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Obscurantism & The Language of Excess

Siobhan Lyons tries not to use either to explain what and why they are.

As a schoolgirl in a Catholic Primary School, I often had to attend church. In W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage, the protagonist Philip Carey assumes that the greater one suffers with discomfort in prayer, the more in favour one will be with God. This would explain not only the religious habit of self-flagellation, but also why church pews are notoriously uncomfortable.

Attending an academic conference recently, I was confronted with similar discomfort in the lecture hall, whose seats remarkably resembled church pews in both look and feel. The speaker, although he may have been discussing something of interest, nonetheless appeared to me as a priest whose words echoed in a tone mundane to the point that any interest was obliterated. As with my early days in church, there was a distinct theme of reverence floating through the room, but distastefully; an empty reverence for thought that tends to cannibalise itself in vicious scholarly circles. Students are the members of this church, while the priests are the exalted lecturers who pontificate theories that often have no bearing on reality in any coherent, concrete sense. And these clerics deal in a language marked by obscurantism – the darkening or purposeful withholding of knowledge, or communicating in a purposefully complicated manner – as have many philosophers historically. So, although Marx criticised German Idealism for being obscure, Marx himself has continuously been accused of writing obscurely; as have Kant, Hegel, Wittgenstein, Heidegger, and perhaps most notoriously, Derrida.

The Uses of Obscurity

Politically speaking, various philosophers have linked obscurantism with the ability to govern a society. This link is first famously described in The Republic (c.380 BC), in which Plato advocates what he calls the ‘Noble Lie’, a falsehood fed into society for the greater good. Friedrich Nietzsche was more critical of obscurity and obscurantists, arguing, “The essential element in the black art of obscurantism is not that it wants to darken individual understanding, but that it wants to blacken our picture of the world, and darken our idea of existence.” (Human, All Too Human, p.220, 1878). Yet while Nietzsche saw obscurantism as something that thwarted ‘the enlightenment of the mind’ (p.121), he nevertheless saw some merit in it, claiming, “sometimes, however, it employs the opposite means and seeks through the highest refinement of the intellect to induce a satiation with its fruits” (ibid). Nietzsche called this ‘refined obscurantism’ and ascribed it to Immanuel Kant’s notoriously difficult writing, praising the author’s obscurity for its potential ability to “open a path for faith by showing knowledge its limitations” – a crucial element in the philosophy of obscurantism. Obscurantism can also perhaps be considered a unique kind of art form that shows the absurdity of language. In a journal entry, Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote, “Language is a part of our organism and no less complicated than it,” and in his complex work Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), the philosopher writes, somewhat ironically and in a similar vein to Nietzsche, “The aim of the book is to set a limit to thought, or rather – not to thought, but to the expression of thoughts: for in order to be able to set a limit to thought, we should have to find both sides of the limit thinkable (i.e., we should have to be able to think what cannot be thought). It will therefore only be in language that the limit can be set, and what lies on the other side of the limit will simply be nonsense” (p.3). One can imagine language as a steady incline along which expressions are uttered, until we reach a point at which expression falls over the edge and becomes nonsensical.

It should be remembered that ‘nonsense writing’ – in Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Jabberwocky, and in the works of Franz Kafka, James Joyce and Flann O’Brien, for instance – has proven creative and enjoyable. But in cases where there is no irony, as opposed to being creative the nonsense becomes, as Wittgenstein puts it, unhelpful; and there is a very fine line between creative nonsense and obscure monologue that purports to express sense – as Robert Frost articulates, “Forgive me my nonsense, as I also forgive the nonsense of those that think they talk sense” (The Letters of Robert Frost, Volume 1, p.325). We could say that obscurity and nonsense must be for the sake of obscurity and nonsense rather than for the sake of explanation. Or, philosophy must employ language clearly, since it is about communication and explanation, although the language of literature may be used more freely and creatively.

Creative Obscurity

There is an evident difference between intellectual obscurity and obscure creativity. One can be linguistically creative without resorting to obscurity, or can indeed be obscure in such a way as to be humorous or compelling. Many authors, from Vladimir Nabokov to Roland Barthes, have produced prose that is at once accessible and creative, and whose obscurity can be considered an art form. Experimenting with language in supposedly obscure ways can make literature-as-art (rather than literature-as-communication) emerge victorious. For instance, we witness Nabokov’s lyrical prowess throughout Lolita (1955), beginning with the slightly unsettling and enigmatic opening sentence, “Lo-lee-ta: the tip of the tongue taking a trip of three steps down the palate to tap, at three, on the teeth.” The mastery of such enigmatic sentences is that they often evade the analytical grasp of philosophy or other academia, instead becoming art through creative obscurity.

