A Brief note on the Importance of Unreadable Critical Theory in the Humanities

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by Tenzan Eaghll

Today I read my 500th article on why the humanities are failing. Since I began working in religious studies these articles have been published with abandon, all of them claiming that the humanities are devalued, underfunded, and destined to be fully eclipsed by science, neoliberalism―or some other boogey monster―and all of them suggesting some sort of reasonable solution to this crisis. Now, I do not want to detract from the value of these articles, or to deny the grave threat the academy faces from current austerity practices, but simply want to point out that this threat of obscurity and rejection has always been the horizon of critical theory in the humanities.

In the article I read today the author’s position was that the humanities have been eclipsed by scientific research and that this shadow of oblivion is not necessary. The author points to numerous scientific-like studies produced within the humanities that could revive it in a science driven world, or at least save it from irrelevance. “The humanities,” the author suggests, “are producing very scientifically relevant material,” and this should not be ignored. The article concludes, in a somewhat familiar tone, by calling for humanities scholars to make this evident, and to make their work accessible to the masses by engaging in “more public scholarship.”

What this article forgets, like all others I have ever read on this subject, is that critical work in the humanities has always been ignored, at least initially, and no amount of pandering (scientific or literary) will change this. Why? Because the fields of study that cultivate critical thinking and encourage the critique of dominant ideologies will always be marginalized.

Let’s face facts, as there is no point in denying the obvious, critical theory in the humanities, and the critical wing of religious studies along with it, poses a threat to the status quo. We question assumed hierarchies, gods, capital interests, white privilege, patriarchy, the predominance of mythic structures―basically, all dominant discourses―and as such, we are sidelined.

What is ignored by those who call for us to make our work more accessible, more scientific, to write more simply, or to appeal to the “public” (as if the public was some singular objective domain), is that many of our ideas stand in contrast to the (perceived) status quo, and that regardless of how accessible we make our ideas they will always be ignored by those who have a vested interest in maintaining the apparent order of things.

Moreover, what is often ignored is that the difficulty of critical work is its strength. Ideas from the humanities only take root after decades of assimilation, and even after this they are held at bay and labeled as dangerous, and it is precisely this obscurity and danger that makes the humanities so powerful.

To prove the point, simply think of the struggles faced by many of the literary and philosophical talents that humanities scholars hold in highest esteem. When Kant first published the Critique of Pure Reason in 1781, barely anyone read it for almost a decade. What is arguably the landmark treatise of the Enlightenment was lambasted as hopelessly complex and filled with unreadable prose by a couple reviewers and then ignored for years. In fact, it is with Kant that the cliché of ‘bad philosophical writing’ began. The same can also be said for all of Nietzsche’s works, as almost no one read his books until after he died and to this day notable critics refer to what is arguably his greatest work, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, as illegible.  Harold Bloom, for instance, one of the humanities own “public scholars,” calls Zarathustra “a gorgeous disaster” and “unreadable.” In the twentieth-century this trend has continued in earnest. When James Joyce first published Ulysses in 1922 it was widely read in secret but met with outrage and disgust in public. To own a copy in Britain and the United states was a criminal offense for many years, and people had to ship it secretly through the mail just to get a copy. Or, to take an even more recent example, think of the opposition Jacques Derrida faced from other members of the academy in the early 1990s. Over 200 Analytic philosophers tried to stop Cambridge university from granting him an Honorary Doctorate in 1992 by suggesting that his philosophy is filled with “tricks and gimmicks.”

My point, of course, is not that the humanities is the domain of secret knowledge or that what we do in critical theory is so incredibly difficult that only a few gifted geniuses can understand it, but simply that we work with new ideas and new language, and new ideas and new language are often ignored and caricatured as illegible and hieroglyphic until they develop a wider audience (which sometimes takes decades). Two-hundred years after Kant wrote the Critique of Pure Reason the idea that our mental faculties determine our perception of the world is widely accepted across the sciences and popular culture. Similarly, though it is often misused and misunderstood, the term for Derrida’s philosophy, “deconstruction,” has entered the lingua franca of the modern age.

Hence, we don’t need to make the humanities more accessible or to write more simply when working with difficult ideas. In fact, I would suggest that it is precisely the illegibility and obscurity of some of our work that harbors its significance. As Derrida suggested in the wake of his controversial Honorary Doctorate at Cambridge University, when you question the rules of the dominant discourse, or try to politicize or democratize the university scene, you are bound to be attacked or ignored. Sometimes this silencing comes from within the academy itself, and sometimes it just seems as if the general public couldn’t give a damn about what we have to say, but it is precisely in this obscurity that some of the most important work in Western literature has been written―so rage on in a fog of oblivion, if you must.

In the coming years, hopefully the austerity that the humanities has faced in the past decades will lessen and we will see increased funding and hirings, but make no mistake, even if this happens the most critical work out there will always be ignored when it first arrives on the scene. For no matter how relevant our work is, the work produced in fields that cultivate critical thinking and encourage the critique of dominant discourses and ideologies will always be undervalued … at least for a time.

