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Tuesday, 09 August 2005


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» About "Us" Conservatives and "Our" Politics: A Case of Mistaken Identity from The Valve

In a thread that's almost become an institution, CR identifies the brand of conservatism ostensibly practiced by contributors to the Valve:

for "us" no politics = bad politics

Shortly thereafter, he elaborates:

... [Read More]


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I don't see where you get the Maginot line or my drawing an intellectual line in the sand. I don't see how considering context implies this.

I think your most interesting is whether the terms of debate are the same or different from the 80s-90s till now. There are different ways of considering this. Here are a couple: is the political/institutional climate different? I think that my discussion of context has said that the climate is different. And, I think you want to criticize me for presuming that the content is the same. So, this would be a different claim: the content of the current criticisms of theory is not the same as the critiques of multiculturalism, postmodernism, cultural studies raised in the 80s and 90s. And, I guess that this is what one would need to show--what's new. So, what are the attributes of what is being called theory that are objectionable? And, are these attributes so generalized that they constitute accurate descriptions theory?

So, critiques of postmodern theory relied on a description of the object: death of the subject, death of metanarratives. And, the critique was then that death of subject gives no way to consider human freedom and death of metanarratives eliminates universal claims to morality, rights, etc. (I mean to introduce this as quickly as possible, but this is not meant to be a straw man, just a signifier or stand in for a long debate with lots of players.) What this description suggests to me is that it is one that, even with or maybe because of its omissions, both sides can recognize their views and actually accept it. As I've described it, the burden would be on the posties to say, yes, we've given up freedom and morals, or, no we haven't, here's why.

Presumably, those who are against 'theory' can give an account of their object that is more than 'what is done in English departments' or 'a bunch of poststructuralists who think they are political radicals when they point out racism in Disney films.' And, presumably they can say what's wrong with it so that defenders can answer properly.


"a meaningful reading of alliances made and alliances broken requires fidelity to those tools of analytic social science and historicism that theory (poststructuralist and otherwise) mostly abjures or uses in a mood of romantic bemusement. "

Well that's certainly a not uncommon sentiment. But it's reductive (all of poststructuralism?) still. The "mostly" may be an escape clause, but it doesn't hold any water to just describe something as "a mood of romantic bemusement" and imply that everyone here:

is guilty of it. Not in my dim-witted book, anyway.

Scott Eric Kaufman

is whether the terms of debate are the same or different from the 80s-90s till now.

Jodi, I'm too busy reading your essay to reply to this at length now, but the short answer is: this is what I meant by the comparison to the Maginot Line. The politicized categories of theory/anti-theory that held during the '80s and '90s--and which you refer to as the context of your discussion of Theory's Empire--belong to a paradigm that no longer accurately captures the shape of the institutional debate about theory/anti-theoroy and left/right in the Humanities and Social Sciences. Back to Zizek!


I guess that I need the difference to be spelled out for me. Now, it could be that you would say that theory/anti-theory is a debate within the left. And, then I would say that this analogous to debates in the 80s-90s where the Nation and Dissent were against cultural studies but clearly couldn't be identified as right wing. And, I would add that it was interesting how in the dominant framing of the culture wars this split in the left was occluded/ignored. But, that doesn't change the context in which the debate was occuring.

Happy reading!

Rich Puchalsky

Scott: "She seems still to consider the map of institutional political terrain--the one formed when the stakes of the debate were whether and/or how much Plato/Shakespeare/Milton/&c. students should be exposed to--an accurate survey of the contemporary extra-institutional political terrain."

I have difficulty in recognizing any of, well, Theory-inflected political theory as having much relevance to actual current politics. I've worked with various types of more or less liberal organizers -- labor unions, low-cost housing advocates, grassroots environmental justice groups -- and you know, we really could have used some theory. With "toxics" work, for instance, you're really at the cutting edge of issues involved with how much you trust science and its technocratic use by the regulatory state. But was any of what-we-might-call-Theory actually useful in exposing misuse of scientific discourse? No. As far as I can tell, postmodern theory doesn't even include a meaning of the word "misuse". And of course Marxists scorn the whole concern as reformism or gradualism. As far as I can tell, this is generally true in most areas. Is Bhabha useful to people working against the effects of colonialism? Not that I've heard. Does Butler help transgender activists? No. And for critiques of science as an element of political power I go to scientists.

Not that theory of any sort necessarily has to be useful. But I really don't think it's that important whether the maps of political terrain that we're writing about are accurate or not. Not when there's no way to tell whether they are accurate and nothing is riding on them.

