Ogged emails in response to last night's snark. He vouches strenuously for John McCumber's all around good character. McCumber is evidently not the slack-jawed troglodyte I made him out to be. He is erudite and sensitive and agreeable and I am willing to take Ogged's word, since I have rather a good impression of Ogged's erudite and sensitive and agreeable nature.
[UPDATE: The basis for Ogged's favorable judgement, he now emails me, is a paper and a book. Well, I'll read the paper. I'm not up for a whole book just right now. But if I can find something nice to say about the paper, I'll post yet another update later.]
What can I say? Sometimes a snark turns out to be a boojums. That is, I feel bad for being too mean. I am obviously forgetting my Bene Gesserit training. 'Annoyance is the mind killer.' I should be less concerned with getting a lot of blood churning in the water, more concerned with executing precise, civil take-downs. Then a hand-shake and we are all friends and have learned a little something, maybe. I write these boisterous, lengthy screeds by way of jollying myself along and I sort of lose track of the fact that other human beings are involved. I'm talking to myself while throwing the book at the wall. Cussing and swearing and stomping around. Hyperbolic whinging for sheer glory of it is fine in a small circle of like-minded friends. The egregious and, frankly, mean-spirited errors that usually creep in don't usually creep out to cause trouble. So it isn't really responsible to put such properly small-group stuff on this new-fangled interweb, where it can roll around, get into wrong hands, cry in pained distress. Used to be, I didn't have too many readers; now I've got some. With some power comes some responsibility. Sometimes I think it's time for me to shed my snarkskin and grow up.
Let me state, unsnarkily, the serious case against what McCumber has written. Overall, he has a sort of para-Hegelian line about how, when you are breaking on through to the next level of understanding, you have to expect things to be difficult and unclear - even unnecessarily so; writers flounder around not quite getting it. (Sweet lordy ain't it so!) The trouble with this is that he writes as though anyone would deny it. Specifically, he hints that it is failure to grasp this obvious point that leads to things like accusations of Bad Writing. But it is quite clear that the accusation of Bad Writing - warranted or not - amounts to something like this: a class of writers are taking all the murky, jargony incoherence of their own writings as evidence they are ready to move on to the next intellectual level when properly it is evidence they should be flunked back to some previous level. Their jargon is just pretentious, authoritarian mannerism. This is an approximate statement, of course. But it's a better first draft of the indictment than anything you will find between the covers of Just Being Difficult. McCumber is not one of the more angrily strident contributors. And, let me just add, he is not a bad writer. But he is not taking the really quite elementary steps one could take to clear the air. If the accusations against the likes of Butler and Bhabha are unfounded, or if Bad Writers are unrepresentative of the whole, this is something that can be talked about sensibly. No need to pretend the complaint is something else - something silly that is easily brushed aside. The complaint isn't silly. But it may of course be mistaken, partly or wholly.
What McCumber really does that's wrong, however, is thoroughly misrepresent the state of contemporary philosophy. He thinks philosophy is 'bobbing along in the wake of logical positivism'. That is vague enough it might be let pass with a warning. But he presses the point. He strongly hints, without quite saying, that logical positivism is still a significant force in philosophy. Which is just staggeringly wrong. And: he flagrantly misrepresents what logical positivism is. He makes out that logical positivism involves defining the notion of 'clarity' in manifestly horrible, hopeless fashion: in truth-functional terms (this is very vague in McCumber's paper.) In fact, 'clarity' was not really a keyword for the logical positivists, and certainly it was not a technical term. And if someone goes and proves me wrong by pointing to some out of the way technical usage, I am quite sure no one maintained that whatever that technical usage was, it was supposed to usurp the place of ordinary usage. To see why, consider something like Principia mathematica: Russell gives a several hundred page proof that 1 + 1 = 2. Now it would have pleased Russell to make the joke - he probably did - that he was glad finally to clear that up. But he would not have taken the absurd doozy of a next step of maintaining that 'clarity' be defined in terms of complete logical analysis of meaning. If there is a sense in which PM is clear, there is also a sense in which it is not clear.
Bobbing along in the Russell's wake, the logical positivists focused on truth and meaning and analysis. They took it for granted that a sort of clarity would arise out of getting these things right for the first time (never mind that they were deluded). But thinking that clarity will arise out of proper analysis is not the same as giving a bad and tyrannically exclusive definition of 'clarity' in truth-functional terms. No one ever attempted such a thing. McCumber is, quite simply, making it up. And he appears to be doing it by way of concocting an explanation of why anyone would do something so strange as to accuse certain people of writing badly. So he is not just studiously neglecting to address the actual charges against a certain sort of writing. That would be a sin of omission. He is also significantly adding to the general trouble with a smelly red herring of an explanation as to why these charges would ever have been made.
Wittgenstein, I recall, wrote to Russell that the Tractatus was so clear no one would understand it. How to understand such a paradox? What he meant was something like: there are no hints for beginners in this book. Consider the difference between a blueprint of a machine that is supposed to be read only by a highly-trained expert, and a blueprint that is supposed to be read by a novice just getting the hang of reading blueprints: oversimplified, cluttered with explanatory this-and-that. Which blueprint is clearer? The first is clearer to the expert, and that is what Wittgenstein meant. He had written a book for experts only; and - besides himself - there weren't any. Arrogant joke, but you get it. The second blueprint is better for the beginner, but it causes the expert to tear his hair because it is oversimplified and misleading and he can't tell which lines correspond to machine-parts and which lines are there to help the beginner figure out how to read the other lines. Clarity is in the eye of the beholder.
This gets back to another point from last night's post. McCumber really does not take any significant steps towards analyzing the notion of clarity. He misses the first, most obvious thing: that a text X can be clear to Y and not to Z. (Well, he sort of gets this point, but it only comes out late, in the guise of a sudden discovery.) So clarity has to be defined relationally, if you are going to define it at all. Of course, it might be objected that I am already begging the question in favor of the hair-splitting analytical tastes of my clan. But, frankly, I'm not. Clarity is obviously a workable term as it stands. We all sort of understand it, although it is vague and ambiguous. Not a lot of weight is being rested on it, in any case. I don't insist that it be defined or analyzed at all.
What I don't see is that McCumber has found any way to make the term into a source of deep, abiding philosophical difficulty without undertaking the sort of analytic hairsplitting that obviously does not attract him. What he is saying is really quite simple and could be stated fully and adequately in a sentence or so: sometimes it is necessary to write difficult, unclear stuff because it's still in process, or because you are dealing with a bunch of blockheads who won't find a clear explanation to be clear; so the process of driving a point through their thick heads requires a certain amount of compromise and contortion. That's his point. I haven't left a lot out. He ornaments it with a bit of Aristotle and Hegel and Adorno. But you can strip that off if you don't like it. It isn't necessary, because absolutely everyone will grant the basic thesis without argument. It's common sense, really.
Well, that's the more or less sober case against McCumber's paper, "The Metaphysics of Clarity and the Freedom of Meaning". I can quite believe that Ogged is right that the man does a lot better when he isn't getting tripped up about contemporary philosophy being just logical positivist left-overs. He's probably got some Heideggerian knitting that he knits well when he sticks to it.