Obscurantism; enigmatic, clever or dishonest?

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chaz wyman
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Joined: Fri Mar 12, 2010 7:31 pm

Obscurantism; enigmatic, clever or dishonest?

Post by chaz wyman »

Say something vague but interesting - might attract more people, but it is trying to avoid putting your neck on the line and saying something that can be critiqued - because it is obscure - that is dishonest.

I'm not sure how great obscurantist writers in the past have managed to get away with it, but it appears to me that they tend to thrive by attracting a larger range of interpretations, not their own. In this way they get to sell more books without alienating people who would otherwise disagree with them. Once they have their following the sheep who have enjoyed their writing carry on through habituation and group think. They will have become Benjaminists, or Adornoists whose 'great' works, signify much by saying nothing at all.
We are not Walter benjamin or Theodore Adorno and cannot draw on their followers. Ordinary mortals like you and me have to stick our necks out and say what we mean, and defend it.

Here's a great example from Walter Benjamin. I saw The Woman in Black today , so was reminded of this passage because of the numerous automata in the film

His first thesis on the philosophy of history goes like this:

It is well-known that an automaton once existed, which was so constructed that it could counter any move of a chess-player with a counter-move, and thereby assure itself of victory in the match. A puppet in Turkish attire, water-pipe in mouth, sat before the chessboard, which rested on a broad table. Through a system of mirrors, the illusion was created that this table was transparent from all sides. In truth, a hunchbacked dwarf who was a master chess-player sat inside, controlling the hands of the puppet with strings. One can envision a corresponding object to this apparatus in philosophy. The puppet called “historical materialism” is always supposed to win. It can do this with no further ado against any opponent, so long as it employs the services of theology, which as everyone knows is small and ugly and must be kept out of sight.
This is no so hard to understand though it tends to generate more questions that it answers.
But what is the angel of history all about?

There is a painting by Klee called Angelus Novus. An angel is depicted there who looks as though he were about to distance himself from something which he is staring at. His eyes are opened wide, his mouth stands open and his wings are outstretched. The Angel of History must look just so. His face is turned towards the past. Where we see the appearance of a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which unceasingly piles rubble on top of rubble and hurls it before his feet. He would like to pause for a moment so fair [verweilen: a reference to Goethe’s Faust], to awaken the dead and to piece together what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise, it has caught itself up in his wings and is so strong that the Angel can no longer close them. The storm drives him irresistibly into the future, to which his back is turned, while the rubble-heap before him grows sky-high. That which we call progress, is this storm.
When I first read it, the angel I dreamed up in my head was more Jim Steinman record cover than Klee!

Image

I was so disappointed when I saw the angel.

Image


So- though it is possible to get to the intention of the author - why not just say what he means rather than sow division?

Any takers for an interpretation?


PS- my imagination of it.
http://comicartcommunity.com/gallery/da ... -angel.jpg

Oh wait - this is more like it.

http://www.arts.ucsb.edu/faculty/budgett/angelus.html
ala1993
Posts: 94
Joined: Sat Jul 19, 2008 6:20 pm

Re: Obscurantism; enigmatic, clever or dishonest?

Post by ala1993 »

I think you're confusing the intention to write obscurely with the intention for there to be fidelity between style and content. There is a wonderful passage in Nietzsche's 'Gay Science' which reads along the lines of "the man who wishes to be profound must strive for clarity, while the man who wishes to seem profound to the crowd must strive for obscurity". It is too tempting to dismiss a text written in a complicated style or lending itself to multiple interpretations as being 'obscure'.

Your first example is actually pretty clear. It pertains to the manner in which historical materialism is a puppet of theological principles. In fact, it goes so far as to say that the former is merely a mouthpiece for the latter. This might not be immediately clear but it does not take very many readings to get this idea. I would go so far as to say that great philosophy should not be simple to read as it addresses complex problems that we do not encounter in everyday life but that nevertheless influence our existence. A thinker such as Hegel, Lacan, Derrida or Deleuze writes in an unfamiliar style, which forces us to stop and think about what they might be trying to say rather than to simply consume each sentence without any consideration. This is not to say that there is no thought involved in the reading of e.g. Ayer or Popper; merely that clarity is something we must work for rather than simply be led to.

Going back to the style/content point that I made in my first paragraph, I think it would be detrimental for (e.g.) a thinker such as Adorno to criticise what he considers to be the dogmatic and ideological nature of positivism while using the very language and structure it insists is the only proper way in which to do philosophy. Imagine someone trying to convince you that philosophical argument based on a logical framework is insufficient to understand the complexity of human experience; if they were to attempt this while using the very same method they are trying to argue against then you would be able to charge them with hypocrasy and call them out for contradicting themselves.

We are more likely to find obscurantism in religious writings or in so-called 'new age' thought; these are often attempts to convince the reader rather than to make them think. In the work of the Continental Philosophers, unfamiliar language can prevent us from becoming 'lost' in the text and allow us to remain 'distanced' from the thoughts it expresses, in order that we form our own impression.

There are some very straightforward philosophical problems which pervade the entirety of Continental Thought (that of the relationship between the subject and object being its foundation, albeit appearing in different ways and styles). When a thinker writes in a manner which appears elliptical or even opaque (Hegel, for example) we should ask after the reason why they have written in this manner, rather than dismissing it as meaningless. We might not arrive at a definite understanding of this reason but we can still appreciate that there is a union of style and content necessary for philosophical argument that is not exhausted by the language of the positivists.

