Tuesday, October 9, 2007 The Failure of Theory/Philosophy
In response to the recent discussion on Derrida, "differance," and literary theory, I would like to bring up a point of serious contention for me, and that is the language within theory/philosophy. To start off, I would like to quote a favorite author of mine on the topic. His name is Terry Goodkind, and I'm sure some of you have heard of him (he writes fantasy mainly). I have changed some of the wording to make it a bit clearer on how I see this to be relevant.
"When you read about [theory or philosophy] it’s crucially important to keep in mind that those who try to make it so complex as to be impenetrable to the “lay mind” have a motive for clouding their views: those views won’t stand up to the light of reason...Some [theorists or philosophers] use big words [or abstract concepts] to try to make their beliefs sound scholarly and important or, worse, to hide the fact that their beliefs don’t make any sense. [One should not] ever allow such people to bully you with their attempts to make philosophy impossibly complex, or intimidate you into accepting what they say."
Bearing this in mind, why is it that some theorists or philosophers are quite clear and succinct in their explanation, where others fail so miserably? Derrida in my opinion is arguably one of the most confusing theorists to read, and yet so much of post-structuralist thought stems from his ideas of differance, and Saussure's signifier and signified. The purpose of language is to be understood and to communicate one's ideas. If your thesis isn't clear in a paper, or your professor does not understand what you are talking about, your grade suffers. If a politician stands up in a debate or conference, and, like Kerry, "bungles" a joke or a concept, serious negative response can, and likely will, follow. Where do theorists fit in with this? It seems to me that somehow they escape the necessity for clarity in writing. Why? I think perhaps Goodkind may be on to something, when he suggests that theorists and philosophers can't make themselves clear and use complex concepts to hide what will not hold up. I don't know that it is necessarily true that a theorist would do this deliberately (at least I would hope not!), but I do think there is a reason behind this obfuscation. It may suggest that the theorist himself does not fully understand the concept he is supposed to be enlightened with! If he is not able to explain it clearly, what is the point in suggesting it at all? I would much rather have a theorist admit that it is difficult to explain such a concept, and then concede that the best way he can think of to explain it is by some example. Instead, you have some theorists/philosophers who continue on in their discussion as though it were the most clear and apparent thing in the world. This cavalier attitude allows the theorist/philosopher an "untouchable" status--if one does not understand the concept, then one must be unenlightened or unable to understand it--and almost puts the blame on the reader, instead of the writer, for failing to comprehend the theory.
"Well, that's all great and everything, Steve, but what are you suggesting?"
I'd say that the best way to continue exploring theory and criticism is to just go with what you understand, or the parts that we understand. If we are unable to grasp a concept purported by a theorist/philosopher, the blame is most honestly placed at the feet of the "expressor", not the reader. I think of it this way--if subscribers to a particular school have a hard time explaining a topic advocated by the founder, it probably wasn't that clear or well explained. We can only do our best, take what we can get from it, and then move on to the next bit. After all, if Derrida can take a concept from Saussure and use it in a way that makes it his own, we can do the same with what we do understand. Posted by Steve at 6:26 AM