Misunderstanding as Distortion {and following note on Paralysis}

The conclusion to Nietzsche’s final work, Ecce Homo: Wie man wird, was man ist (How One Becomes What One Is), famously, if pathetically, cries out:

Hört mich! denn ich bin der und der. Verwechselt mich vor Allem nicht! (Ecce Homo, 1888: Vorwort 1as found in Project Gutenberg: http://www.gutenberg2000.de/nietzsche/eccehomo/eccehomo.htm)

“Hear me!  For I am such and such a person.  Above all, do not mistake me for someone else.”  (from Peter Gay’s introduction to Basic Writings of Nietzsche (2000), Modern Library, USA: p. xiv [as translated by Walter Kaufmann])

I feel I ‘ve long been fascinated with misunderstanding, not only how frequently we misunderstand one another but how we misunderstand ourselves.  I ‘m not meaning to boil matters down to some list of Freudian urges or Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  These psycho-archaeological diggings unveil something of the unconscious, the unspoken, and that is valuable to a point.  It reminds us of that we are reading of thoughts and images which grabbed the attention of their transmitters, that at some point they too were arrested by that which is expressed in language in general, and in this case in writings.

But then we neither encounter directly these images nor the voice of the author at those particular moments wherein the release that is authorship took place.  The ‘why’ which arrested that author is never the ‘what’ we encounter in each reading.  Even as the author strives to be understood, even this petty thinker at this very moment, misunderstanding also is at work.  There is much the author does not say, and perhaps much she should have said but failed to.  In other words, discourse goes beyond exhuming the corpse of that author’s state of mind, an ultimately impossible task even when attempted honestly – even though it benefits the reader to be mindful not only of the woven structure of the text, but the humanity of the weaver and the particularity of those moments which led to the finality of authorship.  In writing, the author truly loses control – the medium worked in determines what may be said even as the author tries to connect the reader to that set of ideas.  While the aims of authors vary, inevitably there is some intended encounter – some confrontation that goes beyond the author’s state of mind.

The angst of being misunderstood, being misstated, and even having one’s words distorted is embodied in Nietzsche’s words here.  Foucault avers that this distortion has in fact already occurred in his day such that the decentring operations of both Nietzsche and Marx are twisted completely.  In his analysis of the history of thought, Foucault descries the attempts of the nineteenth century to preserve the ‘sovereignty of consciousness’ and “the twin figures of anthropology and humanism” from the decentrings offered by Nietzsche and Marx.

“One is led therefore to anthropologize Marx, to make of him a historian of totalities, and to rediscover in him the message of humanism; one is led therefore to interpret Nietzsche in the terms of transcendental philosophy, and to reduce his genealogy to the level of a search for origins…”

~Foucault, the Archaeology of Knowledge (1972) Pantheon Books, NY: p. 13 – translated by A.M. Sheridan Smith from the French

He goes on to remark that where Marx was first criticized and Nietzsche opposed, the totalitarianizing historians and structuralists came to ‘travesty’, or I think in this case distort the representation of, Marx’ purposes and ‘transpose’ Nietzsche.  That is, intellectual violence was done to the works of two antagonists such that their works were made to appear, at least in the normative discourse, as though both Marx and Nietzsche were really still working within the same framework of discussions.  It is far easier to distort your opponent’s than it is to understand it, for she is working from another basis than you.  While neither Nietzsche nor Marx worked in a vacuum or were immune from the Geist of their time, their interpretations do not easily serve to perpetuate those discourses whose foundations they tore at the foundations of.  Foucault continues:

“All the treasure of bygone days was crammed into the old citadel of this history; it was thought to be secure; it was sacralized; it was made the last resting-place of anthropological thought; it was even thought that its most inveterate enemies could be captured and turned into vigilant guardians.  But the historians had long ago deserted the old fortress and gone to work elsewhere; it was realized that neither Marx nor Nietzsche were carrying out the guard duties that had been entrusted to them.”

