Thursday, April 12, 2012

April 12, 2012

On Monday I referred to the tendency of some on the right to call President Obama a communist. On Tuesday, Rep. Allen West expanded the field. He was asked at a town-hall event, "What percentage of the American legislature do you think are card-carrying Marxists . . . ?" West replied, as if reciting an accepted fact, "I believe there is [sic] about 78 to 81 members of the Democratic Party that are members of the Communist Party." After a long pause, during which he stood quietly, apparently expecting another question, he added that he referred to the Congressional Progressive Caucus, a group of liberal Democrats in the U.S. House.37
Given an opportunity to rescue the Congressman, his campaign manager doubled down: "He stands by the comments. Call them what you want; they’re clearly people who oppose capitalism and free markets and individual economic freedom. So, if the shot [sic] fits. . . ." Are they really communists? "We can quibble about the terminology used to describe them, but it’s clear. Whatever you call people that oppose capitalism and free markets and individual economic freedom — maybe it’s ‘socialist,’ maybe it’s ‘Communist’ — but that’s the point the congressman was making, and he stands by the words."38
His equation is similar to that on the "Commieblaster" web site: "PROGRESSIVES = SOCIALISTS = COMMUNISTS = LEFT-WING RADICALS = ANTI-CAPITALISTS = UNAMERICAN." 39 That site finds virtually everyone in the administration, including the President, to be a communist, and claims that George Soros, another communist, is Mr. Obama’s "boss." I suppose that one might take heart from the fact that all of this is so inane, but it rattles around the internet, so many others probably believe it.
Rep. West is known for foolish and offensive comments, but he must be running out of material if he must fall back on slurs of the 1950s.


37. West’s own video of the event is at allen-west-communist-video_n_1420919.html. Senator Sanders, an Independent, also is a member of the CPC.
38. congressional-democrats-are-communists/2012/04/11/gIQApbZiAT_blog.html

Monday, April 9, 2012

April 9, 2012

What do you read, my lord?
Words, words, words.
Hamlet, Act II Scene II

With nothing better to do with my time and having a tendency toward masochism, I read a number of books and articles (dare I say texts?) recently on the sort of literary criticism which held sway for many years and perhaps still does. Here’s the inventory:
Birns, Theory after Theory (2010);

Bryant, "Speculative Realist Literary Criticism," December 23, 2011

Compagnon, Literature, Theory, and Common Sense (2004) (reread);

Jameson, The Ideologies of Theory (1988);

Joy, "Notes Toward a Speculative Realist Literary Criticism," December 21, 2011

Kirby, "The Death of Postmodernism And Beyond," in Philosophy Now , Nov/Dec 2011;

Leitch et al., The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism (2010);

Patai and Corral, Theory’s Empire (2005);

Sokal and Bricmont, Intellectual Impostures (2003).

The quote above occurred to me while reading these works. They, or the postmodern sources they collect, are abstract, verbose, laden with jargon and pretentiously obscure. In a way the obscurity is fitting, as a recurrent theme is that literature is nothing but language, and language floats free of an anchor in the real world. "Words take on a life of their own, losing their referential grasp and their power to communicate something precise and concrete."16 I can’t say that this project was the result of a strong intrinsic interest in the subject; instead it grew out of an impression that the detachment of rhetoric from empirical fact — to say nothing of sheer blather — which characterizes literary theory resembles that of right-wing politics. 17 Any connection would be ironic, as the former, at least in its American manifestation, is strongly associated with politics on the left. However, it’s tempting to think that there is a connection, if only because the relativism of postmodern literary theory — and much of analytic philosophy — and the vaporousness of the former, seem to have crept from the academy into the mainstream.

As is evident from the titles, the sources cited are about something called "theory." It’s less than clear what that means, which is puzzling, especially as it often is called "Theory;" converting it into a proper noun seems to suggest that it is discrete and identifiable. A good example of the vagueness of the concept is Birns’ Theory after Theory. What does that title mean? Does it refer to some new sort of theory after the decline of Theory?; — to theory 2 after the demise of theory 1?; — one theory after another (literally or sarcastically)? The word is not defined. In places the author apparently intends to refer to something specific, in others to use the term generically (as in this theory or that theory), and in still others to refer to the use of a theory as opposed to doing without one. This lack of clarity is typical and, although some, including Birns, apparently think postmodernism has had its day, the jargon, abstraction, and need for "theory" seem to persist.

Several aspects of postmodernism are significant.

