be friends

In Defense of Obscurantism

be friends

The title of this post is something of a lie. This will not be a post that defends “obscurantism” in any way. But in light of all the nonsense between Zizek and Chomsky, we thought that it might be appropriate to say a few words on the subject of obscurantism, rather than just simply report on the polemically-charged and often ad hominem  ramblings of these two academics.

I recently have been having an enlightening (if at times tense) discussion with a commenter over at an Open Culture post on John Searle’s remarks about Foucault’s alleged “obscurantism.” While, over there, I have been arguing for the compatibility of the Derridean school of a philosophy of language and the insights of linguistic philosophers (such as John Searle, Hilary Putnam, Gilbert Ryle, and Ludwig Wittgenstein to name only a very diverse few), the conversation has made my own biases and gaps in knowledge quite clear.

To attempt to avoid such biases, I would like these notes to focus not of the viability of the theories/ philosophies themselves. But to briefly discuss the cultures, objects of legitimization, and emerging selection criteria which lead to these various forms of philosophical expression (don’t worry, I will explain what I mean by these latter two phrases in a bit). But, I would like to put this discussion on hold for a brief moment, as there is one argument (which seems apparently for a pragmatic obscurantism) which may not find a place within my arguments here but I would be remiss without mentioning.

Obscurantism Can Be a Method of Re-describing the World

The argument can be adequately summed up by a quote from the essay “Concept and Politics in Deleuze and Derrida” by Paul Patton (who translated Gill Deleuze’s “Difference and Repetition“):

According to [Richard] Rorty, philosophy helps to make the future different from the past by providing new means of description for social and political events and states of affairs. As a result, pragmatic philosophers are those who ‘specialize in redescribing ranges of objects or events in partially neologistic jargon in the hope of inciting people to adopt and extend that jargon.’ Redescription rather than argument is the only appropriate method of criticizing an existing vocabulary.

The overall argument is that the perceived “obscurantism” is actually a result of philosophers attempting to interpellate an individual into seeing and describing new and different parts of the world, new clusters of objects and that which connects them, (hopefully) breaking them out of the limitations and binds of every day speech, and leading them to find their own neologistic ways of describing their experience and the world itself. There is a certain pragmatism in this kind of approach and it is why, in my opinion, race/ gender/ and sex studies have leaned towards the continental side of philosophy. It is my contention that this act of re-describing appeals to historically marginalized groups because it allows them to articulate their own problems, affirm their own existence, and refuse the language and vocabulary of the historically oppressive/ imperialistic “white, hetero-normative, man.”

To give an example of this, Édouard Glissant was instrumental in legitimizing the neologism “Creolite” which refers to the language, literature, and peoples of the Antilles and French Carribean. It was a concept formed in reaction to the la négritude literary movement which preceded it. The négritude writers were  black but imperialistically displaced and, as such, attempted to place themselves in relation to their heritage as Africans. Glissant and others of the Creolite movement saw themselves as not quite African and not quite European. They charted out a new category for themselves rather than falling back on the inadequacies of either category that existed before them; this new category was the Creolite.

Examples like this are abound in continental writing and re-description often takes the form of a re-appropriation; “liminality,” as an example, is a concept appropriated from anthropology and has been taken up by Homi Bhaba as well as a lot of queer/ gender theory writers for talking about “in-betweenness,” or being neither “perfectly” black nor white or neither “perfectly” man nor woman. The “subaltern,” as another example, is a term, that was appropriated from British military culture for talking about men, women, and social groups who are outside the hegemonic structures of power. This re-description, which takes place in new or transformed vocabulary, is the formation of new concepts and as Deleuze and Guattari have said:

…some concepts must be indicated by an extraordinary and sometimes even barbarous and shocking word, whereas others made do with an ordinary, everyday word that is filled with harmonics so distant that it risks being imperceptible to a nonphilosophical ear. Some concepts call for archaisms [“use of speech or word that is no longer current”], an others neologisms, shot through with almost crazy etymological exercises (“What Is Philosophy?” 1994).

