There’s an interesting multiblog conversation going on about the merits, functions, affects and effects of writing in “difficult” style. What’s meant is mostly not (although maybe it should be) the difficulty that any learner has as they raise their ‘game’ from Dr. Seuss and cereal boxes to elementary textbooks, introductory university texts, specialized field monographs, and so on. Rather, the discussion is about high-theoretical styles in the humanities that seem or are explicitly “difficult” on purpose. These texts require a substantial commitment of time and attention to unpack, sometimes for little evident gain. They have been pithily described as producing “academic Stockholm syndrome.”
The most extensive discussion I’ve seen has been on Larval Subjects. The focus there has been precisely on the nefarious ability of such texts to colonize the minds of their victims, turning them into abject disciples doomed to a twilight existence as slaves to the master text (I’m caricaturing a rich discussion outrageously, but this is in fact the drift of much of the fretting). My contribution there has been to offer the dead vole that such texts only have the power readers give them – like this blog, of course, feel free to practice your liberation strategies here – so perhaps we might want to look at why some readers but not others are inclined to such reverential or even masochistic responses to the text. After being mistakenly accused of missing the point about the real existence of such reader communities (of course there are) we reached a nice point of agreement that it might be worth looking into why they are disposed to select and react to texts in this apparently-troubling way. But since that line of inquiry was promptly dropped there, I’m picking it up here.
At one level there’s absolutely nothing remarkable about this dynamic of text identification except the fact that all these smart people seem to think it’s remarkable. Every text from Dr. Seuss on up, difficult or not, has the charismatic potential to generate reverent reading communities that might be described as ‘priesthoods’. My own experience is with Antonio Gramsci, an Italian theorist who wrote about complex things quite clearly, all in all. There are a lot of pages of Gramsci, most of them in prison notebooks that he never had a chance to edit into a linear text, many of them on topics that very few people could care less about. This of course creates the opportunity for a mystery cult for those few who have virtuously read through all of it, sort of like the Kabbalah or the Hadith. Here are instances where the reading community in effect ADDS difficulty to the sacred text by digging out and canonizing every little detail, aside, and tangent. The characteristic assertion is that the plainish meanings of the core writings must be supplemented or even amended in light of these exclusive arcana. (Translation fetishists from the Qur’an to Weber and Foucault work the same way. Translations are not just workably second-best but unacceptable in comparison to the sacred revelation of the original.)
People choose these texts and these reading strategies for all the usual reasons they choose religions (and reject other religions). They may be born into them, or disposed toward them by cultural marking of the text. They may be seeking identity and collective effervescence in a community. The text may be culturally marked as normative or transgressive, enabling the effervescence of dominant or rebellious subculture identification. There may accordingly be a component of acceptance and/or rejection of authority, be it the father’s or the group’s. These are choices within structured fields of options and decision strategies. All of this falls under the sociology of what Weber called elective affinity and Bourdieu elaborated as the schemes of the habitus.
A sense of special belonging in something larger than oneself is, Durkheim tells us, the payoff for any religious affiliation. The content of this feeling is society, community. As I remarked in the previous post, a characteristic of modern societies is the weakening of traditional communities in favor of the elevation of the individual to sacred status. This is because of economic and demographic growth that creates a highly articulated and interdependent division of labor. Because we do so many things and serve so many functions, out of each others’ view so to speak (modern foucauldian surveillance has nothing on the continuous intimate familiarity of the medieval village, but we feel it much more keenly), we are only loosely able to regulate each other with collective morals.
The individual becomes the focus of modern societies’ sense of the sacred because it is only at that level that moral order can be established and enforced. As Durkheim noted in Suicide, this puts tremendous pressure on individuals to self-regulate, which is in principle impossible (by the same power I make a rule for myself I can break it, and so on). An internalized feel for our interdependence is needed, but that’s tricky to reconcile with the general message of individualism. The diagnostic malaise of the modern age is accordingly anomie, an anxious drifting sense of valueless disconnection.
The disposition to become religiously devoted to a text may certainly be found here in the ordinary dynamics of mismatch between the pressure put on individuals by their relative moral autonomy and their yearning for authoritative regulation in enfolding communities. The text offers direction, identity, belonging. This does not yet fully explain, however, why some readers are drawn to texts that they perceive to be harsh, demanding, inscrutable, and ultimately abusive. The problem with the “Stockholm syndrome” analogy is that books do not have guns and getaway cars; their covers may be shut at any time by a reader who feels her autonomy being threatened. The relationship is entirely at the reader’s option. Nor is an analogy to emotionally or physically abusive personal relationships, although tempting, entirely satisfactory. We often wonder why one partner stays with another who beats them, but there are often quite practical reasons having to do with plausible alternatives, livelihood, realistic physical fear, obligations to children or to relationship ideologies, and so on. None of these quite fits devotion to an abusive text.
There seems to be a completely sui generis personal commitment to misery at work, enacted or publicized as domination by the text despite the self-evident power mismatch between a book and a person. This is what makes a diagnosis of masochism so tempting. The deferral of gratification that marks the “spirit of capitalism” in Weber’s famous analysis if the Protestant character may also be at work, although this explanation may suffer from anachronism. Fortunately, Bourdieu extends this analysis of self-denial into later capitalism and connects the dots on a sociology of masochism by reference to the climbing strategies of the petty bourgeoisie. He refers to “cultural goodwill” as their disposition to practice extreme moral rigor and to accept subserviently the cultural authority of the dominant class fraction’s artifacts in exchange for imagined communion with their betters, a communion that is of course never entirely achieved.
Another possibility is that there’s nothing that advertises one’s mastery of difficult texts like complaint about the rigors of devotion to difficult texts. Except perhaps one-upping this move with a cultural meta-analysis of reading dispositions, as I’m doing here. There are also some people who seem to be complaining about something no matter what. This is apparently rooted in the evolutionary diversification of attention-getting strategies in infants as a function of brain chemistry – some laugh, some wail. Of course none of these explanations is mutually exclusive. Anyway, I read books and sometimes I get stuff I can use from them, sometimes I don’t. I personally recommend this strategy.