In Praise of Obfuscation

On the importance of irritation in the creation of meaning

“Only Barthes, among the men, was at ease with incarnating a site that cannot be designated, a matte faubourg, without qualities.”

It started with this strange opaque phrase capturing my attention in “In Defense of Nuance,” Wayne Koestenbaum’s foreword to Barthes’ A Lover’s Discourse (1978).  It’s a phrase that only a fraction of readers could be expected to grasp. The words “a matte faubourg” were meaningless to me; a semantic collapse, a gap. However I did not drift over them but instead I stumbled, felt irritated, paused, mused, googled, mused some more…

Most people loathe what is often seen as the overly complex language of academic and critical texts, and roll their eyes at what is seen as the intention of contemporary art to irritate through cleverness or shock. At its worst, the fruits of modern discourse are alienation, ironic detachment, and a stratified system of insiders and outsiders.

But is this the only function of such disruptions, or can their impact contribute something deeper to human life?  Can the art of skilled and meaningful disruptions be developed?  And where does responsibility for this occur?  Is it the job of the consumer of culture to pause and educate themselves in order to engage more meaningfully with disruptive language or imagery?  Or is it the role of the author of the work to produce skillful, creative disruptions?

…A matte faubourg.
It is in fact a symbol that represents itself, a gap, detour, an empty site, an unrendered image, titleless and isolated.
In that moment, the text became a poem, linguistic friction that invited me into the play of nuance, beyond the symbols of meaning (the content) and into an effect of meaning (the play).

“A matte faubourg” frustrates a reader bent on overt meaning, but overt meaning may not be the ultimate function of a text.  When I unwittingly read “a matte faubourg” I did not experience a metaphor, I experienced a matte faubourg directly, I danced with it, I experienced being pulled into that non-space.

Apophatic Acts of Unsaying

This “meaning event” – the momentary union of predicated meaning and direct experiential meaning – is at the heart of an apophatic discourse.  Normally, language betrays direct experience, for words create distance, slippage. Language delimits objects and entities, but if the true subject of discourse is not static, non-object and non-thing, how can language be accurate?  Author Michael Sells proposes that rather than foreclose on this problem with either non-saying (e.g. Zen Buddhism), or an analysis of the borders of the sayable and the unsayable (e.g. scientific method), one can actively engage the irresolvability of the problem by harnessing its infinite regress.

Unlike a discourse constructed out of finite assertions, apophasis (Greek: “un-saying”) is a propositionally unstable and dynamic discourse in which no single statement rests its own as true or false or even as meaningful.  It is not the content of the sayings that is significant.  The essence of the practice is that any propositional statement requires an undoing, a destabilizing revision, and it is the tension between proposed meaning and collapsed meaning that becomes important. Meaning events emerge from this tension, but each event is momentary, and must be “continually re-earned by ever new linguistic acts of unsaying.”  Therefore apophasis is not asserted but performed.

Engaging with apophatic dialogue involves paying less heed to the content of the discourse than to the effect of the discourse.  Apophatic discourse is not metaphor, it is tension – which in most discourse is usually experienced as irritation, confusion, disruption.  But at its best, this tension is an invitation into a dynamic realm where meaning collapses in the moment of formation – and therefore approaches the more complex, emergent, systemic qualities of experience.  Engagement requires not seeing disruption as an obstacle to meaning, but as a springboard into a different meaning mode.

Artistic Anti-Environments

Similarly, Marshall McLuhan described the task of art in contemporary culture as not about communicating or apprehending concepts, but about invoking direct participation in an experience.  He saw such direct experiences as disruptions calling attention to the total ground rules of culture, which otherwise operate invisibly, conforming and restricting perceptual life.  He therefore sees an organic need for artistic “anti-environments” in order to make new perception possible.  Contemporary art involves an invitation into play and participation in a perceptual experience of un-doing.  Its frictions reveal the emperor as having no clothes, but the emperor in this case is in one’s own mind – assumed meanings, roles and identities are shaken and reveal a deep and awe-full underlying unknowing.

Anti-environments are not about self-expression, but are a kind of research.  Artistic practice probes into the presence of the unknown within the known, and therefore allows an unfinished process of knowing to emerge. McLuhan sees culture proceeding in this a dialectic of environment and anti-environment. Like the apophatic dialogue, every rule (“environment”) initially emerged as a disruptive innovation (“anti-environment”), and ultimately requires its own destabiliztion.

By One’s Own Petard

In my first post I proposed that there is an art to creating monsters, which can and should be developed.  Obfuscation with the goal of inflating one’s professional status and appearance of knowledge is rarely a productive act.  But the monsters created through disruption, irritation and concealment can serve a purpose in discourse. The purpose is the production of emergent meanings in the tension created between what is being said and what is being un-said. This kind of tertiary meaning is not apprehended in the content, but temporarily experienced in the performance of this movement. The destabilization created by skillful obfuscations create hybrid forms of meaning that extend outside of the structures of ordinary discourse, but meaningfully nestle within them as well, unsettling both, revealing the thinker as neither poet nor scholar.  But there is investigation, and a new understanding produced, though it likely resides outside of the text itself.

This is a different kind of research than is usually recognized in our culture.  Usually we are trying to figure things out: to clearly name our experience and arrive at our identities.  However, experientially, this task is forever incomplete, and will endlessly be undone.  Perhaps if equally interested in our own undoing, we can engage more fully with the life that is experienced in the tension between understanding and confusion. This openness may be easier to practice with a film or poem, than with our own lives. Yet many central human experiences may be better represented as an apophatic discourse at the cusp of both arrival and dissolution: love, identity, faith, desire, justice.  They are worth our irritation.