Sunday, April 27, 2008

Stylistic virtuosity of the sort we find in Hegel’s Logic or Adorno’s Negative Dialectics does more to hinder a thinkers project than to help it

Alexei Says: April 26, 2008 at 6:53 pm
I’m not sure that I am ignoring the role of style or textual strategies, Sinthome (especially since i took myself to be agreeing with N), but your point is well taken.
Of course, now I’m a little confused. Are you now saying — contra what you’ve written in the above post — that these textual strategies, this ’stylistic virtuousity’ are a necessary evil (say, in the case of folks like Adorno and Hegel, with whom I am more familiar), that some texts need to be difficult, and there’s no way around that? I have no qualms with agreeing with such a stance, it’s just that I took you to be championing something quite to the contrary.
And in any event, aren’t these textual strategies you mention not ideas presented through, or created by the text itself (or their author functions), even if they are not propositionally, or explicitly formulated? aren’t they as much the content of a given text as the ‘explicit content’? So what gives, at the interpretative level, credence to separating textual strategies as the form through which one delivers semantic content, when both this form and the content it conveys are both meaningful products of ‘meditations’? why not treat them as part and parcel of the same phenomena — as you say, differentially or dialectically related — but nevertheless ideas, rather than invoking a form content distinction?
roger Says: April 26, 2008 at 7:39 pm
There’s some interesting assumptions about style and content, here. The notion that there is a style that divests itself of style, and that represents the object without any style - the object being an argument, a thesis, an idea - has historic roots in the ‘plain’ prose - the natural prose - which was the ideologically preferable to the cleric’s casuistry or the court language of rhetoric. And the ideology puts style on one side, and this thing that will not be style - will be good, solid argument - on the other.
That structure of assumptions is just what Derrida and, in his own way, Deleuze are targeting, so it is no surprise that you would be irritated by the way they write. The assumptions are consonant with the long attempt to create a metalanguage that would be a self evident set of functives, autonomous, universally available, and above all, impervious to style.It is as if here, finally, we will have the content without the form. This project has, I believe, collapsed, as have its corollaries - the attempt to reduce all science to a physicalist language, for instance - but it is perpetually being renewed by philosophers who somehow think there must be only one structure of appearance. And of course the desire for it is still strong - perhaps even dominant in the ‘common sense’ Anglosphere.
I don’t believe, however, that once you have “figured out” an argument (within the gradient of the easy and the difficult) or an idea or theme, that you have unwrapped it from its style - that is a little like saying translating from French to English is translating from a mere language to the way things really are.
That doesn’t mean the plain style isn’t a good choice. You can prefer it for a number of reasons. But I don’t see how you can prefer it for not being a style. At that point, you do fall prey to an ideological illusion.
Myself, I like Deleuze’s style very much. In Logique du sens in particular, it achieves a real beauty, to my mind. And it is successful by one of the keys of stylistic success as Deleuze saw it - becoming a stimulus for concept-making over an array of disciplines. I don’t think, for comparisons sake, that Rorty has ever inspired a painter or filmmaker (although, on the other hand, I know Davidson had a marked influence on the minimalists - Davidson had a relaxed, conversational style which is the best aspect of the plain style).
roger Says: April 26, 2008 at 8:04 pm
ps - I should also say that Badiou, from what I’ve read of him, gravitates to a very interesting style - the list. The list appears as soon as writing systems appear, they form a couple. It is a sort of primal form of the epistemic text - the organization of a space in which the sign will match an object. Correspondence theory is more than a theory about truth, it is a way of organizing the social world. The list is the bureaucratic text par excellence, which sinks the assumption of power - the initial fiat into an unlisted sorting principle. One of the genuinely witty futurist tactics was to create list manifestos - as if the futurists had seized power. And, in the sixties, guerrilla groups - for instance, the Red Army - were always doing the same thing, although less humorously. The list of demands became a subgenre. Badiou would know about that from the old Maoist days. Jack Goody has a really good essay about lists, Literacy and classification, in The Domestication of the Savage Mind.
