Strategic Obtusity

Stephanie Nelson (NELSON@USCVM.BITNET)
Wed, 6 Apr 1994 15:16:57 PDT

Okay, I'll bite on this topic. When Bonnie Blackwell suggests that obtuse
writing does not add measurably to our knowledge, only to the weight of
useless paper in our overcrowded libraries, I wonder just how comfortable
she would feel expressing these views to a hermeneutical scholar of sacred
texts. From the Old Testament to the Talmud to the Koran, ... sacred texts
in many cultures are notoriously obtuse. Although I'm not a religious person
myself, I find it a logical extension of Bonnie's argument that these texts
should either be rewritten for clarity or tossed out, and I find that a highly
problematic proposition.

One of my academic advisors, a professor of communication no less, made quite
name for himself a few years back arguing not for clearer communication, but
for the usefulness of what he terms "strategic ambiguity." Used well, fuzzy
messages can facilitate shared activity without shared meaning, empower
individualistic sensemaking and decisionmaking, and invoke creative interpre-
tations. There are times when we need this diversity of understandings.

I've been puzzling through this thread on the list, trying to place myself
from the standpoint of my own professional associations, one as a technical
writer and teacher of technical writing for NASA, and the other as a Ph.D.
and masters candidate in rhetoric and anthropology (respectively). I think
the value of clarity is very dependent on what you want to do with a text.
When I am writing a checkout procedure for an antenna servo mechanism, I write
with a much different goal than when I am writing a cultural critique. In the
first case I am writing to inform, and in the second case I am writing to
evoke. Now I am perfectly willing to grant that there are some members of our
anthro-l community who write to present technical information--sort of the
operation and maintenance manuals of anthropology. But there are also others
of us who write to respond, explore, or question--in other words, to
continue the conversation. When I write about Others, I am rarely comfortable
doing so with the authority and finality with which I pass on other kinds of
knowledge claims. My goal is rather to write what Bakhtin calls an unfinalized
text--a text that opens itself to other interpretations. The question Dan
Foss raises about whether there is a difference between knowledge and informa-
tion is an interesting one. I guess that's my stab at a response. What I
do is to provide insight into information. I look for ways that data can be
interpreted differently.

I think we may be conflating writing and reading to our misfortune as well.
I'm not sure where to draw the lines of responsibility between the author and
his or her reader--are texts unclear to us because the writer hasn't put enough
skill and effort into them or because we as readers don't bring the right set
of skills and abilities to our interpretive task? Geertz's exquisite prose
might well seem obtuse to a generation of anthropologists who were not also
raised on Faulkner, Henry James, Tolstoy, etc. And I imagine non-native
speakers of English have trouble with him too. But that does not mean that
his work does not have value, or that he is ethically bound to write for a
wider readership. He sets a high standard that many of us would like to
someday attain.

When I began grad school, I read texts with a dictionary by my side, and
struggled for years to master two new vocabularies. That is part of the work
of obtaining new understandings. I did not consider the author "elitist" if
it took me some time to decipher a single paragraph, only that it was part of
the difficulty of learning something very new to me.

Finally, I must side with Doug St.Christian (sorry, spelling?) on this one.
We spent a lot of time and energy soul-searching the intersection of post-
modernism and anthropology not too long ago on this list, and I am disappointed
by Bob Graber's gratuitous, dismissive remarks. Sorry Bob.

Stephanie Nelson