False Dichotomy: If I don’t understand it, then either I am worthless or it is!

I’ve been reading an interesting post on Metafilter about the “Minima Moralia: Reflections from the Damaged Life“, by Theodor Adorno. While the book itself is very interesting, two of the comments on the article caught my eye. An earlier commenter had mentioned that they neither understood nor appreciated this kind of thing, and made the usual throwaway remark about postmodernism being “a scam to funnel money from the productive classes to the parasitical academy” (dydecker). Further down, another commenter, Frowner, gently took this statement to task, starting by noting that Adorno would have been appalled by being labelled a post-modernist, and then discussing why dydecker might have felt the need to attack things in this way. It’s very much worth reading Frowner’s comments on this post, but I shall distil the first one here:

  1. Just because a text is difficult to obscure does not mean that it is postmodern. Also post-modernist is not actually an insult and this may be a politically motivated stance to attacks  group of people who are also likely to identify as status quo critical or (gasp) Marxist.

  2. Not all texts need to be accessible to all audiences, not is something worthless, fake or elitist if it requires pre-readings or some effort to get into. Advanced physics texts can be very difficult to comprehend for the layperson. This does not make Quantum Field Theory wrong or a leftist conspiracy.
  3. You don’t need to read books that you don’t want to read.
  4. You don’t need to be angry at difficult books for being difficult. To exactly quote Frowner,

    Difficult books only threaten us if we decide to feel guilty and ashamed for not reading them.

    If you’re actually studying an area, and read the books that the work relies upon, difficult books can become much clearer, illustrating that it was perhaps not the book that was causing the difficulty.

  5. Sometimes you won’t like something and this has nothing to do with its quality or worth – you just don’t like it.
  6. Don’t picture a perfect reader in your head who understands everything and hold yourself to that standard. If you’re reading a hard book then keep plugging away and accept your humanity.

Frowner then goes on to beautifully summarise all of this in a later comment, where he notes that we seem to learn to be angry at, or uncomfortable with, difficult texts, because we are under pressure to be capable of understanding everything of worth. This is an argument of legitimacy: if the work is legitimate and I don’t understand it, then I am stupid, however if I can argue that the work is illegitimate, then this is a terrible con job, I am not stupid for not understanding this and we should attack this work! Frowner wonders about how we are prepared for the world and believes that we are encouraged to see ourselves as inadequate if we do not understand everything for ourselves, hence the forced separation of work into legitimate and illegitimate, with am immediate, and often vicious, attack on those things we define as illegitimate in order to protect our image of ourselves.

I spend a reasonable amount of time in art galleries and I wish I had a dollar for everyone who stood in front of a piece of modern art (anything from the neo-impressionists on, basically) and felt the need to loudly state that they “didn’t get it” or that they could “have painted it themselves.” (I like Rothko, Mondrian and Klee, among others, so I am often in that part of the gallery.) It is quite strange when you come to think about it – why on earth are people actually vocalising this? Looking more closely, it is (less surprisingly) people in groups of two or more who seem to do this: I don’t understand this so, before you ask me about, I will declare it to be without worth. I didn’t get it, therefore this art has failed me. We go back to Frowner’s list and look at point 2: Not all art (in this case) is for everyone and that’s ok. I can admire Grant Wood’s skill and his painting “American Gothic” but the painting doesn’t appeal as much to me as does the work of Schiele, for example. That’s ok, that doesn’t make Schiele better than Wood in some Universal Absolute Fantasy League of Painters (although the Schiele/Klimt tag team wrestling duo, with their infamous Golden Coat Move, would be fun to watch) – it’s a matter of preference. I regularly look at things that I don’t quite understand but I don’t regard it as a challenge or an indication that it or I are at fault, although I do see things that I understand completely and can quite happily identify reasons that I don’t like it!

Klee's "The Goldfish". Some will see this as art, others will say "my kids could do that". Unless you are Hans Wilhelm Klee, no, probably not.

Klee’s “The Goldfish”. Some will see this as art, others will say “my kids could do that”. Unless you are Hans Wilhelm Klee, no, probably not.

I am, however, very lucky, because I have a job and lifestyle where my ability to think about things is a core component: falsely dichotomous thinking is not actually what I’m paid to do. However, I do have influence over students and I need to be very careful in how I present information to them. In my last course, I deliberately referred to Wikipedia among other documents because it is designed to be understood and is usually shaped by many hands until it reaches an acceptable standard of readability. I could have pointed my students at ethics texts but these texts often require more preparation and a different course structure, which may have put students off actually reading and understanding them. If my students go into ethics, or whatever other area they deem interesting, then point 4 becomes valid and their interest, and contextual framing, can turn what would have been a difficult book into a useful book.

I agree with this (effectively) anonymous poster and his or her summary of an ongoing issue: we make it hard for people to admit that they are learning, that they haven’t quite worked something out yet, because we make “not getting something immediately” a sign of slowness (informally) and often with negative outcomes (in assessment or course and career progression). We do not have to be experts at everything, nor should we pretend to be. We risk not actually learning some important and beautiful things because we feel obliged to reject it before it rejects us – and some things, of great worth that will be long appreciated, take longer to ‘get’ then just the minute or two that we feel we can allocate.

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