Contra Damon Linker, ‘Leftist Intellectuals’ Are Not ‘Disconnected From Reality’

Over at The Week, Damon Linker accuses ‘the Left’ of being disconnected from reality, basing this charge on his reading of two recent pieces by Corey Robin and Jedediah Purdy. (It begins with a charge that is all too frequently leveled at the Bernie Sanders campaign: that its political plans are political fantasies.) What gets Linker really offended is that ‘left-wing intellectuals’–who presumably should know better–are trafficking in the same ‘disconnected from reality’ ramblings.

I don’t think they are. Rather, they are doing the exact opposite of what Linker claims, and in this spectacular misreading of them, Linker only indicts his own disconnect from the actual historical realities of how ideas and actions–especially political ones–interact.

First, Linker suggests that Robin thinks that indifference to political reality is a virtue. As he notes:

In a provocative essay for The Chronicle of Higher Education, “How Intellectuals Create a Public,” Robin argues that “the problem with our public intellectuals today is that they are writing for readers who already exist, as they exist,” as opposed to “summoning” a new world, a new public, a new reality, into being.

In his essay, Robin offered a critique of Cass Sunstein‘s libertarian paternalism, suggesting that it merely further reifies an existing political reality, leaving everything as it was before; later Robin goes on to suggest that Ta-Nehisi Coates is afflicted by a kind of ‘impossibilism’ about the possibility of the “politics of a mass mobilization.” (Robin’s take on Coates deserves far more considered analysis than I can provide here. More on that anon.) Linker then, by linking to Marx’s famous quote in the Theses on Fuerbach about the need for philosophers to change the world and not just interpret it, insinuates that Robin is just being an impractical Marxist in accusing Sunstein and Coates of producing “an all too accurate reflection of the world we live in.” (Incidentally, this trope “You sound like Marx; you’re impractical!” is profoundly unimaginative. I’m surprised it still does work for people.) The production of this facsimile for Linker is a virtue; for Robin, in the case of Sunstein, it speaks of a limited imagination (in the case of Coates, I think, again, that matters are very different.)

What makes Linker’s critique of Robin especially bizarre is that from the very outset of his essay, Robin is talking about action, activity, making and remaking, interacting with this world, reshaping and reconfiguring it–through ideas and beliefs, expressed through writing, sent out into this world in an effort to change people’s minds, to make them see the world differently. This is about as far as being disconnected from reality as you can imagine; Robin is not advocating a retreat to the ivory tower, to write complacently for a pre-existent audience that will force the author into the templates of its demands; rather he is suggesting that the author, the intellectual, by the form and content of his ideas–as expressed in his writings–can change and alter those templates and bid his readers follow different trajectories of both thought and action.

As Robin says:

[The public intellectual] is…the literary equivalent of the epic political actor, who sees her writing as a transformative mode of action, a thought-deed in the world.

This is as ‘reality-based’ as you can get, and you only get to doubt that if you, perhaps like Linker, seemingly doubt the power of ideas and beliefs; you know, those things the American pragmatists called ‘rules for action.’ Let’s forget about religion for a second, and simply consider a couple of examples Robin provides: Rachel Carson‘s Silent Spring and Michelle Alexander‘s The New Jim Crow. The former produced an environmental movement; the latter has galvanized a nation-wide movement against mass incarceration.

As Robin goes on to note:

By virtue of the demands they make upon the reader, they force a reckoning. They summon a public into being — if nothing else a public conjured out of opposition to their writing. Democratic publics are always formed in opposition and conflict: “to form itself,” wrote Dewey, “the public has to break existing political forms.

The role for the public intellectual that Robin envisages is the breaking of existing political forms–philosophers of culture like Nietzsche suggested doing this with a hammer; we’ll have to settle for our word processors. Far from being disconnected with reality, Robin is suggesting an active engagement with the world; these engagements, Linker might be surprised to know, take many forms, ranging from the grubby and sordid to the elevated and sublime. Sometimes those forms of engagement are literary, sometimes physical, sometimes performative, sometimes emotional.

The problem is that Linker’s imagination is limited; he is himself cut off from the very reality he claims to be in touch with. Robin’s vision, by extending further than Linker’s, might be informing him that there are more things in this world than he might have allowed for.

Linker then moves on Purdy, summarizing his claims as follows:

[P]olitics and economics have been “denaturalized” in our time, and that even nature itself is undergoing the same process….all appeals to permanent, intrinsic truths or standards by parties involved in political, economic, or environmental debates have become unconvincing. Nothing is natural in the normative sense — no political or economic arrangement, and not even any specific construal of the natural world and its meanings.

All such appeals to nature are in fact conventional, artificial constructs of the human mind imposed upon the world.

Linker suggests that Purdy draws a ‘radical’ conclusion from this:

a wonderful opportunity [which] holds out the possibility of a collective “world-shaping project” that would bring about a radical democratization of politics and economics, and of the relation of both to the natural world.

