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.

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