Luther Blissett

What scares me is the assumption that, even if our students are shifting more and more to the right, we have any right as professors to try to change their minds.

I teach "in the heart of the heart of the country" -- a red heart of a red state -- and yes, my students can be quite conservative. But that doesn't give me a right to gear my teaching toward challenging my students' political beliefs. Jodi, if I remember correctly, is in poli-sci, but even there, I wonder if it's the professor's role to do anything more than to present the issues and present how to think critically about all of them.

But in lit departments, where theory remains at its strongest (and even there, no so strong anymore), we have *no* right to inculcate our students with political beliefs.

Scott Eric Kaufman

LB, I'm still dissertating (and Jodi, I'll post a more coherent response to "Zizek Against Democracy" tomorrow), but I wanted to address this immediately:

In no way am I saying that I we have a right to inculcate our students. Just the opposite: we teach them the tools they need to analyze texts with a critical eye, organize their thoughts so that they may be communicated to others, &c. then we're giving them the tools they need to make an informed assessment of what happens in the world. However, I'm of the belief that if I teach students to think critically--i.e. not like me, but critically--they'll end up drawing many of the same conclusions I've drawn. That's not indoctrination so much as the courage of my own convictions; I don't need to indoctrinate students so long as I do my job and teach them to think critically. What I meant to say up there is that it's now more important than ever to teach them to think critically. That's all.

That said, you have to admit that your multi-cultural approach to literature--teaching literature of the Caribbean, for example--might look to a hardcore conservative to be indoctrination. Alright, this issue is far too important to discuss during a quick break from the dissertation. I'll respond in full later tonight or tomorrow.


You're too hard on yourself, Scott! Your remarks about Derrida that I have seen strike me as eminently reasonable and strongly reminiscent of Croce. Rational to the core, good, and very respectably old fashioned.

Timothy Burke

Partly I think the discussion is, from the perspective of the "anti-theorists", about no more and no less that the content and practice of academic professionalism and the place of academia in public culture and civil society. That potentially includes a lot of territory, but it also excludes the grand terrains of "politics" being so casually and amorphously invoked. If I suggest that literary criticism needs to be less sweepingly "political", or that cultural studies should drop its pretences to be discovering transgression under every rock, or that history should be less certain that its research and publication contributes to the struggle; if academia in the humanities concerns itself with its fidelity to a vaguely imagined left, then is this a "conservative" suggestion? Only if you insist and assume that literary criticism was in fact meaningfully political, cultural studies was productively finding and strengthening transgressions, history was on the front lines of the struggle, and the humanities were faithful stalwarts of the struggle. If not, then suggesting that academics observe a kind of modest envisioning of their own social role and a professional ethos, that intellectuals recognize the constrained character of their points of entry to the wider public sphere, isn't "conservative": it is a suggestion that carries little or no grand political meaning and is merely about the content of academic professional culture. I suppose you could even work it out so that this suggestion is ultimately quite "left", in fact, as it perhaps returns academics back to the territories and practices closest to their actual capabilities and institutional character and away from the clumsy, ham-fisted self-inflation of the political imagination of the academic left in the 1980s and 1990s, the tendency of scholars to emplace themselves and their professional work close to the imagined heart of things. Even the game of culture war, which really does have a pretty important avenue of entry predemarcated for intellectuals, was one that academics mostly played badly in the 1980s and 1990s, and in significant measure because they didn't constrain themselves to a professional ethos of expertise but said pretty much any damn thing that popped into their heads.

Timothy Burke

Sorry, forgot a negation above: it should read "if academia in the humanities concerns itself far less with its fidelity to a vaguely imagined left, then is this a "conservative" suggestion?"


A couple of thoughts:

theory and politics (from Rich): I can speak to transgender activism and Butler. Her theoretical work on performativity has influenced activists in this area, from those working in law to those advising colleges and communities on how to make themselves friendly to transgendered people. So, a change in transgender activism in part influenced by Butler has been away from an embrace of a specific identity (the earlier model) and toward an acceptance of the trans. Practically: having unisex bathrooms, or public restrooms that are not isolated and grouped according to male or female.

on 'toxics' or related science matters--I find the work by scholars in social studies of science and technology (for example, Bruno Latour) to be helpful and interesting.

on inculcation: my experience lately is that students find the injunction to give a reason for what they think to be inculcation. this has been what has changed so dramatically since 9/11--they are more resistant to backing up their claims with reasons. And, by claims here I mean interpretations of texts, critiques of texts, etc.

