A Defense of Obscurity: The Unreadable



by Michael Munro

Whether or not clarity is enough, it is certainly not enough to throw around the term ‘clarity,’ since that term obviously means very different things to different people, and stands in urgent need of clarification.[1]
—Hans-Johann Glock

What is there more mysterious than clarity?[2]
—Paul Valéry

“If reading is not to be simply synonymous with deciphering, commentary or even interpretation,” Geoffrey Bennington has written, “then it must inevitably encounter the question of the unreadable”[3]: “If I can simply read what I read, then what I am doing is not in fact reading but something else (processing, decoding, unscrambling): reading as such occurs only as and in the experience of the unreadable.”[4] Not “processing, decoding, unscrambling,” neither is it “deciphering, commentary or even interpretation”—reading is an activity irreducible to any other that may, at first glance, be thought to be synonymous with it. Whatever else it is, reading is not something one “simply” does. Nor, it appears, is it something one can do “simply.” If “reading as such occurs only as and in the experience of the unreadable,” and if the unreadable can be identified with the illegible, reading for all that remains no less difficult to place. “The very act of recognizing moments of illegibility,” Craig Dworkin has written, “cancels their status as such; reading the illegible nullifies its own account in the precise moment of its construction and obliterates the very object it would claim to have identified, creating a new space of erasure which cannot itself be read. In that moment of singularity the unreadable disappears within its own legibility, and that legibility simultaneously effaces the text it would seem to read.”[5] No longer “simply synonymous with deciphering, commentary or even interpretation,” yet incapable of articulation without their resources, situated “only as and in the experience of the unreadable,” yet given over to that experience only insofar as the unreadable itself will have escaped one, where—in what sense—may reading “as such” be said to “occur”? How is one to make sense of it?

Writing of novelty in metaphysics, A.W. Moore claims it is not simply that a “radically” new way of making sense of things will, of necessity, have been unforeseeable. “The introduction of a radically new way of making sense of things is unforeseeable in the more profound sense that, until that way of making sense of things has been introduced, there is no way even of making sense of its introduction.”[6] As Jean-François Lyotard has observed, “We read”—only; necessarily; radically; at all—“because we do not know how to read.”[7]

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[1] Hans-Johann Glock, “‘Clarity’ is not enough!” in Wittgenstein and the Future of Philosophy: Proceedings of the 24th International Wittgenstein Symposium, eds. R. Haller and K. Puhl (Vienna: Holder-Pichler-Tempsky, 2002), 83 [81-98].

[2] Paul Valéry, quoted in Eleanor Cook, Enigmas and Riddles in Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 225.

[3] Geoffrey Bennington, “Editorial,” Oxford Literary Review 33 (July 2011), v [vvi].

[4] Bennington, “Editorial,” v.

[5] Craig Dworkin, Reading the Illegible (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 2003), 155.

[6] A.W. Moore, The Evolution of Modern Metaphysics: Making Sense of Things (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 418.

[7] Jean-François Lyotard, quoted in Bennington, “Editorial,” v.

About the Author:

Michael Munro is author of the open access chapbook, The Communism of Thought (Punctum Books, 2014).