Friday, August 21, 2009

The Literal Trick

It has been quite some time since I sat down to write a blog post. As I settle into Claremont, my hope is that I will find the combination of time and inspiration to write/finish several posts on the brink of my mind. Meanwhile, I have a more minor project to work on (although still important). Like most (all?) philosophers before me, within my philosophical endeavors, I create a web of new vocabulary. Obviously, there is a risk in any novel vocabulary - philosophical vocabulary can easily slip into cryptic academic jargon. Margaret is quite good at challenging me on those grounds; she constantly requests more concrete images and asks "yes, but, what does that mean?" And, truly, meaning is at the heart of it all.

As a Derridean, I often find myself caught between ambiguity and clarity. I've been told before that I revel in ambiguity. That isn't exactly true. Ambiguity is not something to revel in. Instead, it is a reality we cannot escape. Every word is a metaphor. Every phrase is a diamond that refracts light in multiple directions. The modern quest for clarity is a noble one, but it is doomed to failure. After all, even the air we breathe refracts and bends light.

On the other hand, ambiguity may be the beginning of every word, but it is not the ending. Somehow, we etch our glittery, rocky words to refract in a certain direction, with a certain intentionality. Lights (words) scatter but illumine before us. Ultimately, we have to be conscious of where we raise our lanterns. We are responsible for our images, our eikons. And yet, words are not simple, pointed lasers. Perhaps we should be happy they are not - lasers are not particularly useful for radiating a space full of twilight.

The philosophical project (like every project) consists of holding our lanterns, of writing and speaking, responsibly. One of those conscious responsibilities is embracing the diffusion of words. We never say simply what we intend to say. Rather than live in an illusion that we can perfectly convey intended meaning, rather than pretend the room we stand in is already bright, in no need of illumination, we should acknowledge and live within our different wor(l)ds of diffusion. There are no singularities, no singular meanings. Clarity is a shattered goal. A shattered goal that never shattered.

As we grope around in the dark, we simply wish we could focus. One image in view. Light obscures the images we wish to see. Potential overload. The multitude of images break us apart. Safety and security are always beyond our sight. And so we pretend. Clarity is pretension. Our desires deceive our eyes, our imag-ination. We live within our literal tricks.

A literal trick can be self-deception or other-deception (and generally it is both). Truly, when we attempt to deceive others, we are also attempting to deceive ourselves. Deception is relational. Scenarios are easy to imagine. One Christian argues with another Christian. "But you aren't being literal in your interpretation," he might say. "The Bible is the literal truth of God, and you are twisting words and ignoring verses." Every singularity is a weapon. Grasping at authority. Poetry is dangerous, it must be eliminated. The deception must continue.

Or, as another example, one individual argues with another. "But you aren't being scientific. Those stories are (ph)/fantasie! They are not real. They are not literally true." In our age, literal truth and truth have become synonymous. Every literal trick is a weapon, a hammer to be wielded. Literal tricks are designed to shatter our different wor(l)ds of diffusion. If all we have is metaphors, then we will have nothing. All or nothing. Unfortunately for the wielders of the literal trick, we already live in a world of ghosts. Ghosts slain/created by literal tricks. All and nothing are derivative. The truth is that truth, itself, alone, is useless.

At the heart of the literal trick is fear. Rather than engage the plurality of images before us, the multiplicity of meaning, we cower from our phantasie, from our phantoms. We create false foundations to stand upon. "Science is all that is real." "The Bible's words are literally true." False limits. This is not a debate between naturalism and super-naturalism. This is about a conflict between stories. Rather than engage other stories, other images, we pretend one singular story is all that contains meaning. Any meaning exterior, any meaning different, is automatically false. What we do not realize is that no light, no meaning escapes a singularity.

The literal trick is hard to avoid. As we hide in the dark, afraid of what we behold from the light of our lanterns, we feel threatened. Potential overload. In our fear and deception, in our pretension, we put out the light of our lantern, and prepare to use the cold, hard metal to bash every lantern (and every lantern-bearer) that approaches. All or nothing. The literal trick strives for the all and chooses nothing. Every shadow, every ghost needs darkness and light to survive. Ambiguity is not a veil to hide behind; it is a ghost that haunts us, a ghost before our vision. With ghostly visions, flickering in the light, we are afraid. However, it is not our ghosts that should frighten us. Instead, before we prepare ourselves to wield the literal trick, we should ask ourselves a question - "What would we have without our ghosts?"


Ryan Langrill said...

I completely disagree. Every writer has (or should have) an implied audience, someone the writer knows is 'illuminated' in certain ways. The entire purpose of writing, usually, is to communicate a particular idea in a particular way. Say I give an essay on economics to an economist. I've written this essay for an economist, I can reasonably expect, if I have written well, for them to be able to grasp the concept I was trying to explain. If I write poorly, or over-ambiguously, I convey a different idea or none at all, or more likely the audience stops reading. My writing becomes ambiguous when it reaches an unintended audience who is unfamiliar with the language, concepts, and jargon of the subject. This doesn't mean that since someone outside the intended audience can't understand that language is in and of itself meaningless or super-ambiguous, it just means that you have to know something about the writer and the purpose of the writing to comprehend it. Just as if I give a paper written in English to someone who doesn't speak it, he'll get a different meaning out of it (none, usually).