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10 Responses to A Brief note on the Importance of Unreadable Critical Theory in the Humanities

  1. Randi Warne says:

    Hear, hear! this one is going on my door – and being sent to my dean.

  2. Nick says:

    Complexity is one thing; hieratic obfuscation is another.

    I think one of the reasons people satirise critical theory is that it often sounds like another guild protecting itself.

    University administrators and curial officials at the Vatican resort to the same kind of obscurity when they don’t really want their ideas to be scrutinised.

    Of course, the latter two groups aren’t marginal. But neither, in most cases, are academics.

    And the problem with at least some marginal groups is that they’re marginal because they’re nutters. It’s only time that sorts out who’s who. Otherwise we’re also bound to accept the self-pity of Evangelical groups who claim that the “world” always hates them because it hates the truth.

  3. Michael Morse says:

    Hear, hear! As long as we can connect our present practice, however tenuously and speciously, to august forerunners, we can continue to blame others, those illiterate, conformist philistines, for not getting our work. Better still, we can spare ourselves the time-consuming self-criticism that would distract us from work on our latest triumph of post-modern theory. We were right all along; how splendid..

  4. Alexander Duchene says:

    This insularity IS THE REASON the humanities are perceived to be irrelevant. Scientists studying black holes millions of light years away are able and eager to discuss their work with the public, but philosophers studying the most important issues our society faces can’t be bothered.

    If you want to know what the power structure fears, go outside your ivory tower and see what they’re fighting. They’re spending billions against voting rights and science education and straightforward economic reforms. Ideas locked away in academic journals the average person can’t even access pose no threat.

  5. Lazarina Markovič says:

    I had no idea just how many Kants there were in academia!

  6. Anonymous says:

    Or maybe critical theory is obscure because it’s just a confused view. As a philosopher I would never subject my students to this type of work and have yet to understand why people take it seriously. Don’t forget that critical theory had its impact mainly in literature and art departments and was passed over by mainstream philosophy programs, who didn’t find it helpful. You don’t need to be obscure to criticize the status quo and many philosophers have done so with a readable style. This includes Plato’s dialogues, Descartes’ Discourse, Locke’s Second Treatise, Russell’s Why I’m Not a Christian, Rawls’ A Theory of Justice, and Dennett’s Breaking the Spell (a NYT best seller).

  7. Han says:

    Thanks! Came here from 3QD. This is an interesting point of view.

    But one thing that bothers me about humanities writing is not so much the complexity as the sense that there are no criteria for quality, success, or failure. You mention Kant, Nietzsche and Derrida as examples of the obvious success of the critical endeavor. But what is so obvious about this? Take Derrida for instance. Once the word ‘deconstruction’ is out there, you can figure out what it means without reading any of his writing. So the popularity of the word has no necessary connection with the success, or even the awareness, of his ideas.

    I also read somewhere of an experiment in which a section of Derrida text was altered so that the logical context was inverted: ‘is’ because ‘is not’ etc. Apparently very few Derrida readers could tell which was the altered text. If a text is this hard to parse, what is the point of it?

    Another way to say this is: how can something be a threat to the status quo if no one can understand it except a select few university professors? How will complex words change the material realities of class or caste?

  8. AYY says:

    I don’t “illegible”means what the author thinks it means. The problem with the book wasn’t penmanship. Maybe he means “unintelligible” or maybe he means something else, but every copy of the book I have seen is not illegible. I don’t think the author is using the term “harbors” correctly either. I can’t tell if his statement “the idea that our mental faculties determine our perception of the world is widely accepted across the sciences and popular culture” is true, because I’m not sure exactly what the writer is trying to say, or whether he understands Kant. If that was all Kant had to say, he could have said it more or less in a sentence or two.
    The point is that if the author is defending obscure writing he ought to show he actually can use words correctly. This piece suggests that there is room for improvement in that regard.
    The author is also selective in his citations. There are plenty of works that were considered drivel in their time and still are considered drivel, if anyone still reads them. There’s no percentage in taking the approach he takes of saying well there was something that people thought was too obscure, and now we think differently, so that means it’s okay to write obscurely. The examples he uses are outliers. Usually people write obscurely because they have nothing to say and/or because they are conceptually confused.

    As for Derrida, his philosophy was filled with tricks and gimmicks. So there.

    • Riaz Hassan says:

      With you all the way. I was also wondering about the author’s use of ‘illegible’ for ‘unreadable’ (in a meaning sense rather than a physical one, as being smudged or scrawled). And, of course, Kant had a great deal more to say. And. yes, Foucault complained that Derrida was a trickster who wrote so that he could always say he had been misquoted or misinterpreted if someone criticized him. Obscurity is more of an escape route or a smokescreen than a merit, though some people batten on it. After digging through the verbiage one expects the central ideas to be rarefied or special in some way. One is often disappointed.

  9. etseq says:

    Is this post a parody? Critical theory isn’t a threat to anyone with any real power. In fact, it thrives in the very elite universities that have embraced the neoliberal vocational model dominated by a few upper middle class tenured faculty who thrive off the slave labor of grad students and adjuncts. The political and economic elites are happy to indulge your hollow critiques buried in obscure journals while cashing their checks.

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