Against understanding

Is it just me, or is everyone losing the plot? I think stories in popular fiction, especially in film and television, are becoming increasingly complicated. There’s still heroism, personalised villainy, archetypes, sentimentality, the triumphant ending, and fidelity to genre and type, but the means of getting to the predictable ending seem ever more convoluted.

Actors on stage in Chinese costumeI’m thinking not only of very long crime stories in Danish with English subtitles eg The Killing (Forbrydelsen), but also family fare such as Steven Moffat’s time-bending scripts for Doctor Who, Steve Lisberger’s Tron Legacy, and Andrew Stanton’s Wall-E.

There could be several motivations for devising complicated and difficult plots. Perhaps writers are running out of simple stories. Or perhaps it’s just that audiences are distracted from concentration by the special effects and spectacular visuals. Or perhaps the complication or speeded up plots are by design: blockbuster films are made to be seen over and over. The medium encourages this repetition, and with multiple media channels the storyline can be elaborated via backstage interviews, explainers, spoilers, and reviews.

Perhaps there’s a difference between a story that’s comprehensible to someone, hopefully the author, but makes little sense to me, at the moment, and a story that’s badly constructed, poorly told, inconsistent, or deliberately nonsensical. No doubt in some cases plots and dialogue are put together carelessly, come second to the action scenes, or the story gets compromised by interventions between the writer’s wordprocessor and the final edit. Sometimes we miss the back story. Do you have to know Greek history to understand Aristophanes’ plays, or see every episode of Mad Men to get the drift?

In any case, incomprehension is not necessarily a negative. It allows scope for the imagination, speculation, discussion, interpretation, and reinterpretation, which is partly what stories are for. It can also inspire awe. According to philosopher Edmund Burke, “It is our ignorance of things that causes all our admiration, and chiefly excites our passions.” (p.57)

If we can cope with sub-optimal comprehension for fiction, then why not ideas, theories, philosophies, and learned speculations. Many readers have difficulty with philosophers such as Ludwig Wittgenstein, Martin Heidegger, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, but the assertion that the work is difficult to understand, as if that is the end of the matter, does not constitute worthwhile critique.

Much depends on trust. If I don’t understand Heidegger then I at least trust that someone else does, or that I’ll work it out in the fulness of time, or with sufficient dedication, or that at least my reading of the work and its commentaries will reward the effort.

Perhaps strategies for dealing with incomprehension are as important as strategies for developing understanding.

  • Burke, Edmund, and James Boulton (ed.). 1958. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful. Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame Press. First published in 1757.
  • Derrida, Jacques. 1988. Limited Inc. Trans. S. Weber. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
  • Hume, David. 1902. Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Kindle Edition.


  1. I think there is a need in any story to have some parts hard to understand. For me, the best story is a story with the basic plot that can be understood by everyon (such as the need to escape the tyranny of clue in tron legacy), some kind of sub message that can be grasped with a little bit of reflection, experience, and awarness of the world atound us (such as the perfection that cannot and should not be reached, again in tron legacy) and a level of the story that requires a deeper understanding of the society, the evolution of the story from previous installements… (such as the concept of the grid, of the digital reality that attempts to take over the real world… in tron legacy ). In my opinion, it is the only way to create a story that is directed to every one and which everyone will like. Some people can go and see tron legacy just for the action and the special effects, and will like it for that, and some others can find, in addition, a reflection about the world, a attempt to make people see the way outr society evolves and grasp the problems that could arise…

    We find the same levels of story in most successful and remembered movies, stories…, such as Shakespears tragedies, the greek and latin mythologies, or, more recently, inception or apocalypse now.

  2. yujia dong says:

    I found that photo was very interesting. I have to say Chinese traditional opera is abstract and using lot of metaphor and jargons. I myself can not understand some kind of the Chinese opera too.

    About the seemingly tedious plots and clues in the TV and fictions, I suppose it is because that creating a simple and interesting story will call for much more creativity and efforts than a series story in which you have enough time and setting to fully explain and explore the subject. Most of the most impressive animation I have ever watched are within 5 minutes. their storytelling skills and aesthetic value are even better than the 1-hour or 2-hour production. I am just kind of enjoy the simplicity.

    some of the art cloud provide a universal beauty, like music, painting and performance art. but the interpretation from every audience are rather various.

  3. haiyanpan says:

    I am from China, so I really happy to read this picture about Chinese traditional opera. I know that most foreign people access Chinese traditional opera from the Internet and TV. I have seen a opera in London of the royal theatre in MAY this year. Before the performance, the screen showed they would not use subtitles. I was very depressed, because, as we all know, the language is the most important tool of human communication. If they cancelled the English subtitles, the audience could not understand. Although they speak Chinese, I still had some difficulty to understand the meaning. Especially it is difficulty for foreign audience. However, to my surprise, the audience can not only understand our bodies, they can understand the singing music and fighting combat. The audience have laughter on stage from begin to end. According this experience, I realize that it does not have any boundaries in art field. Especially, using the emotion in order to communicate in art field. We always find many different successful performance in the world without languages.

  4. Wang Jingyi says:

    To get the audiences, there are only two types of story can work: “The new wine in old bottles” and “The old wine in a new bottle”. As Shakespeare said:” ‘There is nothing new under the sun”, it becomes more and more difficult for people find a new story. I think, that’s one of the reason which lead us to the devising complicated and difficult plots. Building a simple story with readability is more difficult than just turn the plots into complicated puzzle. Sometimes, for the commercial production, efficiency and productivity is important than quality.

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