Holy Family with a Curtain
The Holy Family with a Curtain by Rembrandt

Obscurantism can indeed be an effective manoeuvre, provoking greater thought-processes and intellectual investigation. This couldn’t be illustrated more clearly than in Rembrandt’s The Holy Family with a Curtain (1646). I am less concerned with the religious meanings of this painting than I am about the curtain itself; a seemingly innocuous, pointless part of the work, and yet it provokes the viewer to wonder what lies behind it. The curtain, blood red and purposefully pulled partly to the side, teases the viewer, offering not even a partial glimpse of what it completely obscures. The Virgin is plainly seen; and there is Joseph, semi-obscured in the background, near the curtain; but whatever is behind the curtain itself is left unanswered. The painting thus features three forms of creative depiction: the Virgin’s clear visibility, Joseph’s semi-obscured form, and the curtain itself, a symbol of obscurantism, or rather, of the ability of obscurity to be creative, by emphasising the ambiguity that so often confronts us, which may however be the source of great art, and indeed philosophy. For the greatest philosophies are aware of their own limits – aware of when they cannot answer the questions their philosophers ask. As Wittgenstein stated, language must be beset by certain limits.

So obscurity in language can be seen as not always self-defeating, but, ironically, as sometimes illuminating. Moreover, if language were a purely functional tool for communication, we would cease to have literature as we understand it. If all curtains in all art were pulled completely aside to expose what lies behind them, then the need for imagination would deteriorate. This also explains why good writers are those who not only have a masterful grasp of language, but who also know how to pull it apart and put it back together in different ways. To an extent, literature is masquerade, something to be deciphered. There is indeed an art to the unsolvable enigma.

The Obscurity Industry

However, as the science fiction writer Orson Scott Card remarked, “a great many writers and critics have based their entire careers on the premise that anything that the general public can understand without mediation is worthless drivel” (Ender’s Game, Introduction, p.xix, 1991). In particular the academic industry, which thrives on difficult thinking, and is built on values of linguistic and intellectual exclusivity, has as a result become insulated, to the extent that many intellectuals reserves their complex speech acts for their peers. Many scholarly journals request that papers should have no ‘jargon-laden language’, yet these journals still invariably circulate primarily amongst academics. The papers are then cited by other academics in their own papers, leading to the intellectual recycling circle. What good ideas there certainly are in academia, are more often than not reserved for a crowd of academic insiders whose interests lie with an appearance of intellectualism rather than a desire to extend knowledge to others outside of this circle. Many aspects of academia are like an Orwellian conspiracy that operates with its own brand of Newspeak. I have seen presentations at academic conferences which use more straightforward language disregarded in favour of those that use purposefully obscure language. This is indicative of a culture that depends on intellectual reputation. As Terrance Macmullan astutely observed in The Daily Show and Philosophy (ed. Jason Holt, 2009):

“Most intellectuals simply don’t bother trying to engage the public. This started in large part with the radicalisation of American universities in the 1960s, which led many intellectuals to write off non-intellectuals as dupes, and many non-intellectuals to dismiss academia as a hotbed of leftist propaganda… The isolation of intellectuals became more extreme when they started emulating European theorists, such as Jacques Derrida, who used extremely dense and jargon-laden language. Perhaps academics speak mostly to each other because they think other academics are the only people who can keep up with them intellectually. I suspect, however, that this isolation is largely self-imposed, for the sake of convenience, since it’s much easier and more comfortable to speak to someone who shares your assumptions and uses your terms than someone who might challenge your assumptions in unexpected ways or ask you to explain what you mean” (p.61).

