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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Dialectical Thinking (part 2)

Both analytic and dialectic knowledge practices are necessary to make insightful decisions and take committed action. With an overemphasis on the practice of analysis comes the stress and brittle violence of continuous attempts to wrestle reality into static boxes for prediction and control.  In addition, there is the harm caused by using lazy dialectics to dismiss, ignore, or assign inaccurate overarching schemas that promote ecological, economic and social systems of oppression. The key to genuine dialectic is found in one’s own vulnerability, which is often embarrassing and messy.

The analytic approach

Under the influence of western thought traditions, a contemporary person largely relies on using differentiation and formal logic to understand themselves and their world.  This understanding relies on discrete stable identities and linear causal relationships; there cannot be contradictions, and there is no middle state between this and that, good and bad, true and false. Like mathematics, this is a very coherent way of representing and manipulating a symbolic reality to achieve prediction and control.  But it is an abstraction.  If some part of the flesh and stone of experience is not fitting into this logical understanding, then this is generally assumed to be a problem of incomplete knowledge or reasoning, and as such, must be resolved, usually by a process of isolating and de-contextualizing information, forming polarizing contradictory perspectives in an effort to determine which identity, fact or explanation is correct.  Unfortunately, isolating, polarizing and differentiating have a variety of pitfalls from the political to the personal. There is violence to the project of prediction and control, often directed inwards.  The internal human landscape is replete with contradiction, paradox, and nuance.

The dialectic approach

As I described in a recent post, a variety of cultural, philosophical and critical thought traditions propose a different model of knowledge which sees transient, contradictory and emergent qualities of existence as valid and important.  These include 21st century critical theory, “eastern” philosophical and spiritual traditions, and the science of complex systems. These traditions acknowledge knowledge as:

  • Transient, dynamic, changing, nuanced, continuously escaping definition
  • Complex, contradictory, in tension, paradoxical
  • Emergent, associative, networked, contextual

This all sounds all well and good, but in experience, these aspects of life are usually deeply embarrassing and painful.  It may be easy to think, “I’m a creative innovator / active in social justice / freethinking po-mo intellectual – I’m at home with all of this.” But engaging with dialectic cuts deeper than diplomacy and social critique, brainstorming and thought mapping.

When we find paradoxical desires unresolved in us; when we confront our own grief and loss; when one’s own experience doesn’t fit into stable identities, expected consequences or explanation, it provokes strong emotions of anger, shame, embarrassment, hopelessness, fear.  Which in turn provoke strong defensive responses: numbness, denial, aggression, rumination.  So strong is the social and internalized pressure to resolve contradiction and ambiguity that most of us are waging continual war against our own experience.

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Dialectical Thinking (Part 1)

Our own modification recognizes dialectic conflicts and contradictions as a fundamental property of thought. In contrast to Piaget, we maintain that at the level of dialectic operations at maturity, the individual does not necessarily equilibrate these conflicts, but is ready to live with these contradictions; stronger yet, the individual accepts these contradictions as a basic property of thought and creativity.

(Riegel, 1973, p.366)

Challenging Piaget’s established model of cognitive development, in which the highest form of development was the use of deductive reasoning to systematically and logically solve a problem, Reigel proposed a further sophistication of cognitive development in dialectical operations, cognition that has dexterity with inherent contradictions, movement, change, process; “able to transform contradictory experience into momentarily stable structures.”

The focus is a flexible, relational process of thought - dialogue - rather than creating firm identities.

The dialectical method has roots that extend back in western history as form of reasoning that resolves difference through dialogue. In contrast to rhetoric, where parties committed to their points of view aim to resolve the difference through persuading others to accept their perspective, dialectics aim at resolving differences through recognizing the interdependence of the differences from the perspective of a higher order.

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