Thursday, February 22, 2007
On The Accusation Of Totalitarianism
It has become commonplace, these days, to associate numerous kinds of thought with totalitarianism. This, in itself, is remarkable, considering the legacy of totalitarianism. To call a thinker totalitarian is to suggest a close sympathy between their work and the history of genocide and bloody repression that includes the Holocaust and the Stalinist gulags.
Truly totalitarian writing is an accessory to violence, to murder, and to every other kind of misery that a governed people can undergo. If a substantial allegation of this kind were made about my writing, I would have no choice except to submit to the most painful and unrelenting kind of self-scrutiny, in the face of the possibility that I had turned out to be the monstrous inverse of my hopes and values. Do not imagine that this kind of anguish has anything to do with ordinary self-awareness: we are talking about a slim chance of escaping lifelong purgatory.
Instead, the accusation is becoming devalued, as if it was a coin minted too plentifully, and distributed too widely. It is nothing besides a standard tool for winning academic arguments. That does not mean that it is ineffectual, however. The cheap, inflated form of the argument about totalitarianism has very successfully undermined the academy’s ability to create functional alternatives to violence and oppression.
The charge of totalitarianism was recently leveled against Scott Kaufman in a response to his article on the history of the codification of “theory” as a field of study and an adjunct to literary criticism. Eileen Joy, writing at In The Middle, wrote:
There is something eerily totalitarian in this wish—that, somehow, all theoretical discourses could be drawn under one eye, where everyone would be responsible and accountable to everyone else, but this also assumes a kind of high arbiter, or set of “higher” value judgments that would structure the inevitable debates. (Of course, the fact that Scott also invokes Hegel over and over again in the most positive of ways is also telling in this respect.)
Joy is referring to Scott’s desire (which she represents accurately) to re-create
a place/site, in other words, such as Critical Inquiry’s “Critical Responses” section, nostalgically drawn by Scott as lamentably “past,” where everyone could somehow gather and voice strong, yet weakly held, opinions and hold each other accountable.
I am happy to report that Joy almost immediately backed away from the term “totalitarian” in her subsequent comments, indicating that it was the result of writing under time pressure (inevitable, given the avocational nature of blogging). However, she did not back away from identifying Hegel with totalitarianism, and she did not cease to identify Scott’s project with a worrisome desire for a totality that seems still to be related to totalitarianism.
Joy’s post inspired Jodi Dean, at the blog Long Sunday, to write a response to Scott’s ideas despite (by her own admission) not having read Scott’s work in progress. In that post, Jodi wrote:
When one’s opponents are possessed of an inhuman certainty, when they are motivated to realize their vision of the world, to respond by saying that, really, they need to demonstrate more humility is inadequate. That is not the way to defeat them. Instead, one needs to affirm the contest aspect of contestability, the aspect of struggle--force decides.
For Jodi, the necessary recourse to force is a consequence of the irreducibly incommensurate nature of belief, as it happens in the world:
For me, incommensurability isn’t something one is committed to or not. It’s a description of the world (I prefer the term collapse of symbolic efficiency) that one can try to refute, resolve, deny, or accommodate. Generosity toward incommensurable views or positions is one mode of accommodation. In the political world, this is rarely possible.
Joy was impressed by Dean’s post, and annotated, in the comments section, the nature of the argument about force (sorry for the long quote, it’s necessary here):
But I would also say, to Rich, that while “we” literary critics, whether over at Acephalous or In The Middle or The Valve or elsewhere in the blogosphere are debating the importance of contestability or “strong opinions, weakly held” or incommensurability, that political theory scholars such as Jodi are engaged in debates about questions that pertain to situations with more [possibly fiercely detrimental] material effects: actual local and more globalized politics. I cannot speak for Jodi, but I have read her writings elsewhere and know that she has been willing to launch some critiques of weak ontology’s “weaknesses” [forgive the pun--is it even a pun?]. How, as political philosophy with [hopefully] real-world applications [never mind its utlity for the purposes of a more progressive set of theoretical debates among intellectuals] can it confront persons & groups who wield power and hold, often forcefully, “strong opinions, strongly held,” without humility, without postmodern forms of theoretical generosity? How, for example, would weak ontology, whether in White’s or Connolly’s terms, help us to argue with, even overturn, neoconservatism? How could it confront or alleviate the Russian government’s treatment of Chechens seeking redress for their “disappeared” [likely tortured and killed in secret] relatives? And so on and so forth.
I am reminded of a really funny scene in Woody Allen’s “Manhattan,” where Allen’s character is at a benefit party with a group of very sophisticated, artistic & intellectual types, and he asks if everyone has heard that a neo-Nazi supremacist-type group is going to be marching somewhere in New Jersey, and maybe they should all go there with bricks and bats, and this very obviously anemically pinched intellectual comments that he read a “really satirical” piece about it in the “Times,” really “biting satire,” etc., and Allen replies that he doesn’t know about “biting satire,” but he thinks bricks and bats would be a good idea.
Jodi responded thus:
Eileen--I like the Woody Allen example; sometimes there is a place for satire; sometimes for bricks and bats. In fact, I probably am taking the example too seriously (but I really like it), yet it seems that in politics we can’t actually choose between them categorically, that no matter what there arise times for each, despite and because of our best intentions.
In other words, this line of reasoning leads in a straight line from a denunciation of Scott’s imagined site of argumentation as totalitarian, to a fantasy of street violence as an effective response to hate speech.
Scott is accused, in Joy’s original post, of hoping to see the day when “certain geniuses would emerge out of this tensile field of discussion, theoretical muscles rippling,” the perpetrator of a masculinist ideal of “strength or lack thereof” (from a follow-up comment in which she demurs on “masculinist,” then immediately re-instates it in different words). However, in the comments at Long Sunday, Joy is accusing Scott of a “weak ontology” that is much too weak, and her final description of his article as “anemic” (in the comments section at In The Middle) echoes the “anemic” and “pinched” reader of satire from Manhattan. In the end, Scott is accused both of being too weak (via his anemic and weak ontology), and of being too strong, because of his supposed desire for totality.
