Shock Value

Heidegger's words are stinging in my ears: "Everything looks as if it were genuinely understood, genuinely taken hold of, genuinely spoken, though at bottom it is not; or else it does not look so, and yet at bottom it is." He writes in Being and Time (217) about an ambiguity that disempowers us, tempts us into a groundless floating. "Idle talk" and the "public" confuses and distracts us...so it is that we think we know what we do not, and vice versa.
As I think about this, though, I wonder at how much bombast has obscured some souls throughout the ages, warranting several passages even in Longinus' centuries'-old On the Sublime. Leaving aside the wonderful examples he criticises (which remind me of Aristotle's criticism of some verse: to my nescient eye, sometimes this verse has merit - though "vomiting to heaven" does sound "burlesque"), he writes, "Such expressions, and such images, produce an effect of confusion and obscurity, not of energy; and if each separately be examined under the light of criticism, what seemed terrible gradually sinks into absurdity."
Longinus attributes these faults in writing to "the pursuit of novelty in thought". The attempt to "apply this principle to literature" is the cause of success and also failure. Longinus differentiates between "the true and the false sublime". It seems to me that man keeps rewriting such manuals, updated to the latest sophistry, following the novelty factor. An earlier example could be Plato's Euthydemus, which juxtaposes eristics (the practice of refuting any argument) with elenctics (Socratic questions that promote what is today called autonomous learning). Socrates says of those who would criticise the two brothers who demonstrate eristics although these critics would be unable to hold their own in conversation with them that they have "colour rather than truth" (305e). Yet one might observe this same "colour" in the brothers in Euthydemus: they "care not a straw for what they say, but merely fasten on any phrase that turns up" (305a). We remember Heidegger: "Everything looks as if it were genuinely understood". It is not understood but it has colour: it is not the voice of the philosophical initiate who can converse with novelty, even at the expense of looking stupid sometimes (Longinus explains the inevitability of such), to ultimately expose any legerdemain.




Legerdemain means to be sleight of hand, quick to perform a trick. And maybe Plato plays one on us - for the man Socrates criticises at the end for having colour, not truth and for being half-versed in everything and so not well-versed in anything bears the same traits as the two brothers, who he describes in the beginning of this dialogue as "all-round sportsmen" who have acquired "such a faculty ... for wielding words as their weapons and confuting any argument as readily [272b] if it be true as if it be false". Still, Socrates finishes this passage by saying: "However, we ought to be indulgent towards their ambition and not feel annoyed, while still judging them to be what they actually are. For we should be glad of anyone, whoever he may be, who says anything that verges on good sense, and labours steadily [306d] and manfully in its pursuit." Emphasis added: there is to be some criteria, acknowledgment of the existence of the legerdemain.
Gadamer writes, "a sharp distinction needs to be drawn from mere trick and legerdemain. Even in them something is to be understood. It can be conceptualized; it can be imitated. It even tries to be adept and good. ... The dividing line between a work of art and piece of artifice may be quite fluid, and often contemporaries may not know whether the charm of a production is a mere trick or artistic richness."
An illustration of what may require such discernment could be Sokal's Hoax, which I admittedly have only read around, and which seems to be encapsulated in the title of a book Sokal co-wrote after writing a fake paper that was actually published in a journal although it was a satire seeking to expose Fashionable Nonsense: Postmodern Intellectuals' Abuse of Science.




I read scientist Steven Weinberg's assessment and was struck by one passage: "I don't mean to say that this part of Sokal's satire was unjustified. His targets often take positions that seem to me (and I gather to Sokal) to make no sense if there is an objective reality. To put it simply, if scientists are talking about something real, then what they say is either true or false. If it is true, then how can it depend on the social context of the scientist? If it is false, how can it help to liberate us? The choice of scientific question and the method of approach may depend on all sorts of extrascientific influences, but the correct answer when we find it is what it is because that is the way the world is. Nevertheless, it does no good to satirize views that your opponent denies holding."
(How reminiscent this is of the "method" Socrates professes to learn in Euthydemus, where he is instructed to answer to the meaning he conceives in the words even though he cannot tell what he is being asked 295b-.)
The issue at stake, the social and the scientific, is important, particularly because a unity has been claimed, even though not so long ago, C. P. Snow reluctantly assessed there were "two cultures", literature and science, giving many arguments as to their mutual alienation. He concludes by arguing for social truth, which brings us back to Plato's Socrates. Or Heidegger's warning that we understand what we think we do not and vice versa. Where is the trick - we know there will be a school of such: it is illustrated in Plato and Longinus and cautioned against in Heidegger and Gadamer.
We know it will be manifest in the language, and will attempt to say something new and even attempt to astound. Just like any good metaphor, one might add, the trick aspires to be the mistake that sets things right. Or maybe the metaphor is just a mistake!




Longinus, pre-echoing Heidegger, as it were, writes of the importance of loftiness of the soul (viz. "venturesome souls") and cites an example from Plato: "They, therefore, who have no knowledge of wisdom and virtue, whose lives are passed in feasting and similar joys, are borne downwards, as is but natural, and in this region they wander all their lives; but they never lifted up their eyes nor were borne upwards to the true world above". A characteristic of writing that "takes a strong and lasting hold on the memory" is the poetical image which is "designed to astound". Longinus continues: "When we survey the whole circle of life, and see it abounding everywhere in what is elegant, grand, and beautiful, we learn at once what is the true end of man’s being ... he keeps his hommage for what is astounding".
That may be man's promise. But he also warns of the "gorgeous exterior" that is a "mere false and clumsy pageant, which if laid open will be found to conceal nothing but emptiness". Accordingly, this phrase should induce some sort of shock - like the violent encounter of enemy soldiers from which the word "shock" derives. There is value in that which is laboured "steadily and manfully" but the question is to whom the value goes. Maybe, in the strange economy of language, with its legitimate worldly exchange rate, it goes to everyone.




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