Text Patterns - by Alan Jacobs

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

lessons learned

Maybe I should have been writing about Facebook instead of Twitter, but never mind, because my friend Brian Phillips has done it for me. But along the way Brian writes,

What had really happened was that the left had become sensitized to the ways in which conventional moral language tended to shore up existing privilege and power, and had embarked on a critique of this tendency that the right interpreted, with some justification, as an attack on the very concept of meaning. But what would we have without meaning? Isolation and chaos, conditions in which it would presumably be easy to raise the capital gains tax. So if the left found itself in the strange position of supporting science on the one hand while insisting that truth was a cultural construct on the other, the right found itself in the even stranger position of investing in meaning even as it dissociated itself from fact. Evolution was a myth and climate change was a hoax, but philosophers still had access to objective truth, provided they had worn curly wigs and died enough centuries ago.

I don't know when it happened. Maybe with intelligent design? Maybe Colin Powell's WMD testimony? Maybe it was already under way, with Fox News and Rush Limbaugh? But at some point, the American right — starting with the non-alt version, the one before the one we just elected — took another look at the postmodern critique of the linguistic basis of virtue and tumbled absolutely spinning into love with it. It turned out that postmodernism also contained the seeds of a system that would shore up existing privilege and power. All you had to do was take the insights of subversion and repurpose them for the needs of authority.

As you might imagine, I don't agree with all of this, but I agree with a lot of it. The academic left interrogated the discourses of “truth” and “reason,” revealed the aporias thereof, exposed the inner workings of the power-knowledge regime, all in the name of social justice. I remember vividly Andrew Ross’s insistence, twenty-five years ago, that it was actually perfectly appropriate and consistent for a would-be revolutionary like him to have a tenured position at Princeton: “I teach in the Ivy League in order to have direct access to the minds of the children of the ruling classes.” It turns out that the children of the ruling classes learned their lessons well, so when they inherited positions in their fathers’ law firms they had some extra, and very useful, weapons in their rhetorical armory.

In precisely the same way, when, somewhat later, academic leftists preached that race and gender were the determinative categories of social analysis, members of the future alt-right were slouching in the back rows of their classrooms, baseball caps pulled down over their eyes, making no external motions but in their dark little hearts twitching with fervent agreement.

Back when people thought that Andrew Ross mattered, I participated in many conversations at Wheaton College about postmodernism, and had to hear many colleagues chortle that things were going to be better for Christians now because “we have a level playing field.” No longer did we have to fear being brought before the bar of Rational Evidence, that hanging judge of the Enlightenment who had sent so many believers to the gallows! You have your constructs and we have our constructs, and who’s to say which are better, right? O brave new world that hath such a sociology of knowledge in it!

To which my reply was always: “Now when they reject you and your work they don't have to defend their decision with an argument.” I knew because I was shopping a book around then, and heard from one peer reviewer that it was well-researched and well-written but was also characterized by “underlying evangelical theological propositions.” Rejected without further explanation. As Brian rightly says in his post, "An America where we are all entitled to our own facts is a country where the only difference between cruelty and justice is branding."

Sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander. It seems that we’ve all now learned the lessons that the academic left taught, and how’s that working out for us? The alt-right/Trumpistas are Caliban to the academic left’s Prospero: “You taught me language, and my profit on’t is, I know how to curse.”


  • Bruno Latour saw this happening with climate change and science studies in 2003, and either issued a corrective (that constructionism means adding reality, not removing it) or did some frantic backpedaling, depending on how generous you're feeling. (I do still incline toward the more generous view, myself.)

  • I'm a big fan of Latour — co-taught a class on him last year — and actually don't think he even "issued a corrective": he just called attention to things he had been saying all along that some of his less careful readers hadn't noticed. I don't think enough people recognize how Latour's theoretical works were prepared for by serious empirical investigation. But I risk ranting here....

  • Yes, that's right. Issued a corrective to how he was sometimes read, perhaps.

  • I *really* wish you would write about Latour somewhere, btw.

  • Yes, Latour's work is essential to what I've been calling the technological history of modernity. One of the things I need to decide is whether Latour has in effect already written the technological history of modernity. But I'll think about that when my current projects are done.

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  • David, you misunderstand the argument. The point isn't that anti-Semitism or racism are new — that would be a pretty stupid point, wouldn't it? — but that the academic left put "some extra, and very useful, weapons in [the] rhetorical armory" of those who already held such views. My claim is that while many of the positions held by people today are quite old, the claims and counter-claims take a particular form, thanks to a conceptual framework generated by the academic left over the past few decades.

    Thus, to cite a case I mention above, Foucault — not exactly a leftist himself, but beloved by the academic left — gives us what he calls the "power/knowledge regime," and then the neoreactionaries take up precisely the same analytical tool, simply renaming it "the Cathedral."

  • "You just keep thinking Alan. That's what you're good at."

  • Hi Alan. Thanks for posting this helpful insight. I heard this yesterday and thought it resonated with what you wrote here:


    It got me thinking: what would differentiate the content of 'leftist academics' (I admit I am unclear who, exactly, this represents) from that of Richard Spencer? He invokes the diction and conceptual framework of leftist identity politics -- creating 'safe spaces' for Indo-European descendants; invoking the structural nature power/knowledge in an attempt to 'preference' his (supposedly) minimized voice; 'getting woke' through the societal 'raising of consciousness' -- but he does so from an exteriorized position. That is, he is merely *reversing* a social theory such as 'whiteness' to show how he, the white European male, is *actually* on the outside (when the central critique of whiteness is precisely that Euro-centric attitudes are in the interior and stand in need of influence from exteriorized peoples, ideas, etc.).

    But also, he brought to mind the 'consciousness-raising' of the 1970s New Left and writers such as Herbert Marcuse. It could be argued that Marcuse possessed a thoroughly eschatological telos in his calls for revolutionary utopianism because it was precisely that sort of negativity (dialectically speaking) that was required to overturn the symbolic order of late-capital, techoscientific modernity. Again, it is interesting to note that Spencer wants to *reverse* this eschatological teleology for the sake of return: we need to *return* to the great days of America, we need to *return* to our European heritage, we need to *return* to a (mythical) immigrational stance that accepted some while barring (non-white) others.

    Indeed, leftist conceptual personae is being invoked here; but its crucial reversals viz. what it intends to do with that framework (return to a mythical history of racial purity) stands out in stark fashion from the 'progressive' intent of the Left.

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