Academia seems unable to produce an adequate cultural mediator. Often we have to choose between the obscure theories of a philosopher talking only to academics, or their severely commercialised counterparts in Oprah and Bono etc, preaching to the world a message that risks being distorted and trivialised. But we have come to rely on celebrities to bring certain issues to the world’s attention, since the academics, with all their intelligence and innovative ideas, simply do not involve the public in their debates, at least in an efficient manner. It seems to be assumed by swathes of academics that the most complex writing is the most intellectual, but the very concept of communication defies this assumption: successful communication is based on mutual understanding between sender and receiver. But certain writers and academics have interpreted the struggle for clarity as a chore that will potentially make their work dull and uninteresting. And regardless of whether or not listeners, readers and critics actually understand the complex arguments and prose, it is certain that many are too intellectually diffident or pious to challenge the obscure ideas they are listening to or reading, believing that if they can’t understand it then it must be beyond their intellectual capacity, and thus of great philosophical value. Yet often all that is being witnessed is pontification masquerading as knowledge and innovation.

Although many students I know swear they love her work, and that they understand her theories, the notoriously complex theorist Judith Butler is an example of obscurantism. As David Gauntlett writes, Butler’s “prose is unnecessarily dense and long-winded, and almost never fails to use jargon even where much more accessible vocabulary is available. Some people defend this, saying that academics should be allowed to develop complex terminology to express their sophisticated ideas… However, although Butler’s writing is like an explosion in a dictionary factory, if one takes the time to dig through the rubble, one finds that her ideas are actually quite straightforward.” (Media, Gender and Identity, p.146, 2002).

Language’s ‘Golden Mean(ing)’

Often it has been said that language is the instrument of philosophy, but it may be more accurate to say that language is the burden of philosophy. Somewhere in the history of philosophy the poor writing style of certain clever philosophers was falsely interpreted by aspiring philosophers as implying a need to be purposefully obscure. So they were.

This shift in communication has operated in the only way Western society understands: through extremes. We replace one ideology or trend with its extreme opposite. In place of anorexia, we have obesity, and vice versa. We’ve also developed an inadequate system of communication determined by what Aristotle called vices of excess and deficiency. This tendency towards harmful extremes is only remedied by finding what Aristotle called the ‘golden mean’ between excess and deficiency. But writers often fail to find this golden mean between creativity and obscurity, instead adhering to either excessive complexity or empty simplicity. This culture of extremes believes that ‘involving the public’ must automatically mean allowing people to communicate incessantly in a constant streaming of voices with no critique as to the quality of ideas involved.

To combat both exclusion and over-inclusion, then, we should be encouraging the proliferation of ideas in public without opening the floodgates of incessant shallow opinion. As Deleuze and Guattari noted in their book What is Philosophy? (1994), “we do not lack communication. On the contrary, we have too much of it. We lack creation. We lack resistance to the present. The creation of concepts in itself calls for a future form, for a new earth and people that do not yet exist” (p.108). Yet such desires to accommodate both communication and restraint lead to criteria of taste or class that do not easily allow more intriguing, contradictory figures to emerge: the popular-culture philosopher, the charismatic intellectual, and the Nobel Laureate as a Playboy centrefold. Because we live in a culture of extremes, we cannot abide those whose tastes conflate ideas seen to be incompatible: popularity and intellectualism, critical interrogation and low-brow art, wisdom and foolishness – the kinds of contradictions perhaps epitomised in the philosophy of Slavoj Žižek, whose work seems to reconcile the feud between complexity and ‘obscene’ popular culture. Yet he is, lamentably, one of only few.

I recently overheard a student mistaking ‘Rhodes Scholars’ for ‘rogue scholars’, but I thought the mistake fortunate, since it made me think that rather than searching for and recruiting Rhodes Scholars, we should be perhaps searching for Rogue Scholars whose use of language is not reserved for certain groups and lecture theatres. Lecture theatres are spaces of performance; but a performance for the same audience every week; and so they are in reality, spaces of institutionalisation, for education has become more about uniformity and replication than creativity and experimentation. Yet great thinking and writing relies on rogue experimentation.

In academia an excess of language is deemed reputable and sophisticated, while a deficiency of language – the illiterate, the mute, or the nonsensical babbler – is dismissed. Academic language lacks the substantial influence of an Aristotelian ‘golden mean’. Yet there is as big a difference between obscure language (mis)communicating good ideas and good language communicating obscure ideas as there is between demolishing language and using language to demolish.

© Siobhan Lyons 2014

Siobhan Lyons is completing a PhD at Macquarie University, Sydney.

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