The Opaqueness of Language

LeoCasey at LeoCasey at
Sat Nov 4 12:13:05 MST 1995

Doug has raised an issue concerning the difficulty of (or more precisely put,
the opaqueness) of language in some French critical theory (Derrida, etc.).

I think that some important distinctions must be made for this question to be
properly addressed. First, let us concede that any area of specialized
knowledge and study will require a specialized vocabulary which is not
readily accessible to someone unfamiliar with the field. It should really
come as no surprise to the many trained economists on this list that a great
deal of their debate on the labor theory of value (much less the organic
composition of capital and the falling rate of profit) is really close to
unimpenetrable to someone without their training. For most of the rest of us
(I was trained in political philosophy, and have done only a general and
admittedly partial reading of texts discussing the LTV), it would take a
great deal of effort to figure out what was actually being discussed, and the
opening lines of the postings denouncing those with different views as class
traitors are not very promising signs that the effort would be worth it. But
since I believe that some degree of specialized training and voabulary is
essential in each area, I do _not_ assume that the relative opaqueness of the
discouse means that it is worthless.

I think it would be useful for us to recall the difficulty in understanding,
and the time and effort it took to do so, Marx's Gundrisse (or German
Ideology, or 1844 Manuscripts, or...) when we first read it. As someone who
once had the time and inclination to work my way through Hegel's texts, I
would also say that they are very difficult and require intense rereading and
decoding, but that like the texts of Marx, they are rich and subtle, and the
effort is worth it. Clearly, our time (including our means of earning our
living and the demands of our political practice) place limits on how much we
can go to into different specialized fields, but the fact that I have no time
to figure out Wittgenstein, for example, does not lead me to the conclusion
that the opacity of his discourse is anything more than the result of  a
specialized philosophical vocabulary. (When we read authors translated from
another language, there is an additional problem of the different linguistic
structures in which someone writes; anyone who has ever tried to read the
original German, for example, has been driven half-crazy by the neologistic
compound words which are created all the time.) It is also worthwhile to
remember that attempts to popularize these works and make them transparent,
such as Engels did for Marx, often take place at the cost of losing the
subtlety and nuance, the richness, of the original.

Now, that is not to say that opaqueness is _always_ inevitable and necessary.
Much of that developed in the name of Althusserianism (not Althusser himself,
or even Poulantzas but the numerous texts produced by folks like Hindess and
Hirst) were opaque because obscure vocabulary became an end in itself. One
could struggle through the text, decoding term after term, only to discover
at the end that it had been nothing but a endless exercise in taxonomy.

IMO, there are moments of the French critical theorists (Iriguiy, the former
Maoists from _Tel Quel_, etc.) for whom opacity is not a necessary
consequence of a specialized vocabulary, but a cover for a lack of substance.
This is not the case, however, with Derrida or Foucault, to cite two of the
more prominent thinkers considered in this vein. The problem is that that
both men write out of a philosophical tradition heavily indebted, either by
attraction or repulsion, to a number of thinkers (Nietzsche, Heidegger, the
phenomenologists, Lacan and more) not generally on the reading list of
Marxists. Indeed, some of the difficulty of the writing style is a
self-conscious attempt to express a certain understanding of language taken
from various of these philosophers. I am not going to try to explain their
approaches in any detail (there is a regular little cottage industry of
secondary literature for anyone with an inclination [and the time] to figure
them out). But I will insist that opacity to some is no more a sign of some
intellectual defficiency in philosophy than it is in economics. Transparency
is a virtue, but transparency and opacity are relative terms, and what may be
transparent to an economist could very well be Greek to a philosopher.

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