Scott is advocating for the creation of new forums where academics with differing views can debate each other on the well-established, humanistic ground of reasoned argument. He would like to see them articulate their positions without their feeling obliged to assume a crippling deference to all prior theorists who have proved “useful” to this or that piece of literary criticism. When he says that such views should be “weakly held,” he means that all participants should recognize their obligation to admit the error if a logical inconsistency in their argument is exposed.
The response he has received is characteristic of the contemporary practical application of the ethical thought of Derrida and Levinas. Academics hazily define the opposition by conflating Islamic fundamentalist terrorists, the ascendant American far right, and smaller instances of terror around the world: “How, for example, would weak ontology, whether in White’s or Connolly’s terms, help us to argue with, even overturn, neoconservatism? How could it confront or alleviate the Russian government’s treatment of Chechens seeking redress for their “disappeared” [likely tortured and killed in secret] relatives? And so on and so forth” (from Joy’s comment at Long Sunday). Many academics try to formulate a response in terms of a practical ethics of alterity and incommensurability, drawing on the work of Derrida and Levinas, among others.
However, the provocative force of American conservatism, and of persistent totalitarian practices around the world, has distorted the meaning of a politics of alterity, whose only real ethical possibility was as an ever-more gentle mode of deference towards others, of the sort disclosed in the poetry of e. e. cummings. As it is used now, incommensurability is the foundation of a hysterical academic ideology that proposes violence as a means of compensating for its own self-contempt and uncertainty. The apparent vigor of “force decides” and “bricks and bats” covers for the definitive anxiety “of saying that nothing is certain, that certainty is an inhuman element” (from Jodi’s post).
Force decides nothing, if we are to understand force in terms of the bloody destruction of human beings, with bricks and bats, or any other way. That is certainly how the Bush Administration understands force: the use of force indicates where the line is drawn between those with whom we can communicate, and those others whose beliefs are simply incommensurate with ours.
I see force a little differently. I see force as the proper term for the willingness to endure in belief in the face of terror, and the refusal to be goaded into a symmetrical response. In that sense, Allen’s character is wrong about satire, which is not surprising since he is a character in a satiric film. The satires of homophobia by Jean Genet have force. The satires of racism within the African-American community have force. The Master and the Margarita, a satire of the Soviet state by Mikhail Bulgakov, has force.
I don’t believe for a moment that any of the respondents in this debate hold racist or anti-Semitic views. However, the larger debate over universality, of which this particular dispute is merely a symptom, brings clearly into focus the shape of the argument that sites of rational contestation are both too strong (because totalizing) and too weak (because anemic). Homologous to that argument, in anti-Semitic societies, is the argument that Jews are too strong (because they have secret power) and too weak (because they are parasites, moneylenders, and so forth). In racist societies, it is the person of color who is too strong, because primitive and brutal, and also too weak, because uneducable and servile. In all of these cases, the contradiction of “too weak and too strong” is necessary, in order to maintain a philosophy based on a false notion of the difference between oneself and the Other.
The reaction against universalist ideals of discourse is founded on an ontological claim about incommensurability, a fact which leads me back to Derrida’s essay on Levinas, “Violence and Metaphysics”:
Incapable of respecting the Being and meaning of the other, phenomenology and ontology would be philosophies of violence. Through them, the entire philosophical tradition, in its meaning and at bottom, would make common cause with oppression and with the totalitarianism of the same. (Writing and Difference 91)
Derrida’s words, in my opinion, still have tremendous force. Ultimately, however, we decide how to understand them. We decide how to define genuine resistance in an uncertain and violent time, and how to avoid making common cause with oppression. Bricks and bats are not a means of defending in the “real world” a valid ideology that stands apart from them – they are ideology, and so are the true acts of defiance that put on weakness like a mask.
I’ve a great deal of sympathy for your position here, Joe. I agree that ‘totalitarian’ gets bandied about in a way liable to diffuse the force of the term (’I was only parked outside for ten minutes but the traffic warden gave me a ticket ... the fascist‘); I second Scott’s plan for <del>him to be Dictator of All America</del> spaces in which intellectual exchange can happen without prejudice, aggression etc. But there is surely a leap (not your leap, I agree) in moving from that to berating ‘weak liberals’ for their inability to confront the forces of evil in the world. I don’t see that that’s what Scott was talking about.
That said, I disagreed with this:
Force decides nothing, if we are to understand force in terms of the bloody destruction of human beings, with bricks and bats, or any other way. That is certainly how the Bush Administration understands force: the use of force indicates where the line is drawn between those with whom we can communicate, and those others whose beliefs are simply incommensurate with ours.
Your definition of force as necessarily violent is wrong, surely. There are, and more to the point there have been successful non-violent mass-action strategies that can apply ‘force’ in a way to counter oppression without using violence. A way of confronting ‘those those with whom we cannot communicate’.
I can clarify that point by noting that I don’t think of force as necessarily violent. I totally agree with what you’ve said. In the paragraph you quote, I’m giving one possible definition, which is the one Jodi has in mind when she writes that “force decides” otherwise irresolvable conflicts.
I was thinking of non-violent resistance when I implied support for “asymmetrical” responses to oppression, and was looking at King’s writings on nonviolence while writing the concluding paragraphs to this post.
There are so many ways in which this extended blog post exchange is odd that I hardly know where to start. But perhaps with pragmatic politics, since that’s been brought up.
A celebration of force is, historically, something that is associated with the forceful. Academics are, as a class, not forceful. (Undergraduate students in groups sometimes are, but that’s another matter.) The academic opportunity to intervene in politics is through speech. But an academic that has disavowed even the potential for universality can hardly expect to participate in the most universal context that we have, that of politics. You can’t speak truth to power when there is no truth.
That’s a common element in most critiques of “theory”, from Sokal’s explicit statement of it in a socialist context to Holbo’s poking fun at Zizek and his valorization of the Leninist rebel, not willing to shrink from violence. Zizek’s work might earn the dignity of condemnation if it were written for an audience of rebels; since it is written for an audience of academics, it can only be comical.
