Sunday, July 30, 2006

(1998?-2003-06! etc.)

In 1996 a physicist named Alan Sokal wrote an article on the subjectivity implicit in mathematics and physics -not in our use of them but in the fields themselves- and published it in the respected academic journal Social Text. Immediately afterwards he declared the article a hoax, stated that it should have been obvious to anyone, and that the academic left, as represented by the editors of the journal, had been shown to be little more than a bunch of careerists desperate to outdo each other in hip anti-intellectualism.

As Katha Pollitt wrote later in The Nation, Sokal, "cites as ridiculous postmodern 'dogma' the argument that the world is real but unknowable, a position put foreword by Kant in 1781..." and accepted by many rational adults before and since.

When will Americans stop writing about the civil war? How many times, and in how many ways, can boy meet girl?

The problem is that if we are to function socially drive the car safely and vote, we have to believe that our actions are the result of logical comparison, and indeed that such comparison is possible. All societies, especially democratic ones, are predicated on the assumption that each adult is capable of reasoning about his or her position as part of the larger group and of acting accordingly. In becoming an adult, in achieving the state of adulthood, we recognize the moment when our peers confer this responsibility upon us.

I'm annoyed by the uncritical glorification of continental anti-humanism, elements of which claim that to disallow is to oppress, and that our anarchic egocentricity is not only inescapable but functions as a moral argument against claims that we are or should be, rational beings capable of action, reflection, and reason: that we are able to control the environment in which we live, and do so justly. I'm annoyed, but I'm also amused and entertained. And I'm not a positivist, while Alan Sokal and Noam Chomsky, the godfather of American intellectual leftists, seem to be just that. Chomsky is both an anti-Freudian and a modernist, a radical egalitarian in politics and an intellectual aristocrat, seemingly unaware of the contradiction. But self-awareness was never a hallmark of 20th century thought, to those who placed their critical methodologies in some imaginary place outside their own lives prejudices and experiences, and who never thought to turn the same analyses upon themselves.

Not long before he died the art historian Meyer Shapiro was profiled in The New York Times Magazine. Two things from that article stood out for me: the first was that at over 90 years old, having lived through this century as a left-wing intellectual, Shapiro's greatest regret was the failure of socialism. The second was a brief discussion of Shapiro's relationship with his son. His son is a Scientologist, and they were no longer in contact. Apparently Shapiro had revered Freud but thought that he himself did not need psychoanalysis. Nonetheless at some point, it was not clear when, he attempted to psychoanalyze his son, and the author acknowledged that this had something to do with the difficulties. This short paragraph made me sick. Shapiro’s assuredness, and what came of it, are what post-modernist academics and theoreticians refer to when they decry the indulgence in idealist world-views that ignore the psychological elements that affect our behavior, or ignore the fact that such elements are universal. Shapiro’s assumption that he could psychoanalyze his own son without becoming engaged in the confusion of their relationship as parent and child was pathetically self-indulgent, as was his apparent ignorance of the fact that this arrogance, seen on a larger scale, was one of the reasons for the failure of his larger dream.

Chomsky may or may not have avoided the temptations of power, but if so he does not understand how he's done it. He's said he sees no reason why there should be illogic in human behavior, but the question is irrelevant to any meaningful discussion. Illogic is simply inevitable.

Our minds categorize the world according to our sensibilities, and then remake the world in the forms of those interior devices. These structures, these others inevitabilities, we call esthetics. Sokal's and Chomsky's esthetics, as seen in the way they write, the way they behave, the way they appear: as nerd or nebbish or librarian; their ideas and hyper-rationality, to the degree that they can be shown to be based on nothing but assumption; all are manifestations of the human need to describe oneself and the world in ways that conform to one's beliefs. And even if we accept for argument's sake that Chomsky's tastes have nothing to do with his intellectual life -that for example, his arguments about language and humanity have nothing to do with a very personal desire to separate human beings from other animals, to see them as not only superior but other, then we are still faced with the problem of his relevance. Chomsky's fans worship him rather than emulating him. If we do not all have Chomsky's clarity of mind, and most people don't, and if he is not willing to come down to our level, and he isn't, how useful is his philosophy? If we and not Chomsky are the problem, we must also be the solution.