Luther Blissett

Scott, I wasn't accusing you of supporting political indoctrination. It was actually something in Jodi's original post above that made me worry about this: "I have noticed a difference in my classrooms since 9/11, one that is hard to pin down, but one that asserts faith over reason more often than before."

But her last comment above made her position much clearer. I with Jodi, and you, on this: our job is to teach students how to think critically about anything, how to establish logical and rhetorically rich arguments, how to provide and analyze evidence, how to find patterns and anomalies in data, and so on. I do believe that ultimately, this puts one in opposition to cultural conservatism in the US, even if one teaches no actual policies to one's students.

Your point about my mixing of Caribbean and American literatures in my diss and teaching is a great one. And this is why I do suspect many conservatives in the cultural wars of a kind of cultural or national chauvanism, if not racism. I'm an aesthete, start to finish, and it is this that pushed me first toward Caribbean fiction: Naipaul and Wilson Harris are two of our best novelists since 1950 -- in the English-speaking world. But I have found people who think I'm doing some kind of affirmative-action one-of-each-of-everything project, just because my work includes authors of various cultural backgrounds. So this is the problem for me: I'm convinced that a thorough attention to the facts of a social matter put one squarely in a centrist-left position on cultural issues. But the cultural right has mastered the sort of moronic relativism the cultural left trademarked, so now it's the left demanding evidence, proof, good reasons, and so on.

I'm rambling. But I hope I made some sense.

Rich Puchalsky

I have not found Bruno Latour to be very useful. His newer work may be heading in a more useful direction, though, see:

Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern.

He starts the essay promisingly enough. He uses as one example the Republican attempt to blur the science behind anthropogenic global climate change, and says

"Do you see why I am worried? I myself have spent some time in the past trying to show "the lack of scientific certainty" inherent in the construction of facts. I too made it a "primary issue." But I did not exactly aim at fooling the public by obscuring the certainty of a closed argument—or did I? After all, I have been accused of just that sin. Still, I'd like to believe that, on the contrary, I intended to emancipate the public from prematurely naturalized objectified facts. Was I foolishly mistaken?"

I would characterize the middle of the essay as answering "Basically, yes." In my opinion, the right wing does postmodern critique far more effectively than the left, because when power supports postmodernism, no ground is left for those who lack power. You can't even speak truth to power if there is no truth.

So Bruno Latour tries to rectify this mistake (though he doesn't really call it a mistake, he has lots of face-saving prose about rearming to face a new enemy) by saying that we need a new realist attitude and that critique should support matters of concern instead of attacking matters of fact. This, to me, appears unsufferably vague. What would be involved in actually doing this? That's when we get to the "multifarious inquiry launched with the tools of anthropology, philosophy, metaphysics, history, sociology to detect how many participants are gathered in a thing to make it exist and to maintain its existence" -- in other words, the rush of Theory towards a jumble of methods taken from other fields, applied haphazardly to support a predetermined position.

At least he's heading in the right direction. Maybe he'll come up with something.

Until then, I haven't seen how this type of theory does much good. In science-based activism, you can't be either wholly trusting (premodern style) or wholly doubting (postmodern style). While I'm glad to see that Latour has realized that the middle ground is where the action is, I don't see any sign of actual tools that can be used to do anything besides confirm one's prejudices.


What would a tool that would be used not to confirm one's prejudices look like?

Although this is not even close to my view, I can think of at least one answer--Rorty's in, I think, Contingency, Irony, Solidarity (something like that). And, actually, he may make the argument elsewhere: that theory can't to anything (particularly those theoretical enterprises that aim at justification) particularly useful, as in really changing people, but literature, particularly fiction can. So, presumably, a tool that would not confirm, or that leaves open the possibility of not confirming, would be literature.

But, if this is right, then I would say, why fiction over non-fiction, or why some kinds of writing more than others? And, if the literature example is a bad one, then I would ask you to provide another. And, then I would probably happily accept the non-utility of theory (I also finally reading the new biography of Godel so I'm delighted to emphasize non-utility, if pressed.)

Rich Puchalsky

It's fine to assert the non-utility of theory. I'm not asserting that everything has to be useful. However, I think that the idea of a non-useful politics is a contradiction in terms, and that therefore theory that asserts its non-usefulness can not make any real claim to be political.

What would a tool that would be used not to confirm one's prejudices look like? There are all sorts, and of course none of them work perfectly, and all of them can be actively misused. Science, for instance, is broadly a way of colliding with the world in a fashion that attempts to reveal something about it, rather than about your prejudices. In terms of particular methods, they can range from something like polling in political science, which tells you how people are really likely to vote instead of how you think that they are going to vote, or close reading in literary studies, which is a way of trying to get yourself to find qualities of a text that you wouldn't find if you read it quickly and filled in the gaps with your preconceptions.