larvalsubjects Says: April 26, 2008 at 8:16 pm
Roger, while I do not disagree with the thesis that style and content interpenetrate– a point that I’ve made all along, so there’s no need to rehearse the tired post-structuralist cliches on this score –but I find myself wondering how, if what you say is the case, you are able to write such a clear post to make these points. In short, isn’t there a bit of nonsense in the thesis that one must write like Derrida or Lacan in order to express the point that there is no universals? You just made precisely these points in your post without resorting to these sorts of stylistic techniques (which is different than suggesting an absence of style). I also find myself fascinated by the massive secondary literature on these figures which seems occupied with the activity of translation. In short, I suspect that style is exaggerated in these thinkers to draw attention to a specific aspect of language. Could it not be said that brain neurons function in a way similar to signifiers. Why is it that neurologists are not compelled to construct prose that imitates the differential play of neurons when mapping the functioning of neurons? Not being a reader of Rorty myself– at least not for years –and therefore not being keyed into looking for his influence or lack thereof, I can’t say whether he’s inspired folk outside of philosophy to produce new things or not. The argument strikes me as rather specious, to tell the truth. Artists, film makers, scientists, etc., are inspired by all sorts of things.
Alexei, no I am not claiming that some texts need to adopt such a style because of their content. I am saying that Lacan, Adorno, Deleuze, Derrida, and Hegel all argued that style should be reflective of content and that content is a function of style. That is a very different claim from the claim that style dictates content. Incidentally, these textual strategies are explicitly formulated by the various authors with the possible exception of Deleuze. Here I think N.Pepperell’s observations about Marx’s textual strategies are apropos. In short, the question is whether or not Marx’s claims could have been presented in a different way. I suspect they can. We see N.Pepperell doing precisely this.
larvalsubjects Says: April 26, 2008 at 8:18 pm
Roger, I’m not making the claim that there’s a “style-less” form of writing, but speaking of a particular sort of style.
traxus4420 Says: April 26, 2008 at 9:40 pm
it seems to me that defenses of ’style’ on this thread are defenses of a particular ‘experience’ of reading, reading under a certain set of conditions assumed to be the most ‘authentic’ — most compatible with what’s taken to be the author’s ‘original product,’ most compatible with the local idiom of the text’s tightest fan bases (trained scholars and critics).
what i’m getting at is that style is part of a social configuration. if LS finds a certain style objectionable, it has something to do with the social configuration of the group that likes and perpetuates it. the styles of lacan, derrida, and deleuze all reject ‘accessibility’ as a norm complicit with this ideology roger describes as “ideology on one side, good non-ideological style on the other.”
i guess the idea is that these reading experiences contain ’something more’ than can’t be adequately expressed in a different form. by definition any form that has accessibility as one of its primary goals. of course there is never one universal form of ultimate accessibility — it’s relative to audience. so the ban on accessibility reduces to any language that more people can understand. for this move to not be simply elitist, we need to insist on this union between content and expression such that the one is inextricable from the other.
so i think this idea of some untranslatable something in these texts — translation as a kind of corruption, or a concession to the ignorant/stupid/foreign — has ideological underpinnings we should really be questioning. that there is a content which can only be understood in a particular narrow way, that it is inextricable from this particular set of experiential conditions (in the case of deleuze, that it must ‘do what it says’).
what pepperell says here:
“my underlying reaction is that texts are read in very different conditions over time, by readers socialised in different ways - and that the impact of a style, or the attempt to cultivate a particular experience of reading in order to transform the reader, in some sense perhaps relies on the notion that style would always have the same impact over time, as everything else changes around it”
makes me wonder if this experience ever actually exists as a discrete thing one must learn how to access. it seems to me more that a certain type of habitus is being advocated, certain norms of reading and the institutions which support those norms. which set up the hierarchy between ‘original’ ‘difficult’ work and the ‘mass industry’ of ’secondary literature’ that is only about translating the product of these brilliant geniuses, marking both their readers and writers as students rather than true philosophers.
larvalsubjects Says: April 26, 2008 at 10:01 pm
Traxis, I think you make a number of good points here. It seems that our reaction to these issues depending on what the telos or purpose of our activity of reading is. I am primarily interested in understanding the world around me. I want to know, for example, why the weather is the way it is in North Texas, or why social formations take the form they do around the 70s in the West, or why a particular person has a particular symptom. I find that answers to these questions can only be found in thinkers that have relational and process oriented approaches that are very sensitive to local conditions. However, it takes a good deal of work to pierce some of these texts… Something that I think has often been counter-productive to the social and political aims some of these thinkers have wished to promote. I confess that I find the aesthetic dimension of these texts secondary to my particular aims.
