Difficult theory

by Rob Horning

6 May 2008


Larval Subjects, an academic blog, makes the case that difficult theoretical writing—think Deleuze, or to cite the worst I can think of, Laclau and Mouffe—is a “form of intellectual terrorism.”

I have increasingly found myself suspicious of the “difficult work”. On the one hand, I read texts in the sciences that express extremely complex ideas in very basic prose. Somehow I’m just unwilling to concede that what Hegel is trying to talk about is any more difficult or complex than what the biologist, complexity theory, economic social theorist, ecologist, or quantum physicist is attempting to articulate. This leads to my concern. I wonder if terribly dense styles such as we find in figures like Deleuze, Lacan, Hegel, Derrida, etc., etc., etc., aren’t a form of intellectual terrorism. Please do not misunderstand me. I am not referring to the quality of their concepts or arguments. What I am referring to is a general writing strategy that demands so much work on the part of the reader in the art of interpretation, that by the time you’ve managed to make heads or tails of what Lacan is arguing or Hegel is seeking to articulate or Deleuze is seeking to theorize, you have so much invested that you simply cannot think critically about that figure.

Are social theorists so vain as to believe that their insights are so idiosyncratic that they must invent their own impenetrable and uneditable style to convey them? That was the sort of excuse I used to make for their unreadable prose when I was suffering from that compensatory overinvestment in what I read, what Adam Kotsko has called academic Stockholm syndrome. Then, I’d argue that the tedious hair-splitting and neologisms and abuse of erudite, Latinate vocabulary captures nuances otherwise inexpressible, rather than serving merely to scare away the skeptical. Clarity was, as far as I was concerned, a bourgeois comfort promoting intellectual laziness and capable only of expressing received wisdom and status-quo-preserving “truths.” Even now I am tempted to argue that difficult books slow our rate of consumption and thereby serve as a de facto blow to consumerism, which is predicated on perpetually accelerating it, and leaving us in ever more need of further efficiencies. As the Larval Subjects blogger says at the end of the post, “We live, we work, we must integrate superhuman bodies of information. Perhaps a little consideration is in order.” But why must we? Difficult texts that we must read at a page-per-5-minutes rate force us to consider that, at the very least in deciding whether to keep crawling along or instead switch to something faster—like blogs on an RSS feed, where I initially read the LS post.

But in retrospect, I now think that I learned to love my critical-theory tormentors after being shut in with them for too long, and came to believe on faith the truth of their assertions to the degree that I tortured myself in trying to understand them. It was an sure way to resolve the cognitive dissonance that came from spending so much time trying to assimilate what in the end were some pretty basic concepts. “Truth is relative.” “Concepts are often defined in terms of their opposites.” “Needs can be as arbitrary as wants.” “Education is a system of social control.” Etc.

Chances are theorists are merely too lazy to find clearer ways to express themselves (or they have cowed all potential editors), especially when opacity also serves a beneficial end casting the aura of difficulty over their works to make it seem more profound, and the scholars that pursue it to comprehension more ascetic. With that in mind, it’s worth remembering what Nietzsche said about asceticism in The Genealogy of Morals: “For a very long time the ascetic ideal serves the philosopher as the sole phenomenal guise under which he could exist qua philosopher.” Writing difficult prose is a will to power in the face of impotence, futility, death, indifference. This can prompt a grandiloquent egotism: “Whoever, at any time, has undertaken to build a new heaven has found the strength for it in his own hell.” Difficult prose may be just as difficult for the writer as it is for the reader, but necessarily so, because the ideas must seem tortuous to feel true. I am really a philosopher if I use words like noumenon and being-for-itself and velleity. “What, then, does the ascetic ideal betoken in a philosopher? … Asceticism provides him with the condition most favorable to the exercise of his intelligence. Far from denying ‘existence’ he affirms his existence, and his alone, perhaps even to the point of hubris.”

And those following the “ascetic priest” are, as far as Nietzsche is concerned, a “vast flock of defeated, disgruntled sufferers and self-tormentors.” Yes, that sounds familiar—a lot like my graduate seminar in Critical Theory.

(Update: Carl Dyke touches on some of cultish and ascetic aspects of theory—in a far more theoretical way—here.)

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