Brave Analytic Philosophers Use Trump Regime To Settle Old Academic Scores

Recently, Daniel Dennett took the opportunity to, as John Protevi put it, “settle some old academic scores.” He did this by making the following observation in an interview with The Guardian:

I think what the postmodernists did was truly evil. They are responsible for the intellectual fad that made it respectable to be cynical about truth and facts. You’d have people going around saying: “Well, you’re part of that crowd who still believe in facts.””

Roughly, postmodernism brought you Donald Trump. If only Trump voters hadn’t read so much Deleuze or Derrida or Spivak, we wouldn’t be in the mess we are now. Dennett has now been joined in this valiant enterprise of Defending Truth and Knowledge by Timothy Williamson who makes the following remarks in an interview with The Irish Times:

No philosophical manoeuvre can stop politicians telling lies. But some philosophical manoeuvres do help politicians obscure the distinction between truth and falsity.

When I visited Lima, a woman interviewed me for YouTube. She had recently interviewed a ‘postmodernist’ philosopher. When she pointed at a black chair and asked ‘Is that chair black or white?’ he replied ‘Things are not so simple’.

The more philosophers take up such obscurantist lines, the more spurious intellectual respectability they give to those who try to confuse the issues in public debate when they are caught out in lies. Of course, many things in public affairs are genuinely very complicated, but that’s all the more reason not to bring in bogus complexity….

Obviously it wasn’t mainly postmodernism or relativism that won it for Trump, indeed those philosophical views are presumably more widespread amongst his liberal opponents than amongst his supporters, perhaps most of whom have never heard of them. Still, those who think it somehow intolerant to classify beliefs as true or false should be aware that they are making it easier for people like Trump, by providing them with a kind of smokescreen.

In the course of an informal Facebook discussion, I made the following responses to Dennett’s remarks (which I described as ‘very silly’):

[We] could just as well lay the blame on the very idea of truth. Perhaps if truth wasn’t so exalted so much, we wouldn’t have so many people claiming that they should be followed just because what they said was the truth. Especially because many lies really are better for us than some truths. Perhaps we would have been better off seeing what worked for us, rather than obsessing about naming things as true or false.

Fascist insurgencies like the ones here in our country are not relying on post-modern critiques of truth and fact to prop up their claims; they need only rely on something far simpler: the fact that talking of truth and facts grants them an aura of respectability. The elevation (or demotion) of this political debate to a matter of metaphysics and epistemology is to play their game because we will find these pillars of ours to actually rest on sand. Far better to point out to proponents of ‘alternative facts’ that these facts will not help them send their kids to school or cure their illnesses. Let us not forget that these ‘facts’ help them in many ways now: it finds them a community, makes them secure, gives vent to their anger and so on. I’ve never liked the way everyone is jumping up and down about how some great methodological crisis is upon us in this new era, which is entirely ab initio. People have been using ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ all through history and using them to achieve political ends.

On a related note, Ali Minai responds to another set of claims against ‘relativism’ made in an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education by Alan Jay Levinovitz:

In fact, it is non-relativism that has generally been the weapon of choice for authoritarians. The weaponization of “alternative facts” may be aided by relativism but its efficacy still relies on the opposite attitude. It works only when its targets accept “alternative facts” as actually true.

What these responses to the Defenders of Truth Against Relativism make quite clear are the following propositions:

  1. So-called ‘postmodern’ critiques are more often than not, the political weapons of choice for those critiquing authoritarian regimes: they serve as a theoretical grounding for claims against ‘dominant’ or ‘totalizing’ narratives that issue from such regimes.
  2. Non-relativism or absolutism about truth is the preferred theoretical, argumentative, and rhetorical platform for authoritarians. Let us not forget that science was a challenge to the absolutism about truth that revealed religions claimed to profess; the Enlightenment brought many ‘alternative facts’ in its wake. Those worked; their ‘truth’ was established by their working. All the mathematical proofs and telescope gazings would have been useless had the science and technology built on them not ‘worked.’
  3. When fascists and authoritarians present ‘alternative facts’ and reject established knowledge claims, they do not present their alternative claims as ‘false’ because ‘truth’ is to be disdained; rather, they take an explicitly orthodox line in claiming ‘truth’ for their claims. ‘Truth’ is still valuable; it is still ‘correspondence’ to facts that matters.