My point is that what is perceived as “obscurantism” can have a pragmatic/ socially liberating and cathartic use even though “obscurantist” writing certainly can be and often is un-justified, doesn’t serve this purpose, serves instead the purpose of career advancement, and is, in these instances (as the linguistic/ analytic philosophers claim) pedantic.

Well having spent more time on this particular line of thinking as I intended, I would like, at this point, to return to my original thought of writing some notes on the “cultures, objects of legitimization, and emerging selection criteria” which are also at play in what leads to an “obscurantist” expression on one hand and “clear” or “transparent” expression, on the other. These notes will rely on two points:

Point #1: Some Philosophers Want to Be Poets, Others Want to be Scientists

As linguist Roman Jakobson has written, all language can be placed on a spectrum from “immanent” to “transcendent.” Immanent language is language as language, language whose object and intention is beauty or musicality–poetry. Transcendent language is language as representative object, language which seeks to communicate–science and mathematics.

As it pertains to the various camps of philosophy (and please realize that this is a rhetorical over-generalization of both camps), the spectrum can be drawn like this:

[Immanent language]——continental philosophy——analytic philosophy——[Transcendent language]

Where I have placed continental philosophy and analytic philosophy on the spectrum is to emphasize their objects of legitimization.  What I mean by “objects of legitimization” is that historically, each camp takes up a specific object which is considered an academically legitimate object of knowledge, research, and study. For the continentals, this object of legitimization is historically aesthetics, the arts, and (more recently) some of the soft sciences such as sociology and cultural ethnography. This is why, in America, most of this philosophy is found in literary theory or comparative literature departments. For the analytics, this object of legitimization is historically the hard sciences and mathematics. Therefore, these philosophies tend to write, speak, and investigate from the point of view of their respective objects of legitimization.

These camps tend to do battle, so to speak, on the areas where they step on each other’s toes: areas such as linguistics, politics, and the social sciences. In a strange way, the critiques of one camp by the other usually lead to some very interesting particle of truth, but this particle is usually covered up by a spiteful and angry polemic which only pushes the two further apart.

The best examples of this that I can think of (for either camp), are Foucault’s critique of the medical investigation into sex in “solipsistic claim that science is more sociological than truthful and that there are no ultimate or transcendent truths.

Foucault’s claim is that (1) the medical investigation of sex relied in its inception on the Christian model of sex that dictated that the only legitimate form of sex was for reproduction and all other forms of sex (homosexuality, pedophilia, etc.) were “perversions” of this primary function since they could not lead to reproduction. (2) “Fact” or anything considered as such has a socio-historical aspect (why was sexuality chosen as a point of investigation when, in the 1700 and 1800’s, it was taken up by the medical apparatus as a point of investigation?) (3) The recording, documenting, and discourse of sex drags sex into monitored relations of power and makes us far more sexually repressed. (The narrative, up until this point, was that by making sex open to talk about, we had been throwing off the binds of power that led to a previously sexually repressed society. The counter-intuitive truth about these past societies is that homosexuality, pedophilia, orgies, etc. were not talked about because they were far more [though not completely] accepted.) Whether Foucault’s critique of the medical apparatus still holds perfectly true is of no matter. Foucault’s ultimate point is that open, public discourse in our society is monitored and, thus, caught up in power relations; a very real danger that the scientific/ medical community should be aware of, especially as they are looked to more and more as sources of legitimacy for political choices and are used more and more to mediate other social relations.

Alan Sokal’s claim (which I am less familiar with) is that the “post-moderns”  are working with science they do not understand and attempting to misrepresent science for rhetorical and polemical purposes. In what is called the “Sokal Affair, ” Sokal wrote an article, which was published by the then-not-peer-reviewed journal, “Social Text” for an issue of theirs called “Science Wars.” The article claimed that quantum gravity was the result of discourse and language and Sokal filled it with scientific frivolity that any student of physics would have seen was obviously nonsense. After the article was published, he wrote a follow-up article and two follow-up books on the subject. Sadly, his first book “Fashionable Nonsense” grouped together thinkers as diverse as Luce Irigaray, Jacques Lacan, and Gilles Deleuze, and more than anything proved his misunderstanding of their philosophies (especially Deleuze’s). In any case, misunderstandings aside, he proved just how dogmatic anti-dogmatic thinking had become and how off-base many of their critiques of science were; dangers that post-modern theorists should certainly be aware of.

