Elevating Confusion from a Transitional Stage into an End Goal
"I hope today to complicate our notion of cahiers — grievances — and the role they played in the States-General of 1789." The professors and graduate students at the symposium nod appreciatively. They have heard or read similar justifications untold times before. The author explains that he or she will "complicate" our understanding of some event or phenomenon. "In this article," writes an ethnic-studies professor, "I seek to complicate scholars' understanding of the 'modular' state by examining four forms of indigenous political space." Everyone seems pleased by this approach. Why? The world is complicated, but how did "complication" turn from an undeniable reality to a desirable goal? Shouldn't scholarship seek to clarify, illuminate, or — egad! — simplify, not complicate? How did the act of complicating become a virtue?
The refashioning of "complicate" derives from many sources. One recipe calls for adding a half cup of poststructuralism to a pound of multiculturalism. Mix thoroughly. Bake. Season with Freudian, Hegelian, and post-Marxist thought. Serve at room temperature. The invitees will savor the meal and will begin to chat in a new academic tongue. They will prize efforts not only to complicate but also to "problematize," "contextualize," "relativize," "particularize," and "complexify." They will denounce anything that appears "binary." They will see "multiplicities" everywhere. They will add "s" to everything: trope, regime, truth. They will sprinkle their conversations with words like "pluralistic," "heterogenous," "elastic," and "hybridities." A call for "coherence" will arrest the discussion. Isn't that "reductionist"?
The new devotion to complexity gives carte blanche to even the most trivial scholarly enterprise. Any factoid can "complicate" our interpretation. The fashion elevates confusion from a transitional stage into an end goal. We celebrate the fact that everything can be "problematized." We rejoice in discarding "binary" approaches. We applaud ourselves for recognizing — once again — that everything varies by circumstances. We revel in complexity. To be sure, few claim that the truth is simple or singular, but we have moved far from believing that truth can be set out at all with any caution and clarity. We seem to believe that truth and falsehood is a discredited binary opposite. It varies according to time and place. "It depends," answer my students to virtually every question I ask. That notion permeates campus life.
Of course, to defend simplifications always and everywhere is not only anti-intellectual, but dangerous. Already in the 19th century, the historian Jacob Burckhardt feared that "terribles simplificateurs" would descend upon "poor old Europe." They did descend — upon the rest of the world as well — with facile ideas about nation and religion. We should indeed distrust them, but not by rote. Complexity for its own sake is no virtue. More turrets are not necessarily better than fewer. Perhaps it is time to return to Ockham's principle of parsimony, his so-called razor: "Plurality is not to be posited without necessity." Instead we have gone in the opposite direction. The cult of complication has led — to alter a phrase of Hegel's — to a fog in which all cows are gray.
Russell Jacoby, "Not to Complicate Matters, but ..."