The target of the critiques above then, is misplaced several times over. (Moreover, Willamson’s invocation of the philosopher who could not give a ‘straightforward’ answer to his interlocutor is disingenous at best. What if the ‘postmodernist’ philosopher wanted to make a point about colorblindness, or primary or secondary qualities? I presume Williamson would have no trouble with an analytic philosopher ‘complicating’ matters in such fashion. What would Williamson say to Wilfrid Sellars who might, as part of his answer, say, “To call that chair ‘black’ would be to show mastery of the linguistic concept ‘black’ in the space of reasons.” Another perfectly respectable philosophical answer, which Williamson would not find objectionable. Willamson’s glib answer to the question of whether the definition of truth offered by Aristotle correct is just that; surely, he would not begrudge the reams of scholarship produced in exploring the adequacy of the ‘correspondence theory of truth,’ what it leaves out, and indeed, the many devastating critiques leveled at it? The bogus invocation of ‘bogus complexity’ serves no one here.)

Critiques like Williamson and Dennett’s are exercises in systematic, dishonest misunderstandings of the claims made by their supposed targets. They refuse to note that it is the valorization of truth that does all the work for the political regimes they critique, that it is the disagreement about political ends that leads to the retrospective hunt for the ‘right, true, facts’ that will enable the desired political end. There is not a whiff of relativism in the air.

But such a confusion is only to be expected when the epistemology that Williamson and Dennett take themselves to be defending rests on a fundamental confusion itself: an incoherent notion of ‘correspondence to the facts’ and a refusal to acknowledge that beliefs are just rules for actions–directed to some end.

Freud As Writing Stylist And Pedagogy Instructor

In Freud, Jews and Other Germans: Master and Victims in Modernist Culture¹(Oxford University Press, New York, 1978), Peter Gay writes:

All of Freud’s biographers devote an obligatory page to the efficiency and beauty of his prose–not without reason. Freud’s stylistic achievement is all the more remarkable considering the spectrum of his publications…Freud’s case published case histories–a genre that normally repels grace or wit–are classics in the literature of detection. Freud was a born writer who never neglected the essentials of his craft….his earliest surviving letters demonstrate that his energy, wit, and lucidity were not painfully acquired but were part of his character….He disciplined his ear by reading French and English all his life…He read continuously and intensely…Freud could derive instruction even from the laborious syntax and rebarbative vocabulary of academic writers; he learned what to avoid. But his real teachers were stylists who were enemies of obscurity and strangers to jargon….he highly valued, and rapidly absorbed, the qualities that distinguished other favorite authors: vigor, precision, clarity. [pp. 50-51]

Gay, of course, read Freud in the original German, so he knows better than I of what he speaks, but even I, who have only ever read Freud in translation,² via the usual Standard Edition route, have not been left unaffected by Freud’s limpid writing style. The Good Doctor is a pleasure to read; I unhesitatingly assigned large tracts of primary texts to students in my Freud and Psychoanalysis class a few years ago, telling them that while the material was ‘dense,’ it was clear and would reward close attention. The case histories–of, for instance, Dora, or the Rat Man–I recommended as short stories of a kind; they are literary in every way, and draw us all too quickly into their artfully constructed worlds. His later ‘cultural-literary-anthropological’ speculative essays are masterworks of erudition expressed with grace and style; they can be profitably read by any intelligent person.

My mention of teaching Freud brings me to Freud’s special qualities of exposition. (His Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis is a widely acknowledged masterpiece of the genre and still provides the best entry point to psychoanalytic theory.) Gay makes note of his talents in this domain and thus provides direction for not just writers but teachers in the classroom too:

He kept [‘the mode of discussion’] intact by employing devices that have been, the envy of professional writers: informality, surprise, variations in pace, adroit admissions of incomplete knowledge, patient handling of knowledge, and a seemingly inexhaustible supply of telling metaphors. [p.55]

Indeed. When I look back at any successful classroom teaching–or academic conference presentation–these devices have always played a crucial role. They forestall boredom and stultification; they invite interactive inquiry; they provoke creative responses. We should all be so lucky to have our writing and reading and conversation informed and infected by ‘surprise,’ ‘variations in pace,’ and an ‘inexhaustible supply of telling metaphors.’ The world springs into sharper focus and becomes anew; what more could we want from our learning and teaching?

Lastly, Gay is a masterful writer himself.

Note #1: For some bizarre reason, the title of Gay’s book is missing an Oxford comma.

Note: #2: Here are a series of posts on the wonders of translations.