~Foucault, Archaeology (1972): p. 14

Here a layer is added to our considerations.  In discourse, when an author or thinker’s works have been distorted so that they speak with but a sad and hoarse caricature of their former voice – the voice is voided of its true patheticisms and forces so that it becomes tamed as the imprisoned lion – when such has occurred, that discourse which has distorted these voices and stripped them of all rigor or lasting ability to object, then those who might better understand the nature of either Nietzsche’s or Marx’ personal discourse, those hills which they chose to be bruised on in their climbs and travails – those voices which might again break into that closed discourse are signaled by their strangeness.  Worse, they are taken as beginning from a basis of misunderstanding where instead they are confronting the worse misunderstanding – that which has taken the methods of Marx and Nietzsche but left all they sought fit to say by means of their methods!  Ironically, Nietzsche spoke of this very matter in his Mixed Opinions and Maxims (1879) where he avers:

“The philosopher supposes that the value of his philosophy lies in the whole, in the structure; but posterity finds its value in the stone which he used for building, and which is used many more times after that for building—better.  Thus it finds the value in the fact that the structure can be destroyed and nevertheless retains value as building material.”

~Nietzsche, Mixed Opinions and Maxims from Basic Writings of Nietzsche, p. 156 – emphasis in the text

I shall put off to another hour what Nietzsche has to say about being both understandable, and therefore not easily understandable to the wrong sort of reader.  Rather, I prefer to consider what personal horror Nietzsche or Marx might feel to find that their works and thoughts and broodings which bore upon their selves with their full weight were then, rather than simply dismissed which is harmless, twisted to serve purposes largely opposite their own.  I feel there are few greater horrors for the scholar.  One may forgive some misunderstanding, or petty dispute, if it does not go too far or distract too far from the goals for which one writes.  But to be made to serve that which you are most opposed to – to not only be dismissed by the Spirit of your age, the Geist, but to first see it take up your own weapons against you and finally to see your shadow, that you which exists only through readings, and therefore misreadings as well, take up those very weapons in service of that which you with so much effort and will opposed.

Already I have tried to accomplish too much in this post.  Partly that is because I expect this aspect to be least understood, although it is most central to my periphery at the moment.  True, no one ever seeks to be misunderstood, unless it is so that another purpose may be effected by means of that misunderstanding and in that case one is at least being followed truly, even if those who follow are not aware that they are truly understanding.  I feel the urge to elaborate ad nauseum concerning this point although I know it to be perhaps the less interesting aspect for many.  Instead of seeking to paralyze, I see considering such aspects of history as descriptive of that which is most likely to happen.

That is, if one is truly committed to not only changing something small for a few, but wishes to effect change on a mass scale, one must be a student of history in this matter.  Whatever you think of Foucault or Nietzsche or Marx, it should be evident to their readers that their actual voices must be heard through listening and listening well.  I do not speak of uncritically accepting what they say, for that is a disgrace to both the thinker and the one who wishes to understand their thoughts.  If you do not see strengths and weaknesses you are not in their discourse – you have not begun to enter a meaningful discussion.  Returning, however, to our point: to meet Marx or Nietzsche or Foucault in a classroom through a few powerpoint slides and a rough discussion is not even an introduction.  How could anyone understand your thoughts in such environs?  Even in writing this I realize that I may serve a similar function.

To clarify, I have given examples which enliven my own discourse, rather than sought to explain in depth more than a spare thought from these.  To understand their values in depth, and that is the understanding I truly seek when I read – to understand the core even as it changes and attempts to express itself and to encounter others on the same planes of discovery (or uncovering) is the best picture I have as yet of such aims.  Even in this, misunderstanding is inevitable.  I shall not here trot out my examples of disciples as distorters (Socrates->Plato->Aristotle does the trick for my mind at the moment) but rather would speak to the psychological results briefly, again to swat away a distraction.

In no way do I wish to paralyze.  I consider such examples because it seems to me that to ignore such items when they are dis-covered to me is to choose naivete.  It would seem that the other choice is to cower in a corner afraid of the counter-effects of whatever actions I should choose as one who is afraid to pull at the oars because they shall only excite the waves around the vessel.  In-action is not the aim, but neither is naive action.  Surely there are actions worth taking – actions of some significance, and the results are to some extent indeterminate at this point.  But still, some eye to the general predictable elements is prudent in my estimation.  Even as I am learning a new language, I am continually finding false connections and laying these aside as corrected.  Such seems most in line with how our actions and their significance are revealed to us.  I would that more would consider the subject of misunderstanding well, and the nature of distortion in discourse, and welcome others to interact with me particularly as I explore this plane, but not so that one fails to speak in favor of purposes worth being misunderstood for.


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