As for how to read Benjamin's passage concerning the 'angel of history', my take is the the 'catastrophe' is a single event which is understood to be the original by which all subsequent events are to be interpreted (e.g. the history of Western Civilisation interpreted in light of the birth and life of Jesus). We cannot 'awaken the dead' in order to discover the truth behind what has become a mythical, hypothetical 'origin' and so the 'rubble' piles up, preventing a clear understanding. Alongside this, the angel cannot halt the progression of time and is 'propelled' into a future which cannot be seen due to the preoccupation with understanding the past. I've read Thesis on the Philosophy of History a few times but I can't claim that my intepretation won't change with any future readings.
chaz wyman
Posts: 5305
Joined: Fri Mar 12, 2010 7:31 pm

Re: Obscurantism; enigmatic, clever or dishonest?

Post by chaz wyman »

ala1993 wrote:I think you're confusing the intention to write obscurely with the intention for there to be fidelity between style and content. There is a wonderful passage in Nietzsche's 'Gay Science' which reads along the lines of "the man who wishes to be profound must strive for clarity, while the man who wishes to seem profound to the crowd must strive for obscurity". It is too tempting to dismiss a text written in a complicated style or lending itself to multiple interpretations as being 'obscure'.

And it is often the act of a fool to think that an obscure test has more in it than actually exists. The obscurity works by lending itself to a range of interpretations that the fool can find within himself.
I'm not confused in any sense. Nietzsche had much to say, and I do not find him obscure, though often difficult. THis is certainly true of his earlier work , but I have to say that some of his later stuff was inherently confused - born of his frustration and illness.

Your first example is actually pretty clear. It pertains to the manner in which historical materialism is a puppet of theological principles. In fact, it goes so far as to say that the former is merely a mouthpiece for the latter. This might not be immediately clear but it does not take very many readings to get this idea. I would go so far as to say that great philosophy should not be simple to read as it addresses complex problems that we do not encounter in everyday life but that nevertheless influence our existence. A thinker such as Hegel, Lacan, Derrida or Deleuze writes in an unfamiliar style, which forces us to stop and think about what they might be trying to say rather than to simply consume each sentence without any consideration. This is not to say that there is no thought involved in the reading of e.g. Ayer or Popper; merely that clarity is something we must work for rather than simply be led to.

Popper is crystal clear; both in style and content. Hegel is rambling and meaningless. I have to admit that I have no German so am at the mercy of translation.
Derrida says one thing, but takes 300 pages to say it. His skill seems to be inherent in his ability to repeat himself without seeming to do so.
Generalisations are difficult and obscurantism can have many facets.




Going back to the style/content point that I made in my first paragraph, I think it would be detrimental for (e.g.) a thinker such as Adorno to criticise what he considers to be the dogmatic and ideological nature of positivism while using the very language and structure it insists is the only proper way in which to do philosophy. Imagine someone trying to convince you that philosophical argument based on a logical framework is insufficient to understand the complexity of human experience; if they were to attempt this while using the very same method they are trying to argue against then you would be able to charge them with hypocrasy and call them out for contradicting themselves.

We are more likely to find obscurantism in religious writings or in so-called 'new age' thought; these are often attempts to convince the reader rather than to make them think. In the work of the Continental Philosophers, unfamiliar language can prevent us from becoming 'lost' in the text and allow us to remain 'distanced' from the thoughts it expresses, in order that we form our own impression.

There are some very straightforward philosophical problems which pervade the entirety of Continental Thought (that of the relationship between the subject and object being its foundation, albeit appearing in different ways and styles). When a thinker writes in a manner which appears elliptical or even opaque (Hegel, for example) we should ask after the reason why they have written in this manner, rather than dismissing it as meaningless. We might not arrive at a definite understanding of this reason but we can still appreciate that there is a union of style and content necessary for philosophical argument that is not exhausted by the language of the positivists.

As for how to read Benjamin's passage concerning the 'angel of history', my take is the the 'catastrophe' is a single event which is understood to be the original by which all subsequent events are to be interpreted (e.g. the history of Western Civilisation interpreted in light of the birth and life of Jesus). We cannot 'awaken the dead' in order to discover the truth behind what has become a mythical, hypothetical 'origin' and so the 'rubble' piles up, preventing a clear understanding. Alongside this, the angel cannot halt the progression of time and is 'propelled' into a future which cannot be seen due to the preoccupation with understanding the past. I've read Thesis on the Philosophy of History a few times but I can't claim that my intepretation won't change with any future readings.
Thanks for your thoughtful response.
I am on major painkillers at the moment as I have 4 broken ribs.
When I get the chance I'll try to get back and write you a better response as I realise that I am not being very forthcoming...
ala1993
Posts: 94
Joined: Sat Jul 19, 2008 6:20 pm

Re: Obscurantism; enigmatic, clever or dishonest?

Post by ala1993 »

Well, first of all I hope your ribs heal soon. Also, please give Hegel another try. If he really were 'rambling and meaningless' then his influence on (e.g.) Marx would be illusory. I found Hegel to be near-impossible when I first read the Phenomenology ... now I can engage with the text on a critical level (although I still don't claim to have 'understood' him).

As for Popper, his attempts at clarity can be deceptive. The positivist tradition tends to dismiss anything that does not fit its (often strict) criteria for 'meaning'. It is a conceit as much as a method.
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