The issue gets even more complex since I don't want to let the Francophiles off the hook. The romance of the underground that remains central to critical theory is one of free will, rooted in Catholic anti-modernism. The mainstreaming of multiple piercings, of sexual theatricality -private or public- of Wigstock and the Love Parade, S&M and Girls Gone Wild; what should make one feel good? Is that even a question we should ask? If 30 years ago it did not seem odd in academia to argue against pleasure -an entire genre of political/critical theory was once dedicated to that argument- we now face the equally absurd belief that pleasure in itself is a radical good.

Suppose there is a group of people in a utopian society who decide that they want to be servants: they want to cook and serve food, mop floors, and do menial labor. In return for this they want to be relieved of all need to worry about the larger issues of community affairs and to be cared for by their employers. This is both a postmodern fantasy and a truism. Not all people want to be free, at least according to humanist definitions of the word. But what happens when they get their wish?

Most people even in democracies accept their roles as servants. And they vote. This is where postmodern fantasy meets reality. The current celebration of the quirks of our collective unconscious that promulgates and parallels the careers of Reagan and Thatcher, Clinton, Blair and the madness of King George, are all very post-modern and post-humanist, but are also unfortunately post-democratic. Democracy implies responsibility, implies that all citizens be not only able but willing to deal thoughtfully with the affairs of community city and state. We now often champion the popular unconscious or its inevitable resurgence or simply pleasure itself, in a sort of sexy fatalism that is as dangerous as all of the subtly authoritarian trappings of modernism. We don't say we're in control but that we aren’t and never can be, leaving open the question of just who is, and demonstrating a newly passive relationship to history. If activism, in historical terms, means the willingness to accept the possibility of violence, passivity sees it as inevitable. And fascism, in the mind of the fascist, is nothing other than the violence of the eternal victim.

But passivity takes another form as well, that of fundamentalist Darwinism of Dawkins and Dennett and the economic logic of Posner's hyper-capitalism, both of which treat culture, the product of collective action, psychology, and chance, as determined by specific and limited 'causes'. This is like saying that polling is democracy, and the lowest common denominator wins the day. If the only struggle is between economic interest and itself, then 10,000 years of culture simply vanish in an instant. The vulgarity is almost Soviet. Posner sees himself as no more the product of a cultural history than Chomsky, and indeed their ideas spring from the same source. Whether Chomsky admits it or not, he has no understanding of community, no understanding of why it succeeds or fails. A witness is not a philosopher. Primo Levi understood this.
We are the products of community, and if individual responsibility is a moral good, individualism is simply another in the long history of philosophies and ideologies, no more or less determined in their origins and predictable in their demise. Libertarians and "Brights" are not even worthy of comment.

Esthetics is not the study of colors any more or less than psychoanalysis is the study of words. It is, perhaps, the connoisseur’s exploration of our interior worlds rather than the interpreter's explication of what they mean. But to know that we categorize capriciously, confusedly, and wrongly is not to say that we can cure ourselves of the disease; while to accept and enjoy our capacity for curious fabrications -to take pleasure in those things that are nearest to our hearts, for whatever reasons- is not to deny entirely some sort of critical reckoning. Go to the Metropolitan Museum and walk through the Chinese collection; past the sculpture, past the pottery, past the hanging scrolls, through 3000 years of academies, schools, and disciplines; and enter the South Asia section -to Cambodia, Vietnam, and India- and you will pass, over 20 paces, from one ‘esthetic’ to another as swiftly and in as profound a way as a human being can. Categories vanish and new ones take their place, as do economies, technologies and philosophies. Freud would have understood, as would Marx, the inevitability of difference.

This is true complexity. We need to redefine humanism in such a way that it respects not only the idea but also the influence of subjectivity, while remaining opposed to the nihilism that past critiques of humanism spawned. We must define humanism as the understanding that we need to function consciously, but will never exist entirely - and therefore mechanically- through rationality. We must learn to appreciate, and to enjoy, that we will never be fully in control of even our own minds. When we make art, we do not invent and we do not ‘create’; we make forms that parallel what would otherwise often remain hidden to ourselves. The arts, not the sciences, are the model for philosophical reflection, not because of some spurious and nonsensical 'spirituality' but because they reflect their makers' self-aware but outward gaze, and more honestly than those makers might care to admit (which of course is why intention is of secondary importance). Let history be the judge.

The rule of law is not the rule of science. The rule of law is in a very real sense the rule of craft. In denigrating that, in denigrating culture and social life, in all its varieties of imperfection, Posner, Sokal and Chomsky reduce life to ideology, weakening democracy in favor of nonexistent truth.

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