Not surprisingly, I would say that all the tools you mention can easily be used in ways counter to the ones you mention. And, I don't think it makes sense to appeal to the true or real or intended use of a tool. So, polls: a great use of polls, asking people if there vote would change should they learn that a candidate was a drug dealer, a Satanist, had fathered illegitimate children, had an abortion etc....

Political theory: some versions, say Rawls' theory of justice, focus on justification. Debates on this work considered in part the structure of the original position. Useful--well, I guess it could be in some sense. Political--not in terms of an immediate intervention in an ongoing conflict on the ground. Political theory: yes.

Rich Puchalsky

Jodi, if you really think that you can't distinguish push-polling that asks whether your opinion of a candidate would change if the candidate was a drug dealer from actual polling, then you are completely defenseless against right-wing postmodernism. In your world, reality is whatever the powerful say that it is. I suggest that you re-read the Bruno Latour essay that I linked to above.

But, in actuality, I don't think that you really believe this. As Bruno Latour writes, when it comes to things that you care about, suddenly this extreme scepticism will turn into an implicit and unconsidered realism. It's just that truth isn't one of the things that you really care about. I would say that you accept a theory that allows the world to be changed into whatever you say it is because you are not seriously threatened by the right wing's use of this tactic, and that therefore you are in a sort of local maximum, a place in which you enjoy the ability to describe things without any possible challenge. But, for example, if the right wing succeeded sufficiently to remove current reproductive rights of women, all of a sudden you would treat basic feminism with none of the postmodern doubt in its concerns or of its true or real or intended use that you show above, even though the right wing would describe their removal of rights as a form of feminism.

Rawls' work is the underpinning for a good deal of liberal politics and is eminently useful. (I don't say this simply because I agree with Rawls; I disagree with Marx, but I also think that his work is useful in this sense.) I didn't say that all of political theory was non-useful, only the Theory-inflected parts of it.

Timothy Burke

Thanks, Rich, that puts very nicely and succinctly something I've been trying to get at as well in this conversation, but not nearly so precisely. It's what I think Scott was getting at a ways back with his comment on Theory's "platformlessness", this constant move into a place where there isn't any challenge possible, this shuttling from a move where the Theorist says, "Sure, if that's what facts are to you, go ahead and constrain yourself (unnecessarily) to them, but I'm going to see and proclaim what I need or want to see to satisfy the preconditions of my desired critique" from that to a move where suddenly the Theorist flashes into an "unconsidered realism" where some concretized truth and set of axiomatic facts about the world are just asserted as a precondition of discourse, as found objects rather than knowledges produced.


It's not quite accurate to say I can't make distinctions with regard to polling. My point is that there is not an accepted, generalized ground upon which to make these distinctions. That is, I don't think that the distinctions I would make are the ones that, say, the religious right would make (an analogy would be with the debate around intelligent design). So, I don't think there is a position on polling that it not already embedded in politics. Similarly, with respect to feminism: I am hard-core pro-choice. Within the current American context, this right needs to be fought for (although, if I broaden the question into the constitutional history of abortion, I would not argue for it in terms of a privacy right). So, I don't have any doubt in my position. And, on polling, I have no doubt that polls are structured in specific ways, to answer some questions, and not others, that they are funded in specific ways, etc.

Ultimately, I don't think that there are foundational arguments available that are strong enough to provide the defenses you speak of.

Rich Puchalsky

Jodi, I think that your last comments are an exact illustration of my point. So much so that I am tempted to just stop here.

But ... I'll try again. How can you possibly say that you are "hard-core pro choice"? Those words do not have the single meaning that you appear to intend; there is no "true or real or intended use" of them. You see, the distinctions that you would make are not the ones that the religious right would make; there is no accepted, generalized ground for them. To the religious right, "hard-core pro-choice" means that every unborn child has a right to live and make choices; their interpretation is as good as yours, and therefore when they take away the false (from their viewpoint) kind of choice that you are referring to, they will be implementing a version of feminism. Sure, you can say something that amounts to "I don't like that". But so what? They need not care about what you like, and the discourse that you prefer has systematically stripped away any notion of rights, truth, consequences, or reality that does not come down to power politics. So if they win the power politics, you can only stand there, saying something, but what that something is will have been deconstructed into nothingness.

You write "I don't have any doubt in my position." That is the final irony. Oh, the happiness of apportionment of doubt: all for thee, none for me.

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