But it is quite right that if you’ve decided that your discourse and the discourse of those you disagree with is incommensurable, the only way to proceed is through force. The idea of the desirability of force therefore becomes a necessary outcome of the theorist’s ideological commitment to certain supposed properties of discourse. Language may be full of gaps, but the brickbat retains a comforting solidity.
So, between the desire for brickbats, and the unwillingness to toss actual brickbats, we see attempted written performative ones. That’s the whole history of what I’ve seen in this context from reading this blog. It’s a kind of search for the best means of dismissal: is the critic too weak, too strong, not well-read enough, politically motivated? But those are the versions that still retain too much rationality. I remember one sterling reply that consisted of posting Holbo’s picture, my picture, and an attempted mocking tag-line. That’s the ultimate response towards which all theory of this kind is striving; the nonverbal yet nonphysical, the bricks and bats reconfigured as a playground’s sticks and stones that don’t break bones.
Perhaps this might be useful?
“Force is simply a (pejorative) name for the thrust or assertion of some point of view, and in a world where the urging of points of view cannot be referred for adjudication to some independent tribunal, force is just another name for what follows naturally from conviction. That is to say, force wears the aspect of anarchy only if one regards it as an empty blind urge, but if one identifies it as interest aggressively pursued, force acquires a content and that content is a complex of goals and purposes, underwritten by a vision, and put into operation by a detailed agenda complete with steps, stages, and directions. Force, in short, is already a repository of everything it supposedly threatens—norms, standards, reasons, and, yes, even rules.” [Stanley Fish, “Force,” in Doing What Comes Naturally (1989).]
I’m trying to remember who first annihilated the identification between “totality/totalizing” and “totalitarian.” Darko Suvin’s my best guess.
Rich: “Academics are, as a class, not forceful.“
As an academic, permit me to concur. Urrrrhh. Mongo agree. Rich right.
Jonathan—Don’t know when Suvin annihilated that identification, but Jameson did it in the Conclusion chapter to *Postmodernism*, where he defends totalizing perspectives and criticizes poststructural and New Historical theory for its abandonment of totalizing concepts. A cognitive map, for Jameson, would be a total map (not in the ridiculous Borges sense, but in the sense of the totality of what’s essential to be mapped—the economic base, the movement of capital, and our place in relation to this base and this movement).
I’m always very suspicious of overly formal explanations for totalitarianism—totalizing gestures, “othering,” refusing to acknowledge the other, etc. That the attempt at the greatest possible coherence and breadth of thought has to be demonized is a bizarre thing to me.
Overall, the moralizing of thought is what I find most unappealling in postmodernism (at least in its American forms). The “ethical” turn in postmodernism might not really be anything new—they were moralists from the start, but they held strong moral convictions about stupid things (such as “systems,” etc.). And if we are now past the classical “postmodern” figures—Derrida, Foucault—the same kind of reception can be found for the newer generation. The moralizing discourse surrounding Agamben’s Homo Sacer is the best example of this.
My feelings on the appropriate use of totalitarian are mixed, but I am surprised that the same folks who worry so much about the term’s overextension find it so easy to conflate Hitler and Stalin as totalitarian, or at least to lump both together as totalitarian with so little concern for what distinguishes them (which is another way of of saying, I suppose, what distinguishes fascism from totalitarianism).
Thanks to A. Roberts, A. Kotsko, Rich, Luther, and Alan for these very helpful addenda.
I am not conflating the particulars of the two governments. I would not suggest that they held power in precisely the same ways, or had identical relationships to their citizens. However, I do believe that both the Soviet Union under Stalin, and Nazi Germany under Hitler, met the criteria for “totalitarianism,” as do a number of modern states. I also believe that their crimes were outgrowths of oppressive practices with noticeable similarities (e.g. censorship and secret police).
Most fascist states are totalitarian. That doesn’t make the two terms interchangeable.
Fair enough, Joseph, though perhaps you could be more explicit in naming those criteria?
Kenneth, does Joseph really have to get into the descriptive criteria for totalitarian states in a post about “the accusation of totalitarianism”? Surely it adds insult to injury to think that it really matters in this context, as if the accusation might be more or less true depending on whether Hilter and Stalin are properly conflated together as totalitarian leaders or not.
I think that it’s more productive to look at the “totalizing gesture” instead. What I read in Scott’s piece was an expression of Habermasian communicative rationality—the idea that by having everyone talk to each other and try to understand each other, some consensus could at least potentially be arrived at. Or, if not, at least the people involved would become experts at arguing with each other (if not “virtuoso critics”, at least virtuoso arguers). I fail to see how this is a totalizing gesture. It does not say that there is some solution that must be imposed from above; it says that the community of academics in the humanities have the responsiblity to try to understand each other.
“Hegelian seriousness”, as far as I can tell (knowing little to nothing about Hegel) means something like “aggressive commitment to the consequences of [one’s] premises” (quoting Scott indirectly through Google). It’s much easier to muse darkly about totalizing gestures than to say that one doesn’t want to be committed to the consequences of one’s premises. Life would indeed be easier if each of us got to choose a gated community of people to which our discourse made sense, with no responsibility to work out what was happening as a consequence outside the gate. But that desire for shelter seems to me to be a misreading of academia; academia is supposed to protect you from the politics and capitalism-driven values of the world outside, not against criticism from other academics.
Just when we were getting along :)
Rich, I am not here taking issue with Scott’s paper. As I’ve said numerous times on this question of Theory, as long as what is taking place is an institutional or disciplinary history of a particular moment in American English/literature departments, then I take little issue with it. I disagree with Scott, ultimately, that something like Hegelian seriousness provides such the pivot or axis from which to resolve the institutional history he’s identifying, but that’s hardly the flow of my comments in this thread.
