Saturday, May 31, 2003

I've made a few comments over the past couple of days that I should clear up. Conservative, liberal and left wing academics who are not hip have spent a good deal of time complaining about the popularity of "Continental" rationalism on college campuses. The "tenured radicals" were all assumed to be influenced by Derrida, Foucault et al., and were commonly accused of being caught up in a sort of estheticized nihilism as a result. Alan Sokal had a lot of fun with this, while missing the reason for his opponents' interests, which began with something perfectly reasonable. Philosophical ambiguity is like gin, and at this point the only people willing to defend it in this country are drunks, and when you're arguing with a minister intent on drying out the town entirely, as Sokal was and is, it becomes difficult to defend having one glass of wine. Give an anxious puritan one drink and in a week he'll be an alcoholic. That's what happened in much of American academia.

Continental rationalism has a double edge. Foucault's writing acts as a critique of democracy, and Derrida owes much to Heidegger. But so did Derrida's friend, and fellow tribesman, Emmanuel Levinas. There are tinges of fascism and of reaction everywhere. Sokal might say that elevating such language games to a philosophical level has to be considered reactionary, because the result is to deny the efficacy of political action, but to Derrida they are meant to protect us against the language of those who would speak for us. Does this result in passivity? Not necessarily. Derrida, who comes from family of Algerian Jews and who admits to getting teary eyed when he hears the Internationale, has never been silent. But as I mentioned in a post below pendulums are always going too far one way or the other, and wisdom gets used as ideology - rendering it no longer wise. I'm making no blanket defense of Derrida. History will decide the value of his work. I'm arguing with his fans and their accusers.

Neocon ideology is as simplistic and programmatic as the syllabus from anything from a 1980's course in literary criticism. Whether it is an assumption about the relation of intellectual activity to the culture at large, the relation of homosexuality to heterosexual culture, the relation of Saudi Arabia to it's neighbors, or the relation of the United States to the rest of the world, the faithful begin with the assumption that best serves their purpose and stick to it until the walls cave in. The popularity of this, and the idiocy, drives me nuts. I'd love to have some conservative critic call it for what it is.

There's something wrong with a country when its intellectual population is unwilling or unable to accept that ambiguity is central to any valid understanding of experience, and when that country's artists and writers end up so anti-intellectual almost in response. What is American art but empiricism run amok?

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