The point here is that both camps have insights that the other could find useful if not enlightening. Certain philosophers such as Richard Rorty and Stanley Cavell have attempted to to show just how compatible and complementary these philosophies are. When it comes to linguistics, for example, it is my contention that a theory of clear speech and a theory of poetry are necessary for each other; especially since, as Derrida points out, there is no “primary” and “secondary” function of language; only a number of functions that populate the linguistic battlefield. That being said, language will lose neither its capacity to communicate nor its capacity to be considered poetically. But the charges of “obscurantism” against theoretical work and the charge of “narrow mindedness” against analytic work really comes out of a threatened fear and competitiveness that is the result of having to share the same schools, departments, and funding; which brings me to my next point….

Point #2: The Three Hegemonies of Western Academia are Competing When They Should Be Cooperating

There are three major hegemonies within Western thought (the first two I am stealing from the writing of Simon Critchley)–the romantic-interpretive, the scientific-empirical, and mystical-religious–each of which dealing with their own individual selection criteria and a more general selection criteria. I will explain what I mean by selection criteria in a second. The important thing to remember is that the reason that these three camps of thought compete, rather than cooperate, is because they have the capacity to threaten the existence of the others.

“Selection criteria” is a concept I am picking up from Darwinian population thinking. It has to do with the bases upon which different populations of animals are chosen to continue and transform due to natural selection.

To illustrate individual selection criteria, let’s consider a population of peacocks (an example I am stealing from Manuel De Landa). The peacock has multiple selection criteria that need to compromise for the peacock to continue as a species. One is sexual. Big, colorful male plumage is considered extremely sexy by female peacocks. Therefore, the male with the sexiest plumage should attract the most mates and pass its genes for big, sexy plumage onto more and more peacocks. But, another selection criteria that limits this is predators. Big, colorful plumage makes peacocks more easy to spot and catch by predators. Therefore, the best plumage for a peacock to have compromises these two selection criteria; big and colorful enough to attract mates but small enough to allow it to escape or not be noticed by predators.

The individual selection criteria for the camps of philosophy has to do with their objects of legitimization. The romantic-interpretive philosophers have to compromise the selection criteria of philosophy and poetry (which leads to the charge against them of “obscurantism”). The analytic-empiricists have to compromise the selection criteria of philosophy and science. The mystical-religious have to compromise the selection criteria of philosophy, religion, and mysticism.

General selection criteria, on the other hand, refers to the ecology that a specific population lives in–or how different species interact in an environment. Looking back to the peacock example, let’s say a population of another bird moves into the peacock’s territory. Let’s say this new bird doesn’t have the same natural predators as a peacock but eats the same food. The existence of the the peacock would be threatened and fights would break out over food, territory, and other resources necessary for the birds’ survival. The existence of the peacock would depend on its capacity to overcome the challenge posed by the invasive species of bird.

In the same way, romantic-interpretive philosophies, scientific-empiric philosophies, and mystical-religious philosophies each have a general selection criteria that needs to be met for each to be considered academically, sociologically, and/or politically legitimate.  “This is academically viable, this is not,” “This is pedantic, this is not,” “This is perverting our thought, this is not,” etc. These rhetorical stances are the forms of “fights” that the burdens of general selection criteria create over “food” in an academic ecology. The food of an academic is twofold. The first–in the form of department funding, grants, tenure, professorships, books being bought, etc.–is money. The second–in the form of academic’s work and insights having an audience and political influence–is their readers.

A lot more could be said of this. But the point is that each hegemony of thinking would be lost to dogmatism without the others. One particularly pernicious example, in my opinion, has to do with the polemical stance of the “New Atheists” (such as Richard Dawkins), of the scientific-empirical camp, against the mystical-religious camp. My objection to this form of atheism is best summed up by a quote by R.D. Laing:

When Ivan in ‘The Bothers Karamazov‘ says ‘If God does not exists, everything is permissible,’ he is not saying ‘…I can do anything with a good conscience.’ He is saying, ‘If there is only my conscience, then there is no ultimate validity for my will.’

