Read harder!

There are certain figures who, as it turns out, are always saying something more nuanced and just plain better than one customarily recognizes. When one puts forward a straightforward reading of the figure and then suggests that certain features of his or her thought may be improvable in some way, the figure’s defenders spring into action.

The figure, we learn, has already anticipated the critique and so thoroughly debunked it as to render it laughable. Indeed, the figure has conclusively demonstrated — for those with eyes to see — that the aspects of his or her thought that are supposedly bad or at least capable of improvement, are in fact absolutely necessary and good. The very terms in which the figure is being critiqued are decisively overcome and rendered moot by the figure’s work, making the critique naive and, if we’re going to be frank, even a little sad. If only people would sit down and read a little harder, they wouldn’t say such dumb things and they would have access to the abundance of good and nuanced ideas in the figure.

These kinds of defenses remind me of Zizek’s summary of the Freudian “kettle logic”: “(1) I never borrowed a kettle from you; (2) I returned it to you unbroken; (3) the kettle was already broken when I got it from you.” In this case, we get the following:

  1. Your critique is simply inaccurate.
  2. Your critique accurately describes the figure, but doesn’t take into account that what is supposedly bad is actually necessary and good.
  3. Your critique uses terms that are not at all applicable to the figure in question.

And just as the kettle logic usually arrives back at the conclusion that the speaker did in fact break the kettle, these “read harder!” campaigns usually arrive at the conclusion that the critique is basically accurate and everyone has more or less understood the thinker in question: in short, that in the case of this figure’s thought, the logic of the “ontological argument,” whereby to understand is to be automatically and necessarily convinced, does not hold. Disagreement is possible, and non-insiders can discuss a figure in an informed way. Indeed, the concerns that are driving the disagreement may ultimately be more important than the judgment we render on the figure in question.

The fact that it usually resolves itself makes what one might call — on the model of academic Stockholm Syndrome — Read Harder Syndrome relatively harmless. Indeed, it’s something we’ve probably all been afflicted with. We just need to let the sufferers get it out of their system and things can move along nicely.

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3 Responses to “Read harder!”

  1. Harman on Fire « PHILOSOPHY IN A TIME OF ERROR Says:

    [...] Adam Kotsko reminds us that we just need to “read [...]

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    And yes, I’m talking about Karl Barth — though you’ll often see if with Hegel, too.

  3. Jeremy Says:

    Analysts also do the same thing with Freud. I think it’s really easy when a thinker a) writes so much and b) changes his/her position constantly.


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