A few more thoughts on ‘difficulty’ and bad writing. The result of reading another introduction, this one to the anthology Critical Terms for Literary Study. Thomas McLaughlin has some interestingly symptomatic things to say.

So the very project of theory is unsettling. It brings assumptions into question…And…it does so in what is often a forbidding and arcane style. Many readers are frightened off by the difficulty of theory, which they can then dismiss as an effort to cover up in an artifically difficult style the fact that it has nothing to say…Of course theory is difficult – sometimes for compelling reasons, sometimes because of offensive self-indulgence – but simply assuming that it is all empty rhetoric ultimately keeps you from confronting the real questions that theory raises.

There’s a lot of interesting maneuvering going on in that passage. I could write a theory-laden exegesis on it, if I were that way inclined, but instead I’ll just make a comment or two in the demotic.

Note first of all the sly insinuation, that is so often resorted to in these cases. The ‘project’ of ‘theory’ is unsettling. Geddit? We’re scared, we’re threatened, we think theory is going to stick its hand up our skirt. And then it appears again – readers are ‘frightened off.’ No we’re not. We’re repelled. There is a difference. ‘Theory’ is about as frightening as a soggy doughnut. But the unsettling/threatened/frightened bit is a time-honoured defensive strategy, of course, especially since Freud put it to such good use. If it works it makes the theory-skeptics feel vaguely guilty or foolish or caught out (uh oh, am I a weakling? am I too timid and pathetic for this scary stuff?), and even if it doesn’t, it makes the theory-partisans feel all sorts of terrific things: macho, brave, rebellious, progressive, daring, cutting edge, innovative, able to confront things that other people turn away from.

And then of course there’s the nonsense about ‘assuming’ it is all empty rhetoric, and the even sillier nonsense about keeping oneself from confronting the real questions that theory raises. That assumes – assumes – that literary ‘theory’ is the only discipline that does confront those real questions. Has McLaughlin never heard of an adjacent department that goes by the name of ‘philosophy’? People there occasionally turn their attention to questions of how language works too, as a matter of fact, and even though they’re not immune to jargon themselves, they generally do a considerably better job of it than literary ‘theorists’ do. To say the least.

Any discourse that was out to uncover and question that system had to find a language, a style, that broke from the constraints of common sense and ordinary language. Theory set out to produce texts that could not be processed successfully by the commonsensical assumptions that ordinary language puts into play. There are texts of theory that resist meaning so powerfully – say those of Lacan or Kristeva – that the very process of failing to comprehend the text is part of what it has to offer.

I have a lot to say about that, but this Comment is already long, so I’ll leave the passage for your contemplation for now, and comment later. I do love the last sentence, though. Yes, you could say that.

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