Language and reality
Here is a description of the postmodernist attitude:

Language is thus, to employ technical deconstructive terms, text or textuality , meaning a complex interweaving of self-referential, undecidable relationships. In extreme forms, this challenging theory of literature as textuality views language as thoroughly divorced from reality; in more moderate forms, language maintains a relation to reality, albeit a highly unstable one.1 18
This is the result of a (possibly misused) theory of semantics adopted by the postmodernists, which held that the relationship between a signifier (word) and a signified (concept) was arbitrary, e. g., that there is no logical relationship between "dog" and the notion of a dog; we simply have chosen that word. This was interpreted by such postmodernists as Jacques Derrida to mean that the relationship between words and the world is equally arbitrary, that words refer only to other words, or texts to other texts, or signs to other signs, leading to a "process of infinite referral, of never arriving at meaning itself."19 "Because the signifier (word) is disconnected from the signified (concept) and the referent (thing), language floats or slides in relation to reality. . . ."20

Collaboration by philosophy
Analytic philosophy, which intended to clarify concepts by examining language, ended up in many instances reenforcing tendencies toward obscurity and relativism. Simon Blackburn, in numerous books and articles, has attempted to put it back on the straight path. He noted that "Modern philosophy has been dominated by a concern with language. But modern philosophy of language is highly inaccessible,"21 i.e., most of us can’t understand it. "In general, analytical philosophy has had rather an unsatisfactory relationship with the topic of truth."22 Philosophers have "attacked the idea of anything being simply given in experience, . . . the objectivity of any scientific theorizing we might do on the basis of experience [and]. . . the idea of determinate meanings."23 Wittgenstein contributed the subversive notion of the language game.

Movement between disciplines
Influence has moved back and forth between literary studies and philosophy, and beyond; philosopher Richard Rorty was one conduit. Rorty was a pragmatist, which is to say a sort of relativist in that he thought the test for anything was whether it worked; never mind "truth." His view of language resembled Derrida’s:

. . . Once the philosophy of language was freed from what Quine and Davidson call "the dogmas of empiricism" . . . sentences were no longer thought of as expressions of experience nor as representations of extra-experiential reality. Rather, they were thought of as strings of marks and noises used by human beings in the development and pursuit of social practices— practices which enabled people to achieve their ends, ends which do not include "representing reality as it is in itself."24
The application of this doctrine isn’t limited to literature and philosophy; as Blackburn put it,
The best way to understand Rorty is simply to see him as generalising this view of literary criticism across the board. In science or history, law or psychology, politics or ethics the same model applies. . . . But just as a text allows for multiple readings, so does the world. Truth, and reason as the anointed method of sifting it, disappear. . . .25

One the more unfortunate secondary effects has been on the writing of history. Once facts become unimportant, and the past becomes just another text, history can be rewritten to suit any ideological end.26 Science, too, is undermined: "No research, whether on the natural or the social world, can progress on a basis that is both conceptually confused and radically detached from empirical evidence."27

Leaving dogmas aside, empiricism in some sense remains central to any thinking connected to the real world. Theory challenges even that: "The empiricism that stands in some jeopardy today is simply a regard for evidence — a disposition to consult ascertainable facts when choosing between rival ideas."28

The disregard for evidence is part of a larger problem, a disdain for rationalism. The postmodern tendency toward obfuscation prompted Alan Sokal to submit a spoof on scientific relativism to a self-important journal which, impressed by the jargon, published it. He and Jean Bricmont later wrote Intellectual Impostures , which expanded on the theme of the misuse of language and noted the anti-rationalist aspect:
Vast sectors of the humanities and the social sciences seem to have adopted a philosophy that we shall call, for want of a better term, "postmodernism": an intellectual current characterized by the more-or-less explicit rejection of the rationalist tradition of the Enlightenment, by theoretical discourses disconnected from any empirical test, and by a cognitive and cultural relativism that regards science as nothing more than a 'narration', a 'myth' or a social construction among many others.29

Numerous other books have noted this tendency to retreat from the rationalist foundations of the Enlightenment, although not always linking that development to postmodernism.30

Politics becomes infected.

" ‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in a rather
scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean —
neither more nor less.’
Through the Looking Glass, Chap. VI

Right-wing politics shares several tendencies with postmodernism: a flight from reality, relativism in the sense of beliefs based on usefulness, and language freed from the need to communicate something concrete. Consider this reaction to the 1996 Republican Convention: "So many words! . . . So little meaning!"31 or this description of contemporary right–wing populism: "Even if we leave aside the off-the-wall paranoid projections, the detailed policy claims made by Tea Partiers are, to put it politely, often not in touch with factual reality." 32

Of course, the present state of conservative political discourse in this country cannot be attributed entirely, or even mainly, to the influence of postmodernism; there is nothing new about about the slippery use of words in politics, nor about an anti-Enlightenment attitude on the right, but the latter once was confined to the fringe; now it is in the mainstream. It is no exaggeration to say that conservative politics has an unsatisfactory relationship with the topic of truth. Postmodernism may have contributed to, and has helped to legitimize, that development.