That aside, I think the question of institutional habiti(?) is an important one. It’s difficult for me to speak outside the context of philosophy departments, but my sense is that what we have in most continentally oriented philosophy departments is not philosophers but intellectual historians. That is, we have people who devote their lives to careful commentary on figures like Derrida, Deleuze, Heidegger, Husserl, Hegel, and so on and publish and present the results of this work. If you want to do original work in a continental vein chances are you will be required to seek positions outside of philosophy departments in some sort of sociology, cultural studies, or rhetoric department. This is reflected in continental journals and conferences. It is all but impossible to get a paper accepted to, for example, SPEP unless it is on some other figure such as Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, Heidegger, Derrida, Irigaray, etc. It is unlikely, for example, that Brassier would have been able to do the sort of work he’s done here in the United States simply because he violates the commentary based orientation of continental philosophy departments and doesn’t fit the frameworks delineated in Anglo-American programs.
There has thus emerged a hierarchical system in American continental philosophy departments. On the one hand you have your revered masters (Hegel, Heidegger, Husserl, Merleau-Ponty, Sartre, Derrida, etc., etc.), on the other hand you have those that do research on these figures. While this is not an absolute, what you don’t have is an institutional setting that cultivates thinkers in their own right. A dissertation is understood to be on a particular figure or set of figures, rather than on a particular problem. It is, moreover, extremely difficult to publish articles that aren’t on aspects of the thought of various figures. Most of the intellectual work done in these departments is work of translation. That is, it consists of studies of the work of various philosophers such as my Difference and Givenness.
This is in stark contrast to Anglo-American departments. While figures are not unimportant in these departments, the focus is on problems, rather than figures and on the evaluation of various solutions to problems. This is not to say, of course, that Anglo-American departments do not have their own constraints. Whereas the “revered masters” in continental philosophy set their own problems, in Anglo-American orientations the problems tend to be already set and a sort of phase space of potential solutions is explored by individual thinkers. That is, problems in Anglo-American departments have a status analogous to figures in continental orientations.
Anthony Paul Smith Says: April 26, 2008 at 11:22 pm
I know of quite a few Continental philosophers who have done this. Take DePaul, which is hardly a top tier philosophy department, where many have published on problems. Some of how they’ve done this is via a study on a thinker, but some of it has been completely original. And Brassier’s book does the exact same thing (not one chapter doesn’t go forward without some other thinker who serves as either a figure to critique or to use). There is, of course, some truth to what you are saying, but you are giving an inaccurate description of the situation by making it far too stark of an opposition.
roger Says: April 26, 2008 at 11:31 pm
LS, I’m not quite sure I see why the use, by non-specialists, of Deleuze’s work is a specious argument, given that the stimulus for your argument is that a non-specialist audience can understand - or at least buys the books of - scientists. You are opening up the question of style with reference to one non-specialist audience, and I’m saying that there are at least two.
I think you have an energetic notion behind what you say about style and content - for instance, the idea that ‘every content is styled’ is a “tired” structuralist “cliche”. Some ideas, apparently, get tired. They evolve from truth to truism. How? Is it that they are repeated too often? Applied too generally? Do they fade into the background - losing energy like a popped balloon and settle down among the tired and drowsy cliches? As cliches, do they have the same truth value? After you know what Hegel means by a passage, does the passage lose its energy for you? Become rote? Is the rote passage the same as that passage when it was opaque?
I think that, in fact, the style of someone like Deleuze does respond in a romantic manner to the same energetic notion you are using - or at least shares a set of similar fears. How to create a style in which every repetition of the content is “fresh”? The “social configuration” in question, in the sixties, was that of a bureaucratized world, and all of those writers are trying to shake it up in various ways - hence, the aversion to the list as the ultimate form of text, whether it is the test - what does x mean by y - or the notion that the world is best described by a set theory that makes sure no proposition expresses an ill formed set, or the notion that what we want to instill in our governing elite is a canonical set of instructions to cover all circumstances.