Instead, I see Joseph as responding to the reaction to Scott’s paper, largely correctly, by rejecting arguments against Scott that are based in an effort to see a single communicative space as totalizing/totalitarian. That elision, whereby totality and totalitarian come to mean the same thing is indeed a pernicious tendency, though I suspect it comes out of a particularly hegemonic reading of Hegel’s project, and so the slippage may have been cued a bit by Scott’s own frequent recourse to Hegel. Still, the issues raised by Scott’s piece, and the reactions to it, are antecedent but nevertheless tangential to what I was commenting about. So let me try to be clearer.
Joseph begins by writing: “It has become commonplace, these days, to associate numerous kinds of thought with totalitarianism. This, in itself, is remarkable, considering the legacy of totalitarianism.”
I agree with this, to be sure, but I think it is perhaps a truer statement than even Joseph seems to think, or at least I think there is value in limiting even further exactly what we think of as totalitarian. So when Joseph continues by saying: “To call a thinker totalitarian is to suggest a close sympathy between their work and the history of genocide and bloody repression that includes the Holocaust and the Stalinist gulags,” well I pause in my support, because I think there’s substantive value in separating fascist from totalitarian modalities of thought/government.
Joseph writes in response to my first comment, which mutters something to the same effect, thusly: “I would not suggest that they held power in precisely the same ways, or had identical relationships to their citizens. However, I do believe that both the Soviet Union under Stalin, and Nazi Germany under Hitler, met the criteria for “totalitarianism,” as do a number of modern states. I also believe that their crimes were outgrowths of oppressive practices with noticeable similarities (e.g. censorship and secret police).”
So he raises the idea that while differences persist between the two entities, he thinks that definitionally the criteria by which he judges something totalitarian are often met by fascist states. I cannot, of course, disagree with this, even if I want to, because there’s nothing in the above to indicate which criteria he is using as the basis of his claim. So I asked. I hardly think that’s odd. And I rather doubt it adds insult to injury.
Let’s review. Joseph writes a post commenting that those who reject something akin to communicative rationality for being either too totalizing or too anemic far too quickly embrace violence as a means of promoting change. He cites Scott, approvingly, as saying that people should pony up and be willing to admit logical inconsistencies or problems with their perspective. He also announces that the overly broad and easy view of totalitarianism that others hold is inherently problematic. My objection is that I think, at the end of the day, his own conception of totalitarianism strikes me as still too broad, in that it conflates fascism and totalitarianism. He says it does not, but fascism meets the definitional criteria of fascism, so rationally speaking, it makes sense to use the term for both, even if the fascism and totalitarianism are not entirely interchangeable. Given that context - the celebration of communicative rationality, an argument by way of definition - isn’t the appropriate next step, following the sort of discourse embraced by the post, to ask for a clarification regarding those standards or criteria upon which he bases his claims?
As for the stakes, for me I think that there exists a fundamental difference in terms of the way fascist and totalitarian states relate to political subjects, as the former tends to eclipse the private through a normative sense of excited/exalted participation, while the latter tends to dissolve the private through surveillance and intimidation, but is significantly less concerned with a sense that the plebs are participating in the political project. The former seems largely compatible with democracy, the latter not so much. These distinctions might matter, given Joseph’s concern that we have lost out in our ability to find “alternatives to violence and oppression,” since we would want to know the structure by through which various violences and oppressions manifest.
I’m trying out the principles that serve as the backdrop for Scott and Joseph here, weakly held, of course. I would imagine there would be excitement to help me out in this regard.
I certainly can’t hope to outdo the OED, when a definition is called for: “Of or pertaining to a system of government which tolerates only one political party, to which all other institutions are subordinated, and which usually demands the complete subservience of the individual to the State.”
The features of political practice to which Joy refers fit with this definition: surveillance, for example.
One note about the term “aggressive,” to which Rich refers in his latest comment, and for which Scott has been criticized: Martin Luther King, in his essay on nonviolence, calls for a method that is “nonaggressive physically but strongly aggressive spiritually.”
I don’t think there’s any injury being done here, or any bad faith. Rich’s point (his reading of how my post begins) is that the accusation of totalitarianism is usually made in reference to both communist and fascist states. This is a common synthesis, and a useful one: for example, it is one of the foundations of Orwell’s novel 1984.
The difference between communism and fascism is largely economic, and has to do with the extent to which industry is privatized. The Soviet State grew out of a popular revolution, and worked hard to maintain popular support through iconic propaganda about the triumph of the proletariat. The libidinal participation you identify with fascism is precisely the kind of relationship that Zizek identifies as the hallmark of the “totalitarian Master.”
Not all Germans supported the Nazis, and those who didn’t were brutally repressed. Not all Russians were anti-Communist, as is particularly evident from the way certain Party members felt betrayed when they were eventually accused of crimes against the State. Arendt never portrays Eichmann as a man who considers himself exalted—he is a bureaucrat.
There is a lot to be gained (though not necessarily in reference either to Scott’s original paper, or even in reference to my argument) by organizing totalitarian effects as you do, along the axis of intimidation / exalted participation. Most states engage in both: there is the Gestapo and Kristallnacht, with the two representing different modes of the demand for subservience.
I don’t see any problem with discussing the nature of totalitarianism, as long as it’s clear that this doesn’t really have much to do with Scott’s essay. I don’t see how Joseph supplying a standard definition of totalitarianism really illuminates much, but it doesn’t hurt. “Totalitarian” appears to function in this context as an all-purpose Bad Word, made superficially plausible by an equivocation on “totalizing”, which as Joseph says brings up images of Hitler and Stalin whether these are really correct in a political-science sense or not. In that sense I think it’s more important to examine “totalizing”, but my opinion obviously is only an opinion.
There have been a number of discussions in the thread about what “force” means, which I think are also interesting. I think that I disagree with Joseph when he writes that, e.g., “The satires of homophobia by Jean Genet have force.” Satire can have influence, certainly, but it’s not the same as applying force to physically stop homophobic actions, or to do so through economic, political, or legal force (which all, in the end, are enforced with physical force). Influence can be transformed into force through economic, political, or legal means, of course, or it can eliminate the need for force by convincing people to think differently. The appeal to brickbats is a loss of faith in influence, in communicative ability, which would necessitate short-circuiting the process. Since the people here all work in communicative ability in one way or another, that really does seem to be in some way self-sabotaging.
