Monday, 23 November 2009

A Mysterious Affair of Style (with apologies to Gilbert Adair)

I decided to write Digimodernism in a very particular style, and alluded to this in the Introduction, where I wrote:

I’ve tried to address here a hybrid audience, and for an important reason: on one side, it seemed hardly worth discussing such a near-universal issue without trying to reach out to the general reader; on the other, it seemed equally pointless to analyze such a complex, multifaceted and shifting phenomenon without a level of scholarly precision. Whatever the result may be, this approach is justified, even necessitated, by the status and nature of the theme.

With this in mind, I tried to phrase my points as if writing for two kinds of people: academic specialists on the one hand and the intelligent general reader on the other. So I looked for interesting ways into subjects, and tried to maximise references to actual cultural examples and to minimize allusions to theorists. At the same time, I also aimed to be as judicious, exact and analytical as possible. There's an obvious danger in such a double-barrelled approach, which is that you wind up pleasing no one: the general reader finds it too offputtingly abstract and rarefied, and the specialist finds it shallow and argumentative.

There was, however, an ulterior motive at work behind my choice of style. One of the few books I talked about at length was Terry Eagleton's After Theory, and while I was fairly critical of its intellectual content, I felt that its style suggested the possible emergence of a new approach to writing about cultural issues. If it was true that postmodernism was over, what would become of the jargon-clogged prose most wonderfully (ahem) exemplified by Homi Bhabha? It was already no longer possible to believe, as the likes of Gayatri Spivak seem once to have imagined, that world justice and liberty could be measurably advanced by a better critique of Heart of Darkness. If cultural criticism's day of messianic delusion was over, so surely was its use of jargon for its own sake.

This is not to be confused with populism. Philosophy and cultural analysis should be hard to understand if they are to have any sophistication to them. People who jeer at the prose of theorists have usually never tried to read any other philosophy; you can in truth only mock Derrida's style if you can honestly say that you have worked through the Critique of Pure Reason and you find it more lucid. A friend of mine who works as a postdoctoral researcher in genetics recently showed me a paper he had contributed to; its title composed 7 or 8 words, of which I knew only "the" and "of". Why then should abstract reasoning, thought about thought, be simple to understand?

[As postmodernism has been the dominant theoretical trend for several decades now, and its influence has crossed many disciplines, it tends frequently to be the only form of abstract thought people are familiar with. Consequently, it is often confused with philosophy itself, as witness complaints about how tough it is to understand. Another instance of this is when people describe postmodernism as casting doubt on all our systems of thought and values. No; it's philosophy that does that; and postmodernism is a form of philosophy (among much else).]

What I mean is slightly different: it is an abandonment of deliberate obfuscation. My objective was to write prose that was precisely as difficult as its subject matter. It is to my mind shameful that there are today academics writing no more than criticism of novels in prose that is harder to grasp than the philosophical writings of Wittgenstein; the chances that the former are saying something more profound or original than the latter are zero. This may be partially attributable to the popularity on campus of French-language theorists, whose writings translate uneasily into English: Freud and Nietzsche are far easier to read (though not necessarily to understand) than Lacan and Derrida. But this should not be overstated: some French theorists, like Foucault and Barthes, are very lucid indeed, The Postmodern Condition is a very accessible text, and most of Baudrillard is, though peculiarly expressed, not actually that difficult to figure out. The real demon is the Anglo-American academic who wants to work with this stuff but lacks the intellectual equipment or training to get inside it. S/he therefore dons its outward form, its linguistic "noise", which shrouds an absence of any real philosophical engagement.

There are issues too regarding deliberate obfuscation, which I don't want to talk about for now, that relate to the role and place of the university in the digimodernist society. These are socio-economic and political questions, too.

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