We have come to that segment of the humanities capstone course that treats of “theory” — that body of dense, allusive work that has dominated the intellectual culture of the academic humanities for the last several decades. This body of work is, famously, “difficult.” It is written in a style that is uncommon in the English-speaking world, and the fact that it is translated can often represent a special obstacle. It also has a tendency to refer to a lot of things that an undergraduate has not yet had a chance to read in any detail.
It seems that there are a couple strategies that students use to try to cope with this body of work, or rather fantasies they have about what would make it easier.
First and most obviously, they can turn to the many potted summaries of the thinkers in question to help guide their reading. This fails, however, because of the irreducible gap between those summaries (almost always the result of years of study and synthetic work on the part of the summarizers) and the raw text itself — one could be driven to despair comparing the cogency of the summary and the unwieldiness of the text.
Second, they often seem to believe that having read some previous thinker would have been the magic key, such that we facilitators have failed them in some important way. As it happens, the thinker in question most recently has tended to be Lacan, and any attempt to read Lacan would quickly dispell the impression that his texts could be “clarifying” — and in any case, Lacan also talks about a lot of people one hasn’t read. We’ve tried to manage this problem by choosing texts that deal primarily with things they have read (Plato and Antigone), but this serves mostly to demonstrate that knowing the figure they’re talking about isn’t a silver bullet.
I indulged in those fantasies as an undergrad and beyond — adding in the even more outlandish fantasy that everything would surely be crystal-clear if I could only read these texts in their original tongue. What I discovered, and what I imagine everyone here ultimately discovered, is that there’s no shortcut. You just have to plow, and you have to start somewhere. When you do that, you realize that sometimes going in the “wrong” order is actually clarifying — I don’t think I’d have come out understanding Lacan any better if I’d chosen to work through his complete works before studying Zizek, for instance. And you learn to cope with the need to provisionally “take their word for it” on thinkers and texts you haven’t read, because you’ll never have read everything.
In essence, what’s needed is a redistribution of arrogance and humility. The natural strategies I recounted above tend to create an arrogant vision of oneself as a reader: if adequately prepared, I would of course immediately understand the text. The approach one ultimately arrives at, however, gives up on the kind of straightforward mastery envisioned there, but arrogantly assumes that one can engage with and understand these texts on some level without preparation.