Rich, I agree with you that literature (e.g. satire) is not the only means of countering a problem like homophobia. My intention was just to point out the “short-circuit,” particularly the rhetorical implications of immediately jumping to the resort to violence, and celebrating it.
One of the reasons I wanted to highlight satire is that it shows up constantly among communities of people who might be expected to want to take “stronger measures.” This testifies to its actual strength as a form of persuasion and resistance.
Is everyone having fun yet? First of all, let me say that, the conversations that have been spurred at Acephalous, In The Middle, I Cite, Long Sunday, and here at The Valve regarding Scott’s in-progress essay on the past/present “s[S]tate of theory” have been, for me, anyway, really interesting and invigorating. But to my mind, there are also a lot of tempests brewing in teapots that may or may not aid Scott at all in attending to what, for him, is obviously an important intellectual project. While I appreciate the fact that on the more “cooked” blogs like The Valve, posts are often highly-polished and often read almost like pre-publication essay drafts, with few exceptions, I try to stick to a more stream-of-consciousness mode of typing/writing/thinking out loud, and I fully accept the risks inherent in that, and assume that in pursuant comment threads, collectively, we’ll work out some of the kinks of thought. Yes, I invoked the term “totalitarian” in my on-the-fly-one-Sunday-morning critique of Scott’s essay, as Joseph rightly points out, then pretty much withdrew it [as Joseph also points out], but here it is on The Valve, “s[S]ticking” to me, anyway. Likewise, my exchange with Jodi Dean and Rich Pulasky over at Long Sunday regarding “weak ontology” is also, I believe, being unfairly misrepresented by Joseph as somehow having been unfair to Scott’s intent[s] in his essay, when, in fact, on one level, we weren’t really talking about Scott anymore [although in a sense, we were, because if Scott is going to invoke the method/means of weak ontology, he will want, I believe, to acknowledge its genesis/history in political theory, while also maybe explaining how his use of it in literary theory is a different matter altogether]. I never accused Scott’s essay of being “politically” weak or of even of being about politics of any kind [unless we consider a debate about what literary theory or “pure theory” should be about “political” in the sense that it represents the intellectual politics of a particular discipline or set of disciplines].
Having said all that, however, let me clarify my own thoughts here a bit more regarding totalitarianism and theory, bricks and bats. In his post, Joseph writes that, “To call a thinker totalitarian is to suggest a close sympathy between their work and the history of genocide and bloody repression that includes the Holocaust and the Stalinist gulags.” Further, Joseph writes,
“Truly totalitarian writing is an accessory to violence, to murder, and to every other kind of misery that a governed people can undergo. If a substantial allegation of this kind were made about my writing, I would have no choice except to submit to the most painful and unrelenting kind of self-scrutiny, in the face of the possibility that I had turned out to be the monstrous inverse of my hopes and values. Do not imagine that this kind of anguish has anything to do with ordinary self-awareness: we are talking about a slim chance of escaping lifelong purgatory.”
That’s quite a leap, and I hope Joseph didn’t hurt himself jumping over it. My initial invocation of “totalitarianism” and Scott’s argument was mainly intended to create a jolt, let’s say, in Scott’s thinking—NOT [get real, okay?] to accuse his argument of somehow being in league with the violence and murder necessitated by totalitarian states—but to prod him to think a little bit more about the ways in which his desire for the critical dialecticism espoused by W.J.T. Mitchell would necessitate a certain “watching” and “watchfulness” that, while on one hand could be beneficial to the “making stronger” of criticism, on another hand brings to mind a kind of surveillance regime that “polices” and “disciplines” its citizens. It would also necessarily collapse, in my mind, to just another critical theorist celebrity culture in which radical thought would be quickly run over by the big dogs—but never mind that, because that’s a whole other argument. Ultimately, however—and this is the important part—I DID withdraw the term, and replaced it instead with “totalizing.” This is an important distinction. I think Scott’s argument in his essay does aim, on one level, to articulate the necessity [for the future, strong development of theory’s sake] of creating sites, publishing-wise and discipline-wise, in which a more “whole” view of theory could emerge, and under the aegises of which, theoretical thinking could be disciplined, and somehow made more “whole,” less “fragmentary” and “fragmen-tizing.” In my mind, the furture of theory will be dependent on two things happening at once: what Scott advocates, and even more sub-disciplinary processes of fragmentation [to include “underground” theories that develop out of sight and mind of theory’s so-called virtuosos—let’s call this idiot savant theory].
I hope Joseph also understands, however, that I also understand that he trying to draw my attention, too, to the fact that the term “totalitarian” carries such heavy [and deadly] historical baggage, that I should not invoke the term too lightly. Did not my immediate withdrawal of the term not signify that I understand that? Just because I left Hegel in there does NOT mean that I intended his name to trail behind itself the dark cloak of totalitarianism [implicitly]. I did not. I wanted to urge Scott to explicate more fully what he means by “Hegelian seriousness.” I want to know why he needs Hegel to argue for critical “seriousness” or Mitchell’s “dialectical criticism.”
Regarding Joseph’s thoughts on the exchange between Jodi Dean, Rich Pulasky, and myself at Long Sunday [and really, it was more between Jodi and Rich], to claim that either Jodi or I were making some kind of claim about the “necessary recourse to force” as a consequence of “the irreducibly incommensurate nature of belief,” is so utterly ridiculous, that I’m not sure this even dignifies a serious response. The discussion had more to do with how weak ontology might work [or not] in political theory/real politics as opposed to how it might work [or not] in literary theory, than it had to do with either Jodi or I fantasizing about “street violence” as an appropriate response to hate speech. Are the readers of The Valve familiar with Jodi’s very extensive work in political theory? I’m hoping they are. In short, allow me to simply refer this entire matter to a special issue of “The Hedgehog Review” (Summer 2005), “Commitments in a Post-Foundationalist World: Exploring the Possibilities of ‘Weak Ontology’,” which featured essays by Stephen White, William Connolly, Charles Taylor, George Kateb, Jodi Dean, and others. In the meantime, can we maybe respect the caliber of scholarship that stands behind some of the participants in this debate? That would be refreshing.