In other words, atheism without the anti-moralistic insights of Nietzsche (from the romantic-interpretive hegemony), still finds something to validate the imposition of one will upon another.

The irony is that even when man has gotten rid of God, he replaces God (or, in this case, that which validated the imposition of will through religion–think of the Inquisition or the Crusades) with things like Health and Science which are now being used to validate the imposition of will through science. Foucault’s insights from the “History of Sexuality Vol. 1,” are one example of this; banning smoking just about everywhere is another easy if overly-simplistic example of this.

This is problematic, I know. And, as I have said, a lot more could be said on this. But, the main point of this second thesis is that arguments like those between Zizek and Chomsky take the form of “who is legitimate?” or “who is right and who is wrong?” or “this is obscuritanism” but really they are based in fear of seeing their species of philosophy and thought de-legitimized, de-funded, or made extinct, so to speak. Likewise, my example about Dawkins and the New Atheists is meant to show what I believe to be the toxic results that succumbing to such fears can have for all hegemonies of thought.

Feeling the need to end these notes, I would like to give you a few quotes that show, to me, the possibility for each hegemony learning from each other, entering into co-affect, and refusing to de-legitimize each other over silly sociological squabbles and fear.

Albert Einstein (scientific-empiric):

The scientist’s religious feeling takes the form of a rapturous amazement at the harmony of natural law, which revels an intelligence of such superiority that, in comparison with it, all systematic thinking of human beings is an utterly insignificant reflection. This feeling is the guiding principle of his life and work.

Simone Weil (a Christian mystic):

Saint John of the Cross…has some beautiful lines about the beauty of the world. But in general, making suitable reservations for the treasures that are unknown, little known, or perhaps buried among the forgotten remains of the Middle Ages, we might say that the beauty of the world is almost absent from the Christian tradition. This is strange. It is difficult to understand. It leaves a terrible gap. How can Christianity call itself catholic if the universe itself is left out?

Alain Badiou (romantic-interpretive):

If…we consider a very great theorem from modern mathematics, the one that demonstrates the independence of the Continuum Hypothesis, we find within it a concentration of thought, an inventive beauty, a surprise of the concept, a risky rupture, in a nutshell, an intellectual aesthetic that we can, if we so choose, compare to the greatest poems of our century…

  • Connor Syrewicz

    Giambattista_Vico posted a wonderful (if somewhat scathing) critique of this article over at the continental theory subreddit and I wanted to share it. Head over to the subreddit to see my reply to him:


    “The tripartite division seems to me a bit vacuous (not to mention extremely U.S.-centric) — you’re pigeonholing complicated thinkers into broad and basically useless categories that you’ve invented post facto and then, because they don’t match up with those categories, drawing a moralising argument that people shouldn’t fall into these invented categories, even though you haven’t convincingly demonstrated that they hold any water in the first place. Badiou’s comment on mathematics, for example, isn’t an incidental piece of venturing outside of his field of comfort, it’s part of the core foundation of his entire philosophy; similarly, Einstein didn’t work his theories out through empirical method and he didn’t affiliate himself with what we’d now call scientism to begin with — not to mention the completely unjustified off-hand relegation of Nietzsche to the field of “romantic-interpretive” theory. In any case, the idea of “three hegemonies” is self-contradictory to me: the hegemonic ideology, if anything, is the liberal pluralism that underpins this essay implicitly, which guides the moralistic conclusion that the truth has to be somewhere in the middle, can’t we all get along, etc. It’s precisely this kind of discourse — here’s category A, category B, and so on, now let’s work through the conversation — that critical theory is aimed at destabilizing, the very point is to escape this kind of limitation.

    (e: I realise I’m not being entirely fair, but criticising hegemony while ignoring the actually hegemonic ideological assumptions you’re working off is quite a frustrating manoeuvre)”