 

The Words We Mutter Under Our Breath

Some years ago, as I waited to be served food by a prickly employee of an eating establishment, I sensed my temper flaring. She and I had had run-ins before; she had always seemed unnecessarily querulous and brusque in her interactions with me; the  milk of human kindness seemed to have curdled long ago in her. I anticipated more trouble in this encounter; I was on edge, wondering which pronouncement of mine would be met with curtness or indifference. I wasn’t mistaken; a few seconds later, I was subjected to a familiar, rage-inducing rudeness. I placed my order, picked up my food, and walked away. As I did so, I muttered under my breath, “Fuck you, you fucking stupid bitch.” My short and bitter rant was loud enough to be overheard by someone–not a complete stranger–standing next to me, who promptly did a double-take and said something to the effect of “Wow, that’s harsh.” Now mortified, I mumbled something about having a bad day and walked quickly away. (I was especially embarrassed because I had just interacted with a service worker, someone who at the best of times is underpaid and overworked.)

It wasn’t the first time–and sadly, I don’t think it will be the last–that I will say something quite unhinged, in a hushed tone of voice, in words only audible to myself. On various occasions over the years I’ve deployed almost exactly that same line above on the conclusion of an aggravating social encounter–with ‘bitch’ replaced by some other derogatory term, sometimes racist, sometimes homophobic, sometimes sexist, sometimes fat-shaming. In the encounter I make note of above, I had been detected and called out; on most occasions, I am the only audience for these private expressions of my feelings.

I do not know if this history means that deep down at heart I’m a sexist, racist, misogynistic, homophobic person; I do know that I’m afflicted with many kinds of implicit bias, and they play a role in my understanding of the world and my relationships with those who inhabit it; I do know that being exposed to all those strands of thought as I grew up, and living in societies that still suffer from those afflictions predisposes me to fall back, lazily, in the cauldron of unfavorable circumstance, to those very same attitudes when I express anger. They suggest themselves to me as the right kind of ammunition to deploy against my imagined foes, the only balms that will assuage my psychic wounds. (Conversely, with probability one, someone has referred to me in precisely the terms above after an aggravating encounter with me, with their favorite prejudiced expression for folks of my ethnic persuasion inserted into the schema above.)

These are not flattering reflections on oneself; my utterances are only partially excused by being made in a fit of anger. Perhaps I can congratulate myself on having found a ‘safe outlet’ for my frustrations; after all, all I did was rant a bit to myself. My words did not lead to prejudiced action or violence or politics or some form of systematic discrimination against those who, unknown to themselves, had been subjected to abuse my me. But perhaps that lets me too easily off the hook; and perhaps it lets off our societies and our times too easily as well.

Donald Trump’s ‘Hot-Mic’ And Men Talking About Sex

A friend offers the following reaction to the latest ‘sensational’ disclosures about Donald Trump’s misogyny:

To all the guys on my feed posting their shock and outrage over Trump’s hot-mic comments about women: give me a break. “How could America possibly elect someone who talks like this about women??” you ask. Do you honestly think we haven’t elected guys who talk like this about women before? Do you think Bill Clinton never talked like this? George W Bush? Come on. This is quintessential Americana, right here. Boys talk like this about girls in ELEMENTARY SCHOOL, for pete’s sake. Men have talked about women like this for EVER. And you’re so shocked that **Donald Trump** talks this way? One of you posting your shock once forcibly blocked my entrance to a restroom and shoved your tongue in my mouth, some years ago. I bet you don’t even remember, because it was a total non-event or you felt like, because you liked me, it was OK. This is normal, every day behavior. Yes, it sucks, but please don’t pretend this is your first time experiencing this reality. Your b.s. outrage is an insult to those of us who have been aware of this reality since we were children.

Indeed. Men talk like this about women all the time. Many conversations like this take place when men get together to talk about women, about sex, and about their sexual ‘conquests.’ The distinctions that many are seeking to draw between sexual assault and sexual ‘conquest’–which, supposedly, makes these conversations worse than normal ‘locker room banter’–is easily blurred precisely because for so many men this line is blurred in their ‘locker room banter’ about sex and their sexual partners:

[M]en, when talking about sex, cannot drop the language of conquest and domination, of conflating sex and violence (‘Dude, I fucked the shit out of her’ or ‘I was banging her all night’) [they] imagine sex to be a variant of rough-and-tumble sport (‘scoring touchdowns’), [and] associate weakness with womanhood (‘Don’t be a pussy’ ‘Man up’ ‘Put your pants on’).