So I’d say the difficulty question about style has to do with what the texts do. I think, ideally, the puzzle would not fit together the same way at every reading. There’s a phrase of Novalis’ that says, if I remember correctly, that God is a problem whose solution is a problem. This was the discovery of the romantic style - that there could be such objects - and it seems to have been one motive in the stylistic choices made by Derrida and Deleuze.
traxus4420 Says: April 26, 2008 at 11:55 pm
Most of the intellectual work done in these departments is work of translation. That is, it consists of studies of the work of various philosophers such as my Difference and Givenness.
Right - translations, many of which are excellent, of that which cannot possibly be translated.
i would actually argue that the desire to be ‘original’ is itself a function of this institutional setup. rather than trying to work together on solving a problem of larger importance, we’re encouraged to desire the role of genius while working hard at the perpetuation of that myth.
if it’s true that “problems in Anglo-American departments have a status analogous to figures in continental orientations” — and from my experience that’s accurate — i would assume there’s a resistance to debunking certain problems, that institutionally accepted problems have an inertia in much the same way as the genius of Foucault.
the problem we seem to have is some way of trying to address common problems, rather than problems as defined by a set of institutional conventions. to do that, it seems to me, not even style can be held inviolable.
larvalsubjects Says: April 27, 2008 at 12:01 am
Roger, I think you quite miss my point. In suggesting that your remark about Rorty and Deleuze is specious, I am not denying that Deleuze has had a great influence on people in a number of fields. He has. What I am rejecting is your blanket assertion that someone like Rorty has not had such an influence. I simply don’t know one way or another whether this is the case one way or another.
I do not recognize myself in the remainder of your remarks or how I’ve argued anything remotely similar to what you’re talking about regarding freshness and perpetual novelty. I clearly outline the problem I have with post-structuralist styles of writing in the third paragraph of the original post.
Anthony, the claim I was making was a statistical claim, not an absolute claim. Clearly there are those that manage to break out. Moreover, a lot of work focusing on problems is done in a “furtive” fashion. That is, American thinkers in the continental tradition use a particular philosopher as a way of formulating a particular problem. Butler, for instance, does this in much of her work. By and large, however, I think what I say holds about continental philosophy departments in the States. Institutionally our journals and departments are set up in such a way as to strongly discourage anything but the work of intellectual historians. Some manage to break out of this, of course, but our institutions and graduate departments certainly don’t encourage it or make independent work professionally wise or a good career decision. I think the rejection of your article on Meillassoux was an example of this sort of institutional framework at work. You were making original and independent claims, developing a position of your own, and there’s little place for that in continental journals.
larvalsubjects Says: April 27, 2008 at 12:28 am
Traxus, I wonder if the shift towards commentary on texts in continental philosophy doesn’t have something to do with a more generalized collapse of truth posited in these traditions. That is, if truth has collapsed, if there’s no longer a world “out there” that could be an arbiter of different claims about that world, what is left but to talk about texts about the world rather than the world itself?
Mikhail Emelianov Says: April 27, 2008 at 1:38 am
i would actually argue that the desire to be ‘original’ is itself a function of this institutional setup.
you don’t really have to argue this, it’s common knowledge, and it’s also common knowledge how this “desire” is produced: start with a doctoral dissertation that is - a requirement - an original contribution to the field, and go on to publications, books, etc etc. i see your beef with everything “institutional” but there isn’t much philosophy in this country done outside of the institutions…
larvalsubjects Says: April 27, 2008 at 1:45 am
Mikhail, presumably the question would be one of how to change those institutions and institutional practices.
Mikhail Emelianov Says: April 27, 2008 at 3:32 am
Certainly, i’m just saying that there’s no need to really be so surprised about the desire to be original when it’s pretty much all one is told to want to be in an institution of higher education or at least a graduate/postgraduate and professional life (in my limited personal experience) i don’t know if it’s really a manageable task to try to change this culture of originality, especially when originality is often understood as simply a novel way of combining concepts, not achieving the level of genius, as Traxus seems to suggest…

Alexei Says: April 27, 2008 at 10:51 am
LS: we seem to be talking past each other, and i’m not entirely sure why. But let me give this another shot, if only as something of an experiment:
I’m not claiming that style dictates content, or that content necessarily dictates style. That would be absurd — and I didn’t even want to approach intimating something like either of these two claims.