My most recent work [forthcoming later this year] is actually centered upon Levinas’s ideas of hospitality in “Totality and Infinity” and Derrida’s engagement with those ideas in “Adieu to Emmanuel Levinas,” in relation to Anglo-Saxon law codes regarding the status of the foreigner/stranger and outlaw in early English history, Grendel’s violence in “Beowulf,” and the situation of female Chechen suicide terrorists in contemporary Russia. My epigraph to that essay is this quotation from Simone Weil’s essay on “The Iliad”:
“He who does not realize to what extent shifting fortune and necessity hold in subjection every human spirit, cannot regard as fellow-creatures nor love as he loves himself those whom chance has separated from him by an abyss. The variety of constraints pressing upon man give rise to the illusion of several distinct species that cannot communicate. Only he who has measured the dominion of force, and knows how not to respect it, is capable of love and justice.”
My essay argues for the cultivation of an ethical regard for the suicide terrorists, or a type of welcoming of them, that would allow us to forge a politics of Levinasian hospitality that would help us to move beyond violent confrontation and the idea that we cannot “speak” or communicate with terrorists to a site of peace born from what Levinas would call the “absolute adventure” of “pluralistic being.” Because I know that, on a practical level, I actually cannot accomplish any kind of real politics vis-à-vis the now-dead suicide bombers, I also argue for considering their exploded bodies, especially even their heads [and Grendel’s decapitated head in “Beowulf”] as sites of wonder and ethical marvel that, once generated, hold open the possibility of different futures. Probably impossible to accomplish, but this is just to say that, if you don’t know the larger context of my work [which I am guilty of not having shared in the course of all this, of course], please be careful what you “brush” me with. I actually share with Joseph the idea that the only real ethical possibility of a “politics of alterity” is, in his beautiful words, “an ever-more gentle mode of deference towards others,” or what Levinas termed “la petite bonte” [the little act of goodness]. On this, we agree. On the idea that satire can actually have a force of its own, we also agree.
As to Joseph’s criticism that my critique of Scott’s argument is at odds with itself, and perhaps unfair, for accusing that argument of being both weak and overly “aggressive,” mea culpa. He’s on to something here, and it would be worth debating further. But to attach my critique of Scott’s “universalizing” desires with anti-Semitic or racist discourses is as bad as me brushing Scott with “totalitarianism,” which term, again, I withdrew.
Best, Eileen Joy
I didn’t realize that Eileen was posting both here and on LS. I’ll just copy my reply from LS, not that my reply is really worth posting twice:
Eileen, as I’ve already written at The Valve, I’m quite willing to treat “totalitarian” as withdrawn, but I still don’t see how Scott’s essay is totalizing. You write that it “would necessitate a certain “watching” and “watchfulness” that, while on one hand could be beneficial to the “making stronger” of criticism, on another hand brings to mind a kind of surveillance regime that “polices” and “disciplines” its citizens.” Presumably you’ve had time to consider those words carefully. I think that, as words considered carefully, they support Joseph’s point.
What would be going on in this proposal, which you’ve characterized as bringing to mind a surveillance regime that polices and disciplines? Academic publication. Part of being an academic is that you’re supposed to publish and therefore be “surveilled” by other academics.
Is the objection that the proposal would encourage people to publish/argue outside of their subdisciplines? Well, specialized discursive communities are all very well, but you seem to also want to address a wider context. Certainly you can choose to only address others within a subdiscipline. But in that case, there’s really no reason why you should expect anyone in broader academia to be influenced by you, much less to have any political impact.
Hello, Rich; thanks for replying. I pretty much agree with everything you have just written. My initial intention [I think] with my initial reading of Scott’s essay was simply to point out that some of his language struck me as forbidding [and yes, masculinist]. Yes, academic publishing incorporates, to a certain extent, academics surveilling each other, and hopefully, helping each other to hone particular ideas, which ideas might then have certain practically political purposes both with and across various disciplinary discourse communities. I don’t have a problem with what is, in essence, already our current “state” of affairs. I hanker, myself, for an intellectual community that is as broadly multi-disciplinary as possible, but that also might be able to stand completely under or outside of the conventional disciplines, and even their conventional sub-disciplines. And I am not thoroughly convinced that theory’s problem[s], as Scott outlines it[them], have been the result of their impoverishment of strong or dialectical critique. Is theory’s problem really that it has, more recently, lacked a “center” where a more vigorous Hegelian seriousness can be pursued more collectively, or is it that theory often doesn’t know, frankly, what it’s *for*? I lean toward the latter suggestion.
Hello [again] Rich; in an earlier comment appended to Joseph’s post, you wrote the following:
“. . . between the desire for brickbats, and the unwillingness to toss actual brickbats, we see attempted written performative ones. That’s the whole history of what I’ve seen in this context from reading this blog. It’s a kind of search for the best means of dismissal: is the critic too weak, too strong, not well-read enough, politically motivated? But those are the versions that still retain too much rationality. I remember one sterling reply that consisted of posting Holbo’s picture, my picture, and an attempted mocking tag-line. That’s the ultimate response towards which all theory of this kind is striving; the nonverbal yet nonphysical, the bricks and bats reconfigured as a playground’s sticks and stones that don’t break bones.”
I couldn’t agree with you more. My initial intention with thinking & writing about Scott’s essay was to provide some helpful suggestions for re-thinking and revising, which Scott could take or discard however he saw fit. And the subject matter of his essay actually matters a great deal to me in ways that are not simpy “academic.” I share your concern, though, with the general tenor of much of what I see exchanged on even what I consider to be the *best* academic blogs: it’s combative to a fault, and I want to know what, for all of this energy and force, might possibly be *at stake*? It does matter.