Linker now fulminates:

The problem with this way of describing the world is not merely that it’s wrong. (As long as human beings have physical bodies that can thrive, be injured, and die, and as long as they live out their lives in a physical world that obeys natural laws disclosed by science, politics and economics will be hemmed in by constraints and obstacles that stand in the way of any number of potential “world-shaping projects.”)

Purdy’s claims are not particularly ‘radical’; instead they build on a rich tradition of deflationary claims about the pretensions of absolutist theorizing about metaphysics, ethics, and politics. Linker should know–if he’s read any philosophy of science or history of science–that science richly interacts with politics and economics and law. Thus the very science that Linker so valorizes is in fact something co-constructed with the society in which its practices are embedded. The politics and economics of this world impinge on the science it practices; a radical remaking of our politics and economics will also remake the science we practice. Not the truths it discovers but what it thinks it is important to research, investigate, and pursue as an object of knowledge.  Science is “hemmed in by constraints and obstacles that stand in the way of any number of potential “world-shaping projects.” Want to build that accelerator? Sorry; we don’t have the funds. Want to go to Mars? Same problem. Want to do stem-cell research? Sorry, no can do. The religious folk won’t stand for it.

If Linker simply wishes to say that our physical bodies and the world limits our physical actions, then he’s stating the obvious. What he missed out on, like he did with Robin above, is that Purdy is speaking of an untrammeled imagination, which hitherto has been restricted and confined to pre-existing categories of thought and possibilities. It is the ‘construals’ of the world that have been limited; change those and you change your sense of what is possible for your interactions with this world. We’ll always bump up against the hard, unforgiving edge of something or the other; but we don’t even know, so long as we are confined by existing construals, what and where those edges are.

And then, Linker levels that old canard:

The even bigger problem with Purdy’s account of things is that it renders political evaluation and judgment impossible. As Will Wilkinson writes in a brilliant critique of the essay, “Appeals to value only make sense…against a background of belief about how things really are. If our best ideas about the way the world works can’t put a boundary around political contestation, then leaving the lead in Flint’s drinking water makes as much sense as taking it out.”

The kind of anti-metaphysical claims that Nietzsche made, the kind of radical undermining he conducted of morality, did not render moral evaluation impossible. Au contraire, it bid us examine the foundations of our moralities to see whose interests were represented therein. We, moral subjects, could radically reconfigure those values by dint of our actions. By, you know, our politics, our imaginations, our actions, our writings.

Accusing of intellectuals of being disconnected from reality is a tired, old, reactionary political trick. It is a ideological maneuver, one that merely indicts the one making the charge of preferring their own fantastic vision of the world.

The Oscars as Inducers of Cosmic Disillusionment

Many, many years ago, as a mad-about-the-movies young–very young!–lad, I was in the habit of eagerly awaiting the announcement of the year’s Oscars, my cinematic antennae quivering with anticipation as the suspense mounted. My spatio-temporal geographic location being what it was, this enthusiasm manifested itself most visibly in a speedy dash to our front balcony where I would scour about for the morning newspaper, expertly tossed up some twenty-five feet by the delivery man. (If my calculations are correct, this undignified scramble took place on Wednesday mornings, in the days when the Oscar ceremonies were staged on Monday nights on the US West Coast; I was some ten hours away.) A bizarre notion underwrote this enthusiasm: that the Oscars picked out, somehow, magically, from on high, ‘The Best Movie in the World’ or ‘The Best Actor in the World’ or whatever. The Oscars seemed like a definitive anointment of movie royalty; a final, beyond-reach placement and establishment of the Real beyond the Apparent.

Then, still, I think, a pre-teen, I read a pulp novel–the name escapes me now–that proved an unlikely vehicle for a radical species of disillusionment. In it, an elaborate intrigue is mounted to sneak into the offices of the American Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Science, break into the safe containing the envelopes with the names of the Oscar winners and to replace them with  envelopes containing our miscreants’ favored candidates. (I have forgotten why this elaborate, Watergate-style conspiracy was required; I dimly remember a studio’s box-office fate resting on the success of the bait-n-switch.)

When I reached this point in my reading, I remember being stunned: Wait, that’s ALL the Oscars were? Just the result of voting by some Academy? Made up of humans voting their preferences? Why was that so special? Couldn’t they just vote for their favorite movies? I knew somehow, dimly, that human beings often differed in their utility allocations; schoolyard rumbles had at least taught me that much. Somehow, I had imagined that the Oscars resulted from a non-earthly assessment of cinematic quality, that their awards were free of the taint of human subjectivity and bias. A second wave of paradigm-shattering debunk soon washed over me: Even if I had always imagined the US as the Center-of-the-World, this Academy seemed to be located in a very particular place, California, and–of course!–the movies were all American or seemed to be, all in English, with a special award for ‘Foreign Language Film’. (I knew, thankfully, that movies were made elsewhere in the world. How could I not, living in India?)

Clearly, I was then in the grip of a deep confusion, an unawareness as it were, that the ‘trail of the human serpent is over everything.’ To be debunked of such unawareness at a young age can only be a good thing; but it isn’t so easy to get rid of. A fully-lived life is often required, a little humility, and the realization that when it comes to naming, lower case letters do much better work than upper-case.