Wednesday, August 22, 2012

I still hate theory

I've always hated theory. I hate it because it makes me feel stupid. I hate it because everyone I know seems to "get it" and I don't. I hate feeling alienated because of it. I hate being too stupid to truly be one of the group, to be accepted. I want to be included. I hate missing out because I'm too stupid to understand things. I want to be smart enough to attract a girlfriend who is smart. I want to be respectable. I hate not being able to take part in discussions. I wish I could make you understand what this feels like. What if all your friends were tennis players, but you couldn't play tennis. That's what this feels like.

I tried reading Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes because it's about photography. I couldn't get past the first two pages. Here's a sentence from the second page: "The various distributions we impose upon it are in fact either empirical (Professionals / Amateurs), or rhetorical (Landscapes / Objects / Portraits / Nudes), or else aesthetic (Realism / Pictorialism), in any case external to the object, without relation to its essence, which can only be (if it exists at all) the New of which it has been the advent; for these classifications might very well be applied to other, older forms of representation."

Can someone please tell me what that sentence is supposed to mean? What human being actually communicates that way? I don't even know how to begin to try to understand it. How can you expect me to keep reading if I have no hope of understanding even one thing about what he's saying? Why does he say professionals and amateurs are empirical? What does that even mean? Why does he say landscapes, objects, portraits, and nudes are rhetorical? What does that mean? What the hell does "the New of which it is the advent" mean? I cannot begin to understand this sentence.

I get so angry when I read something like this. Something that doesn't seem to care about communicating with a real human being in the way real human beings communicate.

In college I took an introduction to literary theory class because I had to for my major. I hated it so, so much. I've never hated a class like I hated that class. Throughout school I was bored or indifferent with a lot of classes, and sometimes I liked a subject but didn't like the teacher, but with this, I just hated the subject so much. The teacher was cool, but that didn't help. One time I broke down in tears as I tried to explain to her why I hadn't turned in a particular assignment. I hadn't turned it in because I couldn't do it. I was incapable of doing the kind of advanced abstract thought you need to be able to do for literary theory.

I hate being inferior. I hate how it separates me from people I don't want to be separate from.

When I started college I was a music major, the best part of which is that you don't have to write papers. It's a subject that's not based in language or verbal thought. I thought I would never have to worry about writing papers. But then I switched majors to English. I didn't even like English class in high school. I never took honors English, I took regular English. It didn't occur to me to apply for honors English. Not only did I not give a shit about my academic career, I knew I was not smart enough for honors English.

I don't understand why I turned out this way. I wish I could make you understand how I feel. As the years have gone by after college I've thought about it less frequently, but when it does come up, like when I'm reading a blog or comment or essay or just a Facebook status and I don't have a clue what the person is talking about, it all comes bubbling up to the surface. It's like I'm back in college again, sobbing uncontrollably because I know how inferior I am.

I don't want to sound like I'm mad at anyone. I guess I'm just jealous that everyone is smarter than me. But that doesn't mean I'm mad. I just want to get this off my chest once and for all and explain how it feels. If I can make you all understand how I feel maybe I can relax finally and stop letting it bother me so much.


  1. Hey Matt,
    Okay so firstly, you're clearly not "inferior". That's crazy!

    The sad thing about the Barthes thing is that what he's saying here is neither complicated nor particularly new. It's just put in a complicated way. But this isn't helped by what is, excuse the French, a pretty shitty translation. Don't dismiss Barthes because of this. Read something else first, like maybe his "Mythologies", which is a good entry point.

    Anyway here's my parsing of this, though just from the English, I don't have the French before me:

    "The different categories we apply to photography come from 1) the notion of experience and expertise (Professional and Amateur), 2) different pigeon-holes of what is being photographed, the object (Landscapes / Objects / Portraits / Nudes), 3) artistic schools, trends, and movements (Realism / Pictorialism). Now, none of these categories really describe photography itself, nor do they really relate to what photographs really are. The essence of photography, if there is one, is rather that it necessarily creates something new, a moment which has never been thus presented. The proof that all these prior categories stated above are bullshit, is that they can also be applied to many other different types of art, and not just photography."

    So... Professionals and amateurs are empirical just because the notion of experience, or repeated observation and improvement, is in play.

    "the New of which it is the advent" is a fucking terrible English sentence, which is just barely graspable from the context, without having the French.

    Translation is hard. Theory is not. I think the only way to tell the bullshit from the good and interesting is just to spend a lot of time around both. We all have this experience all the time. When I met my wife, I knew nothing about opera; she's a specialist of opera... Damn! So Mr Ignorant had some learning to do...

    1. Thanks for this explanation. I never would have gotten that on my own. I guess my problem isn't with theory itself, but with the way it's often expressed, which to me is usually incomprehensible.

  2. Also, if you want to read some "theory" you don't have to start with Barthes. I mean Susan Sontag wrote a book about photography.

    1. Because I trust you, I'll give it a try, as well as that Distinction book, if I can find a copy. I have a feeling I'm not going to like what Sontag has to say about photography, given what I know about how certain photographers feel about Sontag, but if I at least understand it I'll consider that a minor victory. (Of course then the problem becomes, how do I explain to all my writer friends who like the book how wrong they are for doing so? But I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.)

  3. Your writings of music (rock) criticism many years ago were excellent -- because you were really into it. And music is not easy to describe in words.

  4. It seems to be a pattern that you undervalue yourself, and I'm not entirely sure why. I knew you in high school, and I took (and excelled at) honors english at that same high school. Yet your language abilities are, and have always been, far superior to mine. Math is another story. ;)

    Please shift your perspective of yourself to recognize how intelligent you are. In doing so, I hope you will realize that it is the author's poor writing (or, I suppose in this case, the translator's poor translation) that is problematic, not your intellectual capacity. While it may not necessarily be the case in the example you listed above, I've found poor writers often try to mask their lack of talent with unnecessarily complex sentence structure and flowery vocabulary while the best writers create works that are both clear and enjoyable to read.

    Your greatest enemy is your own self doubt.

  5. I know it's vital for us to always think critical of ourselves--even, at some point, to berate ourselves, but this one is painfully honest. I took lit theory back in college and was amused with it, but at some point I found myself thinking like I was holding this really thin thread when it isn't even there. My saving grace would be the fact that some of my classmates are ten times worse than me.