People like Derrida are masters obfuscation because they want to challenge the reader to pay attention to the text itself, instead of the ideas, because the ideas aren't deserving of as much attention as the author would like. It's like going through a long, complicated maze that ends back at the beginning; and maybe after you get through, they give you a gold star, but the primary reward of such writing is frustration (and headaches).

Wildflower said...


Well, I suppose (unintentionally) my post (and your response) illustrated my point. If I could be so forward to paraphrase your objections, they are:

#1: Method and audience are important and should not be ignored by any author.

#2: Ambiguity is avoidable.

#3: Texts are really (only) about ideas.

#4: Any considerations beyond concepts/ideas are a waste of time.

I divided your four points because my response differs to each claims. Here are my responses:

#1: Sure. I don't disagree. And I think you'd be hard pressed to find anything in my post that claimed such. However, since I did claim (in my post) that an author should be conscious of the ambiguity of meaning, I suppose it could be a possible strand of meaning. Method and audience are important. However, I'd like to make two points here. First, breaking out of the method of a discipline can be a good idea sometimes - as all methods have an ideological bias. For example, and I think you'll agree, the methods of sociology are biased toward certain causes (good or bad). Questioning the methods of discourse can be quite helpful in the cases where this bias causes oppression and/or injustices. Also, simply because we use one method in one field does not mean it is the foundation for meaning in language. That is the heart of the literal trick - one form of discourse, one perspective limiting itself to a singularity.

Audience is important to keep in mind as well - but we would do well to remember how tightly connected method and audience are. Without keeping the methods in mind of a particular discipline, we wouldn't know where to begin with a particular audience. Every audience rallies around banners. Speak their language at your own risk.

I will say, however, that audiences/methods are some considerations (among many) that a responsible speaker/author should have in mind as they raise their lantern. I did write that we have a responsibility for the intentionality/directionality behind our words, however spread out the result might be. As far as I can tell, the lantern you raise does nothing to contradict what I say here.

#2: You never go out and say that ambiguity is merely an option (rather than a reality), but as far as I can tell, your argument is held up centrally by this underlying assumption. I doubt you'd go so far as claim that it is completely avoidable, so for the moment, I'll assume you would claim that ambiguity is at least partially avoidable (by choice). That may well be true. Whether we should always make that choice is doubtful - who would enjoy strictly literal poetry, for example? Certainly, I will go so far as claim that we have some freedom in the direction we shed our light/words. I can choose to hold my lantern in your direction, without shining it in your eyes, or intentionally covering up the light. That does not mean however, that I have particular control over a)every particle of light's direction and b)what the light will shed on. Ambiguity is unavoidable. Pretending it doesn't exist so we can keep up our illusionary language games simply seems irresponsible. If we truly want to communicate with each other (and believe me, that is my interest), wouldn't it be wise to acknowledge the limits of communication?

Wildflower said...

#3: I suppose I shouldn't be too surprised by your pragmatism, but does beauty and responsibility fit into your approach? You know, quite frankly, I could care less about the "concepts" of a text, if it has a beautiful approach to the world, if it sheds light on possible ethical worldviews. How are concepts and truth exactly going to help us as tragedy continues to rip our world asunder?

If our culture considered beauty and ethics more before we considered how to achieve our ends, i.e. if we considered the values that support our ends before we jumped in head-first with an attempt to find that fastest, most efficient way to actualize those ends, perhaps we'd have a more ethical culture. As I wrote in my post, truth, by itself, it useless.

#4 Not only is this unjustifiably reductionistic (see above), it is also seems to claim that function is completely separate from the text/aesthetics/ethics. However, you are the first to admit that method (in consideration of audience) matters. Isn't method simply another (con)text, a way of telling a story? If this is true, and I think it is, you are not justified in dismissing Derrida (or other "ambiguous"/responsible) authors) simply because their way of conveying meaning is distasteful. The idea (eidos) of the text is the eikon (image). And the image does not simply consist of the concepts. It is the holistic text itself.

We like living in our own horizon of meaning. Writers like Derrida break upon us, shatter our horizons. Dismissal is certainly an option, but if anything I say about the literal trick holds any weight, such is an ethical mistake. You claim we should read books on the quality of their ideas. I disagree. Instead, we like to read books that give us familiar mazes, mazes we have walked before. We feel more comfortable. We don't have to question. Or search. Evaluations of quality (and/or justifications of quality) are emotive states.

There are NO ideas beyond a text - any idea is within the text, is the text itself. Every reading is a matter of process. And, ethically and aesthetically speaking, my claim is that we should pick the novel, different maze, the novel, different text. As you recognize, difference will imply ambiguity (different languages, different methods, different goals, etc.), but those differences shatter our protective, limiting horizons. And ultimately, since our horizons always exclude, I think we have no option but to listen to our ghosts, search for differences, and walk the novel, complex mazes before us. If we do (and that is a big if), we will not end up at the beginning again. Instead, we will find ourselves within a new moment, ready to start one more maze.