Babies, Bathwater and Danny Yee's Reading Skills

douglass st.christian (stchri@MCMAIL.CIS.MCMASTER.CA)
Fri, 8 Apr 1994 10:21:10 -0400

i stand in mute admiration at the kinds of texts yee tells us he is able
to read and follow and make sense of because, folks, i once looked at a
freshman calculus text and went into a blind panic that i had been
transported to a parallel universe where I simply did not belong...

that said, it needs to be noted that even if the stuff in that text was as
fathomable as mud to me, i would not dismiss it as bogus and fraudulent
and worthless as several posters here have done with respect to some of
the more demanding writers in contemporary philosophy...

a concern for clarity, it appears, masks a deeper and more troubling
aversion to ideas themselves because at the end of the day i have not
even a teeny-weeny inkling of what it is the clarity folks are demanding
of derrida or foucault or whoever the straw figure is they are castigating...

i mean, if the issue were that foucault or lacan or whomever/whoever
was/were/is ungramattical, then i would join with you in, in these cases,
beating up the translators for not, as Carrier noted, keeping a copy of
Fowler's modern English Usage near to hand... however, the complaints i
have seen have been complaints about something much more
nebulous..clarity and obscurity....[ i won't even touch the 'usefulness'
idea since obviously, if you can't understand something, you can't assess
its 'usefulness', right]....what people seem to be after is theorizing by
executive summary, those one page fillips which you find at the beginning
of reports from the rand corporation or unicef or coopers and lybrand...

or is it about truth, folks...a truth that can be contained in a formula,
readily memorized and pulled off the shelf as needed, because that seems
to this reader here to be what the clarity cavalry are demanding...

when i read something that has my grey cells gasping for air, my first
question/criticism is not 'why didn't this jerk write clearly, why didn't
this horse's patootie show a little respect for me, the great and
powerful reader' but instead is a little bit of self criticism...when a
text confuses me, my first reaction is 'what about my skills as a reader
is making this text impossible to decipher'....

in the case of the texts yee can manage but i would never get beyond the
table of contents, the answer is, of course simple...i lack both the
vocabulary and the conceptual framework to make these texts
sensible...the onus then is on me to either admit they are beyond my ken
and move on to something else or to build my skills as a reader and
tackle them again....

however, to trumpet dismissal as a critical reading strategy is either
inane or incompetent or both

i'm in the middle of grading essays in which students were asked to
compare two books on the pacific and to assess their 'success' as accounts
of pacific societies..they are, for the most part, thoughtful and, for the
most part, at least in some ways confused..however, one essay stands out
because it is obvious the student has read neither's an
impressive piece of fakery but fakery it is and while i might even admire,
for a brief moment, the nerve behind the attempt, in the larger scheme of
things he gets an F.....

to dismisss that which is difficult to understand as:

a] bad ideas hiding behind obscure language
b] self-promotion hiding behind bad language
c] nothing more than a power game [as the singularly offensive
comment about religious texts suggested]

perhaps betrays the ultimate truth....if a little knowledge is a
dangerous thing, no knowledge at all is like a condom for the mind...



On Thu, 7 Apr 1994, William Rodman wrote [privately]:

> No wade a moment, Dougl, something's going on here I don't
> understand. Stephanie Nelson gets flamed by Mike Leiber, Mike Leiber gets
> flamed by Nancy Bowels (at least *I* read names carefully), but YOU ARE
> REMAINING UNSCATHED!!!!! What the....
> reason perhaps, and a scary one, is that stephanie nelson is,
how can i put this delicately...stephanie

She said nothing near as inflammatory as i did [ had i said what i said
about graber in the house of commons i would have been asked to leave by
the sergeant at arms....had i said it in a bar i might well have been
picking my upper plate out of the spittoon] but apart from a brief private
note from [name deleted to protect the innocent], nada for me and a
veritable insult fest for stephanie nelson....

go figger

but then, i was thrown out of the big balls club a long time ago when
that pomo-bashing circle jerk was going on here so hell, it don't
surprise me at all