Re: language: a plea for tolerance!

Tom Maddox (tmaddox@WELL.COM)
Sun, 13 Oct 1996 16:56:47 -0700

>On Sat, 12 Oct 1996, Tom Maddox wrote:
>> The pomo theory stuff I often find ugly, pretentious, and deluded, to tell
>> the truth. Words such as problematize, hegemony, aporia; goofball
>> constructions on the order of con/pre/de/teXtualization re/con/inversion
>> (cha cha cha); labored puns; brain-boggling syntax; ritual invocation of
>> sacred names; generally, a sense that one is being addressed by a Master of
>> Major Arcana--oh well, I do go on, and I'm being cheerfully unfair, but the
>> hell with it; I began struggling with with this stuff in the late '70s, and
>> I feel I've earned a little attitude.
>I understand that your intent is cheerfully unfair, and expresses
>frustrations which I think many of us have had with trying to understand
>difficult texts. I mean I had to give up on reading Faulkner, way back
>when, but I didn't think it was somehow his fault that I had trouble
>reading him.

I have my own troubles with Faulkner from time to time, but I would
maintain that his writing differs from the stuff I alluded to. It has
beauty, and even when I wish he would just untie that fucking *knot* for
Christ's sake, I'm aware of the power of his language. Look back at my
paragraph above, and you'll see that I'm referring to specific uses of
language that I find "ugly, pretentious, and deluded," and I'll stay with
that assertion. These are judgment calls, matters of esthetics perhaps.

>I assumed he was doing things with language -- doing things
>with the medium itself -- and I figure that's part of the point of some
>pomo writers anyway, certainly Derrida and Lacan say so straight out.
>Maybe it's just okay to say that at some given times, some given writers
>are not useful to our own theory building, and leave it at that?

If that works for you, fine, but a great many people with considerable
influence would have us believe that these theories are more than useful to
some folks some of the time--they are essential. I should also note, in
fairness, that much of what I despise comes not from the Big Hitters
(though I do believe Lacan was a bit of a charlatan, and Baudrillard is
just silly much of the time) but from their acolytes, who manipulate the
language borrowed from the B.H.s like novice magicians mimicking the
master's incantations, complete with nasal whine, cigarette cough, and
Kentucky accent.

>a day will come when Faulkner will make some important sense to me.

And maybe not. Gustibus non est disputandum. But as *artists* I find the
theorists a sad lot, for reasons mentioned above. Even when I grow
severely impatient with Faulkner or, say, Joyce, I never feel that their
efforts are bogus, which I quite often do with the theorists. I sometimes
feel that all theory aspires to the condition of gibberish.

>Tom, in the later part of your post you talk about immersing your students
>in the primitive aspects, the material practices, of writing (the effects
>of word-processing on writing, etc.) and I think that's partly pomo
>theorists are doing with language practices -- attempting to immerse
>readers in often taken-for-granted aspects of material practices of

True enough--I just wonder why their writing has to be so often labored and
butt ugly.

>I'm actually very interested in the effect of word-processing on
>writing -- and I'll bet that if either of us tried to explain to students
>why we were interested in that, it might could get pretty complicated
>and arcane, pretty fast, and we'd maybe have a whole bunch of students all
>set to tell us we're full of theoretical BS (in other words, we'd end up,
>in their eyes, fitting the description you offer of pomos.

What do you mean *us* (as Tonto is reputed to have said)? My allusion to
Wittgenstein was more than passing fancy; I put considerable stock in using
ordinary language to examine theoretically complex issues. Likewise my
reference to the phenomenology of the writing and reading experiences--I
want to work with the immediate sensations. And from there, whatever
theory building takes place can do so by reference to that groundwork, not
to perverse incarnations of Heidegger or Freud.

>If stuff is
>useful to us in our own theory-building, then somehow the difficulty of it
>is sort of fun. This ties back to stuff Eric and others have said about
>the central fact of educational life as we've known it being coercion!

I don't follow you here. I understand the coercion well enough, but I do
not see how that ties to difficulty for its own sake. My feeling is that
things are quite difficult and strange enough on their own terms without
adding difficulty. I much prefer simplicity and elegance and do my
damndest to get there (all right, I confess I have a weakness for humor,
too, but Monty Python's more than Derrida's).

I should also add that I will be teaching students who will not receive
grades, who are free to walk out of my class and take another, who can
develop pretty much any kind of individual or group project they wish, and
who will write self-evaluations and be evaluated by me in the most
straightforward prose I can manage. I am concerned that they set and
pursue their own goals within the very flexible limits of this class--not
that they fulfill any agenda of mine--and this certainly could include the
intense study of pomo-ismus in whatever form.