Men have been used to talking like that about women for a very long time. It’s how they’ve learned to talk about sex and women in the company of men. In general, when men brag to other men about their sexual conquests, they do not describe how they generated intimacy–physical or otherwise–with conversation; rather, they speak of how they ‘overcame’ the barriers that the woman had put up between herself–as a sexual target to be attained–and sex. In these circumstances, getting a little pushy goes with the territory; don’t you have to get women drunk before you can have sex with them? And if a women doesn’t resist your advances, then men can talk about what a ‘whore’ and a ‘slut’ and a ‘dirty bitch who really wanted it’ she was as she got ‘down and dirty.’

To this toxic mix, add a little entitlement and arrogance and you get the Trump conversation. Indeed, with probability one, hot mics would reveal conversations like this in most public figures’ portfolios. It is not just ‘deplorables‘ who ‘talk like that.’

Paul Ryan’s ‘Mea Culpa’ Speech: Anatomy of Political Bad Faith

It is a truth universally acknowledged that a significant subset of the demographic consisting of American liberals and progressives and centrists are among the most gullible political subjects of all: throw them a bone or two–i.e., a substantive or purely rhetorical political concession–and they’ll immediately drop previously held convictions. The visible reaction to Paul Ryan‘s recent supposedly bold and courageous speech, where he offered a critique of the degraded level of current political discourse and apologized for using the term ‘takers’ to describe anyone that wasn’t a ‘maker’–the former are welfare mooches, the poor, benefits recipients, the latter are presumably CEOs and business executives–demonstrates the truth of this claim quite impressively. For no sooner were the words out of Ryan’s mouth that he was immediately anointed as the leader the Republican Party has been waiting for–many lonely eyes were turned his way apparently–, his political courage and principles were praised, and he immediately began to look presidential.

Excuse me while I don’t kiss this guy.

Ryan did not name names. He blamed all and sundry for the degraded level of political discourse–a kind of ‘everyone seems to have lost their mind’ line that is vacuous and dishonest. For the ones engaging in the kind of speech that Ryan seems to be referring to are members of his own party, and moreover, the level of discourse on display in Republican debates is not significantly lower than the kind of language his party has been using for a very long time. (The loudness and shrillness has been amped up just a bit but the sentiments on display have been public ones for a very long time) The guilty–the ones lowering the quality so beloved of Ryan–have just not been using it against other Republicans. Their targets have been the same demographics that Ryan targeted in his ‘takers’ comment: the politically and economically disenfranchised.

As for Ryan’s apology for using the ‘takers’ line: the most expedient political strategy for Republicans, following their noticing that many of those who have begun to carry the Trump banner would have been considered ‘takers’ in Ryan’s old formulation (even as they continue to reassure themselves that their whiteness ensures they will never be considered ‘takers’) would be to stop describing them as such and to enroll their support for a ‘mainstream’ candidate. This apology is Ryan’s triangulation, it is his lame attempt to sound a more populist note in a symphony consisting of endless variations on the economic self-sufficiency theme.

I had noted a little while ago that the Republican Party would absorb this year’s political turbulence and move on. Ryan’s speech is part of that attempt; it aims to acknowledge the crassness on display, thus reassuring the Republican faithful that their own more carefully phrased ugliness remains kosher; it tries to lamely assert ownership of a populist platform. So desperate is Republican Party’s political opposition for signs of political reasonableness that it will accept this transparent dishonesty.

Fool me once etc.

Bilinguality And Being ‘Different People In Different Languages’

Over at LitHub, Ana Menéndez asks that age-old question ‘Are We Different People in Different Languages,’ and, by way of a partial answer, writes:

For me, language was a kind of initiation into multiple realities. For if one language could be certain of a table’s gender and another couldn’t be bothered, then what was true of the world was intimately tied, not to some platonic ideal, but to our way of expressing it.

Immigrants, of course, have known this forever. We inhabit two worlds at all times; one remembered, romanticized, fantasized about, wistfully recollected; the other, lived and grappled with. The first seeps into the second’s pores at all times: accents poke their heads up and demand and compel recognition–in both directions. The older one marks you an outsider, unable to settle; the newer one as a traveler, unable to return home.  (In the case of the Indian immigrant to the US, who very often brings a variant, a ‘dialect,’ a local flavor of English with him, you carry around traces of a distinctive idiom in your new linguistic home. Sometimes you emphasize the wrong syllable and you turn heads, or prompt an ‘excuse me?’; at those moments, you sense, awkwardly, that your cover is blown.)

Speaking in two languages–moving from one to the other–sometimes in the course of a single day or evening or night, prompts thoughts of this act of living in two worlds, two realities quite easily. You step into a corner, accost your interlocutor, and begin speaking. At that moment, you sense curtains drawn, a stepping across the threshold. You are, speaking so figuratively that it might as well be literal, in a different place, a different time. But that’s not all that’s changed.

For I become a different person. I have a new and distinct sense of humor; I am voluble and expressive in different ways; I can summon up new flavors of pungency and astringency. Not better, not more desirable, just different, able to accomplish different things and facilitate different projects. Then, someone speaks, summons me, calls out to me, from another land; I answer, switching back, and I am transported again. You don’t ‘belong’ anywhere, a loss that sometimes induces a wistfulness and longing, but very often a rueful appreciation of this always unstable position.

I am, as I often realize, many people. The languages I speak remind me of that in the most distinctive and pleasurable of ways.    

Note: I was compelled to make note of these observations this morning for the best reason of all. Last night, I attended a dinner in Brooklyn that was hosted by a high-school friend. She had invited two other classmates of mine (all of us residents of the US for some three decades now.). As might be imagined, over the course of the evening, I moved between the two languages I speak the most fluently. We saw the ‘old world’ and the ‘new world’ differently depending on the language we spoke at any given instant. We drove by car, back and forth, but that was not the only traveling we did.

Boccaccio And Double Entendres In A Patriarchal Society

In his review of a new translation of Giovanni Boccaccio‘s The Decameron (by Wayne A. Rebhorn, Norton, 2015), Stephen Greenblatt writes:

Many of these stories are scandalously obscene, but the scandal has nothing to do with filthy words….circumlocutory words, or periphrases…have nothing to do with prudery. They are part of Boccaccio’s inexhaustible bag of metaphorical tricks, and they work because, except for the crudest and most tongue-tied of us, everyone resorts to such tricks constantly, if rarely with such inventiveness. As Boccaccio writes “The Author’s Conclusion,” “Men and women generally…go around all day long saying ‘hole’ and ‘rod’ and ‘mortar’ and ‘pestle’ and ‘sausage’ and ‘mortadella’ and lots of other things like that.” The point is not that such words should rightfully be innocent of double entendres but rather that we gleefully carry our sexual energy over into everyday language, and we love it. It is part of what it means to be healthy and alive.

As the unsurprising popularity and ubiquity of the ‘That’s what she said’ and ‘said the actress to the bishop’ formulations shows, our language is littered with ample opportunities for such ‘interventions.’ Quasi-hecklers and budding comedians especially delight in these: the innocent speaker launches forth, utters the fateful phrase–say, perhaps, “I kept pushing hard” or “there was no point in stopping” or “it had quickly hardened”–and the would-be Michael Scott, sensing an opportunity, steps in with his interjection. Titters and snickers follow. Easy pickings indeed. (I cannot tell a lie; I have indulged myself on occasion in precisely such a fashion.)

But we don’t all “love it” and we don’t all find the reminders of this “sexual energy” in our “everyday language” to be part of the meaning of “what it means to be healthy and alive.” There are times when the constant, knowing, deployment of double entendres or ‘That’s what she said’ interjections can, in certain social and conversational contexts, become occasions for discomfort, for displacement, for silencing, and thus even contribute to a form of harassment. As women have often complained in workplace settings, the deployment of double entendres in conversations by their male colleagues–with nods and winks at other accomplices–has often contributed to an uncomfortable work environment. (Sometimes their gentlemen colleagues–in the bad old days–would bring their “sexual energy” to the workplace by watching porn at their work desks, or by putting up pinups of scantily clad women on their desks.)

In a society riven by unequal gender relations and dynamics, by patriarchy and sexism, our carrying over of our “sexual energy” into our “everyday language” includes carrying over a great deal of that  same inequality and imbalance. The woman whose uttering of “it wasn’t as long as it could have been” is interrupted by a “that’s what she said” in the workplace is, in all likelihood, surrounded by men who make more than her, whose work is taken more seriously, who are listened to more carefully and respectfully.

Our “everyday language” does not just contribute to our politics, it also reflects it.