Hello [again again] Rich; you have so many good comments in this thread. In another comment, you write what I think is the *most* important critqie of *my* critique of Scott’s essay:
“’Hegelian seriousness’, as far as I can tell (knowing little to nothing about Hegel) means something like ‘aggressive commitment to the consequences of [one’s] premises (quoting Scott indirectly through Google). It’s much easier to muse darkly about totalizing gestures than to say that one doesn’t want to be committed to the consequences of one’s premises. Life would indeed be easier if each of us got to choose a gated community of people to which our discourse made sense, with no responsibility to work out what was happening as a consequence outside the gate. But that desire for shelter seems to me to be a misreading of academia; academia is supposed to protect you from the politics and capitalism-driven values of the world outside, not against criticism from other academics.”
First, I think there’s a bit of a leap here between being *against* totalizing gestures and also being against commitments to the consequences of one’s premises. I don’t see the two as absolutely, necessarily related. I’m all for Habermasian-styled rational communities where the project of building consensus on issues that matter--the future of the humanities, for example--could be constructed. Indeed, how does academics protect us from the outside world of politics and capitalism? As far as I can see, both impinge in very materials ways upon the institution within which I teach, think, and write, and also threaten my discipline’s future. I care about the future, I care about the political [and even economic] conditions both within and without my institution, yet I will not be placing my bets on Hegelian seriousness, that’s all. To argue that academic should be responsible to other academics--well, sure, but surely not in general, right? Just as, in the world outside the university proper, there are those who wish others good and ill, so too inside the university. At the end of the day, I guess I just don’t have much faith in Western-style, empirical “rationality.” But please don’t pick on that comment as something worth debating--for now, anyway, it is not worth it.
I like the possibility that this debate would transform into a discussion of parallel theoretical projects within the academy. A simultaneous growth of Habermasian forums where academics could works towards broad consensus, and “splinter” (or, as Eileen puts it, “underground") forums where particular pragmatic applications of theory could be worked out within small communities, is very promising.
Neither the post and follow-up comments at In The Middle, nor the post and comments at Long Sunday, argue for a parallel system of this kind, where Scott’s forums for virtuoso readers would be complemented by other kinds of forums. Instead, the dominant mode is critique, and every time a criticism is withdrawn it re-appears almost immediately: Scott is still being accused of being masculinist, and there is still a desire to “jolt” him out of his “forbidding” approach. This clearly returns us to the original accusation of totalitarianism. Likewise, in the middle of the re-retraction, you write: “[Scott’s argument] would also necessarily collapse, in my mind, to just another critical theorist celebrity culture in which radical thought would be quickly run over by the big dogs—but never mind that, because that’s a whole other argument.” So, once again, we have the destruction of radical thought via the oppressive dominance of theorists, who are compared to big dogs—with this being immediately followed by the injunction to “never mind.”
When you write that “academic publishing incorporates, to a certain extent, academics surveilling each other” it is only to gesture with a shrug towards the “current ‘state’ of affairs.” In other words, the condition for completely withdrawing the accusation of totalitarianism is treating Scott’s project as a useless demand for something that already exists. You were taking him more seriously when you were leveling more serious charges.
As for the more general question of seriousness, with regard to how fast blog entries are written, and so on, insisting on the casual nature of the medium ends up being just a strategy for defusing criticism. Rich’s valuable participation in this debate has been based on taking your and Jodi’s writing seriously, and that was also my starting point. It would be one thing if these comments were only relevant to the specifics of Scott’s essay—in that case, I wouldn’t have bothered to respond to them, on the theory that Scott will incorporate whatever edits he finds most helpful. In fact, our debate here recapitulates arguments going on across the academy about totality, reason, and the proper foundations for exchanges of views. It is potentially helpful to many people for there to be serious debates on these issues that are visible and open to all.
The same can be said of your comment about your lack of faith in rationality. Is that (i.e. the value of “reason") really something you don’t want to discuss? What could be more worthwhile? Do you want to just express it while simultaneously foreclosing the possibility of a response?
The idea that the discussion at Long Sunday is not about Scott, because it is about weak ontology, is a blind. Scott’s work was equated with the work of the weak ontologists from the outset of that discussion. What you seem to consider generalizations on my part were based on readings of the discussion in progress, and were prefaced in every case by quotations from that discussion. It is no counter to merely insist on what, for example, the Long Sunday discussion was “really” about.
There has been an effort throughout this discussion to police what can be said about ideal academic forums. The appeal to the “caliber” of the scholarship under consideration here means a limit on how thoroughly one can reject that scholarship, and a limit set by a priori authority rather than by the vicissitudes of argument.
It is very ironic that getting Scott to “think a little bit more” about his argument—that is, to create within a Scott a bad conscience about his argument—should be couched in Foucauldian terms as a warning about the potential danger of encouraging “watchfulness.” The demand that academics watch themselves closely for disciplinary tendencies is a very disciplinary demand, given that Scott’s project advocates for the creation of forums, not for the rousting of an underground.
As for whether or not the best academic blogs are combative to a fault...I prefer this kind of debate to the long-distance condescension that first pigeonholes new writing as part of a boring and problematic tradition (such as “weak ontology” or Hegelian hegemony), and then reluctantly re-states, one more time, in case you missed it, the proper response to that tradition.
Theory is not at a loss for subjects or projects. At stake here are different beliefs about reason and “empiricism,” about the nature of dialectic thinking, and about universality as it applies to discourses of knowledge. That’s why it’s better to hold a debate, than to to drowse in a twilight of assertions whose bloggy nature make them supposedly unsuitable for study.
Because these large matters are at stake, it is critical to point out homologies, even uncomfortable homologies with (for example) racist discourse. That has nothing to do with you, or even with your particular work. While I am not sure (with only the briefest summary to reflect on) that I could be persuaded to treat the head of a suicide bomber as an object of wonder, I do think that the places where terrorism happens have to be re-conceptualized in a way that breaks down us/them binaries. So I’m potentially very excited about the way you’re using Levinas and Beowulf.