Of course, there is a give and take between style and content, and certain styles do limit or encourage certain kinds of thinking, just as certain languages facilitate and limit certain kinds of thinking (E.G. French has a rather elaborate tense system, English has a robust descriptive vocabulary). Everything that one says in french can be translated into English. But not everything that is simple to say in english is easy to say in French (think of how ‘convoluted,’ to an English speaker, the English expression, ‘don’t miss me too much’ is in French). Not everything that is easily explicated is easily thought for the first time. And so, some things are easier to express in French than in English, and vice versa. Same with ‘philosophical styles.’
SO, it stands to reason that if a thinker has a particular problem, or wants to motivate a certain perspective, or argument, some styles will help, some will hinder. Surely, this is the crux of our debate: whether ‘difficult styles’ (and not bad grammar, or sloppy indexes, or less than fastidious announcements of influence) are essential to a thinker’s project. That is, does a particular style facilitate a particular line of thought (and notice that this isn’t an a priori consideration; it can only be settled on a case by case basis)?
Now, I take it that an ‘analytical’ work (a work of translation, as you call it) can parse its object without resorting to the the latter’s style. however, such a work is possible only when the primary text has been written. Neither N Pepperell’s work on Marx, nor my own stuff on Benjamin, for instance, is possible without Marx and Benjamin.
Furthermore, I take it that hypotheses concerning whether, say, Marx could have written Capital in a different style but could still have achieved the same effects and conclusions to be an exercise of counterfactual imagination that verges on pointlessness. We have a text written in a certain way; we want to understand it, and perhaps understand why it was written in that manner; and, perhaps, we want to understand what the limits and potentials of that style are.
Simply put, Marx’s work, and his style were developed in order to think through specific problems. And that’s what needs to be figured out. Moreover simply because we can ‘translate’ well after the fact someone’s thinking into a ’simpler’ style in no way entails that these thoughts could be initially ‘thought’ independently of that style. And there seems to be something like a revisionist, counterfactual impulse, which doesn’t really seem necessary to me, in claiming the contrary.
So, all this said, may I ask you again the same questions from my last comment?
(1) Are you now saying — contra what you’ve written in the above post — that these textual strategies, this ’stylistic virtuousity’ are a necessary evil (say, in the case of folks like Adorno and Hegel, with whom I am more familiar)? That some texts need to be difficult, and there’s no way around that?
(2)isn’t style as much the content of a given text as the ‘explicit content’? So what gives credence to separating textual strategies as the form through which one delivers semantic content, when both this form and the content it conveys are meaningful products of ‘meditations’?
parodycenter Says: April 27, 2008 at 11:10 am
Anthony, the claim I was making was a statistical claim, not an absolute claim.
But dr. Sinthome Angelina wants Absolution, one way or the other, why else would she be studying theology for so long?
especially when originality is often understood as simply a novel way of combining concepts
Mikhail I think what you’re encountering is the culture of mixage that spills over from MTV into reality, which as we long know from my hero and cyperpunk icon Shaviro’s writing now belongs to the media. Maybe this culture instead of being feared could be put to good use by encouraging kids to find ways to enter that space in between the two layers of the mixage, the old and the new, in order to create something Uncanny. Take a look at the Justin Timberlake clip with Madonna, it suggests just such a possibility.
larvalsubjects Says: April 27, 2008 at 1:40 pm
No Alexei, I do not think that they are a necessary evil and I believe that often stylistic virtuosity of the sort we find in Hegel’s Logic or Adorno’s Negative Dialectics does more to hinder a thinkers project than to help it. But once again, none of what you’ve outlined in your posts has to do with the topic of this post. The point I was making about style was clearly stated in the third paragraph of the original post and in a variety of subsequent posts in this thread. 6:36 PM 6:59 PM 7:08 PM

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