The Phenomenology of Reading and the Rhetoric of Theorists

The notion of ‘clarity’ is a contested one within social theory. This was made clear to me when various posts of mine, often just embedding videos of other people speaking, attracted a lot of indignation on Twitter. There are some people who really don’t like Lacan and Žižek being criticised for their lack of clarity. The latter still bothers me, given how much I enjoy his work and how much of it I read. For instance I’m currently reading his Hegel magnum opus* – the seeming inability of some people to accept it is possible to enjoy someone’s work while also criticising them baffles me. Or perhaps I’m still indigent about being called ‘scientistic’.

Rather than rehearsing this tedious internet dispute, my point is to stress that writing clearly and writingwell can be antithetical. I think Žižek often writes well, in the limited sense that his work is often enjoyable to read, while nonetheless rarely writing in a way that could be called clear. I think John Rawls writes clearly, in the sense that one knows where one stands with him, while nonetheless writing tedious prose. I mean this in the sense that it is clear what he is saying and why he is saying it. This is sustained throughout a text. Therefore it becomes possible to relate to him in a way that otherwise would not be possible.

It’s this capacity to relate to the arguments a theorist makes in a text which has been on my mind since reading the chapter on Goffman in Ian Craib’s (wonderful) Experiencing Identity. In this chapter, he identifies the “appeal to obviousness, self-evidence and reasonableness” which runs through Goffman’s work, such that “the world calls, everyone can hear it, it is reasonable that someone try to answer” (p 76). He offers a wonderfully incisive critique of this rhetorical deployment of obviousness:

To read Goffman is to be seduced or to refuse seduction. It is not to enter into a critical dialogue, nor is it to understand another’s view of the world. Initially one must lose oneself in his world or keep out of it altogether. The seduction fails or succeeds through a double strategy. In the first place, the reader is led into an ‘identification-in-superiority’ with Goffman. We become privileged observers in a special way: we see through tricks, acts, illusions of all sorts. With Goffman the reader is no fool. the reader becomes an ‘insider’, his or her status is confirmed by the systematic use of argot and suspicion. The alliance is confirmed when the suspicion is extended by Goffman to himself; it becomes a knowing alliance in which both Goffman and the reader admit to the possibility that Goffman might be fooling the reader. The systematic ‘frame-breaking’ of the introduction sets up a knowing conspiracy which achieves seduction through a revelation that seduction may be what is happening. It is not that we are taken in by Goffman’s openness, rather we side with him because of his admitted trickiness. We ourselves become tricky, knowing and suspicious. (pg 79)

He goes on to develop this line of argument, contending that “rarely does [Goffman] take the responsibility for what he is saying”. I’m not sure Žižek takes much responsibility for what he is saying either. This is my fundamental suspicion about opaque writing – it tends to undermine active intellectual engagement** by suppressing the propositional content of the argument. In any argument there are a multiplicity of points which can be affirmed or contested, with varying degrees of significance given their locations within the unfolding structure of the argument. Many of these nodal points will call into question the logic of the argument itself, or at least open up the possibility of it being reframed. By suppressing the propositional content of the argument (which all prose will do to some extent) we close down certain lines of response. Texts which lack clarity tend to obscure these and, through doing so, preclude an experience of being monologued at becoming one of having a dialogue withFor instance I find Žižek difficult to engage with because reading him is like having a very entertaining, interesting and learned scholar drunkenly monologuing at you in a high speed way. It can be great just to sit and listen. It  can get boring and you make your excuses and move to a different table. But what it never facilitates is a dialogue.

I find Žižek to be a very particular sort of reading experience, which is perhaps why I enjoy reading his books. What I’d like to understand more broadly is this relationship between the phenomenology of reading and the rhetorical style of theorists. I think Craib captures something important about Goffman and there’s the possibility of extending an analysis of this form to other theorists:

The alliance with the reader, then, is in the face of a world which is ‘just like that’. All one can say immediately is, ‘Yes, it is like that’, or ‘No, it is not’. In fact, neither response is adequate, or both are equally adequate: some aspects of the world are ‘like that’, others are not. To break free of Goffman’s guiding gestures is to begin to distinguish what he is really talking about, and it is a matter of looking at the questions that come out of his descriptions, but which remain unanswered and often unasked (pg 79-80)

My most rewarding experiences of reading theory have come from those who I was initially sceptical of but then was largely persuaded by (Archer) or those who I was initially persuaded by but then developed a scepticism towards (Crossley, Giddens, Elder-Vass). It’s this experience of moving closer or moving further away from a body of work, through textual engagement, which I’d like to understand better than I do. What sorts of relations does a text facilitate with its reader? What implications do these have for the reader’s mode of engagement? How can we understood these as a relationship between two distinct sets of properties and powers: those of the reader and those of the text?