That said, I am very concerned that the history of the postmodern critique of reason, founded as it usually is on concern for the oppressed, has ended up making an “other” of rationality and falling prey to the same contradictions that produce violence in oppressive (e.g. racist) societies. So my post was intending to raise the question of whether incommensurability in its various forms as ontological theory (including weak ontology) ends up valorizing violence.
Thanks for so many replies—let’s see, going backwards, my statement “academia is supposed to protect you from the politics and capitalism-driven values of the world outside” was intended to be normative, not descriptive. I think that academic practises such as tenure, the general ability for professors to make their own curricula, or academic freedom in general, all have something to do with this. I didn’t mean to imply that Hegelian seriousness would magically do so.
But yes, I think that academics do have something like a general responsibility to other academics, one which is compatible with wishing others ill. From my experience as an astrophysics grad student, I well remember the bitter hatred between competing camps over the value of the Hubble constant, or (more locally) the departmental meeting over whether to buy into either an optical or radio telescope from which people emerged, cursing, after having had their entire career belittled. But no matter whether they can’t stand each other in certain cases; they still have a responsibility to attempt to understand each other and to at least make a gesture towards fitting their projects together.
In re: brickbats, clearly I don’t think that anyone in this exchange is in danger of hurling an actual brickbat at someone else. But then the question becomes; why the repeated gestures toward performative brickbattery? I think that Joseph is right; as it is used now, incommensurability is the foundation for an academic ideology that can’t help but have too quick a turn towards an attitude of combativeness. Or, as in the case of Scott’s proposal, it can’t help but interpret argumentativeness as combativeness. If argument across subdisciplines is nothing more than the clash of incommensurable discourses, then it can’t help but be theorized as combat.
Lastly, regarding “some of his language struck me as forbidding [and yes, masculinist].” I’m troubled about this use of “masculinist”. Isn’t the opposite necessarily “femininist”? There must be some way of saying something like “In our culture, guys are socialized to argue more aggressively” or perhaps “aggressive argument is coded as male in our culture” without implying some sort of gender essentialism. Could you explain what you mean by “masculinist” in this case? It’s actually a long-running subject of discussion on the Valve (most recently coming up here, with links there to more).
Hello Joseph and Rich--thanks to both of you for your very extensive and rich comments; they give me much food for thought. Thanks, also, Rich for the link to Carrie’s post--very interesting. As you know, I also backed off a bit from the “masculinist” tag on Scott’s essay, while also wanting to retain the idea that his rhetoric makes use of descriptive terms having to do with strength and aggressiveness. I’ve had too much education in theory to want to see myself lapsing into binary thinking regarding feminist versus masculinist, while at the same time, I would just be a bald-faced liar if I didn’t admit that I do tend to see the kind of rhetoric on display in Scott’s essay as somewhat distasteful precisely because to raises [for me, anyway] the specter of a certain masculine value system that privileges aggressiveness and strength over, say, weak incommensurabilities [meant to be a bit of a wee joke here]? But again, does anyone these days want to avow essentialism as regards gender? I think not, least of all me; at the same time, if we want to get all either biological-determinist or cultural-historical about the matter, I think it would not be too outlandish to suggest that there is a certain mode of both pursuing and arguing “rational” lines of thought that could be coded “masculine” [also Eurocentric, Western-empirical, hegemonic, etc.] as regards its metaphors of strength, force, combat, virility, vigorousness, aggressiveness, unidirectional monologism, etc. [But now I also see all the ways in which everything I just claimed could also be neatly deconstructed and demolished--Condi Rice always comes to my mind, but she might just as easily be labelled “masculinist” in her thinking]. Being a bit more serious, though, I think both Joseph and Rich, in different ways, raise the important issue of what it means to stand behind and argue for ideas that are seen to *matter* somehow, and not just vis-a-vis the development of disciplinary knowledges. But one note: just because ideas “clash,” does that necessarily imply combative discourses? Why “clash”? Why not, just as easily, say that in our disciplinary debates [why, even “debate” is perhaps leading us down the wrong phenomenological path] that different ideas do not always mesh well together, or do not cohere, or do not create forms of tandem lines of thought that can be made *legible* *together*? Again, it’s all about wholenesses and unities, I think, which are always privileged over, say, something being true in one instance yet not in another, or true now but not later, or true over there but not here.
Thanks again for such various stimuli to thought, in any case.
I’m sympathetic to your point that “different ideas do not always mesh well together, or do not cohere, or do not create forms of tandem lines of thought.” One model for what you’re talking about is religious tolerance: different religious practices rarely mesh well together, even within the same overarching tradition (e.g. Christianity). Not all societies feel the need to reconcile these differences, and from a political standpoint, religious plurality is clearly desirable. This pluralistic model informs much of the best pragmatist thinking about secular philosophical differences, and even about pluralities based on differences of sensibility or “rhythm.”
Churches and religious communities are avocational. Although they receive certain protections from the state, their meetings, internal conversations, and funding are all private. It’s awkward to employ pluralistic models in the academic mainstream because the public is heavily invested in higher education, and because new crops of students show up every year with no prior relationship to any particular philosophical tradition (except, very often, for religious affiliations that can take a wrong turn into sectarianism).
Unless there are debates taking place within the academy, the responsibility to students will become a demand that teachers not impose “eccentric” views on students who, after all, are just seeking a good grounding in the humanities. Debate legitimizes syntheses of form and content, even if those take place on contested ground. A lack of debate suggests a lack of confidence about every premise in play, and cedes ground to the most unexamined assumptions about “close reading” and writing skills.
Everything you write here about masculinism has the ring of historical truth. I think we’ve all had the experience of seeing a post-lecture (or post-job talk) discussion go one way or the other—towards cooperative investigation, or towards aggressive challenge—and it is not always true that the most aggressive conversations yield the most satisfying results. (I call it The Academic’s Dilemma.)