Friday, April 15, 2022

The inline cites make the thing read as pretentious. I wrote it quickly and sent it off. Of course it was rejected. Nothing I haven't said before, but I add sources as I find them to make the arguments I've made since I was a teenager. 

Double-Consciousness and Self-Awareness

I want to expand on a reference in a longer manuscript (Edenbaum), to the famous passage from W.E.B. Du Bois on double-consciousness, “this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others....” (Du Bois, 2007, p. 8) Reading it I think of Arendt. “[A] more specific, and also more decisive, flaw in Eichmann's character was his almost total inability ever to look at anything from the other fellow's point of view.” (Arendt, 2006, p. 48)

“From the double life every American Negro must live, as a Negro and as an American, as swept on by the current of the nineteenth while yet struggling in the eddies of the fifteenth century...” (Du Bois, p. 136) “From the double life every German Jew must live, as a Jew and as a German...” It fits almost too well, down to the dates. But you can replace Negro or Jew with woman, homosexual, or Palestinian, though about that one too many people still don’t get the joke. And, of course, you can replace any of them with “the poor”, or in the language of the technocratic academy, with those who are the subject of so much analysis: “the folk”.

Brent Hayes Edwards, in his introduction to the Oxford edition of The Souls of Black Folk, cites various discussions of the background for Du Bois’ use of the idea and the term. Dickson Bruce finds Emerson and American Transcendentalism, psychological diagnosis, William James, European Romanticism, and Goethe: "Two souls, alas! Reside within my breast, /And each withdraws from, and repels, its brother". (Bruce, p. 302) As with Weber’s links to Nietzsche (Kent, 1983), it’s a mixture of rationalism and irrationalism, claims to science and romance. The most important aspect and the one least discussed is the extremity of the polarization, between “reason” and “unreason”: “the centre cannot hold”. (Yeats, 2008).

In fact, double-consciousness is a necessity for intellectual life, something to be cultivated, an irony that can’t exist without resulting in a sense of humor, knowing that at some time others will point out your own blindness, things you missed, or call you on your shit. It’s the foundation to all comedy, but Weber can only take things seriously.

After Nietzsche's devastating criticism of those 'last men' who 'invented happiness,' I may leave aside altogether the naive optimism in which science– that is, the technique of mastering life which rests upon science–has been celebrated as the way to happiness. Who believes in this? –aside from a few big children in university chairs or editorial offices. (Weber, 1991, p. 377)

I’m with Arendt in having a skeptical attitude towards or even a dislike of much social science. Peter Baehr has written about this aspect of her work in detail. (Baehr, 2010) And that dislike covered both Weber and The Frankfurt School. The excesses of irrationalism are a reaction to the equally irrational, because equally wishful, Enlightenment claims of reason. Adorno had that right, though he literally couldn’t think outside the box he’d put himself in. As with Weber, those who claim power don’t want to let it go.

The conclusion of the definition for Humanism in Simon Blackburn’s Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy:

Finally, in the late 20th century, humanism is sometimes used as a pejorative term by postmodernist and especially feminist writers. applied to philosophies such as that of Sartre, that rely upon the possibility of the autonomous, selfconscious, rational, single self, and that are supposedly insensitive to the inevitable fragmentary, splintered, historically and socially conditioned nature of personality and motivation. (Blackburn, 2005, p. 171)

The fantasy of the “autonomous, selfconscious, rational, single self” is the model for pedantry mocked by comedians for thousands of years: Cloud-cuckoo-land. It contradicts the historical definition of humanism. If pedantry is being defeated again, for now, as it was in the past, it’s not by irrationalism but the preponderance of evidence, and no amount of verbiage by academics, keeping themselves the center of attention, will help their case.

The best thing written about the Ronell fiasco at NYU was by the man who hired her, published not in the Chronicle for High Education, or Inside Higher Ed, but in Salon. And the line I come back to again and again puts both the claims of supporters of “the Enlightenment” and “Postmodernism” in their place: the academy itself.

The university belongs, like the church and the military, to the social institutions that are situated at a considerable distance from democracy and adhere to premodern power structures. Professor Ronell was unusually skilled at manipulating these. (Hüppauf, 2018)

The humanists mocked the scholastics, but the scholastics won, and subjectivists rebelled. The 20th century saw a restaging of the European wars of religion on a global scale. And now that the various ideologies have faded—religious fundamentalism and libertarianism are now equally explicitly parodic—the scholastics have returned openly to theology as a way to keep their position. People who mocked Derrida now read Deleuze. But double-consciousness is only available to amateurs. Pedants are not wise. Irony, as Czeslaw Milosz put it, “is the glory of slaves” (Milosz, 2003). It’s the laughter of workers behind their boss’s back. It’s the laughter of students and more importantly, janitorial staff.

Self-awareness is the awareness of a self around others; it’s never certain. What Du Bois calls “true self-consciousness” is impossible, because consciousness only exists in negotiation. It can’t be taught. It’s what Eichmann in his rage and engineers in their enthusiasm can never grasp. It’s not technical.

We exist as individuals in groups, communicating in forms, cultural, linguistic and mathematical that preexist each of us as individuals. Science is a tool, and bureaucracies are central to any complex organization. The biggest mistake over the past 250 years has been the urge to turn the necessary into the sufficient into the absolute, facts into values, whether generalizations or bureaucracies, comradeship or the self. What Hobsbawm called the age of extremes was an age of pedants and subjectivists, both equally enthusiastic. In this world the only realists are the comedians.


Arendt, H. (2006). Eichmann in Jerusalem. Penguin Classics.

Baehr, P. (2010). Hannah Arendt, Totalitarianism, and the Social Sciences. Stanford University Press. Blackburn, S. (2005). The Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy. Oxford University Press.

Bruce, D. D. (June 1992). W.E.B. Du Bois and the Idea of Double Consciousness. American Literature Vol. 64, No.2, 299-309.

Du Bois, W. (2007). The Souls of Black Folk. Oxford University Press.

Edenbaum, S. (n.d.). Avant-Garde is Kitsch. An Essay on Modernism and Modernity in Politics and Culture. Retrieved from https://www.academia.edu/33087408/Avant_Garde_is_Kitsch_An_Essay_on_Modernism_an d_Modernity_in_Politics_and_Culture

Hüppauf, B. (2018, September 8). A witch hunt or a quest for justice: An insider’s perspective on disgraced academic Avital Ronell. Salon.

Kent, S. A. (1983). Weber, Goethe, and the Nietzschean Allusion: Capturing the Source of the ‘Iron Cage’ Metaphor. Sociological Analysis, Vol. 44, No. 4, 297-319.

Milosz, C. (2003). Not This Way. In Milosz, New and Collected Poems 1931-2001. Ecco Press. 

Weber, M. (1991). Science as a Vocation. In M. Weber, From Max Weber: Studies in Sociology. Routledge.

Yeats, W. B. (2008). The Second Coming. In W.B.Yeats, Collected Poems of W.B. Yeats. Scribner.

No comments: