Sunday, June 19, 2011

The idea of paths in understanding something like postmodern thought

This is snipped from a message board on which I posted this comment as is:

But then perhaps one of the biggest sins of postmodern philosophers, and here the sense of "postmodern" I use is simply a most general historical sense -- so let me say serious, in-depth philosophers of the last 75 years, say -- is something that is a bigger sin than meets the eye. It has to do with the problem of pedagogy and introduction. On the one hand, a recent I think here of an interview with Derrida on "the question" shows someone speaking quite in earnest and not trying to be difficult. On the other hand, there are things like Glas and, well, most all of what Derrida wrote.

The problem is that if you have thought and read enough you know very well that this material can be difficult yet can also "flow like oil" and be as rich and basically true as a Bach fugue. It points the way to one's own thinking and that, too, can be very rich indeed. But there seems to be hitherto undeveloped basic possibilities for building paths into understanding that are, well, just better than what one ordinarily finds. This problem makes me feel like a worm twisting on a hook, because I already know that there are real pains taken in someone like Heidegger to spell out some things and if you think them through you think, ok, this isn't so hard and this guy is really unpacking more than you think. But I also think, no, wait a minute, there is a great deal more that is possible in terms of building paths of understanding into thought.

The greater sin then pertains to intellectual capitalism and in particular the problem(atic) (should be a "problematic") of the capitalism of talent, performance, production, etc. This problematic is not given to thought. From this standpoint, writing has tended to conform pretty strictly to the demands of the milieus of production: the academy, what scholars/professionals can be expected to be up to speed on, the texts that are being intersected with and referenced, even a certain standing expectation and even demand that philosophy be "difficult".

This relates to general questions of ability and what sort of attributions might go along with it. It relates to conversations that are mere asides, had at professors' desks and in cafeterias or restaurants more than directly in the substantive progression of the work of thinkers.

The issue isn't that though should just be "simplified". I think it should be affirmed that it can, if one wants, be richly complex and involved. But there is the general possibility of building paths into such thinking. Such paths appear to me to differ from summarization, which is, if not quite an industry, a kind of genre and even a kind of emergent mode of thought.

There are a lot of summarizations of postmodernism. They tend to read very similarly. They are not hard to do, apparently, and even seem to establish a kind of space whose contours and conditions are themselves worthy of reflection; they are likely to be more and more numerous as time goes on.

The problem is more along the lines of the "in depth reading". But I am pointing to something other than precisely that scholarly enterprise that one might find either in classes (typically of graduate students) or reading groups who accept the basic conditions and give a given text a go. So and so says that...what do you think the second chapter is up to? does this relate to so and so's other does this concept operate in the text, etc.? All fine and good.

But there might be another kind of introduction. In fact, I'm pretty sure another kind is possible, but one that releases itself from immediately plunging into the text proper, yet which at the same time unfolds a given concept or conceptuality in a very step by step way, introducing something, but instead of just plowing forward and saddling the reader with still more concepts, footnotes, references to still more and vast literatures, traditions, etc. -- all of which would lead to the "aside" conversations at a desk or as an aside; "well, it's hard, yeah, but you gotta read so and so" and that's about it -- it might develop some thinking with another kind of goal, of simply "getting on one's feet" in a certain way, to the point of coming out the other side of such an introduction with a bit more of a real understanding that is not immediately knocked down by overwhelming demands.

It is as if (but not just as if) one faces a conversation in which very able people are busy at at, and one is tugging at their sleeve like a child, wanting to understand what is going on, and is shushed and told to just keep one's place and deal with it. It's also interesting that some of these "children" are people like Chomsky who really should know a little better and who might be expected to affirm that they understand at least something of a very large tradition and enterprise, rather than reduce it all to being incomprehensible.

It's not, by any means, a question of staying with "ordinary language" (hah). Try reading Andscombe's Intentions or Donald Davidson. No, I'm talking about another kind of writing/reading altogether. I think this general rubric has barely occurred to people, and this relates to that "greater sin" and a great unthought throughout the traditions: the question of performative (the performance of real understanding/reading/thinking) capability.

A number of preliminary questions could be discerned in the prima facies accompanying this space which I suspect are just stomped over and ignored.

Perhaps one clue for such thinking, paths in thinking, is that, just as Heidegger is able to take "this Dasein that has Being as an issue for itself" as an ongoing datum and entry into the unfolding of his Analytic in Being and Time, it is possible to take the issue and question of are you understanding, do you understand as itself a kind of ongoing basic datum. Going in and riding along with the question "do you understand me, are you worried about understanding this?" it is possible to establish a ground of understanding. "Ok, thus far we understand that we do not understand". This is fully of a piece with Chomsky's discourse on the matter; his reflections on Continental thought are not hard to understand, in the main.

It is possible then to begin to insinuate into such a progression more an more concepts that give power to that question. This might be a good strategy. As the person dealing with the problem of dealing with in general enters into such meditations, they are then introduced to concepts that are experienced quite fully and effectively as empowering, enabling, illuminating, clear, definite, effective, and formed well enough. This, in turn could do two things: point to ways that such conceptuality could be further developed, indicating a kind of writing, even giving an example that from a certain "from here" could be seen as both opaque and yet something to be desired, and it could then also give preliminary intersections with the more traditional literatre. "From here, you can see how it would be possible to develop more concepts that would basically have you thinking this 'question of understanding Judith Butler' in very 'Butlerian' terms indeed, and without the sense that there is some sleight of hand going on".

There are broader implications for this as well, since such "introductory, transformative dicsourse" also has some fundamental things to say about "thought, everyday thought", as such.