- Posted by Paul Gowder on September 27th, 2009 filed in books, doom, misanthropy, psychology
- 16 Comments »
Why do people read bad books, particularly bad books that are extremely long, extremely incoherent (or just poorly written, or deliberately incomprehensible), and sometimes even full of stupid ideas? Moreover, why do so many of the people who read those books end up praising them? Even smart people who exhibit passable taste in other things? Examples: Atlas Shrugged, Infinite Jest, anything by Derrida.
1. The sunk cost fallacy. You get fifty, a hundred pages into Atlas Shrugged or something and you’ve bled so much — you’ve invested so much into getting through this book, tortured yourself with so much bad writing and so many stupid ideas! How horrible would it be to waste all that effort! Better grind on and finish. Or so we tell ourselves. Because we’re irrational.
2. Cognitive dissonance. You’ve read all of Of Grammatology! Holy shit that was unpleasant. It was so much work just to get a vague idea of what he was talking about. It took an hour to get through ten pages! You struggled through paragraphs like this:
On the one hand, true to the Western tradition that controls not only in theory, but in practice (in the principle of its practice) the relationships between speech and writing, Saussure does not recognise in the latter more than a narrow and derivative function. Narrow because it is nothing but one modality among others, a modality of the events which can befall a language whose essence, as the facts seem to show, can remain forever uncontaminated by writing. “Language does have an oral tradition that is independent of writing” (Cours de linguistique générale). Derivative because representative signifier of the first signifier, representation of the self-present voice, of the immediate, natural, and direct signification of the meaning (of the signified, of the concept, of the ideal object or what have you). Saussure takes up the traditional definition of writing which, already in Plato and Aristotle, was restricted to the model of phonetic script and the language of words. Let us recall the Aristotelian definition: “Spoken words are the symbols of mental experience and written words are the symbols of spoken words.” Saussure: “Language and writing are two distinct systems of signs; the second exists for the sole purpose of representing the first”. This representative determination, beside communicating without a doubt essentially with the idea of the sign, does not translate a choice or an evaluation, does not betray a psychological or metaphysical presupposition peculiar to Saussure; it describes or rather reflects the structure of a certain type of writing: phonetic writing, which we use and within whose element the epistémè in general (science and philosophy), and linguistics in particular, could be founded. One should, moreover, say mode, rather than structure; it is not a question of a system constructed and functioning perfectly, but of an ideal explicitly directing a functioning which in fact is never completely phonetic. In fact, but also for reasons of essence to which I shall frequently return. To be sure this factum of phonetic writing is massive; it commands our entire culture and our entire science, and it is certainly not just one fact among others. Nevertheless it does not respond to any necessity of an absolute and universal essence. Using this as a point of departure, Saussure defines the project and object of general linguistics: “The linguistic object is not defined by the combination of the written word and the spoken word: the spoken form alone constitutes the object”.
You’re not sure whether you actually learned anything enlightening, or whether old Jacques was just spitting jive. But wait! You’re a rational person! You’d be a fool if you’d spent a hundred hours and endless tears trying to make sense of that stuff and it turned out to be nonsense. Therefore, it must be very wise and you should defend it and demand others read it! Or so we tell ourselves. Because we’re irrational.