Whether or not there is causal connection, politics on the right displays a disdain for empiricism, rationality and facts, and a penchant for vague and obfuscating language and outright misuse of terms. As to the former, a Bush aide famously summed up the situation by referring derisively to people in the reality-based community, i.e., those who believe that solutions emerge from a study of reality. As to the latter, it is fitting that Newt Gingrich is running this year, as he is an originator of the GOP’s use of language as a means of preventing thought. When in Congress he published a list of words to use to discredit the opposition,33 including betray, cheat, coercion, corrupt, decay, endanger, radical, sick, and traitors. Do they describe reality? Who cares?
If words have at best an unstable relation to reality, they can be twisted to mean whatever the speaker wants. Hence President Obama is alleged to be either a communist or a fascist, sometimes both, and a Muslim, and a foreigner, with no concern for anything as trivial as evidence or even definitions.

The disdain for facts infects right-wing attitudes toward science, for example rejecting evidence of evolution and climate change: "if anything, or almost anything, can be read into the content of scientific discourse, then why should anyone take science seriously as an objective account of the world? Conversely, if one adopts a relativist philosophy, then arbitrary comments on scientific theories become legitimate."34

Other examples of the decoupling of words from facts involve either ignoring history or rewriting it. This allows Republicans to advocate austerity during a recession, claiming that it will cause the economy to improve; to assert that tax cuts always increase revenue and automatically create jobs; and (burying the very recent past) to reiterate the claim that the market always produces the best possible results and, therefore, any form of regulation is a negative influence.

Religious fundamentalism often is a source of irrationalism. Consider the citation by Senator Inhofe and Representative Shimkus of Genesis 8:21-22 as proof that we shouldn’t worry about global warming. Again, there is a parallel: in 1995, participants at a meeting captioned "The Flight from Science and Reason," at the New York Academy of Sciences, expressed concern over the effects both of religious fundamentalism and post-modernist critics of science. One speaker noted that "post-modernists of both the political left and right" denied that scientific knowledge was possible. 35

Although the Bible, employed selectively and imaginatively, is a source of conservative political doctrine, it is, paradoxically, just another text to be deconstructed: available translations allegedly have a liberal bias. That will be purged in a proposed new translation using "powerful new conservative terms" and "free market parables."36

Even if the similarity is accidental, it is ironic, and it is more than an intellectual curiosity. Those two streams, postmodernism and "conservatism,"one running on the far left, the other spread across the right, have undermined what remains, which is liberalism. That is so whether one defines liberalism in terms of the political spectrum, i.e., the near and mid-left, or whether it is defined historically and intellectually as that set of beliefs, practices and values — including rationalism — which supports all of modern democratic politics and culture, including the parts commonly (or previously) termed conservative.


16.Theory’s Empire , pp. 64-65
17. I’ve already rambled on about the rhetorical similarities between right-wing politics, postmodern literary theory, arts reviews and analytic philosophy. See notes of 4/27/2007 and 4/26/2011. This comment grew out of an effort better to understand the second.
18. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism , p. 6
19. "Jacques Derrida," Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:
20. The Norton Anthology , p. 21
21. Blackburn, Spreading the Word , p.1
22. Blackburn, review of Bernard Williams, Truth and Truthfulness,
23. Ibid.
24. Rorty, The Linguistic Turn , p. 373
25. Blackburn, "Portrait: Richard Rorty," Prospect Magazine , April 2003;
26. The tendency has been criticized in several books: Evans, In Defense of History ; Wood, The Purpose of the Past ; Himmelfarb, "Postmodern History," in On Looking into the Abyss .
27. Intellectual Impostures , p. 193
28. Theory’s Empire , p. 222
29. Intellectual Impostures , p. 1
30. See, e.g., Gore, The Assault on Reason ; Jacoby, American Unreason ; Wolin, The Seduction of Unreason .
31. Hendick Hertzberg, Politics , p. 127
32. Skocpol and Williamson, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism , p. 199
34. Intellectual Impostures , p. 194
35. The New York Times , 6/6/95
36.  See my note of 10/26/09.
Posts © 2011-2012 by Gerald G. Day