisms lie in wait for every statement. And a whole circle of people wait outside the critics of difficult discourse to declare: "No idea is that complex: it just can't be"--so that difficult rhetoric may be the braver choice because it invites distrust and criticism from the outset.

"There are other arguments for difficult discourse: One claim is that difficult discourse is less co-optable than simple discourse.

"Also, in difficult discourse understanding spreads more slowly. There's a greater gap between those who do understand the ideas and those with no idea at all what those ideas are about. Simple language, on the other hand, tends to produce a circle of people who understand and another circle around them who misunderstand, with no very clear distinction between. The very speed at which understanding and misunderstanding alike spread and intermingle in situations of simple discourse tends to blend understanding and misunderstanding into a hopeless mass and mess, so that, over a given period, ideas put in simple language lose their strength and precision relatively quickly, even when they are important ideas.

"Another argument in favor of difficult discourse: In a social field where simple language is the privileged rhetoric of the everyday, complex rhetoric will attract people who (one) by temperament tend to think against the grain and who (two) are smart enough to deal with the rhetorical difficulties.

"Difficult discourse delays popularization of truly important ideas until nonpopular thinkers can become deeply familiar with the work, and can form a slowly growing group that, when popularizations do begin their inevitable distortions, is there to critique those distortions and alert people to the problems inherent in them.

"In short, you can reasonably argue that, in a social field that privileges simple language to choose difficult discourse inaugurates a critical process, a stabilizing process, and a preservative process that works to criticize and stabilize important ideas for the good of the ideas themselves.

"But here we must move on to the philosophical level and leave aside practical and institutional problems.

"What we call "difficult discourse" is not, of course, simple and innocent complexity for complexity's sake. Most of what, today, you and I recognize as "difficult discourse" stems historically from the German academic tradition. (When Goebbels made his famous and frightening statement, "When I hear the word 'culture,' I reach for my gun," what he meant was specifically German academic culture, i.e., "difficult discourse"--one of the few places where people were trying to criticize Hitler and German National Socialism.) As that tradition moved to France and, finally, produced structuralism and poststructuralism, yes, this tradition picked up a particularly French accent. (The French allowed in the fragment sentence to balance out all those three-hundred-plus-word anacoluthons.) But, like any rhetorical tradition, there are those who write it well and those who write it badly.

"When you say, "No idea is that complex," the preceding is really the only argument one can oppose to it: a series of specific texts, that you read, that you enjoy--or that you don't enjoy. The "idea" that Jacques Derrida is so often trying to get across--if you can call it an idea--is complex: The reason it's complex is because it's not so much an idea as it is a repeated demonstration of a process, in situation after situation, where meanings that at first glance seem clear, total, and masterable are shown to be undecidable, incomplete, and full of slippage and play. The sign that we are near one of these faults--these verbal optical illusions of masterability which must be analyzed (or, to use the term most associated with Derrida, "deconstructed")--seems to be any time we are in the presence of some metaphysically valorized opposition that purports to be a tension between equalities but is really a socially fixed hierarchy: for example, white/black, good/bad, speech/writing, inside/outside, male/female, culture/nature, etc.

"Among these "equal and opposite" terms, the first term is always socially more desirable.

"Profound ideas" are a happy adjunct of this business. But pleasure in reading is primary; and a careful encounter with these writers, these texts, is an inroad to some wonderful reading pleasure."


Jun. 1st, 2008 06:21 pm (UTC)
i am so proud of you for the lj-cut, ha.
Jun. 1st, 2008 06:30 pm (UTC)

yeah that was a hard decision and task...hoo-boy...your protege is out the door...