*Consciously I’m genuinely interested in it. I’m also hoping it’s broad enough in its scope to help flesh out the limited (and limiting) intellectual map of contemporary continental philosophy I’m working with. Though it’s hard not to wonder if I have some unconscious motive in relation to these disputes about Žižek that irritated me so much at the time (whereas few things on the internet do these days).

**I use the word ‘tends’ very consciously here. I think there are countervailing tendencies, often arising from determined readers keen to cut through the thicket of obscurity, operating here in a way which ensures that philosophy of this sort doesn’t descend into oratory.

Categories: Outflanking Platitudes

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4 replies »

  1. Mark, i really enjoyed reading The Phenomenology of Reading and the Rhetoric of Theorists. It reminded me of the joy and agony of reading (not being a Social Theory person (?!) and having moderate Dyslexia) what i would call dense, difficult or dull prose is especially painful. With a research interest in social class i am pained by the heavy tombs of Bourdieu, notorious for his writing style with the added issue of translation on top. Reading Goffman was indeed seductive because i found it ‘easy’ to read but i was always left with a feeling that i was missing something, being tricked, surely, i thought to myself, it couldn’t be that straight forward and obvious. Sadly my response to the ‘difficult’ theorists Lacan, Butler, Irigigary etc ‘is to shrink into a “I’m not clever enough to understand this so i shall give up” mind set. Whereas those writers such as Beverley Skeggs whose work and prose i usually find exciting and engaging and therefore ‘easier’ to read sustain my attention even to the point where i might be able to offer a critique. What one finds convincing depends so heavily (in my experience) on how readable it is that I cannot take too seriously my own or others insistent that one theoretical perspective is better than an other – this is obviously bad for social science and i can only assume that others are better at this important aspect of our work than I am.

    • Hi Sam, I’m glad you liked it. I’m really curious about why both reading and writing are seen as so marginal in terms of the things sociologists talk about, whereas they’re so central to what sociologists actually do. Ian Craib, who prompted that post, wrote later in the same book about Lacan. I’ve tried to read primary and secondary literature on Lacan and barely got anything out of it. But Ian Craib described it straight forwardly in a way I could immediately understand. Which then made me wonder why neither Lacan nor Lacanians could do that. I think there’s all sorts of weird power relationships that get reproduced through writing, the reactions of readers, as well as the kinds of writing those readers learn to do as a consequence of what they’re exposed to. It’s something really insidious and I think it hinders real debate in social theory for precisely the reasons you’re pointing to.

  2. I understand your response to Zizek, and it is not unreasonable. But I think it is worth saying that Zizek is a real virtuoso at what he does and he is a master of his source texts (Marx, Freud, Lacan, etc.) but he is not very original and so there isn’t any of the mystery to him that is associated with a thinker whose sources aren’t so obvious, which would lead one to think that they contain ‘hidden depths’. So, while Heidegger may have been a student of Husserl, Heidegger cannot be reduced to Husserl. However, Zizek is pretty decomposable. His ‘value-added’ really comes from the applications (to film, current events, etc.) of a body of work that will be familiar, by now in quite good detail, to a broad swathe of people across the humanities and social sciences (i.e. the Marx-Freud nexus). A guy like him could only have such a mass following in a period where there is already a generation or two of people who have been taught to think that Marx and Freud can constitute a coherent centre to the intellectual universe. This really only began in the 1960s and Zizek is the ultimate beneficiary of this tendency. And as often happens when intellectual or artistic tendencies are in decline, a baroque manner of expression sets in as people desperately tweak the canon to make it say new things. So think of Zizek as a master jazzman whose repertoire draws on a well-defined set of scores to which an appreciable audience can readily respond.

    • I think you’re underselling him to a certain extent, as well as his readers. If you read enough of it (I’m not sure why I do this given my antipathy to him) there clearly are original ideas, though obviously ones that are heavily indebted to a very particular tradition of post-Freudian thought. Though having said that, I do find it plausible that Zizek could be the last gasp for that tradition. He monopolises the intellectual field to such an absurd extent and doesn’t exactly work in a way that lends itself to post-Zizekian work. I’m curious as to what the journal of Zizek Studies is like for this reason, though not curious enough to actually go and look through it.

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